Not So Different

March 7, 2014

If it seems very Silicon Valley, that’s because it is. Stanford University’s Faculty Senate approved on Thursday two new joint-major programs that will allow students to study English and computer science or music and computer science starting in the fall.

Nicholas Jenkins, associate professor of English and director of CS+X, as the joint major program is called, said it will likely attract humanists who want a competitive edge on the job market; computer science-minded students who want to be engaged in the humanities; and third group of students: digital natives for whom computer science and the humanities don’t seem “at opposite ends of the spectrum at all, but continuous.”

“I’ve done a digital humanities project, but I’m sort of middle-aged and grew up in a world where people didn’t write code,” Jenkins said. Now that's changing. “We’re like the last of the dinosaurs.”

Jennifer Widom, chair of Stanford’s computer science department, said the number of computer science majors has more than tripled in the last five years, making it the university’s most popular undergraduate program. So the new joint majors will offer students, including those who didn't enroll thinking they would study computer science, more options. And because technology firms often say they prefer candidates with grounding in the humanities, the joint majors may benefit even the most computer science-minded graduates on the job market.

“Pretty much everyone who majors in computer science at Stanford gets a job,” Widom said. “But those [in these new programs] might get more offers, or more interesting offers.”

The programs will be rigorous. Widom said it’s not “half of a [computer science] major and half of an English major.” It’s more like “90 percent of one and 90 percent of the other,” she said. Students majoring in the new joint programs will have to take two fewer courses in computer science than straight computer science majors, and about the same in English or music.

Music and computer science already have some cross-listed courses. English and computer science have none, but that could change over time, Jenkins said. In their senior year, joint majors in both programs will complete a capstone project integrating their two disciplines.

CS+X initially was developed by the computer science department. But last month, the Faculty Senate approved a six-year, joint-program initiative that allows for joint majors even in programs other than computer science. That initiative is inspired in part by the 2012 Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford, which emphasized the university's "determination to breach the silos of students' lives."

That means other hybrid programs could be developed going forward. English and computer science and music and computer science were the first to ask the Senate for approval.

Jennifer Summit, professor of English and chair of the Faculty Senate’s Committee for the Review of Undergraduate Majors, said via email that “both proposals have won enthusiastic support at every stage, and I think everyone recognizes that they represent an exciting new possibility for cross-disciplinary study in a new mode.”

Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, said via email that joint programs aren’t necessarily new (Allegheny College, her alma mater, for example, offered them in the 1970s, in a similar format – core requirements from the two majors and a senior capstone course). But she praised Stanford’s new programs for offering students “flexibility and creativity in constructing majors that join disciplines we don’t usually think of as aligned, such as English and computer science.”

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