Friday, March 16, 2012

Codifying the Humanities, Humanizing Code

In a recent post titled Don't Circle The Wagons Bethanie Nowviskie observes that while the humanities tend to have a more theoretical orientation, coders tend to engage in a lot more praxis.  While one could nitpick Nowviskie about how much this observation really accords with reality (coders can spend a good deal of time honing tools before actually using them to produce anything useful) it does point to a semantic issue that lies at the core of the Digital Humanities.  DH, as Kathleen Fitzpatrick has defined it, uses digital tools for humanities work but at the same time uses the frameworks of the humanities to make sense of digital technologies.  Louis Menand, in The MarketPlace of Ideas speaks of this duality too.  Although in his view it's not particular to the humanities but is instead a tension that exists more generally in universities that promote the liberal arts and more utilitarian disciplines:

Liberal education is enormously useful in its anti-utilitarianism. Almost any liberal arts field can be made non-liberal by turning it in the direction of some practical skill with which it is already associated. English departments can become writing programs, even publishing programs; pure mathematics can become applied mathematics, even engineering; sociology shades into social work; biology shades into medicine; political science and social theory lead to law and political administration; and so on. But conversely, and more importantly, any practical field can be made liberal simply by teaching it historically or theoretically. Many economics departments refuse to offer courses in accounting, despite student demand for them. It is felt that accounting is not a liberal art. Maybe not, but one must always remember the immortal dictum: Garbage is garbage, but the historyof garbage is scholarship. Accounting is a trade, but the history of accounting is a subject of disinterested inquiry—a liberal art. And the accountant who knows something about the history of accounting will be a better accountant. That knowledge pays off in the marketplace. Similarly, future lawyers benefit from learning about the philosophical aspects of the law, just as literature majors learn more about poetry by writing poems.

In embracing the university as a place that produces but also interprets, maybe one thing we need to do, as Digital Humanists take up the call to learn how to code, is to learn it in a way that embraces the dualities that Fitzpatrick and Menand describe.   Of course one can't learn to code simply through studying it's history.  But maybe,  when we teach and learn code we should spend more time dwelling on its origins.  As I begin to think how I'm going to teach an introductory course on Web programming next fall I wonder if there's room for the following video by Chuck Severance on the history and origins of Javascript:

My hope is that there's at least a little bit of room for history in these courses. If there is, we'll be in a better place to bring interpretive approaches to bear on technical subjects while also bringing technical know-how to more interpretive disciplines.

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