Profile photo of Patrick Murray-John

Humanities Coding/Hacking

This idea actually has two different orientations to it, one yack-oriented and one hack-oriented.

Yack Oriented: Yack the Hack:

Mark wants “to hack the way we yack“. I want to yack the way we hack.

In the #alt-ac trajectory that lots of us have followed, I suspect that there’s an idea of a “humanities coder / humanities hacker” starting to come together. That’s certainly how I’m thinking of myself now, and that gets me wondering what the heck that means.

I’d like to get a bunch of people who write and/or hack code in the DH context together to think about whether there’s anything to the qualifier “humanities” in “humanities coder”, or if I’m just imagining things. I’m thinking of questions like:

  • To what extent do humanities coders read or write or comment code in ways particular to DH?
  • Are there best practices in coding in general that are different in a DH context?
  • How — or should — coders modify their problem-solving strategies for DH?
  • What lessons can people who came to coding from the humanities, and people who came to the humanities from coding, learn from each other?
  • Where should a code-curious humanist or a humanities-curious coder start?
  • What do non-coding humanists and coders working on a project need to know about the worldviews, epistemology, and practices of the other? (Answer #1: coders should know that humanists ask questions about “epistemology”, and put the word in quotation marks)

There’s going to be a great mix of coders, humanists, and crit-code folks all together at THATCamp, Might be a fun times to do a yacky session.

UPDATE: See also Julie Meloni’s post “Everyone’s a Coder Now” from her talk at 4Cs

Hack Oriented: Thinking like a Hacker

Last year I did an “Intro to Hacking” session, and there’s been some interest in trying it out again. Similar to the ideas above, an alternate version would be to aim to a hands-hacking session. The idea would be to start with a working, simple piece of javascript (just ‘cuz there’s nothing more than the browser needed to run and to hack javascript), spend a little time demonstrating some habits of thinking that help to figure out how to hack it, then everyone work on their own hacks of the code to do different things.

Will be curious to see if my fellow campers find something interesting there.


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  1. Profile photo of Tim Sherratt
    Tim Sherratt

    Both sound good to me!

    On the yack side, one thing I always grapple with is the feeling that I’m not a ‘real’ coder, mainly because I’ve operated on the basis of learning what I need when I need it and don’t feel I’ve paid enough attention to best practices. I know it’s not very productive or useful thing to worry about, but I find it hard to shake. So sharing some stories about how we got into this stuff and laying out some best practices would be useful I think.

    On the hack side, if you’re getting people to play with javascript, perhaps we could do some Greasemonkeying — ie. pick a site or feature that really annoys you and change it! Or pick a database or catalogue that you use a lot and write a Zotero translator for it. Both types of project would cover some basic stuff about the DOM as well as usual programming concepts.

  2. Profile photo of Patrick Murray-John
    Patrick Murray-John

    Great idea about doing some Greasemonkeying. Part of “hacking” as opposed to “coding”, I think, is that hacking starts with existing, functioning code and you figure out how to insert yourself into it to make it do what you want. A GM script, or maybe several, would do that well, and maybe even offer some scaffolding to bigger coding/hacking concepts, finishing up with a new GM script to modify, say, the THATCamp site?

    That might be a bit much, though!

  3. Profile photo of Mark Sample
    Mark Sample

    I really like these session ideas. The first one in particular comes close to a Critical Code Studies session I was going to propose. I may still propose the idea, because it would approach the idea of code from a slightly different angle—i.e. less from a coder/hacker angle and more from a media studies perspective. There would still be a great deal of overlap, though, and I can envision the Critical Code Studies session acting as a kind of warm-up for a Humanities Coder session.

  4. Amanda French

    Jeez, Tim, if you’re not a real coder, at least by humanities standards, there’s no hope for the rest of us. Heaven knows I’m not a real coder, because all I can do is cut and paste other people’s code (usually, yes, JavaScript and PHP) into the appropriate place. But I like Patrick’s definition, because clearly I’m not a coder, but a hacker. There’s so much existing code out there that I can get a heck of a lot done just by modifying stuff.

  5. Jonathan List

    This is interesting. When I started my project a year ago, I never expected to find that there is a community of people who are very similar to me. I am hacking away at an app designed to do what I want it to do. I think that this is probably a commonality we all share: We only work on projects that we will personally benefit from. Real IT professionals often code on projects for other people, but it seems like we only code on projects that we want. I have to agree with wragge in that I only learn things as I need them, and sometimes try to learn a little bit more in order to make my stuff better.

  6. Profile photo of thowe

    I, too, am definitely not a coder, but I’m not even sure I’d call myself a hacker! I do the cut-and-paste thing, the cobbling-together thing, and the ask-people-for-help thing, but I can’t really make things on my own. Which leads to (what may or may not be) an interesting thought–there’s a lot of discourse out there how traditional humanities scholars are very insular and isolated (I was just rereading Terry Eagleton’s critique of modern criticism…), how collaboration in the humanities is much less developed than in the so-called hard and social sciences, how the readership for single-authored humanities scholarship festers behind paywalls (still thinking about Amanda’s #umwfa11 talk…), and so on. It seems like DH hacking provides a useful model for (or raises some interesting questions about) collaboration in traditional humanities fields–especially since we always talk about “entering the conversation.” Can we map the yacking onto the hacking, and vice versa? Has this been said before?

  7. Profile photo of Brian Croxall
    Brian Croxall

    I’m going to vote for the “Thinking Like a Hacker” session (as I think I was one of the people begging for its reprise). It’s something that I’m trying to learn more about. Working on something concrete like a GM script would be fabulous. Or even a bookmarklet that does a simple search query for a site.

  8. Profile photo of miriam.posner

    I also vote for the hack-oriented session! I’d love to do some hands-on stuff.

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