Profs push for major uniting computers, art

Analyzing patterns in musical compositions, designing a concert hall with perfect acoustics, creating video games that earn rave reviews: These may not sound like senior projects to students more accustomed to seminars and papers. But a few professors are hoping a new Yale College major will change that.

Since last spring, computer science professors Julie Dorsey, Paul Hudak and Holly Rushmeier, with the help of professors in the arts, have been planning and advocating for a Computing and the Arts major, which would use the tools of computer science to develop software for and solve problems in five different arts disciplines, including architecture, art, music, theater studies or art history.

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Han Xu
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Professors and administrators said faculty could decide on whether to add the major as early as Feb. 7, the date of the next Faculty of Arts and Sciences meeting.

“Computing and the Arts is still in a proposal stage,” Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said. “There’s still a little bit in flux. We’re waiting for a final report from the Committee on Majors about it.”

Dean of Undergraduate Education Joseph Gordon, who serves on the Committee on Majors, said administrators will know more about the state of the proposal next week.

“I like the idea of it very much,” Gordon said. “It draws on a lot of strengths here at Yale.”

Hudak said he and Dorsey have been talking about merging computer science methods and the arts since he interviewed her for a position at Yale about five years ago, when he was chairman of the Computer Science department. Dorsey, who has held past appointments at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in engineering and computer science, also earned a degree in architecture from Cornell University.

“There’s already such a focus on new kinds of media, from iPods to video games to cell phones,” Hudak said. “There are all sorts of examples of combinations of technology and art and architecture. Many of these jobs require skills in both areas.”

But, Hudak said, students in the major would produce arts-related technology beyond what is feasible through current major offerings.

“There are lots of tools out there available to artists and architects for doing design,” he said. “Our goal is not to use those existing tools but to study and understand them and lead the way in new technology.”

Hudak, Dorsey and Rushmeier said their proposal has been met by “universal enthusiasm” from administrators in their quest to get the major approved.

Within the music department, professors Kathryn Alexander, Daniel Harrison and Michael Klingbeil are in support of the major. Harrison, who is chair of the department, said he immediately saw the potential of the major when approached by the computer science professors in the fall.

“It’s a great way to build bridges between artistic creation and computational methods and techniques,” Harrison said.

Harrison said students in the major could conceivably focus their research on software that would help scholars to analyze vast amounts of musical scores.

“On the analysis side, there are a couple of software packages that help scholars like me do music analysis, but they’re kind of clunky and not easy to learn and it takes a lot of time to get data into them,” Harrison said. “To take a musical score, scan it in to some digital format, have that read into code then to be used by number-crunching analysis program, gee that would be great. That would save a lot of human time.”

Additionally, Harrison said students in such a major could potentially design buildings with perfect acoustics, a long-standing problem in architecture.

“That’s still an area that needs some kinds of creative breakthroughs, so we can design buildings with a high degree of confidence that it’ll turn out great,” he said.

According to the proposal submitted to the Committee on Majors in December, few new courses would be added to create the major. Instead, students will be required to take 14 courses, seven of which must be in computer science. The other half of the major must involve courses concentrated in one of the arts disciplines. The senior project, the professors said, is where students would synthesize their expertise in both areas.

Dorsey said the major, if instated, would set Yale apart from other universities. Although many schools offer digital media majors, Dorsey said those often represent “watered-down” versions of computer science courses, while Yale’s major would require all students to take standard classes.

“We are designing a very rigorous program,” Dorsey said.

The three professors said they have encountered numerous students who already combine the two disciplines in their own academic endeavors, indicating that students would be open to the major.

“We have so many students who come in with these many strong interests and talents in computing and one of the arts,” Rushmeier said.

This fall, a specialized Master of Science track in Computing and the Arts was approved within the Computer Science Department.

Although an analogous doctorate program does not exist at the Graduate School, the professors said they do not foresee a lack of teaching assistants to be an issue if the major is accepted.

“There’s no need to create something special at the Ph.D level,” Hudak said.

Although resources for interdisciplinary work in computing and artistic projects are already in place, Harrison said institutionalizing the major would provide intangible support to students making the trek from undergraduate arts buildings on Chapel Street to Computer Science’s home on Prospect Avenue.

“What we’re looking to do with this major is to give it a name and give it a community,” Harrison said. “And we’re sure that the work is going to follow.”

Comments

  • Anonymous

    Why is this only getting pitched after I graduated? Why? God is mocking me.

  • Anonymous

    Sounds amazing. I may have to come back through for a second degree.

  • Anonymous

    Bravo! Yale clearly has an incredible opportunity here - it's not just about trying to recognize the value of the interplay of the arts and computing, but that the current generation of students and scholars will be synthesizing and pioneering from the richness of all Yale perspectives and cultures. The benefits are endless and you have new generations who will show us how this will work well together as they lead with their individual talents and perspectives of art, design, history, music, etc. and the enablement of new computing potential.

    As an alum, I certainly invite and support this program direction.

  • Anonymous

    As a Yale Early Admit who has been agonizing over the declaration of my major should I choose to attend Yale, I must admit this major (if instituted) will go some way in convincing me of my good judgment in choosing to enroll. In fewer words: brilliance! I am already excited just thinking about it.

  • Anonymous

    Bravo, Yale.

  • Anonymous

    I do not see any doubt that this major is a great direction to follow. I am glad to be a freshman in Yale during this time.

  • J

    Congrats on the development of a new media program at Yale. Not quite original however. See: http://ame.asu.edu/

  • Holly Rushmeier

    The AME program at ASU is a wonderful graduate program dealing with the development of media systems. "Computers + Art" is of course not a new concept, and there have been many related programs at other universities for a long time. The effort at Yale is distinguished by:

    -- We are proposing an undergraduate program in Computing and the Arts that emphasizes depth in both areas. We will not have computer science courses redesigned for artists, or art courses simplified to be accessible to computer scientists.

    -- While we consider the development of new media (as in the AME program), we consider Computing and the Arts beyond digital media. We are concerned, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, with computing in design, analysis and understanding as well as in expression and communication. Students will study the topics such as the role of computing in designing non-digital artifacts, analyzing ancient structures and classical music, as well as in creating digital products.

    -- Computing offers new tools and techniques for the arts, but the flow of novel ideas is not one way. Our vision is to have the ideas, methods and culture of the arts disciplines influence how and what we study in computer science. The program we propose could ultimately have more impact on how we think about computer science and computers than how we think about the arts.

    -- Julie Dorsey, Paul Hudak and Holly Rushmeier