Published October 16, 2019 by Rebecca Goldfine and Tom Porter

New Academic Program Tackles the Why of Technology

The College is offering a new academic program in digital and computational studies to explore the impact of technology in our lives.
Student writing in a notebook surrounded by computers
Students can now declare a coordinate major in digital and computational studies—pairing it with another discipline, like English or economics—or minor in it.

After offering classes in digital and computational studies for seven years, the College faculty recently voted to formalize the trailblazing curriculum into an official academic program, allowing students to add it as a coordinate major—pairing DCS with another discipline, like English or economics—or to minor in it.

To bolster the program and create a named chair, the College has received an anonymous gift of $3 million. The chair's title will be the Sarah and James Bowdoin Chair in Digital and Computational Studies and will be held by Professor Eric Chown. The program faculty will move into the Barry Mills Hall when it is expected to open in January, 2020.

The opportunities that a full-fledged Digital and Computational Studies program could offer students were highlighted in the 2018 initiative launched by President Clayton Rose to identify the knowledge, skills, and creative disposition every Bowdoin student should possess in a decade's time. “The KSCD report put an exclamation point on our need to keep moving forward with DCS and to take it to the next level,” said Dean for Academic Affairs Liz McCormack. “It offers a whole new set of pathways for students from multiple disciplines to be exposed to algorithmic problem-solving, coding, and the implications of new digital artifacts and technologies.”

DCS is separate from computer science, though related in the technology it uses. While computer science is intent on creating—ever more efficiently—artifacts (like software and hardware, artificial intelligence, social media, etc.), DCS analyzes those artifacts and their place in the world. Additionally, DCS uses technology to mine data and answer questions in other areas, from literature and ecology to politics and the arts.

"The use of technology is still there, but the idea of technology and computational and digital artifacts as things to be studied—in the way we study texts—has crystalized a lot of our thinking," Chown said. "We've been doing that in the liberal arts forever."

Students in the new DCS minor or coordinate major will analyze and critique the way technologies are impacting our personal and social environments, and how they affect people's capacity to act in the world. Because those technologies are always changing, the DCS faculty has forged "an analytical framework capacious enough to address change and be nimble in the face of change," Associate Professor of Digital Humanities Crystal Hall said.  

Visiting Assistant Professor of Digital and Computational Studies Fernando Nascimento said DCS is less about the how of information technology, and more about the why. “While other technical disciplines focus on how we create new technologies, DCS expands this question to include the meanings of such innovations: Why should we create these new technologies? And what are the possible implications of such innovations to the common good?” he added.

Since Bowdoin offered its first class in digital and computational studies in 2013, faculty have wrestled with questions around how to define the rapidly evolving field, what technical and intellectual skills should be taught to students, and how to fit the study into the context of a liberal arts college.

In just the past couple of years, the DCS faculty members have begun emphasizing what they see as a foundational component of the program. "A central part of what we're trying to do in DCS is ground it in some kind of ethical framework," Chown said. 

The thoughtful and rigorous study of our digital world is growing increasingly important, both Hall and Chown argue. "It feels pressing and urgent in a way it didn't before," Hall said. Chown called the new academic program "exciting and necessary."

Students these days regularly bring in news articles about topics discussed in class, from artificial intelligence to facial recognition. "They're able to see the value of DCS outside of the classroom," Hall said.


A Sampling of DCS Courses

  • Data-Driven Societies
  • Technology for the Common Good
  • Cognition in the Analog and Digital Environments
  • How to Read a Million Books
  • Digital Text Analysis
  • Programming with Data
  • Social and Economic Networks
  • Filmmaking and Born-Digital Storytelling
  • Interactivity, Computation, and Media Architecture
  • Understanding Place: GIS and Remote Sensing
  • Building Resilient Communities
  • Cognitive Architecture
  • Senior Capstone Project (two semesters)

"We're at an important and dangerous moment in our world right now, where a lot of technologies are emerging that have increasingly large capacities to affect our lives," he said.

"It is important that, as a society, we can critically evaluate these tools so we can decide whether it's good or bad that they're being used. Part of DCS is giving students the facility to do those evaluations—some of that will be ethical, some technical."