Learning to Code – Why Now?


This semester, I’ve put myself in the strange position of being a student again, in my colleague Zach Whalen’s DGST 395 class, Applied Digital Studies. It’s strange for a number of reasons (for me at least), least of all is being a student in the same space as students who either a) took my DGST 101 class last semester or b) are taking my DGST 101 class immediately before 395.

I can at least say that I’ve embraced certain aspects of being a student: I’m not quite as diligent at doing my homework, and I can still participate in small group discussion derailment like a pro. But while I missed the homework post talking about what I learned while group teaching The Peripheral (what I learned: it really helps to have a PhD in Comparative Literature and more than a passing familiarity with any given genre in order to be able to teach small pieces of a novel and then talk about them), this next assignment is, I think, a must for me.

We have to each, individually, write a manifesto about why we are learning to program.

This is the entire reason, for me, for taking this course.

But of course that needs some unpacking.

We’re using Nick Montfort book Exploratory Programming for the Arts and Humanities, and he says in his introduction that I don’t need a good reason for learning to program or to code; what book that teaches a language or a musical instrument contains such justifications, he asks? (None, that’s the answer.) I read that part his introduction and the snarky student inside me cheered: THIS IS MY REASON AND NOW MY MANIFESTO IS FINISHED: BECAUSE, THAT’S WHY. THE AUTHOR SAID I DO NOT NEED ONE.

The snarky student inside me likes to talk in all-caps. Also enjoys taking the easy way out.

This is where being a student gets complicated for me – to participate in the metacognitive aspects of this class (aspects that I encourage my own students to engage in) are exercises in vulnerability. And while I know my students can read my blog, where I’ve never exactly been shy about oversharing and making myself vulnerable, it’s entirely different when the probably of them reading my work because it is directly appearing in their field of vision.

(*Waves to the students*)

Now, I shouldn’t feel this way. I constantly and continually make myself vulnerable in front of the class; I make mistakes, I admit my own shortcomings, I share the things I’m not good at, that I struggle with, and those things that make me human (like Snapchat – they keep trying and I keep not getting it). But, I’m still in front of the class. I’m not worries about losing my position of authority. And this, honestly, takes away some of the feelings of vulnerability.

All of this is really a round-about way of getting to why I want to learn how to code, in particular, right now, in Fall of 2016, as an Instructional Technology Specialist focusing on pedagogy.

Because, as Montfort points out in the Appendix of his book, it’s easier to learn anything (but particularly coding) in a group. And for me, I need the group setting as well as the structure of the class. I’ve tried to learn how to code on my own for a while, even since I started dabbling in Digital Humanities four or so years ago, and I haven’t been able to, despite all the books and all the online courses and bootcamps and apps and opportunities.

It also doesn’t help that I haven’t been able to really figure out, for myself, why I should learn to code; I don’t have a project that required it. I felt like I needed to be “legitimate” in DH (building is a big deal in DH, for better or for worse), but that feeling of legitimacy wasn’t enough to push my to learn it on my own.

Which is a long way of saying, I want to finish what I started four-plus years ago.

I also believe that having a better understanding how our “black boxes” work, especially if I’m teaching Digital Studies, is important, and learning about code, if not learning everything there is to know about coding (in one language or another), is part of my job. I’ve written before about having enough of an understanding of coding as a form of empowerment, just one I haven’t really embraced as fully as I could or should.

I also want to better understand and communicate with my colleagues in DTLT who do know and understand code. I want to be able to “think computationally”, to push myself to learn not only a new skill, but a new way of thinking. The “hook” for me, particularly with this book is the idea of creative coding – I need some more creativity in my life, professionally and otherwise.

I’m at a crossroads, and I’m in a space where I can decide what comes next. Even if coding isn’t what’s next for me, I can put a period on something from my immediate past that never got finished. And, hopefully, it can serve as a kind of palate cleanser and create space for figuring out what’s next for me.

Why do I want to learn to code? Because.

Because I played with LOGO when I was in elementary school. Because I played with LOGIC on our family’s Commodore 64. Because I watched my dad copy lines of code form a magazine to inevitably make some transcription error that caused the program not to work, and because he didn’t understand the code couldn’t tell where he made the mistake. Because I learned HTML as a Freshman in college and then gave it up when I did graduate school because “playing on the Internet” would make me appear unserious. Because it’s about damn time.

Because I’m going to have to teach it next semester.

That seems like as good a reason as any.

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  1. > I want to be able to “think computationally”, to push myself to learn not only a new skill, but a new way of thinking.

    How does one think computationally? How do computers think anyway? More specifically, how do they create the appearance of thinking after having been directed to mimic thought-like patterns by humans who direct and create those patterns of mimicry?

    I think if you can answer any of those questions, then you’re already thinking computationally, but I can go ahead and tell you (spoiler alert): computers don’t even think computationally because computers don’t really think. They’re just good at faking it, which at least for me has been a fundamental and essential technique in learning how to get things done with code.

    By the way do you know Neal Stephenson’s book Snow Crash? A central plot point is this mind virus that’s communicated visually like QR codes, and hackers — with their minds so attuned to binary — can just look at that QR code once and then their brains get scrambled. This is one manifestation of the annoyingly elitist aspects of Stephenson’s writing, and it’s a version of the myth that we hear a lot, that there are people who can code and people who can’t, and (moreover, implicitly) those who can code will now able to access the Jobs Of Tomorrow.

    I don’t think it works that way or at least it hasn’t for me. I write code sometimes and sometimes that code is a computer program or script, but I don’t know if that is enough to call myself a “programmer.” And anyway, I’m of the inclusive mindset when it comes to affinity identities, so for example, I’m happy to let anyone call themselves “a runner” if they’ve run. Others that I know want to protect that term and reserve it for true runners who are doing at least 30 miles a week and competing (or whatever threshold).

    So in other words, I get it if someone wants to tell me I’m not a programmer; I definitely get that and it doesn’t bother me. I don’t have anything at stake in that, after all, since I’m already plenty of other things (teacher, husband, dad, runner), being able to write some code doesn’t change me into a different kind of person, just like not being able to write some code (yet!) doesn’t make anyone in this class the kind of person who can’t use some code to get something done.

    And that’s where I kind of disagree with Nick here, or at least the sentiment that one doesn’t need a reason to learn to code. I think it helps to know what you’re trying to accomplish so you can decide whether in fact it’s code that you need to accomplish that thing. At the same time, knowing a bit of code can help you discover and thinking about new things to try and accomplish, so I love the “exploratory programming” idea. I’m looking forward to getting started with it tomorrow.


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