[ on digital matters and a dissertation ]

I code, you code, we code…Why Code?

year of the dragon screenshot from angry birds @rovio

Angry Birds dragon @ rovio

Forget the Year of the Dragon. It’s the Year of The Code.

I am code-literate; that is, I can play with variables and arrays just enough to exercise some control over projects. But I don’t code. And I don’t think I, you, or we necessarily must code.

I do think, however, that those of us who call ourselves digital humanists–or more specifically, digital historians–need to understand the concepts and components of coding languages and how people who are coders think. And I think that skill sets bulked together under markup languages–HTML, CSS, TEI–and basic principles of design are necessary tools for the digital humanist as well.

learning to code isn’t the only point of entry into these concepts

Why Code?

The advent of this year’s new kid on the block, CodeAcademy, built on a fairly user-friendly interface provoked a wave of enthusiasm. Half-a-million would-be javascripters plunged into free weekly lesson sequences, and briefly, the imperative, “Learn to Code” became mantric.

But the imperative also evokes an almost reflexive counter-response: “Why?” And granularly, “Why Javascript?” Pragmatism compels not just a rationale for learning to code, but an explanation of the whys, of the uses and applications–the context–of particular programming languages.

I’d argue that pushing humanists to learn to code for the sake of coding equates with learning how to use a tool without understanding where, when, and why it’s useful. And that the Pavlovian response methodologies of projects such as CodeAcademy have a instructional niche, but they misrepresent the process of becoming a coder, the complexities of speaking languages that give us narratives of infrastructure, relationships, and information retrieval. As decontextualized rote response mechanisms, they are retrograde pedagogical steps in an era when critical thinking ought to be a hallmark of educational effectiveness.

Like the history I study, the digital skill sets I learn spring from context. And it seems to me that the context, or subtext of the learn to code mandate is really a challenge to once and future digital humanists/historians to probe the inner workings of digital technologies, to understand how the behind-the-scenes languages and syntaxes of the program and the programmer construct and interpret information.

Learning to code, however, isn’t the only point of entry into these concepts, or even a prerequisite.

As Stephen Ramsay at the University of Nebraska Center for Digital Research in the Humanities recently stated (amid a thought-provoking blog post about the digital humanist as builder):

I…think the discipline [digital humanities] includes and should include people who theorize about building, people who design so that others might build, and those who supervise building (the coding question is, for me, a canard, insofar as many people build without knowing how to program).

the first imperative for the digital historian is to figure out the historical questions

I’m in the American history PHD program at George Mason University–the only program in the country where courses in new media and information technology are required of all students in order to earn the doctorate: Clio Wired: An Introduction to History and New Media and Creating History in New Media. Syllabi vary according to the instructor, of course, but essentially the first course of the sequence emphasizes theory; the second, project creation.

One takeaway from those classes and subsequent work at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media might seem self-evident: the first imperative for the digital historian is to figure out the historical questions, the thesis, the narrative–in other words, content first–and then to look for tools to push that content forward.


Digital history increasingly encompasses collaboration, experimentation, and creativity. The field is studded with constantly multiplying tools and platforms that reshape research and scholarly methodology and content into multidimensional forms and perspectives. There’s a progressive call-and-response mechanism between scholars and technologists, a symbiosis between practitioners of content and method; a sort of give me a tool, and I’ll figure out how to use it; give me a project, and I’ll make the tools needed to get it done.

The digital humanist works amid the paradox of research, teaching, learning, designing, creating, and building projects when humanities and technology are increasingly intertwined, yet the specializations of each discipline are increasingly complex.

Indisputably, for the digital historian, the more extensive the technological skills, the better. And for some projects, ability to code is inevitable and necessary. But when it comes right down to conceptualizing and building a project, collaboration and hands-on work with web developers transcend tentative efforts of a novice coder to magnify the “Hello, world” of introductory programming into a complex digital presentation.

Coders focus on the possibilities of languages, the intricacies of coding as an art form; they perceive projects as interactive patterns of infrastructure. Regardless of the contours of a project–archive, exhibit, education, text-based narrative, or combinations of some or all of the above–the historian’s focus is content, and it’s the collaboration between two overlapping, but distinct, fields of expertise that opens the way to exceptional scholarly possibilities.

For me, right now, as a student of history who works with digital methods–and despite fears of ludditism–coding without the context of a specific project is a past-time, not an imperative.