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Programming and other Languages

Dec 01 2010

Jamie asked about assignments for students using digital sources. It’s a difficult question.

A couple weeks ago someone referred an undergraduate to me who was interested in using some sort of digital maps for a project on a Cuban emigre writer like the ones I did of Los Angeles German emigres a few years ago. Like most history undergraduates, she didn’t have any programming background, and she didn’t have a really substantial pile of data to work with from the start. For her to do digital history, she’d have to type hundreds of addresses and dates off of letters from the archives, and then learn some sort of GIS software or google maps API, without any clear payoff. No would get much out of forcing her to spend three days playing with databases when she’s really looking at the contents of letters.

So I think across-the-board digital assignments won’t work very well. Either they need to be options available for students who already know how to use some of the tools for a final project, or they should be assignments in a larger course teaching humanities computing. There, the assignments would be start out as problem-set variety, teaching students how to use some of the basic tools out there and expand on them–classify texts by author using principal components, see how family living arrangements changed in the twentieth century censuses, use GIS software to see the percent of a population living within 25 miles of a railroad in the decades after the Civil War, etc. The multiplicity of data, though, could make these a little more interesting–give each student a different city to find distinctive patterns in the census data about, ask each one to describe changes in use within a corpus for a single word, etc. I don’t know, though, that forcing undergrads to do quantitative research before the discipline as a whole accepts it is a good idea.

Princeton requires graduate students to pass a reading exam in two foreign languages, and there is supposedly an option no one has ever claimed to use some form of computer knowledge as one of those languages. I think the language analogy holds up pretty well, except that you can do a lot more with imperfect programming abilities than with a half-learned language (and it takes less time to get them). History departments never make someone learn French for an undergrad paper, but knowing it opens up a lot of avenues for longer research that can make their work better.