Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - April 4, 2014

The art of science

Stanford announces new "joint majors" combining computer science, English, music

by Nick Veronin

In newspapers and magazines all over the country, think pieces on the subject abound: Students are abandoning the humanities — choosing to pursue degrees in the hard sciences and the decidedly more lucrative careers in high tech they promise.

Professors of English, history, music and the arts are bemoaning this shift, we are told. In an article last October in the New York Times, it was reported that humanities professors and lecturers account for 45 percent of Stanford's faculty, but only 15 percent of the university's students are taking their courses.

However, according to Nicholas Jenkins, professor of English at Stanford, there is nothing to worry about. The humanities aren't going anywhere, Jenkins says, they're just changing.

Last month, in what Jenkins called a "re-imagining of the humanities," the university announced the creation of two brand new "joint majors," which will allow students to earn a bachelor of arts and science in one of two combinations — computer science and English, or computer science and music.

"I'm really excited about it," says Jenkins, who was tapped by Stanford's Office of the Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education to head up the initiative, dubbed "CS+X" (computer science plus an unknown variable).

The way Jenkins sees it, while it may seem that the humanities and computer science are two distinct disciplines, they both have much to gain from each other — especially in the 21st century, where humans are interacting with computers on a daily basis. And he is not alone in this view.

Two novelists and Stanford faculty members, Richard Powers and Scott Hutchins, both lead courses on the intersection of the humanities and technology and have each recently published works that examine the interesting ways in which the squishy world of art and human emotion are constantly colliding with the hard-wired world of science and circuit boards.

Powers, who joined the English department this year, recently published "Orfeo" a book that explores music, biotechnology and government surveillance. He says he's long maintained an interest in technology and art, and believes that many students will jump at the chance to study the humanities and computer science simultaneously.

"There is a tremendous interest at the undergraduate level in finding ways to cross what has sometimes seemed like an insurmountable boundary or border," Powers says, alluding to the separation of the disciplines, which have a history that has been marked by fits of antagonism.

In the past, Powers notes, tensions have arisen as science and humanities departments have competed for limited resources. Humanist professors have sought to trump their scientist colleagues, and scientists have fired back.

By way of example, Powers points to the so-called "science wars" of the 1990s: a series of highly publicized arguments between a group of well-known scientists and postmodern philosophers — with the philosophers arguing that science, just like all other human pursuits, must be viewed through the lens of culture and is therefore subjective, and scientists vehemently rejecting the position.

Yet, even as academics on either side of the fence have squabbled, both Powers and Hutchins agree that, in a way, the sciences and the humanities have always been exchanging ideas (even as they exchanged barbs).

"The humanities," Powers notes, "asks the question of who we are and where we find ourselves and what we want to do in this world." Technology — whether it be the microscope, the electric guitar or the computer, allows us to explore who we are and express who we are. "These questions of self exploration and social exploration are necessarily functions of and products of developments in the sciences."

Hutchins agrees, pointing out that as technology advances and the capacity of computers and machines grows, they produce more complex humanistic questions that artists then take on and attempt to answer. As such, Hutchins says he is in favor of the joint major. "I think its a good concept," he says, noting he sees no reason why the humanities should be cordoned off from the sciences, and vice versa.

In his book, "A Working Theory of Love," Hutchins imagines a protagonist who attempts to recreate his father in a computer by inputting data pulled from his dad's former journals. The novel raises questions around the concept of the "technological singularity" (the hypothetical moment at which artificial intelligence exceeds human intelligence) and whether sentient beings can exist on a hard drive.

At Stanford, cross pollination between science and art has been going on for a long time. For example, the university's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, founded by the inventor of the technology that makes musical synthesizers possible, has been at the cutting edge of computer-based music for decades.

So why is Stanford initiating these joint majors now? Powers thinks it is likely just a sign of the times. We're living in a world where people are walking around with computers in their pockets, and, in some cases strapped to their faces. "We're increasingly aware that our technologies and tools are changing what it means to be human," Powers says. "Individuals and all of these marvelous prosthetic extensions that we've invented in recent years, are all interconnected. It's not humans against the machines. Humans and machines are one thing combined."

And just as artists and humanists are finding inspiration and big questions in the work of computer scientists, programmers are increasingly aware of their human end-users and the importance of injecting their creations with art and aesthetic appeal. Powers notes that one of Palo Alto's most famous residents — the late Steve Jobs — may have understood this better than anyone.

"He knew how to appeal to the desires of people and the dreams of people," Powers says, noting that phrases like, "It just works," and Apple's longtime slogan, "Think Different," had little to do with the computers themselves. That language "was not about machines, it was about human beings."

Jenkins says he is hopeful the new joint majors will help define what it means to experience a "broad liberal education" in the 21st century, which he described as covering "creative expression, ethical inquiry, aesthetic inquiry," as well as "coding and an introduction to technology and the sciences."

Hutchins thinks that the joint major might be able to bridge the "cultural gaps" he sees between the "techies" and the "fuzzies" — the names that Stanford students use to self-identify as either a science major or a humanities major.

In his experience teaching at Stanford, Hutchins says he's noticed many "techies" don't like uncertainty. "They don't feel comfortable talking about something that might have four correct answers," he says. And, as for "fuzzies," he says, "I also think there are humanities people who don't feel confident talking about the sciences," though he is increasingly seeing students from both groups reaching across the aisle.

That's a good thing, according to Powers. "It's going to be tremendously exciting to work with students and to collaborate with students who understand that these aren't two separate disciplines," he says. "There are things that can only be addressed and answered as a combined exploration."

Arts & Entertainment Editor Nick Veronin can be emailed at nveronin@paweekly.com.

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