don’t learn to code

There is a lot of speculating going on, on the Internet, at conferences, everywhere, about the ways in which we might want to integrate IT skills – for lack of a better word – with humanities education. Undergrads, graduate students, faculty. They all need some marketable tech skills at the basis of their education in order to participate in the intellectual world and economy of the 21st century.

I hear a lot, “learn to code.” In fact, my alma mater has a required first-semester course for all information science students, from information retrieval specialists to preservationists, to do just that, in Python. Others recommend Ruby. They rightly stay away from the language of my own training, C++, or god forbid, Java. Coding seems to mean scripting, which is fine with me for the purposes of humanities education. We’re not raising software engineers here. We tend to hire those separately.*

I recently read a blog post that advocated for students to “learn a programming language” as part of a language requirement for an English major. (Sorry, the link has been buried in more recent tweets by now.) You’d think I would be all about this. I’m constantly urging that humanities majors acquire enough tech skills to at least know what others are talking about when they might collaborate with them on projects in the future. It also allows one to experiment without the need for hiring a programmer at the outset of a project.

But how much experimentation does it actually allow? What can you actually get done? My contention is: not very much.

If you’re an English major who’s taken CS101 and “learned a programming language,” you have much less knowledge than you think you do. This may sound harsh, but it’s not until the second-semester, first-year CS courses that you even get into data structures and algorithms, the building blocks of programming. Even at that point, you’re just barely starting to get an idea of what you’re doing. There’s a lot more to programming than learning syntax.

In fact, I’d say that learning syntax is not the point. The point is to learn a new way of thinking, the way(s) of thinking that are required for creating programs that do something interesting and productive, that solve real problems. “Learning a programming language,” unless done very well (for example in a book like SICP), is not going to teach you this.

I may sound disdainful or bitter here, but I feel this must be said. It’s frankly insulting as someone who has gone through a CS curriculum to hear “learn a programming language” as if that’s going to allow one to “program” or “code.” Coding isn’t syntax, and it’s not learning how to print to the screen. Those are your tools, but not everything. You need theory and design, the big ideas and patterns that allow you to do real problem-solving, and you’re not going to get that from a one-semester Python course.

I don’t think there’s no point to trying to learn a programming language if you don’t currently know how to program. But I wish the strategies generally being recommended were more holistic. Learning a programming language is a waste of time if you don’t have concepts that you can use it to express.

 

* I’m cursed by an interdisciplinary education, in a way. I have a CS degree but no industry experience. I program both for fun and for work, and I know a range of languages. I’m qualified in that way for many DH programming jobs, but they all require several years of experience that I passed up while busy writing a Japanese literature dissertation. I’ve got a bit too much humanities for some DH jobs, and too little (specifically teaching experience) for others.

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