A bonus entry. A post I wrote last September and never published. -Aaron

Among all the recurrent questions surrounding the mainstream emergence of the “digital humanities,” most divisive seems to be the question do you need to know how to code?

Sure, there’s disagreement. And although my post will hardly be the final word on the topic, I think as someone who knows how to code [and who has an educational background that’s entirely in the humanities, social sciences and design] it’s important that I weight in. My issue with the statement isn’t the end. Its in the beginning. You don’t need to know how to code, but why wouldn’t you want to know how to code?

On Argument from Corollary
1) If one is to be a scholar in the Classics [note the capital “C”] shouldn’t one know the language which the core texts of their chosen field were written in. Could one be a Classicist without knowing Latin? Or Greek? In the digital humanities the core texts are written in PHP, ASP, HTML and CSS*.

2) If you are studying a group, a people, a culture- one school of thought in how to conduct ethnographic studies says: “Ethnography is a social science research method. It relies heavily on up-close, personal experience and possible participation, not just observation, by researchers trained in the art of ethnography” (Genzuk, 1999). If you are studying, or becoming part of the ‘digital’ subculture, can on accurately weigh in without first becoming participating?

3) Perhaps a sub-corollary of point #2. Saudade. Sehnsucht. Waldeinsamkeit [one of my personal favorites actually]. Whether or not you believe that one’s language changes the way one thinks is another issue best left to the academic journals, it is important to note that just as languages sometimes have words or concepts that are unique to them and not easily translatable into other languages, so do programming languages. There are critical ideas underlying the “why” in the construction of digital works such as “recursion” or “object-oriented” [to name two of the more accessible ones] whose Raison d’être becomes clear once one understands the code. Or speaks the language.

On Bringing us back to the digital humanities.
So why should one want to learn how to code? I think there’s a few good reasons, and surprisingly none of them are akin to “eat your broccoli, it’s good for you.”

Broccoli, it's good for you.

This was once the best argument folks could come up with for why it was important to learn how to program.

If you are going to be a digital humanist, you will be working with code, or at the very least, people who know how to code, for the rest of your career. Sure you can build a website without knowing how to code, but to build a tool, to radically transform something that already exists, or create something that does not exist, you will need to deal with the “how.”

Even if you are not going to build the application yourself, its important to understand how a language [and a set of skills] translates into something. It is now common in writing a digital grant to require the time or expertise of someone who will do the heavy lifting and difficult building. But if you do not understand how that person’s language affects what they’re building [point 3. Have you hired a Python programmer to develop your website? good to know how they differ from the woman who knows ASP.net]. If you do not know how code works, it can be difficult to manage programmers. It can be even more difficult to grasp the time involved in creating something. How many have worked with a self-professed a “digital humanist” that doesn’t understand that changing how a program functions isn’t as simple as removing a semi-colon from a piece of writing? This goes both ways, I’ve seen programmers who have taken advantage of the folks that have hired them and delivered something which meets the technical specifications but not the spirit in which the project was conceived.

Basically, as I see it, you have two options. You can hire a programmer who understands humanities tool building [and believe me, although we exist, there are not many of us. I don’t even consider myself a programmer first, but alas I digress.] or you can learn enough programming to converse with most any programmer. Some have called this level of literacy “procedural literacy” [warning .pdf] or “conversational PHP” [a colleague of mine]. This is probably the most basic level you might need to be at to efficiently administrate a grant for creating something new and digital.

The Power of Speaking the Same Language [another argument from anecdote]
The web was once ugly. Coders were programmers were once designers. Graphic Designers eventually started getting involved in the web and soon every staff had a “designer” who would make a layout. But there was some frustration as the coders knew what the new technologies [Javascript such as Jquery, MooTools, CSS etc.] could do, but didn’t know how to make them look nice. Designers new how to make things look good, but they didn’t know the language of the web. In short, web teams evolved to have a designer who knew the tools and what they were capable of. Both sides learned enough of the other’s language: Programmers learned how to talk about usability and user interface design; designers learned how to talk about code-reuse, CSS, HTML5. The web’s not perfect, but at least everyone knows enough about each other’s language to push things forward.

Back to the Digital Humanities Once Again.
Many others have written on this topic before, so I surely don’t expect to replace those seminal pieces. I consider myself a bit of a futurist, always looking ahead to see where things are going.

The future is going to be inescapably digital. I can easily foresee a time in the not-so-distant future the word “digital” prefacing anything will be seen as redundant. Can mid-21st century humanities be fundamentally “non-digital?” My guess is that someday it won’t be. Textual analysis may someday soon be as fundamental as elementary criticism in high school classrooms. Where will the digital academy be then?

And finally, on coding
TL;DR: coding is a powerful tool that opens more doors than it closes and creates more opportunities than it does barriers; and it will be an essential part of 21st century scholarship. As coding moves from the fringes of the DH community to the center, its an exciting time to be a part of the dialogue and movement.

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*The latter two not really being “languages” in the same sense, and this list is by no means exhaustive.


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  • A little about me

    My name is Aaron Knoll (as per the title and URL) and I work in the New Media Lab as an advisor of sorts. I assist students working on digital media projects by being available to discuss technology, options, best practices and modern approaches to digital scholarship, as well as the applications and alternatives that are available. I use my 10+ years of experience, having worked in nearly ever IT role that has ever been dreamed up, to offer expertise, advice, and support for the directions they choose to take in their projects.

    I have fulfilled this role in the New Media Lab for over three years and look forward to continue supporting students as they ambitiously look towards the future with their digital work.

  • Disclaimer

    The views expressed here are my own and they do not represent an official stance of the New Media Lab or any of my colleagues affiliated with the New Media Lab.

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