Press Play: Chris Piech debugs his CS109 playlists

‘Press Play’ is a column that seeks to uncover the people of Stanford and the collections of songs that power them through their days. Each installation will feature a different Stanford student, faculty member or affiliate, highlighting a playlist that is meaningful to them and their experiences on the Farm.

Erin Ye is currently enrolled in CS109.

Fall quarter at Stanford is upon us. The air is still warm with the tail end of summer’s heat. Bikes and electric scooters have taken over Jane Stanford Way. Unsurprisingly, hundreds of students are packing their way in Hewlett Teaching Center for a computer science class. There are 442 people, including me, enrolled in CS109: “Introduction to Probability for Computer Scientists” this quarter according to my view of the Canvas roster. 

Probability is a hard concept. I know there’s a lot of math involved. I am not expecting to have fun.

But when I walk through the doors of Hewlett 200, I’m surprised. Instead of unsolvable problems, I’m met with something familiar: “Shut Up and Dance With Me” by Walk the Moon. 

I sat down with assistant professor Chris Piech M.A. ’11 Ph.D. ’16 to learn more about his favorite music and how he constructs lecture playlists “Class Upbeat” and “Fresh.” 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): What kind of music do you listen to in your free time? 

Chris Piech (CP): I feel like as you get older, your music tastes broadens, because I don’t stop loving the things I loved when I was 18. In my free time these days, it’s a bit of reggae, a bit of electronic music and a lot of kids’ music. One of my goals is to get [my daughter] to appreciate music. She has cochlear implants, so she enjoys music in a very different way. She’s mostly there for the dancing, so we listen to a lot of songs with heavy rhythm and we dance.

TSD: Do you have any favorite songs or artists who are special to you?

CP: I heard a song a few weeks ago that I really liked. The song is “Apus” by Danit. I was having a really wonderful conversation with a person and then they shared the song with me. It brings back really nice memories. I think I also want to recommend “Obiero” by Ayub Ogada. It’s a Luo song that reminds me of my Luo neighbors [in Kenya] who used to play it, and it’s just been consistent throughout my life.

TSD: What was your inspiration for playing songs at the start of class every lecture, and what factors do you take into consideration when choosing what song to play?

CP: The official reason is that if people are listening to music, they know it’s chatting time, and when I stop the music, they know it’s time to listen to lecture. But more importantly, I play music to set the tone. It’s to get people energized and construct an atmosphere where it’s going to be joyful. We’re going to go into some hard math. Some people get really scared about that. I don’t want them to, I want them to feel welcomed and happy. Music does that for them. 

It also does something for me. I feel like when you’re in a lecture, the energy of the instructor matters so much, and if I listen to music, that gets me energized. Before class, I will often choose something that has a high tempo, if I feel like it’s the time of the quarter where we need that. Or I choose a song that has some thoughtful elements to it to get people to feel the spirit of curiosity. And then I try to go for things that are pleasing to many different palates. You’ve got to set up a welcoming environment.

TSD: You’ve spent most of your academic and professional career at Stanford — how would you say the social landscape has changed since your undergrad days, and what keeps you coming back each year with a renewed sense of energy?

CP: I’ve changed and my role at Stanford has changed as well, so it is not a controlled experiment. I mean, this is a hope: I want my students to have a great time and be curious.

It feels like there might be more pressure on campus now. The world has put more pressure on 20-year-olds. The economy seems a little sharper. There’s more access to media, which can really convolve people’s perceptions in weird ways. I think the world can look like a harsher place than it is if you actually go and talk to folks — those aren’t pressures unique to Stanford. And there are real problems; it’s not just like we can ignore it. So I do appreciate the pressures that students are under. But in that context, I still want people to thrive and be curious, because I feel like more people thriving, more people being curious are probably the best things we have to take on these pretty big problems.

TSD: If CS109 were a song, what would it be and why?

CP: “A Walk” by Tycho, a band in the area. It was made by computers, but the interesting thing is, there’s a lot of work to make sounds. So the electronic sounds are really interesting, complicated and nuanced. And that’s actually pretty mathematically difficult to do. It’s a good match with 109 because we use computers as our tool. We care about what’s organic, important and beautiful, and the technical depth like looking for really hard problems that are worth solving in this world.

It’s uplifting. Learning should be so uplifting. Play is basically learning for kids, across all species. Play is such a learning experience. And as a teacher, I’m doing it because of that uplifting element. How fun it is to see someone understand — their eyes light up when they get it. And I want that joy for my students. I want that joy for me.

TSD: If you could give one piece of advice to a freshman this year, what would it be?

CP: Who am I to give advice? Okay. This is my story. I went and got eye surgery the day after my first lecture at Stanford, which I didn’t expect. When I was going in for the eye surgery, I got a text message which was clearly from somebody who intended to send me something before my first day of class. And it said, “Don’t forget to have fun.” It really just hit the perfect chord. Like, “Oh, this is an experience, just like everything in the world.” I need to go make the most of it and enjoy the surgery. But when you get to hard moments, just don’t forget to have fun. And in the good moments, make sure you enjoy it. I think one of the most fun things we can do is to expand our skill set and be more capable than we were. That’s like a deep, deep, fun thing to do. So go have fun. 


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