CS+X major program to no longer accept new students

Jan. 23, 2019, 10:30 p.m.

Just four years after its inception, the CS+X joint major pilot program will be “discontinued” due to limited interest. The academic program allows students to attain a Bachelor’s of Arts and Sciences degree in computer science and a humanities discipline.

All students currently enrolled in the program will be allowed to complete their degrees, according to an email sent by CS+X faculty to a declared student. The University later clarified in a statement that the students who plan to declare the CS+X joint major must do so by June 18, 2019, the end of spring quarter, at which point no new CS+X major declarations will be accepted. 

Since its launch as a six-year pilot program in fall 2014, the CS+X has expanded from two joint majors, CS+English and CS+Music, to 14 majors combining computer science with various humanities disciplines. However, the program conferred fewer than 15 degrees in the 2017-2018 academic year and has drawn criticism for its lack of depth and interdisciplinary cohesion.

Computer science professor emeritus Eric Roberts, who proposed the idea that later became CS+X at Stanford and also conceived Stanford’s entire introductory CS curriculum, told The Daily that the implemented program was “designed so poorly” that it could not possibly succeed.

“Although the decision has not been made public, Stanford has decided to discontinue the program,” Roberts wrote.

Stanford Schools of Engineering and Humanities and Sciences have since publicized the decision to end the program after spring quarter, citing class scheduling details and “burdensome” unit requirements. 


Idea vs. implementation

Roberts — who was involved with CS+X in its earliest stages — expressed disappointment in how far the program’s actual execution deviated from his original vision.

“My original proposal was designed to address [the] imbalance [between disciplines] by encouraging students who felt that they had to major in computer science for economic reasons or parental pressure to pursue a second major in a secondary area about which they felt passionate,” Roberts wrote.

Ideally, he said, the program should have encouraged CS majors to add an “X” humanities major, which would increase the number of humanities majors without increasing the number of CS majors. Roberts reported that the program had the opposite effect: Majors in non-CS fields were encouraged to add CS.

However, Thomas Icard, director of the CS+Philosophy program, observed a different phenomenon.

“There were just so many students who expressed interest in [CS+Philosophy] and genuinely had significant interest in both of them,” Icard said. “Of the 20 or so cases I saw, not a single person was coming from philosophy thinking about adding CS. It was always people coming from CS thinking about adding philosophy.”

Roberts also intended for the CS+X program to reduce the load on computer science professors. But according to him, “faculty across the university saw the CS+X idea as a way to integrate more computer science into their own majors.” Roberts believes this put additional strain on an already-overwhelmed CS department.

While 20 percent of undergraduates major in computer science, only two percent of the University’s faculty teach in the department.

Roberts observed that overload in the computer science department has contributed to increased attrition among faculty.


CS+X vs. the double major

Students concerned with the CS+X program say it is too similar to pursuing a double major in computer science and a humanities field.

“The joint major looks largely the same as a double major but with a few exceptions,” wrote Kylie Jue ’17 M.S. ’19, who majored in CS+English as an undergraduate, in an email to The Daily.

CS+X allows students to reduce the number of units required for each major. For instance, the program requires only one Writing in the Major class, as opposed to a double major, which requires two.

But Jue, who formerly served as Editor in Chief of The Daily, reported that she only took two fewer electives in each department than she would’ve had she double-majored.

Additionally, students are required to complete a capstone project or honors thesis integrating the two disciplines.

Jue noted that the CS+X capstone project “turned [some of her friends] away from the major.”

When the CS department surveyed its students prior to the launch of the program, the results revealed much more interest than reflected in the number of students who actually declared, Roberts said.

Icard also suggested that the joint major program is ineffective in reducing overall units required to complete degrees in disparate fields.

“Many of the people who have initially been enrolled as CS+Philosophy majors have ended up doing double majors because they already did all of the requirements for both of them — so [they] might as well just do the double major,” Icard said.

Art practice assistant professor Camille Utterback said the same was true of Art Practice+CS, resulting in several students studying art history and computer science distinctively but few pursuing the joint major.

Some students pointed to the breadth of CS+X requirements as an obstacle to exploring either field with interdisciplinary cohesion — or meaningful depth.

“I would argue that they are not being very thoughtful about what needs to go into the major,” said Daniela Gonzalez ’19, a CS+English major. “They’re just like, ‘Okay, we’ll make it slightly less heavy.’”

For example, Gonzalez found it “random” to keep physics as a part of the CS requirements, rather than allow room for elective classes that could be more integrative.

“No one knows enough about both sides’ requirements to be helpful,” Liz Fischer ’17, who eventually abandoned the CS+English major, told The Daily in 2016.

The lack of communication between departments contributes to the absence of integration, some say.

“Nobody is showing you how to integrate humanities with CS,” Gonzalez said. “[They are] just kind of like, ‘You do it now after taking completely separate classes.’”

In 2016, students voiced similar concerns to The Daily. Students found that participating departments lacked communication and that the joint major program itself lacked guidance or core leadership.

“As it stands now, the humanities and CS sides don’t understand what the other departments are doing,” Fischer said.

Jue felt that the lack of precedent allowed students flexibility in terms of pursuing a capstone project or selecting classes to satisfy the major.

“Although I had to do much of the initial legwork and exploration myself, I didn’t mind — I recognize that this was a brand new program and that there wasn’t precedent for how it should be run or what requirements should look like,” Jue said.

Despite the lack of communication between departments, Jue said that her four advisors — including a major advisor and capstone advisor in each department — were supportive and “more than willing” to help when she asked.


Facing forward

Despite the conclusion of the CS+X program, many hope the effort to bring STEM and humanities together will not be abandoned and that the University will pursue another iteration of the program in the future.

“I’d hate to see the program discontinued completely,” Jue said. “The CS+X program offered an opportunity for students who have multiple interests to connect and pursue the different disciplines, even if it only reduced the workload slightly.”

Already, some faculty members are working to create interdisciplinary major or minor solutions for students interested in studying at the intersection of art and technology, Utterback told The Daily.

Icard expressed hope that “something similar in spirit” would eventually replace CS+X.

Others feel as if the ending of the pilot program reflects the CS+X committee’s unwillingness to properly respond to the concerns that have been posed.

“What surprises me is that I don’t think I’ve ever been asked for feedback as a student — I’ve never been asked ‘how could this be better?’” Gonzalez said. “So it seems like they aren’t super interested in improving it or changing it. They just think, ‘If it doesn’t work like this, then it’s not going to work at all’ — which I think is completely false.”


This article has been updated to reflect the University’s statement on the discontinuation of the CS+X pilot program, and the publicized deadline for declaring the CS+X major.


Contact Elena Shao at eshao98 ‘at’ stanford.edu and Emily Wan at emilywan ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Elena Shao '21 is from Suwanee, Georgia. At The Daily, she is a Managing Editor for News. Outside, she's studying political science. She also enjoys learning foreign languages and is hoping to pursue a career as an investigative and data journalist. Contact her at eshao98 'at' stanford.edu.Emily Wan '22 is a writer for the Academics beat from San Jose, California who plans to major in East Asian Studies and minor in Translation Studies. Her main interests include literature, languages, music and puns. Contact her at emilywan 'at' stanford.edu.

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