To me, the question, ‘Should humanities students should learn to code?’, is phrased as a yes or a no question. With that in mind, my answer is ‘Yes, humanities students should learn to code.’* My personal feelings on the issue don’t come so much from a place of ‘coding is super useful’ (although it is), but rather from a place of ‘everything is worth learning’. I don’t mean to argue that all humanities students should necessarily learn to code. I personally think it is a skill with many uses, but there are many useful things which a humanities student might wish to learn. That being said, to answer ‘No, humanities students should not learn to code’, I would need some sort of strong justification as to why learning coding was an objective negative for humanities students, justification which I believe would be hard to come up with. With that being the case, I fully support humanities students learning to code.
Some of the assigned readings touched on this topic. On his website, Matthew Kirschenbaum argues for humanities students learning to code. He seems to view it as a skill that is too useful to ignore; a reasonable opinion as far as I am concerned. In his essay “Hello Worlds (why humanities students should learn to program)”, Kirschenbaum writes:
“Computers should not be black boxes but rather understood as engines for creating powerful and persuasive models of the world around us. The world around us (and inside us) is something we in the humanities have been interested in for a very long time. I believe that, increasingly, an appreciation of how complex ideas can be imagined and expressed as a set of formal procedures — rules, models, algorithms — in the virtual space of a computer will be an essential element of a humanities education. Our students will need to become more at ease reading (and writing) back and forth across the boundaries between natural and artificial languages. Such an education is essential if we are to cultivate critically informed citizens — not just because computers offer new worlds to explore, but because they offer endless vistas in which to see our own world reflected.”
For me, this resonates as the strongest argument Kirschenbaum has access to. I find it very persuasive to represent an education in computers and CS as not something extra, but instead as a skill that will be almost assumed in the future. In that framework, humanities students should certainly learn to code lest they fall behind their peers and lack crucial skills.
In his response essay, Evan Donahue seeks not to refute Kirschenbaum’s point but instead to give it further nuance. To the best of my understanding, Donahue primarily wants to distinguish between the term “programming” and computer science as a discipline/field of study. He argues that “[students] should not let their inability to program prevent them from engaging with the computer sciences”, going on to clarify that he fully supports humanities students engaging with computer sciences. He ends his essay with a line that I felt summed his feelings up appropriately.
“Learn to program whenever it is convenient, but start thinking about the computer sciences as relevant areas of concern right now.”
I have scattered computer science experience. My freshman year of high school, I took a course called “Programming in Java”, but have forgotten everything except the importance of semicolons. The spring term of my sophomore year here at Carleton, I took Intro to CS, a course which familiarizes students with Python. Most recently, I have become proficient in R, a program used in Math 245: Applied Regression Analysis. I have also taken some courses on CodeAcademy, the details of which can be seen on my profile.
These exposures to the computer sciences have left me with a somewhat naive worldview on the topic. I know enough to do certain things, given the correct filetypes and software, but not nearly enough to navigate the digital world in the way that I know some people operate. For me, this lends support to my interpretation of Kirschenbaum’s argument that those who do not learn how to code are disadvantaging themselves. Moving forward into the increasingly digital future, I will make an effort to keep ahead of the technological and digital advancements that would otherwise leave me behind.