I’ve been thinking about how learning to code changes what I think is important to teach.
Here at the end of my post-doc fellowship at the Mobile Tech Research Initiative, I’m building an “About” page in jQueryMobile for the Columbia Gorge International Film Festival. Finally, I’m seeing what I’ve learned about code authoring syntax translate into keystrokes. That’s a big deal. Groking is one thing. But when it comes to building, it’s like I’m seated at the piano bench, trying to find the right finger placements before I can play my song. My fingers had to learn how to do this. Honestly. I can’t explain except to say that there’s a kinetic quality to the learning to code that was completely beyond my apprehension ten weeks ago. I spent time shoving concepts and tags into my brain. It didn’t matter, none of it mattered, until I learned how to type code by, say, opening and closing a tag quickly, then spacing to insert the specific calls. I used to type exactly the sequence. Now I type in syntactic blocks. Without the typing, I wouldn’t know anything. It feels hubristic to claim I know anything at all.
The vulnerability of making bonehead mistakes, especially if you’re a professor and are hanging out your total ignorance like undergarments drying on the community line, can stop you in your tracks. A few of the Fellows in MTRI do not, will not code. They work their tails off collaborating, editing and generally “getting” code. They are vital to the process. But they are not pushing the keys and sitting alone in front of the screen.
Here’s why it’s a mistake not to try.
Waaay back in 2002, my pal Norah Ashe McNalley and I got a USC Innovative Teaching grant to start an online student journal, which our founding editors named AngeLingo. (Two years ago, AngeLingo was rebranded “SCribe.”) Our first coder, Jason, was charged with building the site over the course of an entire school year. Everything was HTML: CSS hadn’t been invented/adopted yet. Jason–one hell of a coder, by the way, who went on to build games for Dreamworks, etc., etc.–procrastinated epically. Norah and I didn’t know enough about code (read: we knew zilch) to understand just how far, far behind Jason was in the build. At that cultural moment, before crowdsourcing and Wikipedia, before pervasive broadband and YouTube videos that explain anything you want to know, it was impossible to educate ourselves. Without the intervention of our code-savvy husbands (and without growing a pair: my first lesson in management) AngeLingo would have died. Over the years, AngeLingo has published hundreds of student-authored and -edited academic essays, stories, poems, songs, movies, and the like. Back in 2003, we tripped on how amazing it was to publish without the need for print, paper and $$$$. In 2011, as smartphones make publication a daily, common, WYSIWYG experience, we’re in another watershed moment. Faculty need more than a little code literacy (hat tip to Douglas Rushkoff) to give students a learning experience they can’t get on their own.
Do faculty need to know how to code? Is it a nice to have, or a gotta have?
At the Modern Languages Association’s 2011 Convention (see my post-convention overview here), Stephen Ramsay declared “Do you have to know how to code? I’m a tenured professor of Digital Humanities and I say ‘yes.’. . . Personally, I think Digital Humanities is about building things. […] If you are not making anything, you are not … a digital humanist.” See Stephen’s summary of his MLA talk here. This comment rippled through the field in the weeks subsequent to the MLA.
(For more on the DH “to code or not to code” debate, see Stephen’s thoughtful clarification “On Building,” Matt Kirschenbaum’s ADE piece “What is the Digital Humanities, and What’s it Doing in English Departments?” and Marilee Lindemann, who is “supremely uninterested in determining whether or not I am a Digital Humanist.” Of course there are many other resources, to which Matt’s piece can lead you.)
Returning to the “About”
My magnificent partner in this summer’s appland, Jeannette Altman (cellist, code and Illustrator teacher, perfectionist, goof), has created almost the entire app for the CGIFF. “About” is my foray. Jeannette is gray-eyed Athena, building not one interactive map with the Google Maps API, but *ten*: one for each venue at which the films will show in two weeks. We’ll see if we can get it all to sit still in such a light little app. Messing around with her has been one of the highlights of this unbelievably cool summer. (Check out, btw, MTRI’s rich resources page, loaded with all kinds of goodies: a little souvenir from our summer trip.) God bless Creative Media and Digital Culture Program Director Dene Grigar for insisting that stuff on the web should be free & shared.
I now know enough about code to appreciate that it’s an accomplishment to be playing even one note at a time. I’m really happy to make something tuneful no matter how slowly. An echo of that song “Fill In the Words” sung by Robert Klein in the 1979 musical They’re Playing Our Song has been plunking lightly in my ear. He taps a C on a kiddie piano: “You play a C, you get a C. That’s simple. That’s easy…” (It’s a quiet, introspective little number: no YouTube vid to show you. Here are the lyrics.)
As I set my syllabi for the advanced social media classes I’ll teach in August at USC and at Washington State University, I am modeling the daily activities on what we’ve done at MTRI. Building teaches differently than conceptual work. Conceptual work equips students to make sense of the task long after the urgency of a particular build is finished. There’s a shelf life for the skills. (One example as an index of how quickly it’s moving: the jQuery Mobile code updates frequently: you have to check daily to make sure your header files are current.) Conceptual work allows students to forge the important critical thinking that John Seely Brown and Doug Thomas extol in A New Culture of Learning. It’s vital.
But I would say that I’m with Stephen Ramsay on this one. Learning how to build rewires your sense of how things work. As I said, it’s in the fingers, this knowledge. There’s some kind of recursive loop between the fingers and the brain. Please indulge me this long quotation from Stephen’s piece “On Building”: I read it in January and loved it then. But now my fingers know it to be true.
As humanists, we are inclined to read maps (to pick one example) as texts, as instruments of cultural desire, as visualizations of imperial ideology, as records of the emergence of national identity, and so forth. […] But making a map (with a GIS system, say) is an entirely different experience. DH-ers insist – again and again – that this process of creation yields insights that are difficult to acquire otherwise. It’s the thing I’ve been hearing for as I long as I’ve been in this. People who mark up texts say it, as do those who build software, hack social networks, create visualizations, and pursue the dozens of other forms of haptic engagement that bring DH-ers to the same table. Building is, for us, a new kind of hermeneutic – one that is quite a bit more radical than taking the traditional methods of humanistic inquiry and applying them to digital objects. Media studies, game studies, critical code studies, and various other disciplines have brought wonderful new things to humanistic study, but I will say (at my peril) that none of these represent as radical a shift as the move from reading to making. [Emphasis mine.]