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CS + X-traordinary

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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 [email protected]

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.