Thought-Chain on Learning to Code, Credentialism, and Higher Education

We’re deep into our “Learn to Code” module in Applied Digital Studies. The students have all chosen a language (HTML/CSS, Python, JavaScript are the top choices), and chosen a platform (Codecademy is the big winner). For the next two weeks, their task is to regularly and systematically “learn to code” using the platform of their choice and then provide a critical reflection thereafter on the experience.

As I said in my last post, I want them to be critically aware of the narrative and methodologies informing and underpinning this whole “learn to code” ethos. Today, in class, we discussed Why I Am Not A Maker and Decoding “Everyone Should Learn to Code” (linked here to the version with annotations). We had a good discussion around gender in particular but also issues of race and class. Students had a particularly strong reaction to not being a maker, which lead to discussion not only of gendered work, but also what we consider making? Is folk art making? Sewing? Work created in mobile environments? All of these various forms of making carry racialized and gendered markers that then exclude them from the context of what a “true” maker does. As someone who has strong thoughts about affective labor and support roles, this was a great discussion.

(Not to mention what “Designed in California” means on all the Apple products.)

Simultaneously, I’m reading Tressie McMillan Cottom’s book Lower Ed (which is awesome and you should get it and read it right now). This intersected well with decoding the learn to code narrative. What are these new “credentials” that we are being asked to earn? Is “learn to code” the newest form of credentialism that has led to the rapid growth of Lower Ed (read the book)? I made a flip comment to the students, that actually, this was pressure they were facing, but that I was (currently) immune.

Except, I quickly interjected, I’m not. I had to “retrain” using a bootstrap DIY approach to move into ed-tech and faculty development. It wasn’t a conscious choice at first with the goal of changing careers (student learning FTW!), but that’s what it ultimately turned into. I taught myself (with the support of my larger social media network) or rather transformed myself into what I am now (Instructional Technology Specialist) who happens to get to teach Digital Studies. I shifted because I had to; the job market for PhDs in Comparative Literature was virtually non-existent (or, rather, good, stable jobs with benefits that didn’t treat me like an 18-graduate-credit-hour bag of meat, didn’t exist; I could have been an adjunct until the day I died).

This isn’t credentialism. But what is is the proliferations of degrees that now exist to “train” people to do the work I am currently doing. I was also just on a hiring committee for a new Digital Studies faculty member. The number of graduate degrees and degree specializations that now exist is pretty impressive considering jobs like the one we’re hiring for didn’t really exist 10 years ago when I graduate with my PhD (we had a MA with a concentration in Humanities Computing that was just getting off the ground). In ten or fifteen years, we have entire graduate programs, graduating students for jobs that didn’t even exist yet.

Communication and Digital Studies is a relatively new degree program here, and it is immensely popular, which is why we are able to hire a tenure-track person for the job. A job I wouldn’t come close to qualifying for because I lack the right credentials. It’s not a complaint, but rather a startling observation about the ability of higher education to actually respond to the demands of the workforce. It’s not all of higher education, but there are places where ver real change is happening in no small part because of the demands of the so-called marketplace.

Circling back to Lower Ed, I can’t help but see what is being described playing out in a lot of ways in higher education, while simultaneously, those arguing for more private, for-profit institutions say they can do better what we (supposedly) can’t: pivot and evolve, particularly given the demands of the workforce. But we have. And we are. We aren’t good at serving non-traditional students, lower-class students, students of color, etc, etc, etc. But. But.

We are not immune to the credentialism pressures. But also have found ways to respond and shift and change and evolve.

And we are in the same boat. I knew that already, and have known that for a while, but it was driven home, again, in my class yesterday.