Why is knowing how to code necessary?

During the essay “On Building”, Ramsay asserts that in order to be a digital humanist, it is vital that they build and know how to code.  Building is something that is essential to any discipline.  Therefore, it should not be considered strange nor counterproductive for Ramsay to require building to be one of the essential characteristics of Digital Humanities.  In any field, a final product of some shape or form, be it a new methodology, argument, or way of thinking, is almost a requirement for being considered productive.  For example, in order to be considered a biologist, it is essential to be actively doing research in order to discover more about the function of living creatures.  If one is simply learning knowledge of biology, then they are not a biologist.  I find it odd, however, that he did not spend more time defending his assertion that knowing how to code is essential to being a digital humanist.  Once more, I will use biology as an example.  A biologist uses many tools while exploring the world of knowledge that is stored by living creatures.  Although some of these tools may be straightforward to construct, others, such as a scanning electron microscope, may require more knowledge of chemistry and physics than biology.  Even though a biologist could never construct a scanning electron microscope, he would still be considered a biologist.  To make another comparison, a scanning electron microscope also requires computer programming that allows the biologist to interpret the data produced by the tool.  Similarly, the biologist probably has no idea how the programming works.  So the question is: what makes digital humanities unique?  Why is it so important that digital humanists know how to code and therefore know how to construct their own tools?  If Ramsay’s assertion were to be extended to every other discipline, there would be very few “true” practicers of any discipline.


8 Comments on “Why is knowing how to code necessary?”

  1. Rafid Kasir says:

    I think Ramsay at first said all digital humanists know how to code, but then later clarified that coding was too specific. Instead, they all build something (and he claims that they do not always build it using code).

  2. Brian Croxall says:

    Rafid is correct; in the comments, Ramsay acknowledges that his bit on coding is a canard or red herring.

    Ramsay’s argument centers around the idea that making/building represents a new hermeneutic for the humanities. To come back to your analogy, I wonder what Ramsay’s equivalent of building is within biology. Is it the difference between running one’s own experiments and writing, say, reviews of literature? But it’s not like writing one’s articles or books about Shakespeare aren’t like conducting experiments, in a sense.

  3. “A biologist uses many tools while exploring the world of knowledge that is stored by living creatures. Although some of these tools may be straightforward to construct, others, such as a scanning electron microscope, may require more knowledge of chemistry and physics than biology. Even though a biologist could never construct a scanning electron microscope, he would still be considered a biologist.”

    I think you’re touching on something really important here, Peter. It’s true that biologists don’t normally construct their own microscopes (or even have a robust sense of how an SEM works), but biology, like all the sciences, is full of complicated equipment and complicated methodologies.

    Becoming a scientist is at least in part the process of understanding how to use that equipment. In the nineteenth century, scientists like Pasteur and Lavoisier had to fabricate nearly all of their tools (becoming, in effect, glass blowers and metallurgists) in order to do their work, and that continues to some degree even today. Modern laboratory environments have lots of pre-built tools, but conducting new research very often means inventing the tools that allow you take accurate measurements.

    What’s most interesting about this analogy to me, though, is that if we look at nineteenth-century science, we see a lot of resistance to the work of people like Lavoisier, in part, because this concern with tools and building doesn’t seem (to, say, the Classics faculty at Paris) to be academic work at all. Humanists looked at that kind of lab-based work and said, “That’s not intellectual inquiry, that’s plumbing!”

    This is something like what we confront today in DH. XML, GIS, and things of this sort are, in a sense, witheringly complicated experimental tools, and lots of people have devoted their scholarly lives just to understanding how to make them work (sometimes so *others* can get on with their research). My main point in that essay (and in some subsequent essays) was really just to point out how radical a shift this is for the humanities. Tools and building is one thing, but perhaps the most disruptive aspect of all is the way DH combines the seminar room with laboratory culture.

  4. My own work as a scholar and teacher has been significantly influenced by Ramsay’s “On Building.” I am going to consider here his conclusion above (“perhaps the most disruptive aspect of all is the way DH combines the seminar room with laboratory culture.”)

    I have a Ph.D. in literature; close reading is the essential tool I use in the classroom and in my work as a (proto-, neophyte) builder. In fact, today’s lesson for my students at the Univ. of Southern California (a COMM seminar) and at Washington State Univ/Vancouver (an upper-division survey) is expressly about how to chip away at an edifice like Facebook to discover non-obvious elements of its success as the world’s most persuasive platform. (That characterization of FB is BJ Fogg’s; see his work out of the Stanford Persuasive Technologies Lab and particularly this vid about tagging in FB.)

    The key dynamic and metaphor suggested by Stephen’s conclusion above but not yet addressed in this thread is experimentation. The biology metaphor permits is a kind of dynamic play that doesn’t necessarily yield predictable results. That’s true of science, and it’s true in great humanities seminars. The DH twist is to insist that such experimentation be built into the pedagogy, the very structure of the course: not thematized, but a principle of design.

    Experimentation is the keynote of my COMM 499 class in particular, where three unusual things are going down: 1) we meet primarily online, via the virtual office platform Elluminate, so that we can study the comparative dynamics of F2F, OL and hybrid; 2) we innovate changes to the syllabus as we go; learning goals remain constant but how we get there is largely determined by conversation among all of us–a collective model; 3) we are engaging in build practices that none of us singly could do, but collectively we have the accumulated intelligence and willingness to try. We are doing trust exercises like drama students do: falling into each others’ arms and expecting to be lifted up. I have just enough experience coding to structure a learning environment in which 8 students and I can create a web app optimized for mobile devices as a communal project. Most of the students in the class have no coding experience at all. But they want it, and the 3 with some experience and I will teach them how to DIY.

    I want to emphasize that without critical insight–without close reading–we’d have no content for this web app. We’d have nothing to build. Critical reading is the heart of DH. It’s my sharpest tool, and not just because I’ve been honing it the longest. It slices away at so much clutter, revealing the sparkling gems hidden in the carbon.

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