Breaching the Silos-Computer Sciences and the Humanities

It was reported this past week that the Stanford University’s Faculty Senate approved two new joint majors that combine computer science with English or music. The joint majors, part of the CS+X program developed by the computer science department, are expected to be attractive to several audiences, “humanists who want a competitive edge on the job market; computer science-minded students who want to be engaged in the humanities; and…digital natives for whom computer science and the humanities don’t seem ‘at opposite ends of the spectrum at all, but continuous’,” stated Nicholas Jenkins, associate professor of English and the director of CS+X.

The CS+X program is part of a university-wide joint majors initiative that emerged from the 2012 SUES report (The Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford University), which concluded that “, it is [the university’s] determination to breach the silos of students’ lives, to offer them an education that is more than the sum of its parts, an education equal to the unfathomable challenges and opportunities that await them.”

“The worlds of the humanities and computer science are coming closer together,” said Jenkins. “Computational methods are an increasingly important part of humanities study, and the aesthetic, cognitive, ethical and communicative issues central to the humanities are important to the future of computing.”

The joint majors will have cross-listed courses to reduce the total number of requirements needed to complete the hybrid program. Each program will have an “integrative experience”, such as senior capstone project or honors thesis that crosses both disciplines.

Digital Humanities, a term that not all scholars like, is not new. The Office of Digital Humanities (ODH) at the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) was founded in 2008, but the roots of digital humanities, and its predecessor, humanities computing, go back several decades. However, as the power and diversity of digital technology, and the software that controls it, continues its exponential growth, the opportunities for computer scientists and humanists to collaborate also grow. Projects currently featured on the ODH website include The Virtual Paul’s Cross Project, the IMPACT Radiological Mummy Database, to see if studying mummies can cure modern disease, and the Viraltexts Project, that “seeks to develop theoretical models that will help scholars better understand what qualities—both textual and thematic—helped particular news stories, short fiction, and poetry “go viral” in nineteenth-century newspapers and magazines.” The most recent grant awards from the ODH include projects as diverse as developing a platform for the creation of web-based, multiplayer historical role-playing games, developing tools for crowd sourced transcription of cultural heritage collections and an open source platform for collecting and exhibiting indigenous digital cultural heritage.

“The intellectual landscape is changing, and the workplace landscape is changing,” said Jenkins. “We’re looking to help cultivate, and provide academic structure for, a new generation of both humanists who can code and computer engineers whose creativity and adaptability is enhanced by immersion in the humanities. With Stanford’s amazingly talented undergraduates, we hope we can educate a new type of humanist and a new type of engineer.”

The current work at Stanford University is only an example of work being done at many institutions and online. Examples include the Opera of the Future Project at the MIT Media lab and the public-sourced Map Story project, which is a self-described “…public prototype in development”, which “empowers a global community to organize knowledge about the world spatially and temporally.” And as digital technology continues to permeate everything, it is a good bet that collaborations between computer science and the humanities will only expand.

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