Stanford’s first interdisciplinary humanities + CS class met with success

Jan. 20, 2015, 8:05 p.m.

Stanford’s first interdisciplinary computer science and humanities class has left both students and teachers hungry for more.

In CS 27: Literature and Social Online Learning — inspired by the new CS + X joint major — students with backgrounds in the humanities and CS worked together to create websites and apps intended to give people new ways to interact with literature through technology.

Within 10 weeks, the class went from brainstorming to testing to publicly releasing their creations, which include Cureador, a platform for sharing favorite books with friends; ParallelLit, a site that lets readers compare various literary translations side by side; and a series of eBooks that pair poems by Yeats with audio of the author reading his work.

It’s unusual to apply such a project-based approach to the humanities, but for the developers and co-teachers of the class, Petra Dierkes-Thrun of the Comparative Literature department and her husband, computer science professor Sebastian Thrun, there’s a clear need to do just that.

“Our biggest interest was to see if we could bridge that gap and be truly interdisciplinary, specifically kind of use technology…to find new ways to make literature attractive to people,” Thrun said.

Ellie Redding ’16, an English major who has taken several CS classes, chose the course both for its novelty and for the important issues it tried to address.

“The question that they presented the class as trying to answer was, how do you make literature more accessible, more exciting, more interesting, more engaging, digitally,” Redding said.

“The more I thought about that question, the more I didn’t have an answer, and the more I felt that it was something that really needed to be answered.”

The class didn’t give her a final solution, Redding said, but it did give her an opportunity to think about it — and to argue the point with her classmates.

Thrun, too, believes the class started a productive discussion.

“I think the students morphed from a mild skepticism of the other side of the field…to an understanding that people other than themselves can make significant contributions,” he said.

The Think’der Debate

For Thrun, the most interesting dialogue happened on the last day of class.

As students presented their final projects, an impassioned debate broke out over Think’der, the creation of Farhan Kathawala ’17 and Baris Akis ’16.

Think’der, a more erudite take on the dating app Tinder, shows users a quote from a philosopher or author or sociologist. If you’re intrigued, you swipe down for a 200-word description of the person in question. If you’re not, you swipe sideways for another quote.

For some, like Redding, the project presented a moral problem.

“It felt to me that they were trying to reduce these really complicated philosophers that people have been reading and thinking about and struggling with and arguing about for hundreds and hundreds of years into little snippets that you can put on an app,” Redding said.

“I’m really uncomfortable with that. I think it’s totally impossible and it’s also really dangerous.”

As a CS + English major who’s read Plato and Aristotle in depth, she worries that reading 200-word summaries may give people the impression that they’re qualified to seriously discuss these thinkers when all they’ve really been given is the briefest of starting points.

Kathawala, another CS + English major, sees where the pushback is coming from. He and his teammate considered the issue throughout the creation process, and posed the question to the class during the final session.

“Is it worth it to try to get someone to ingest anything from a certain work or any type of a certain thought rather than not at all…if they’re not willing to put the time into it?” Kathawala asked. “The good thing about the class was that everyone was able to see both sides of every argument,” he added.

Redding and the authors of Think’der came to an eventual compromise: They could add a third level of detail to the app, where users could swipe one more time and be taken to a Wikipedia page.

This kind of discussion is exactly what Thrun and Dierkes-Thrun had hoped to provoke.

“We live in times that have very different technology, very different attention span, very different styles of living than the times in which some of these great pieces of literature were created,” Thrun said. “And the question is how we can adapt — if it is even valid, but if so, how we can adapt to those digital ages.”

Continuing the Conversation

The dialogue isn’t over for Redding, though, and she doesn’t want it to be. She and her co-creators plan to continue working on their project, ParallelLit, with Professor Thrun’s guidance.

“People want to do this kind of stuff, people want to bridge disciplines that we don’t usually think should be bridged,” Kathawala said.

Especially as a CS + English major, Kathawala hopes classes like these will be a fixture within a few years.

“I kind of wish that these joint majors had been designed around classes so that you could really have both skills when you come out rather than trying to juggle both of the majors and then say, ‘Oh hey, look, I did something with both of these once,’” he said.

He’s keeping an eye out for more classes like this one, and he’s not alone: according to Thrun, every student in the class was enthusiastic about the possibility of future project-based CS-humanities courses.

Both professors hope to teach the class again as well.

“I can tell you, some great magic happened in this class which I would love to see replicated in my own teaching in the future,” Thrun said.

Contact Abigail Schott-Rosenfield at aschott ‘at’

Abigail Schott-Rosenfield '18 is a news staff writer and graduate student outreach strategist at the Daily. Contact her at aschott 'at'

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