Do you need to be procedural literate to be a great digital humanist?

Rather than being as fresh as a daisy from DHSI, I am brain overloaded and jetlagged.  But that doesn’t stop me.  I’m stepping up to my next challenge.

At a Decoding Digital Humanities meetup last year we were discussing a paper by Michael Mateas’ ‘Procedural Literacy – Educating the New Media Practitioner’ which suggests that procedural literacy is necessary for DH and new media researchers, because without understanding the back end of the programme, researchers will never be able to think critically about digital projects.  Ever since then I have continuously been asking myself the question;

Do you need to be procedural literate to be a great digital humanist?

I thought I was doing ok, with my humanities background, love of digital things, and enthusiasm.  But I have always been aware that I can’t code, I don’t know how to make interesting tools and applications, and the thought of exposing myself to numerous letters (C++, PHP), acronyms (XML, XSLT, HTML)   and snakes (Python) left me in a muddle.

One of the elements arising for the DDH discussion was can you ever be procedural literate if you don’t have any training in computer science?  Well, for the whole of this week I will be attempting to find out.  I will be taking a week long intensive course in Programming with PHP. By the end of the week we will see if I have the brain capacity to be procedurally literate and whether or not it has enhanced my critical thinking about digital humanities.  Or as Mateas’ puts it, will I be illiterate, fundamentally unable to grapple with the essence of computational media and therefore not reach my potential as a digital humanist?

Or does it not matter? Can I be illiterate and still achieve?  We shall see.


4 thoughts on “Do you need to be procedural literate to be a great digital humanist?

  1. I’m wondering the same thing. I’ve lately come to think that I need to learn some code – some of the basics of the programming language and the back end – simply so I could understand how and what was going on back there, to know some of the limitations but also to be better able to think of the possibilities. I would love to know how your course goes, and whether at the end of it you feel more equipped for working at the research end of the digital humanities.

  2. Claire, I found this very interesting, speaking as someone whose day job is as a web/mobile developer but who also has some interest and expertise in ancient history. Personally I think that for historians of all persuasions (but perhaps especially those working in digital fields) will find a lot of cross-fertilisation by getting some acquaintance with programming skills. Developers typically have to rapidly build up doman experise in whatever area is our present employment, and it is generally felt that our value to the field grows as we do so. This is the other side of the coin! One of the biggest problems developers face when in dialogue with domain experts is a lack of knowledge concerning what things are hard and what are easy, and the sort of training you are doing should help a lot with that. Conversely, those of us who are developers often lack a clear understanding of what problems are really important to solve, and so often end up doing the things that we find personally interesting or challenging, rather than those that might fastest advance the field. So for example I’ll quite happily produce a mobile app concerning the development of the early alphabet ( because it’s a topic that I find interesting (and has some bearing on my main study area), but it may not in fact be the programming problem most in need of beng tackled! So the kind of cross-training you are doing has, I think, the potential to be a very effective way to get things going. Hope the remaining days go well, Richard

  3. Everyone can pick up a bit of HTML/CSS etc, of course, but knowing particular programming languages / platforms etc is not as important, in my opinion, as knowing the structure of how things fit together. The algorithm is more important than the actual C++/Java code and the design of the database is more important than the actual SQL.

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