CAL: Transforming the Arts and Humanities Through Technology — and Vice Versa
Stevens students have always pursued the humanities, but today technology is interwoven with those studies more than ever before — as befits a digital age.The university embraced the humanities alongside the sciences right from its founding, and by the turn of the 20th century, Stevens students were taking more “liberal arts” courses than students at any other engineering program in the nation.
As the university grew, so did its dedication to the arts, even as technological became increasingly complex and, eventually, digital. Today artists and scholars alike come to Stevens to follow creative, philosophical and — increasingly — technologically minded dreams.
Most of those students enroll in the College of Arts and Letters (CAL), an interdisciplinary college created in 2007. What makes CAL unique? All subjects studied in the college are pursued through the lens of technology.
“Our world is complex and transforming rapidly. A 21st-century education must teach students to navigate this complexity,” explains Kelland Thomas, the saxophonist/computer scientist (yes, really) who was named as the college’s dean in 2016. “The skills and cognitive capacities provided by a liberal education are well known, but to be resilient and successful, students also need computational skills, data literacies, and the capacity for systems-oriented thinking.”
The breadth of coursework offered at CAL allows for individual passions to be explored and combined. Some students choose to study video game design, videography, music production, composition or orchestration, for example. Others use data tools in novel ways to analyze social phenomena or political practices.
“The College’s mission is to provide an interdisciplinary education that prepares students to be professionals and creators,” notes Thomas. “That’s why we offer a range of degree programs encompassing the arts, humanities and social sciences.”
While CAL continues operating traditional humanities programs — literature and philosophy, for example — the music and technology program and visual arts and technology program have become extremely popular, seeing steady rises in enrollment. Students in those programs gain access to leading-edge spaces such as the Sensory Computation, Experimental Narrative Environment (SCENE) Lab, an immersive space for experimenting with virtual and augmented realities, and the college’s recording studio, a home for technical research, creative practice and performance production.
“We bring a depth and richness to the campus, a creative element,” says Thomas. “A big part of innovation is being creative.”
Indeed, CAL’s accomplished faculty are leading this new path to the arts via technology through some highly creative thinking.
Professors Alex Wellerstein and Kristyn Karl, for instance, are seeding projects that use technology to reimagine the nation’s nuclear and civil defense communications. Theresa MacPhail, a professor in CAL’s Science, Technology and Society program, received support from the National Endowment for the Humanities to write the first book-length work on the history of allergies.
Thomas says the uniquely technological component of his college’s humanities education drives student success and satisfaction post-graduation.
“They’re comfortable designing and creating, and they think of tech not as a barrier,” concludes the dean, “but as an enabler giving them the power to create.”