Cows, Colleges, and Code

Here we are in the age of digitalization, it has become more and more common for humanities scholars to approach traditional academic disciplines with quantitative methods. As data analysis become one of the most fundamental aspects of research, it is almost inevitable for researchers in any discipline to use computers and codes at some point during their academic journeys, even for those in the humanities. Whether it is for basic data wrangling or complex model building, technologies play such a huge role in academics that it would be incredibly beneficial for humanities students to learn some basic coding skills.

I believe that coding knowledge, even just a basic one, enables scholars to be more aware of the potentials of their own research project. In other words, having some coding background enables scholars to better understand and utilize data or any other sources for research. As Kirschenbaum describes in his article, coding language is just like any other traditional foreign language, it provides us new perspectives on certain subjects. According to Kirschenbaum, “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.

Taking one of my friends who is a senior and doing comps as an example. She is a humanities major and she is trying to find data online to support her comps topic. She came across two data sets. One of them contains all the explanatory variables that she is looking for, and the other one contains all of the response variables that she is looking for but it is half the length. She then attempted to merge the two data sets with R while locking herself in her room. After a series of trial-and-error and a panic attack, she approached me with this issue and the following is my solution.

combined_df <- left_join(df1, df2, by = "identifier")

This is a clear example of Kirschenbaum’s claim that proficiency in a computer language ensures self-reliance. Therefore, I believe that humanities students should learn to code.

As a statistics major, it feels pagan to say that I did not necessarily enjoy my first coding experience. I took Introduction to Computer Science during my freshman winter and I got very frustrated with the exams which required us to write codes on paper. Although I did not enjoy the process at first, I benefitted a lot from that course later on. After having basic knowledge of computer science and learning how to code in Python, it became fairly easy for me to pick up a variety of other programming skills such as Java, R, SQL, and etc. I have been coding for 2 years now, and I feel comfortable coding in any environment and I am confident in my ability to learn any new programming language or technologies.



  1. I appreciate your understanding of how basic computer science knowledge can open new avenues in one’s project. Your friend’s experience also demonstrates the usefulness of this type of knowledge because you gain a broader perspective on how to do things. Perhaps if she had taken a programming class, she would have known that there must have been an efficient way to manage the data. Luckily she has you!

  2. I agree when you said “coding language is just like any other traditional foreign language, it provides us new perspectives on certain subjects”. I think we should take it more like a language than just the commands in computer system. It helps to build an interactive, accessible visualization from abstract data. It also makes sense to call it as a language, because it helps to communicate and understand the ideas in certain logics and ways of thinking based on the coding concepts.

  3. I think the example you gave here is really interesting. On the one hand, we could say, it is really important for humanistic major students to learn coding; but on the other hand, we could also say, we can hand this job to people who are proficient in coding and let the corresponding people do the job. In the same time, I also agree that knowing the technology can help digital humanity scholars to better finish their jobs and know more approaches to the problem that are usually different from humanistic perspective.

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