Blog Post

The Literacy of Proceduracy: A Conversation with Annette Vee

In my first post last week I mentioned my plan to speak with several digital humanities researchers at UW-Madison in the coming weeks. Other future topics will include pedagogical projects—for example, the Engage: Transforming Teaching & Learning Through Technology program and Jon McKenzie's Studio Lab.

This week I have the pleasure of speaking with, Annette Vee, a fellow doctoral candidate in English, in the PhD program in Composition and Rhetoric. Annette researches historical and conceptual connections between text and computer code and is defining the literacy of computer programming as "proceduracy." In her teaching, she has used blogs, wikis and podcasts to expand students' "available means" of expression. She was recently recognized for her excellence in teaching with technology at the 2009 Computers & Writing Conference where she was awarded the Kairos Teaching Award.

Rik Hunter: Can you define proceduracy for us and why its important for us to consider?

Annette Vee: Proceduracy, which is my term for the literacy associated with computer programming, is the ability to break down complex processes into smaller procedures and express them explicitly enough to be read by a computer. I note that computer code has become infrastructural to Western society in the same way that text did during the Middle Ages; underlying most of our daily communication and activities is a layer of computer code. Because computer code is so central to so much of what we do, the literacy associated with it is a literacy that matters, a literacy that is both infrastructural and powerful. A number of programmers claim that what I'm calling proceduracy should and will be a mass literacy. I'm using the history of mass literacy to understand this potentiality.

Rik Hunter: How did you first get interested in studying proceduracy?

Annette Vee: My interest in technology can be traced through three stages in my life. I adored my Commodore 64 as a kid and played Sid Meier's Pirates! on it endlessly. But after middle school, I dropped it; only nerdy boys did those things, from what I could tell. Stage two: In high school, I touched a computer only periodically during junior and senior year, when I typed up papers. I used email a lot to keep up with friends, but only marginally used the web when I was in college. After I graduated from college, I got a job as an administrative assistant at a software company that made computer games. Then came stage three: Bored with the basic duties I had, I started doing tech support for the games and taking care of IT issues at the company. I began learning some programming and regretting being an English major in college. When I first entered graduate school, I didn't see a connection between my interest in writing and programming. But the more I explored programming and talked to programmers about what they did, the more the connections became apparent to me. So that's where I am now, and I don't see exhausting the research possibilities of programming and writing any time soon.

Rik Hunter: What has surprised you most in your research of proceduracy?

Annette Vee: I came up with a lot of the connections between writing and programming on my own, as I was learning programming and talking to friends who are programmers. I've been surprised though just how many other researchers and programmers have made these connections, too. Nothing new under the sun, right? The first person to talk about programming as a mass literacy was in 1963--before computers were ubiquitous or even particularly accessible. I read a dissertation that approached James Joyce's Ulysses from a procedural framework, arguing that writing code was a literary endeavor--very interesting, although a slightly different tack then I'm taking. Literacy scholars don't address computer programming much, and few seem to note the historical connections as I'm doing. But others have also discovered interesting connections between programming and writing.

Rik Hunter: As one who teaches writing with technology, I've been asked by teachers as well as students "How is that [e.g., podcasting] writing?" And I think I generally give a satisfying response. Many in computers and writing have written about about the importance of multiple literacies and multimodal composing as a rhetorical activity. For example, Cindy Selfe has a essay in the June issue of College Composition and Communication on the importance of aurality as a semiotic resource for meaning-making. And I'd add that multi-modal composition pedagogy can increas the effectiveness of print-based literacy instruction because it makes the rhetorical features of writing hyper-visible. But as you mentioned, programming—code literacy, if you will—isn't often addressed, possibly a result of the ease of use of WSYIWYG interfaces and writing teachers limited knowledge of programming.

If proceduracy will be "the," or maybe "a," new mass literacy, how do you see proceduracy becoming a part of higher education? Or do you see it already a part of education? Somewhere outside of rhetoric and composition? If it isnt already in some way, do you think proceduracy should become a part of writing instruction? If so, what are the obstacles, and what are the benefits?

Annette Vee: Well, to clarify, I don't see writing decreasing in importance, so I don't see proceduracy as "the" new literacy. After all, orality didn't decrease much in importance after writing became popular. But long-term, and here's partly a wish and a prediction, I see proceduracy becoming as important a skill as writing is now for the conveyance of information and expression of ideas within higher ed. I could imagine a kind of programming-across-the-disciplines as we now have with writing. Proceduracy could become infrastructural to the way knowledge is created, just as literacy is now essential to any researcher interested in any field. You can't learn biology—at least within formal Western education structures—without learning reading and writing first. Again, I came up with this parallel by thinking about computer programming and writing on my own, but the idea's in the air—I'm certainly not the only one talking about this.

I think the biggest obstacle to this infrastructure of proceduracy is cultural. Technologies change very quickly, but people and institutions change slowly. What would it mean for an entire history department to be procedurally literate? I'm sure it would change the nature of how knowledge was created and conveyed, just as it would in English. But it's just not happening any time soon. Perhaps in 100 years. I don't see writing scholars teaching programming in first-year composition any time soon, nor do I necessarily think that's a good idea.

The transition from textual literacy to a fuller concept of digital media literacy (text-->text + images + sound) is a much smoother transition and is still encountering resistance from institutional structures and established cultures. But at least we have a framework for that; we watch movies even if we or our undergrads don't yet make them. Games, I should note, are pushing this envelope through interactivity, and that transition is correspondingly a little rockier. Digital humanities and HASTAC are of course essential to that expansion of the "available means" of expression in student work at the university. But I see my research as addressing what's happening below the level of digital media literacy, at the level of code. Because it's pretty low-level and because we don't have a good framework for understanding it, it's mostly going unrecognized by humanities scholars. Researchers such as Ian Bogost, Noah Wardrip-Fruin, Nathan Ensmenger, Donald Knuth, Madeline Sorapure, David Rieder, Brian Ballentine, and Maurice Black (whose dissertation on Joyce I mentioned), and others have done work I'm building off of and very much respect. My ultimate hope is to draw attention to this shift so that the knowledge we've acquired in literacy studies can give us tools to intervene while this new literacy is still at a transitional stage—to help make it more accessible to a wider group of people.

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