Coding? But You’re a Historian

When I went away to start my undergrad I was not only a pretty socially awkward person (alert: still am), but I had my own computer for basically the first time in my life. Prior to getting a Dell laptop to start college I had always used desktops everyone in the family shared. But the combination of having a computer I could muck around with as much as I wanted and a willingness to lock myself in my dorm room when I should’ve been interacting with humanity left me with tons of time to catch up on all the computer stuff I missed most of my life. I also ended up going pretty heavily in IRC chat rooms for a period of time[ref]Not the weird ones, I promise.[/ref] and those lead me further down the nerd rabbit hole. Between experimenting with Linux and seeing rudimentary IRC chat room scripting, I got pretty interested in maximizing what I could do with a computer.[ref]Most college kids experiment with drugs and alcohol, I dual-booted a laptop.[/ref] When you start to see what scripting and getting into the underside of your computer can do, it not only seems like magic but it provides hours of oddly enjoyable frustration as you slowly figure out how stuff works.

So while I was quickly picking up a new hobby I didn’t really know where to turn. One obvious solution, given I was at a University, was to look at minoring in Computer Science. It’s fair to say I didn’t really comprehend what went into a Computer Science degree and even though I changed my minor for a semester, I quickly went back to Political Science, because I don’t do well with the whole math aspect. But I never really let go of the desire to know how to write code, yet for the last mumble ten years mumble the most I’ve done is poke around with other peoples' scripts and do basic things in the command line (using mutt, pandoc, and other basic command line programs). At the same time I’ve watched the growing field of digital history and humanities and been pretty envious at the people who could do all the cool things. Here was a field that blended the sweet ability to make stuff easier and contribute to academia and the furthering of historical knowledge.

Yet where to begin exactly? Looking at examples helps. Tinkering with those examples, breaking them, and then figuring how to fix them works even better. Nevertheless there was still a ton of stuff I felt I didn’t know how to do and finding time to use Codeacademy or other self-guided courses simply wasn’t in the cards. Then I inadvertently stumbled across a week-long workshop this Spring that was going to be held in Austin and had a course entitled “Help I’m a Humanist! – Programming for Humanists with Python.” Not only do I like Austin, but that title just screamed my name. Even though I had planned to lock myself away in a hermitage writing the dissertation all summer, this course seemed to be the stepping off point to finally have the basic foundations to more fully explore the technical side of digital history.

So here I am at the Humanist Intensive Learning and Teaching Workshop, and a funny thing happened, I apparently know far more than I thought I did. This won’t hold up for the entire week, but today’s lessons focused on the basics of the command line, HTML/CSS, and using Git. For many in the class the day was new material, but I found all of it to be nothing more than a good refresher. Python promises to be more challenging, but it was important to realize that while I always knocked myself for not being able to do something, I frankly know how to do a lot of stuff that can connect to digital history. Importantly, coding shouldn’t be a requirement for DH work, but as someone who’s always wanted to learn it, this week promises to be a helpful week of not only realizing I’m not drowning, but taking the first strokes towards fully swimming.