Blog Post

New Year's Resolution; or Two Reasons I've Decided to Learn to Code in 2016

As a Ph.D. candidate in Early American Literature, I spend most of my days sitting in front of a computer researching and writing about women and technology in the nineteenth century. In the past year, I have had two experiences that made me realize the value of approaching my computer with with enhanced technical skills.

About six months ago, I decided to build a digital map of Post Office growth in the United States between 1778 and 1878 based on research from my dissertation. Dedicated and eager, I spent most of my evenings copying individual geospatial coordinates from Google Maps and pasting them into a spreadsheet. Copy. Paste. Repeat. After a few months of this, I mentioned my project to a programmer friend who said, “I can write the code for that. Easy. Then, all you’d need to do is push a button and the program will gather all of the data for you.” After getting past my initial shock (I couldn’t believe this tedious process could suddenly be so fast and easy!), we arranged for him to write the program. A few days later, with the click of a button, I finished the work that would have taken me months to complete. Code saved me from a seemingly endless purgatory of manual data entry. Instead of working mindlessly for weeks, this program freed up my time and my brainpower for other things. Now, I use my map to understand the postal system as the nation’s first social network--and how this reliable, affordable, and then cutting-edge system allowed early American women to engage with national literature and politics from the domestic sphere.

The second experience came in the spring when I was teaching an LGBT History and Literature course at Fordham University. Rather than assigning my students a run-of-the-mill research paper for the course final, I encouraged them to develop their own nontraditional projects. Given this freedom, my students decided to make an online collaborative timeline of LGBT History. Each student would author a section of the timeline based on their own interests, and then we would compile their work into one big project in TimelineJS. In a single assignment, students learned the basics of archival research and data organization, and, perhaps most importantly, they unearthed forgotten histories from the LGBT community and shared these stories with a broader audience. In many respects, the project was a success; on the technical side, however, the timeline is a bit clunky. It’s clunky, in large part, because we were restricted to a preexisting template for their data. Had I known how to code, I would have been able to frame my students’ research with more nuance and specificity.

I want to learn to code so I can create projects--like my map or my students’ timeline--that share academic research with broader audiences. Far too often, research in the humanities lives and dies within the university walls, and student work is only read by the professor. With coding proficiency, I would develop apps and websites that both archive and share overlooked histories of women and technology in the nineteenth century. 

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