SHASS introduces Computing and Society concentration

Eligible classes span nine departments

Undergraduate advisors were informed Aug. 23 of the new interdisciplinary Computing and Society concentration. In order to fulfill the concentration, students must take four of 34 possible classes, which span nine departments.

“The goal of the concentration is to help students gain a greater understanding of how changes in computational power have refashioned fundamental questions about community, identity, democracy, and knowledge itself,” Karen Gardner, academic administrator of Science, Technology, and Society (STS), wrote to advisors. 

In a phone interview with The Tech, concentration advisor and STS professor William Deringer explained that the concentration focuses on breadth, allowing students to survey various methodologies in different departments that tackle questions central to computing and society. 

Additionally, Deringer said, the concentration’s flexibility allows students who are unsure of their concentration to easily change. For example, a student who selects a CMS class to begin their Computing and Society concentration can then easily switch to concentrating in CMS. 

Although students can select any four classes from the available options, Deringer recommended STS.005J (Data and Society) and 21A.504J (Cultures of Computing) as introductory classes. 

The concentration grew out of the Computational Cultures Initiative, which began spring 2018 and “seeks to incubate vital exchanges between cutting-edge technologists and distinguished historians, philosophers, anthropologists, political scientists, and others who study the human impacts of technological change,” Deringer said. 

There had already been a “long-term interest among faculty on computing and society” before the introduction of the Schwarzman College of Computing (SCoC), Deringer said. 

School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS) Dean Melissa Nobles and head faculty in STS, anthropology, and history had many conversations on bringing together “a lot of the expertise that existed across SHASS around questions about computing, the historical and social drivers of new computing innovations, and the consequences of those innovations for social, political, and cultural life,” Deringer said.  

Jennifer Light, STS department head, and Graham Jones, anthropology professor, spearheaded the effort to develop the concentration as a way to “bring together a great variety of courses around SHASS,” Deringer said. Light and Jones recognized that already “each of the departments in SHASS had faculty that were deeply concerned about these questions of the interrelationship between computing and society.”

Additionally, there were many existing centers and programs on computing and society in other institutes, such as the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, the Data and Society Research Institute, and the Oxford Internet Institute, Deringer said. 

Light and Jones selected classes by examining relevant existing courses. They also discussed both existing and planned future classes with representatives from other SHASS departments, Deringer said. 

Although the majority of classes had existed prior to the development of this concentration, there are some new courses, including STS.083 (Computers and Social Change) and STS.005J (Data and Society), Deringer said. 

More classes are expected to be developed over time, especially as the SCoC grows and there are more joint and bridge faculty between the SCoC and SHASS, Deringer said. SHASS is also considering developing an introductory class for the concentration, which may be required for all concentrating students. 

Although the SCoC will help the concentration grow, it will remain in SHASS, Deringer said. 

SHASS does not have estimates for how many students will select the concentration. Deringer does not expect classes to become oversubscribed as a result of the new concentration. 

Deringer said he has not yet received much feedback on the new concentration, but there has been “a lot of excitement” among SHASS departments and he is “very excited” to hear from students. The concentration was represented at the Academic Expo and will be represented at Tour de SHASS.