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Omer Reingold

Omer Reingold

the Rajeev Motwani Professor in Computer Science

Computer Science

Nov 2018
A computer scientist teaching a theater class is a bit unusual, I’ll grant you that. But is it so strange?

For me, classifying different parts of campus to left-brain-versus-right-brain kind of thinking is just an unfortunate stereotype. I much rather go with ‘creativity is creativity is creativity.’

During the winter quarter of 2018, I taught CS 83, a new creative-expression course named Playback Theater for Research. Playback is an art form that combines elements of theater, community work and storytelling. In playback, a group of actors and musicians create an improvised show based on the participants’ personal stories. But my purpose was not to create better actors – Stanford’s Department of Theater and Performance Studies (TAPS) has this covered. My purpose was to nourish better researchers.

Many of the principles of playback theater beautifully align with what it takes to do research in collaboration (or even alone). In the words of my own playback mentors, “in playback, as in science, we are always moving together, from the known to the unknown and back.” The class aimed to strengthen students’ listening abilities, their creativity and their collaborative spirit. My students got to practice those principles in class and to observe them in their Stanford experiences.

As much as I believed in the importance of the class, I couldn’t foresee the strong reactions from the students that took it – undergrads, graduate students and even students of the Distinguished Careers Institute. One student called it his most impactful and surprising Stanford experience. Many reported positive impacts on their work, making them more open to experiences and collaborations. Quite a few wished to continue with playback beyond the class. Our meetings became an island of humanity in our Stanford life. We grew close through personal stories on topics ranging from the mundane day-to-day to the dramatic, life-altering experiences. I cannot wait to start this journey again with a new group of students in the coming quarter.

Among my other courses, I recently developed a new freshman seminar, Let There Be Computations. Named as a reference to Isaac Asimov’s beloved story, “The Last Question,” the course tells the story of computation to a broader range of students (directed especially to students that are unlikely to major in CS). The course is not focused on technology but rather on the theory of computing as one of the most inspiring intellectual endeavors of our time.

Amanda Law

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