Learn to code?

As I’ve said, I’m often on the fringes of digital humanities. I try to follow what’s going on (although, in the interest of not being on the internet all the time, not as closely as I might), partly because digital archives are important to the way I work, and partly because I think there’s interesting and important stuff going on over there. But I have to admit, I’ve mostly ignored the calls to make 2012 the year of coding. I read references to Codeacademy and moved on because, well, I’m busy.

And then there was a bit of a kerfluffle over gender and the exhortation that digital humanists learn to code. Miriam Posner said it first and best here. Follow-up is here. Both are right on, and I’m not going to bother linking or recapping to the inevitable back-and-forth on gender and coding that followed because, well, I’m lazy.

But Posner’s discussion of gender and coding, particularly the part about how men are more likely to have been given access to a computer and encouraged to learn to use it at a young age, got me thinking. I think she’s right. That’s certainly been what I observed, both of the people I know, and in my experience as a woman (girl at the time) who did have computer access and tech skills. It’s something I often forget about myself, but I do know how to code. I learned BASIC and C++ at computer camp in high school, Unix for my first job, HTML from years of using the internet, and tiny bits of CSS during the two years I was hosting my own knitting blog (I also know how to knit, spin, quilt, sew, and participate in the overwhelmingly female DIY online communities Posner talks about in her follow-up). My freshman year of high school, I won the state-wide math and science fair with a project on Benford’s law. I wrote some code to test data sets for first- and second-digit distribution, which would be beyond laughable today, but which was a bit more impressive before everyone had access to high-powered computers on their phones. I wrote the code in C++ and it was a pain in the butt, and then a year and a half later I learned Unix scripting and realized how much quicker it would have made the whole thing.

Anyway, despite the fact that I look more like the men Posner describes in her post, my experience is pretty atypical, and comes largely from having an interest in computers and an engineer for a father. So when I actually started paying attention to the calls to code, it occurred to me that it’s something I could totally do. But I can’t figure out why I would.

Yes, yes, coding is text, language, culture, so on. It’s about access and sharing and idiosyncratic obsession. I’ve got a lot of toes in the geek pond. I carried around a battered copy of Linus Torvalds’s autobiography across several moves until I lent it to my father and never saw it again. I had a stint writing documentation for still-buggy software when I was in high school. At a party with a bunch of CS folks (and I’ve been to plenty of those), I can hold my own just fine.

But for all that, code for me is a tool. It’s for getting things done. I like tools, and I like learning to use them so that I can do things more efficiently. I’ve got a sewing machine and a serger, and when I need to make alterations to my professional wardrobe, I’m always very glad to have the correct tools for the job.

Right now, though, I don’t have a job that I need code for. And that makes learning to code seem like a poor use of my time (or a great procrastination device, depending on how you look at it). The questions I want to ask don’t seem to need code to answer. I could do some contortions to try to find questions that require code, but again, that seems like a poor use of my time. Ted Underwood addresses some of these reservations here, particularly in terms of big data vs. small questions, but no matter what I read about uses of code in literary study, I never get a clear sense of how they might help me answer the kind of questions I want to ask. (I think I probably have some other reservations about the way those findings get presented, but I haven’t worked through them yet.)

So I guess I’ll keep plugging away at the questions I want to answer, while keeping an eye on the questions people are answering with code and big data. But until I find a question that seems to warrant new tools, I think I’ll hold off on (re-) learning to code.


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