CS + X-traordinary

Hello potential employer, my name is Liam Kinney and I am a Classics/Symbolic Systems double major at Stanford University” is how I’ve started about 30 emails to various tech companies in Silicon Valley over the past four months. The few who respond often inquire about Symbolic Systems—a mix of CS, philosophy, linguistics and psychology—and how tech-heavy it actually is. I’m cornered into giving this feeble excuse about how the Computer Science major is too many units to double with, and how I would never dream of leaving the classics major, and how Symbolic Systems is the next best thing to Computer Science. I haven’t yet landed a job with this system, but my system is about to change.

Starting in the fall, the University is offering brand new “CS + X” majors, a new initiative headed by English professor Nick Jenkins. In this new and exciting program, you can double major in CS and a concentration in the humanities for a reduced number of units. I learned about it today while talking to classics undergraduate major advisor Giovanna Ceserani about how to balance my already overwhelming double major. A recent article in the Daily (linked above) claims that the program will allow a double major in CS and either Music or English, but Ceserani showed me a recent release by the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education that has announced the joint majors passed by the faculty senate: Classics, English, French, German, History, Italian, Linguistics, Music, Philosophy and Slavic.

These programs are legitimate academic pursuits. Along with reducing the number of electives required in either major, the departments require a capstone project which demonstrates a synthesis of CS and the humanities. Quoting from the Daily article linked above, “CS is becoming an integral part of many humanities majors, and the humanities are becoming important in CS.”

In a surprise twist, this effort arose partly in response to requests from “the Valley.” These days, employers in the South Bay are looking for more than experience with silicon alone. Perhaps you’ve heard about New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman and his two-part article “How to Get a Job at Google.” My parents certainly have…In the article, Friedman interviews Laszlo Bock, who is in charge of hiring at Google and who oversees about 100 new hires a day. In part two of the article, published just last month, Friedman asked Bock “Are the liberal arts still important?”

Not surprisingly, he responded that “they are ‘phenomenally important’…especially when you combine them with other disciplines.” Bock went on to claim that in his view, the most interesting things he sees happening today are at the intersection of two fields. This is what I’ve been trying to convince my parents for years; not only do the liberal arts set you apart from your religiously tech-y peer, but they also give you the necessary context to which you can apply your tech-y powers.

Even though this influential vote for a CS-humanities combo major has already been cast, I learned from Ceserani that the Faculty Senate was most tentative about admitting classics into the CS + X program. After all, how could a department that deals in literature written almost exclusively before the Common Era connect to a department that didn’t exist until the twentieth century?

Any student of classics should be able to answer this question immediately. Latin and Greek are incredibly esoteric languages, in which words come in all shapes and sizes and have pages of definitions. And even after you’ve memorized your first year Latin textbook (yeah right), authors tend to introduce words of their own. Fun fact: The poet Catullus is the only Latin author ever to use the word Mnemosynus, meaning “keepsake”. To stay sane, and to avoid memorizing textbooks, Classics students use services like Tufts University’s Perseus Digital Library and University of Notre Dame’s “William Whitaker’s Words.” Free services like these compile gargantuan amounts of data from scads of texts and provide the most likely definitions of words and all the forms they can possibly be. Crucial Internet-driven services like these helped me learn and love the classics, and they will be at the heart of classics research for years to come. Do you think their inventors had expertise in just one field?

If CS has practical applications in ancient Greek, imagine the stake it could have in some of the other humanities majors. Like the classics, most of the humanities disciplines are data-driven sciences. What if people could learn to speak modern languages not by finding someone else who speaks the language, but by having a conversation with a computer? What if there was a way to mine Plato’s Republic for philosophical tropes, and to locate reoccurrences of those tropes in contemporary literature? The applications are obvious in fields like music and art; what’s exciting is finding the ways that computer science can enhance the humanities, and vice versa. CS + X is challenging students to do just that, and we know all what happens when Stanford students face a challenge.

Liam Kinney is writing a novel about how the Iliad would never have happened if Paris had signed up with eHarmony. Contact him at liamk@stanford.edu.

About Liam Kinney

Liam Kinney is a hip young thing from Aspen, Colo. He has been a contributing writer at the Daily for a year, and now has his own column. Currently a sophomore, Liam is a prospective Classics and Symbolic Systems double major. He enjoys finishing books, cooking edible food, and reaching the top of the climbing wall - in other words, he is rarely satisfied.
  • Guest

    “Symbolic Systems is the next best thing to Computer Science.”

    That attitude is probably why you’ve struck out so far. I know a score of people who could have majored in either CS or SymSys but chose the latter because its interdisciplinary focus offered distinct advantages. The fact that you underrate it as a major, and sell it short in conversation, is your fault. Most major Silicon Valley tech companies probably know what a Stanford SymSys degree is– Marissa Mayer, after all, front-lines a group of prominent tech leaders who possess that degree.

