The End of CS + X

I came to Stanford because of CS + X. Well, I came to Stanford because Stanford is Stanford, but I’d be lying if I said the CS + X program didn’t play a significant role in my college decision. Because while most colleges thought it was crazy that a student might want to pursue a degree in both computer science and English — two seemingly-unrelated fields — Stanford not only allowed it, they encouraged it.

CS + X is an academic program that was introduced in 2014, which allows students to joint major in computer science and a humanities discipline. But while the program initially seemed like worthy first step in bridging Stanford’s notorious fuzzy-techie divide, it did not experience much success. In late January of this year, the university announced that the pilot program would be discontinued just four years after its launch due to limited interest.

As a current senior who not only came to Stanford because of CS + X but also stuck with the major for all four years, I was saddened by this announcement. But, at the same time, I wasn’t surprised. CS + X’s meager success was no secret. After all, in my four years at Stanford, I only ever met one student who completed the joint major. Moreover, I rarely encountered anyone else who was actively pursuing the major, and many of those who once were ended up changing their minds. From my own experience — as much as I continue to feel that CS + X was the right choice for me personally — I understand why people were tempted to hop off the train.

If I had to pinpoint the program’s primary flaws, I would narrow it down to the following:

  1. Heavy workload: CS + X has countless requirements, and there are very few people who truly understand them. In other words, if you didn’t make a four-year plan during fall quarter of your freshman year, you probably weren’t going to be able to graduate in time. Many students in the major were unable to take advantage of key Stanford experiences, such as study abroad, and although I was able to fit that in, this required immense planning. (I am now taking 20+ unit quarters throughout my entire senior year to pay back my debt. Of course, going abroad was absolutely worth it — I have no regrets!)
  2. Insufficient integration: The joint major was advertised as integrative and interdisciplinary, but beyond the final capstone project, it is neither. If you want to integrate computer science and the humanities, that’s in your hands, because none of the required classes for the joint major are actually integrative. If it were up to me, I would push for digital humanities courses and interdisciplinary electives to count towards the major as opposed to mostly-irrelevant engineering school requirements, like physics.
  3. Lack of community: As I mentioned previously, I had no idea who else was in the program — the few people I did meet, I met purely by coincidence. There were no department socials or get-togethers, which felt lonely and made it difficult to complain to people who truly understood the trials and tribulations of the program without boring my friends! I also had no idea who was in charge of the program; I did not know where or to whom to give feedback, and I was never asked for feedback for that matter. I have no doubt that all of this affected retention.
  4. Departmental divides: Let’s just say that, as far as I’m concerned, the CS department and the humanities departments aren’t friends. While this program could have been a fantastic opportunity for cross-departmental collaboration, that did not happen, and neither department seemed to know anything about the other. If anything, it seemed as though there was some animosity between the departments; neither department wanted to compromise, neither department wanted to cut back on requirements, and neither department understood the difficulties the other was grappling with. As usual, many humanities departments envy the computer science department for its seemingly-infinite funding, whereas the computer science department complains about being overrun by students (this is a whole other can of worms that I won’t even delve into, but suffice it to say that capping the major won’t solve any of our problems). This is exactly why we should be pushing for programs like CS + X! The fuzzy-techie divide is a vicious cycle, not only affecting students, but also faculty, staff, and the administration as a whole.

I still have faith in this program and the vision behind it, but I nonetheless agree with what many faculty members and administrators are saying in response to disappointed students: it simply cannot succeed in its current form. The program, although great in theory, was both poorly designed and poorly executed. And while I think its failure could have been evaded had students been asked for their feedback and better included in the program’s creation, whether or not this specific program carries on is not what really matters. What matters is that Stanford not take this failure as a sign that endeavors to integrate STEM with the humanities are futile. Rather, the university should view this failure as an opportunity to build something better. This didn’t work, but what might? How can we encourage more students to be both techies and fuzzies until we can eliminate this closed-minded, fallacious dichotomy once and for all?

More than ever, our world needs more engineers who are also humanists, just as it needs more humanists with an understanding of technology. So as we say goodbye to CS + X, let’s prepare to say hello to something new.

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Stanford Women in Computer Science is a student organization that aims to promote and support the growing community of women in CS and technology.

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Stanford Women in Computer Science

Stanford Women in Computer Science

Stanford Women in Computer Science is a student organization that aims to promote and support the growing community of women in CS and technology.

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