Coding in the humanities has been the topic of much heated discussion. The conversation has spanned the shoulds-and-should-nots, the whys-and-why-nots, and the who-and-who’s-nots. What troubles me most about the conversations surrounding coding in the humanities is that the notion of coding is constructed as almost monolithic which dangerously lends to the construction of Coding, Coders, and Coding Culture wherein all Coders have ascended some pre-determined set of skill markers to attain the same knowledge, skills, and motives. The fact of the matter is that this just isn’t true – people code in a variety of different programming and markup languages at varying skill-levels to accomplish any number of goals and aims. This monolithic representation of Code is damaging to both people who build on the web and aspiring builders; it creates a tense climate and alienates potential teachers from new/potential learners, making the literacies, skills, and rationale involved in coding even more difficult to access.
That said, I’d like to take a break from critiques and prescriptive arguments about Coding and instead talk about how I came to my competencies as a builder of web things. I think that personal narratives are missing from the conversation about coding in the humanities and I hope that by sharing mine perhaps others will consider writing their own. In sharing our backgrounds, I think that we can dismantle this emerging monolithic representation of Coding and foster productive fellowship among those who wish to partake in humanities computing. So, what follows is my narrative… my origin story, so to speak. 🙂
When I was a teenager, I didn’t learn HTML and CSS because I had the foresight to know they’d be valuable to me down the road. In reality, the skills I learned as a kid were informed by the tasks I wanted to accomplish at the moment. That means, I didn’t learn to build things on the web by memorizing HTML tags and CSS elements and rules first; I learned to code because I wanted to make something that hadn’t already been made for me. This mode of project-based learning was paramount to my development as a builder and a scholar. It was key in helping me attain a sense of agency that continues to drive me to conceptualize and pursue web-based projects and work.
A more detailed account of my coding literacy narrative follows below.
I’ve been online for about 15 years, since I was in middle school. I spent most of my pre-teen years wandering the walled garden known as America Online. The most valuable take away I had from AOL was how to make friends with strangers through writing. I was an avid poster on a literature-focused message board where I talked about books and other things with people who I assumed were my age and similarly situated class-wise, but never met. This experience has shaped the way that I read, but also influenced my view of writing, which is one that is highly social and situational.
Eventually, my family welcomed a new addition to the family: a high-speed internet connection that negated the need for our second phone line and, as it turned out, AOL. At first, I was sad to lose my key to AOL’s walled garden, but soon I found another platform where I continued to write and found my entree into making things on the web. In high school, my friends from school and I used a social platform called OpenDiary.com. It wasn’t social in quite the way that we understand the idea today, but it allowed users to post, comment, and follow in a way that many services today allow.
Early into my time as a user on OpenDiary, I started seeing that other people had Diaries that looked really cool – so cool that I couldn’t replicate the by toying with the settings available on my own Diary. I soon learned that the customization I observed on other Diaries and wanted for my own was made possible by “custom layouts” that leveraged CSS’s hierarchy and order rules to break OpenDiary.com’s default layouts and visually remake Diaries with a new stylesheet. I wanted to customize the look and feel of my Diary in a way that OpenDiary didn’t allow in their default settings.
After some searching, I found a few users who marked themselves as “layout designers” who had provided free layouts that users could implement on their own Diaries. Having no prior knowledge of HTML or CSS, but with my mind set on making my Diary look awesome, I used some of these layouts, at first verbatim and then altered. Through implementing the layouts made by others, I began to get a feel for how HTML and CSS worked. I had access to few reference resources, so my learning process was characterized by lots of pattern recognition and trial and error. Eventually, I began making my layouts: I designed the look of my Diary, created any necessary graphics, and then wrote HTML and CSS to implement the layout. After this, I continued fiddling with HTML markup and CSS in digital spaces like GeoCities, Angelfire, LiveJournal, and of course MySpace.
My early education in building on the web did not take place in school, but at home on my family’s big beige Compaq computer. I talked with few people about code and the people I did talk with about it were my friends, mostly other girlfriends at school, who played on the same sites I did. My education was not glamorous; I didn’t build a revolutionary peer-to-peer sharing network or a premiere social network. However, the knowledge I learned from tinkering on the web as a teenager has served as a sturdy foundation for developing a more nuanced and thorough understanding of building on the web. Furthermore, as a result of my teenage tinkering with the design and layout of platforms I used, I realized that I had some agency in how the web works. Not only could I change the way that things looked on the screen, but I could override the default system settings! The web was (is!) malleable AND fallible! This fact is just as exciting and invigorating to me today as it was over a decade ago.
Though designing my blog isn’t a terribly scholarly task, the skills I developed from doing that shape my scholarly work today. Without these experiences and the values that have grown from them, my interests and work would have taken a much different trajectory than they have today.
If you are inspired to write your own coding literacy narrative, please post a link in the comments or tweet it to me @zenparty. I’m looking forward to hearing from others!