Replica of Babbage's Analytic Engine

In reading for my Digital Humanities seminar, I was struck by a passage in Susan Hockey’s “The History of Humanities Computing” (A Companion to Digital Humanities, ed. Schreibman et al., Oxford: Blackwell, 2004) in the section about humanities computing in the 1980s:

A debate about whether or not students should learn computer programming was ongoing. Some felt it replaced Latin as a “mental discipline” (Hockey 1986). Others thought that it was too difficult and took too much time away from the core work in the humanities.

This idea of humanities students being required to learn some programming put me in mind of when, in what seems like a prior life, I was looking at the requirements for a PhD program in English Literature. I can’t remember now, it may have been at NYU (if so, the requirement has changed), but regardless: in addition to demonstrating proficiency in two languages pertinent to their research, PhD students would be required to demonstrate proficiency in one computer language.

As it did then, and increasingly does as I gain perspective on my humanistic education, this seems like an eminently good idea. A quick search for Hockey’s self-citation yielded nothing, but, having done coursework in Latin, Hockey’s description of studying the language as a “mental discipline” aligns neatly with my understanding of the value of learning Latin. While it certainly exposes students to beautifully constructed rhetoric and gives useful perspective on one’s native language, learning Latin is primarily a calisthenic exercise in rigorous, categorical thinking and memory.

I would argue that learning a computer language is a similarly rigorous, disciplined pursuit, with the added benefit that you can make things with your well-constructed syntax (though it should be said: a well-made sentence is a beautiful thing). At least one computer language, Perl, was explicitly made with the structure of a human language in mind. Its creator, Larry Wall (a trained linguist), often refers to its variables and functions as “nouns” and “verbs.” While it doesn’t do to get too caught up in comparing the traits of computer and human languages (here, anyway), I would suggest Hockey was on to something in highlighting the “mental discipline” the learning of computer languages might present humanities students.

Certainly, it would provide a definitively marketable skill to humanities graduates in addition to the someone more nebulous abilities to “write” and “think.” Though I would not go so far as to say students should take a course in, for example, HTML/CSS instead of Latin 101, the changing methodological nature of the humanities would make those skills, and the mental discipline they require, quite useful.

This is cross-posted, with minor edits, from our class blog for INLS 890: Making the Humanities Digital at UNC’s School of Information and Library Science.