    If I’m a potential employer, and you as a potential employee are telling me you majored in the second best option, then excuse me, but why the f*** am I going to hire you? You’re giving me these excuses (“CS is too many units to double with, I would never dream of leaving the classics major, and Symbolic Systems is the next best thing to Computer Science”) but all I’m hearing is “lazy, stubborn, and insecure.”

    Where I work, when there is a problem, I want my employees to come to me with solutions. I don’t want them to say “well we would have pursued the best marketing strategy, but it meant we would have had to put in a few more hours to get it done.” I want to hear “we pursued the most promising strategy, and to manage the increased workload we outsourced some low-end work. Our team worked all last weekend to finish ahead of schedule, allowing us to already conduct some preliminary tests.”

    Long story short, someone smarter than you came up with a solution, this CS+X double major. You got bailed out this time.

  • Liam

    You make a good point; I admit that I didn’t write that part how I meant it to sound. In my emails to employers, obviously I don’t make it sound like “I’m majoring in a sad excuse for a major” like it might have seemed in the article (at least, how you understood it). I tell them about how Symbolic Systems has given me a breadth of experience I couldn’t have gotten in a single-track discipline like Computer Science. I talk about how it builds a bridge between my two interests in a way that a strict double major in CS and Classics wouldn’t easily have. And I say all this because it is true.

    The reason I made it sound like “Symbolic Systems is the next best thing to Computer Science” in my article is because I often feel that this is how it comes across to employers, even when I’ve tried to sell to them how much I love the major. When picking a programming intern (which is the job I’ve been pursuing), an employer would much rather have the 90+ unit pure CS majors than the 70-or-less cross-discipline major. You can’t argue that.

    Now that I’ve hopefully gotten to the root of your comment, I would like to give you some advice, “Guest.” As a writer, I welcome criticism and I love a counterargument. That is what this comments section is for. However, you are complicit in one of the biggest crimes of the Information Age: using anonymity to be downright mean. Maybe, somehow, undermining my intelligence makes you feel better, or perhaps starting flame wars is your hobby, but you have not strengthened your argument by calling me lazy, stubborn, and insecure, and you have certainly not earned my respect by doing it anonymously.

    If you would like to have a conversation about my writing, I welcome your emails, but please do not mar my article with your unwarranted condescension.

  • Noah

    Nice article liam; you shouldn’t quote thomas friedman as an authority figure though cause his writing is basically just a buzzword smoothie with a dash of name dropping

  • Katelyn

    Gee, you wouldn’t hire him? What a terrible loss. You sound like a great boss.

    As a connoisseur of human folly, I think my favorite part of this charging-bull response is the accusation of insecurity.

  • Guest

    “When picking a programming intern (which is the job I’ve been pursuing), an employer would much rather have the 90+ unit pure CS majors than the 70-or-less cross-discipline major. You can’t argue that.”

    I’ll try. Now, if you go into interviews for programming jobs with the belief as quoted above, it won’t work. You are correct in thinking that the pure CS major likely has more knowledge in various computer systems and processes, although this is certainly not guaranteed. If shown a purely technical problem that has been solved before, the pure CS major is more likely than you to know the correct answer. But proper programming is not just about the code, but about the user. In that sense, you have highly marketable assets that the pure CS major likely does not. The pure CS major knows about computer science, an anthropology major knows about users, a symbolic systems and classics double major knows both. Do not take that fact for granted, ever. Also do not forget that in terms of solving new programming problems, your versatility can cancel out the pure CS major’s experience.

    “I’ve tried to sell to them how much I love the major.”

    Showing prospective employers how much you love the symbolic systems major is next to useless; it will not convince them that a symbolic systems major will be more beneficial to their company than a CS major. Now it is better to love a chosen course of study than to not love it, but once you make that point you should immediately shift into your next gear, which is showing them why they will love an employee with that degree. When hiring, employers are not looking to hand out favors, they are looking to add value; if you cannot add value to a company, there is little point applying. Perhaps your symbolic systems degree cannot be leveraged for value in the jobs you are applying for (which I doubt, but maybe). In that case there are hundreds of other Silicon Valley firms where you can add value.

    “Please do not mar my article with your unwarranted condescension.”

    You are certainly welcome to that request, but as an opinions columnist you should know that these ad-hominem remarks will happen. Anyways, you misunderstood the point I was trying to make (for that I apologize). I was not calling you lazy, stubborn, or insecure, as I do not know you enough to judge you in that way. I was, however, trying to say that if I am in a “hiring mindset” and I read your remarks, I would perhaps make some negative assumptions, whether fair or not. Now, did I frame my point in a “mean” way? Maybe, but better to hear that from me than not hear that from someone who didn’t hire you.