What Can Programming Teach Humanities Students?

On May 23, 2010, English professor Matthew G. Kirschenbaum posted “Hello Worlds (why humanities students should learn to program),” in which he argued the merits of teaching humanities students computer science. Five days later, student Evan Donahue posted “A “Hello World” Apart (why humanities students should NOT learn to program),” in which he argues that while computer proficiency is important, programming should not be considered a prerequisite to engaging in the computer sciences. While I agree with most of what Kirschenbaum writes, I find myself more convinced by Donahue’s critique; it is incredibly valuable to the fields of humanities to have computer-literate students, but programming should not be confused with a qualification to be such. 

As discussed in class, as the world becomes increasingly digitized, computer proficiency is a large advantage to humanities students looking to adapt to the advancing fields of humanities. This proficiency is especially useful when collaborating with computer scientists on increasingly common (and increasingly advanced) digital humanities projects. I would argue that in addition to being useful during collaboration—because of improved and easier communication—a familiarity with tools, languages, functions, and available programs provides an immeasurable advantage to a scholar while they decide how to teach, examine, or present data. 

“I believe proficiency in a computer language can fulfill many of the same functions — accessibility, self-reliance, heightened critical awareness — as knowledge of a traditional foreign language.”

Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, “Hello Worlds (why humanities students should learn to program)

In regards to the role that learning computer science can play in humanities students’ education, Kirschenbaum draws comparisons to the foreign language requirement. Programming proficiency, he says, “can fulfill many of the same functions — accessibility, self-reliance, heightened critical awareness — as knowledge of a traditional foreign language.” 


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  <em>10-14 March 2019<br>
  Austin, Texas

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  As technology advances exponentially, the way we interact with
  and perceive the world around us is changed dramatically--here,
  different scenes of technological advancement
  in Austin are highlighted to showcase some of the most
  drastic of these effects.


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Here’s a piece of HTML/CSS I dug up from when I coded a website in a high school computer programming class to showcase my portfolio for another class. In addition to the language, you can tell I learn comment etiquette (communication and, arguably, culture). When I learned Python in Carleton’s CS 111, breaking down basics (like displaying a phrase or programming outcomes in response to varying inputs) even further taught me valuable procedural literacy, as highlighted by Kirschenbaum.

However, I disagree with Kirschenbaum’s suggestion that learning to program can produce most of the important insights intended by the foreign language requirement of most schools. I believe putting programming in a position that could directly replace or be compared to the experience of learning a foreign language would not only be ineffective, but taking a step backwards for the future of humanities. The largest merits, I would argue against Kirschenbaum, are not the insight into one’s own language gleaned, but to experience another culture, learn to engage with a multicultural world, and gain a new type of empathy for other people—after all, isn’t that what the humanities are all about?


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