New Stanford course brings Silicon Valley to the humanities classroom

Students from computer science and the humanities join forces to create literary websites and mobile apps, combining their strengths to launch literature into the 21st century.

Two students looking at a computer.

Doctoral candidates Alice E.M. Underwood and Daniel Bush developed ‘Kvizsterical,’ an online collection of literary quizzes in the Literature and Social Online Learning class. (Image credit: Corrie Goldman)

On a drizzly Thursday afternoon, 14 Stanford students gather in a second-floor classroom to study literature. But this is no ordinary humanities seminar – these students huddle in groups around open laptops, trying to reimagine the written word for the Internet age.

The class even has its own Twitter hash tag: #sociallit.

The first course of its kind at Stanford, Literature and Social Online Learning brings computer science and humanities students together in one classroom. Working in teams, the students have been developing websites and mobile apps that give readers new ways to enjoy and explore literature.

Although inspired by Stanford’s new CS+X initiative – which allows students to study computer science in parallel with the humanities for a joint major degree – this course goes one step further, asking students from the two disciplines to collaborate on projects that unite technology and literature.

The class looks and feels a lot like a start-up incubator in overdrive. In the space of only 10 weeks, students have gone from brainstorming to beta testing and publicly releasing their creations.

Take Farhan Kathawala. A sophomore from Memphis, Tenn., majoring in computer science, Kathawala wanted to electrify the reader’s experience of great poetry. So he created a series of e-books pairing poems with audio tracks of the poets reading their works aloud.

“I matched the audio from a W. B. Yeats poem with the text itself,” Kathawala explained, “and while the class read the poem to themselves they could hear the haunting voice of Yeats describe his childhood home in Sligo. It was incredible to see how the tone of the poem changed in his voice from how it was laid out on the page.”

Other literary start-ups generated by the class include Cureador (a way to share “must-reads” with friends and family), ParallelLit (a tool for comparing literary translations side by side), BookTracks (a forum for creating soundtracks to novels) and Think’der (a mobile app that’s an encyclopedia of thinkers and theorists, inspired by the popular dating app Tinder).

The interdisciplinary course was the brainchild of two Stanford scholars who are married. Petra Dierkes-Thrun is a lecturer in the comparative literature department. Sebastian Thrun is a research professor in the Stanford computer science department and CEO of Udacity, an online education firm in Silicon Valley.

The instructors seem to have learned as much as their students. “Interdisciplinary team-teaching is just a really different kind of animal,” Dierkes-Thrun said. “There are specific challenges that you don’t have if you’re the master or mistress of your own classroom.”

Hailing from such different disciplines, the two occasionally disagreed. But Dierkes-Thrun said spirited debate is a crucial part of the intellectual process.

And they agreed that learning to communicate across disciplines is the course’s greatest challenge as well as its major payoff. “I want the students to learn to talk to each other,” Thrun remarked, “and reach levels of achievement that individual disciplines alone never could achieve.”

Learning by doing

On any given day, the classroom crackles with energy and the conversation leaps from topic to topic: The idea of fan fiction sparks a discussion about computer-supported cooperative work in the field of human-computer interaction, which leads into literary theories of reader response and the psychology of “clickbait.”

“It’s kind of group therapy for our project,” Alice E.M. Underwood, a third-year graduate student in the Stanford comparative literature department, said with a laugh.

As they build their ideas, students from different disciplines trade favors. One group needs a programmer to help them create a text box. Another group needs a talented writer to help them explain the work of a major philosopher.

Vilde Opsal, a senior studying symbolic systems, combined her coding skills with the talents of Mirae Lee, a sophomore majoring in English, to create the (RE)write project: an online collaborative reimagining of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The project now offers six alternative storylines and has featured the work of nearly 20 contributors.

Computer scientists and humanists think about problems in different ways, and so combining both approaches in one team was no mean feat. “It was a bit of a journey,” Opsal said.

But both noted that they quickly found ways to communicate and work across disciplines. “I’m more interested in reading, and she’s interested in writing,” Opsal said, “so there was a natural division of labor between us.”

Project courses like this one, in which students are asked to solve a problem or build a final product, are unusual in the humanities. (Thrun borrowed the idea from his home discipline of computer science.) But students found the model motivating and exciting.

“I liked that this class gave us the opportunity to build some things,” said Courtney Noh, a sophomore considering the CS+English joint major. “You learn most from actually doing, building.”

Making literature fun

The graduate students enrolled in the course said the project model has led them to rethink how they teach literature and given them new ideas about how to harness technology in the classroom.

The key, they said, is making it fun.

Underwood worked with Daniel Bush, a third-year doctoral student in Stanford’s Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, to create Kvizsterical: an online collection of literary quizzes more scholarly than Sporcle but less reverent than the SAT. Topics range from literary monsters to authors snubbed for the Nobel Prize.

“A little bit of playfulness can only help literary study, especially in 2014,” Bush said. “This site is not like an AP English exam.”

Underwood agreed. “The course changed my approach to the problem,” she said, “which is how to make literature something alive and fun in the 21st century when people would rather read BuzzFeed.”

Both said that they will use Kvizsterical to spice up their teaching at Stanford – and are even considering their own project courses in the humanities.

Having students develop sites like Kvizsterical or (RE)write can also improve humanities education by encouraging students to learn in public, Dierkes-Thrun said.

“I want students to get better at reading, writing, interpreting, speaking, communication,” Dierkes-Thrun said.

As the quarter (and the class) ended, many students said they were eager to take more interdisciplinary project courses. Dierkes-Thrun was enthusiastic too, saying that she hopes to teach this one again.

Thrun added that he was “blown away” by how eagerly students embraced the project course. “I predict that five years from now, this is one of the classes that our students will remember.”

Ian P. Beacock is a doctoral candidate in history at Stanford. For more news about the humanities at Stanford, visit the Stanford Humanities Center website.

Media Contacts

Corrie Goldman, Stanford Humanities: (650) 724-8156, corrieg@stanford.edu
Clifton B. Parker, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224, cbparker@stanford.edu