Computer Science, Meet Humanities: in New Majors, Opposites Attract

January 28, 2016

Hannah Pho grew up playing the piano and went to a magnet high school for technology. When she applied to colleges and looked for programs that blended her seemingly disparate interests, she didn’t find many options.

She chose Stanford University, where she became one of the first students in a new major there called CS+Music, part of a pilot program informally known as CS+X.

Its goal is to put students in a middle ground, between computer science and any of 14 disciplines in the humanities, including history, art, and classics. And it reduces the number of required hours that students would normally take in a double major in those subjects.

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Stanford isn’t the only institution looking to start such blended programs, says Janice Cuny, program director for computing education at the National Science Foundation. Computing has become a necessary skill for a student’s career, regardless of major, she says. "Everywhere you go, there are computations that are being used."

Some academics in the humanities see such integration as a way to bring in students who are drawn to such disciplines but feel they need computing skills for their careers.

Ms. Pho’s CS+Music major includes courses like "Psychophysics and Music Cognition," which examines the neuroscience of music. Students in other CS+X majors may study natural-language processing or learn to create visualizations that analyze the ancient world.

Her experience, however, shows how such combinations may not always be the best fit for students.

Not Always a Match

The major was at first a way for Ms. Pho to see how her interests fit together as she thought about careers that combine them. "I felt like I got to be a part of a unique creative culture in which people respect music and technology, and I felt like I fit with that group," she says of a three-week summer program at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics.

But sometimes she feels that she declared the major prematurely, since she’s not sure she’s set on a career that will blend music and computers. There’s a lot of required coursework, which doesn’t allow her to take electives outside music or computer science.

Ge Wang, an assistant professor at the center, calls the creation of a CS+Music degree "a no brainer," considering that computer music has been around for half a century, and Stanford already offers about 30 courses in it.

"It offers a blank slate to reimagine what we can do with computing while using the soul of the discipline itself," he says. "It isn’t to replace it, but to augment art investigation with computation."

But Ms. Pho, who is now a sophomore, is weighing whether she will continue with the major. "Part of the problem is it divides your focus," she says. "You have a wonderful opportunity to do the integrated stuff, but it feels like you have three majors, and it's hard to focus."

Giovanna Ceserani, an associate professor of classics, a department that is also experimenting with a CS+X degree, says she doesn’t think every classics major will or should shift into such a joint major.

But whether students take computer-science courses in high school or in college, she believes computational skills will be important to study in the classics. In one class, Ms. Ceserani used geographic information systems to engage students with what it would have been like for 18th-century travelers to visit Italy.

In some humanities departments, the infrastructure to support digital humanities courses doesn’t exist, and some professors fear that the university is moving too quickly to create the program without more carefully designing a curriculum.

Stanford officials won’t say how many students are enrolled in CS+X degree programs.

Harry J. Elam, vice provost for undergraduate education, wrote in an email to The Chronicle that it wouldn’t be right to share such details before they are discussed by the Faculty Senate and by the departments involved.

CS+X degrees may not be meant for students who want to do deeply technical work as programmers, but rather for those who want to use data collection to analyze topics such as politics, society, and the environment, says Jim Kurose, assistant director for computer and information science and engineering at the National Science Foundation.

As computer science becomes a more "outward-facing discipline," he says, majors that mix it with the humanities will be here to stay. "It takes the notion to the next level," he says, "with a much deeper study of the application of computational thinking within a discipline."

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