The Pleasures of Programming

Instead of continuing the text-mining debate, I want to reflect on our programming lesson last week and our homework this week. I’m writing this from the Scholars’ Lab grad fellows lounge, where about half of the Praxis team is working through some of our Ruby homework with Eric and Wayne’s expert, patient assistance. Annie just exclaimed with happiness when she figured out how to calculate grades with an array. We all smiled and Wayne seemed especially happy to see his student catching on and feeling good about her progress. There is something so satisfying about programming, about telling a computer to do something and having it do what you want, even if you’re just telling it to spit out a few numbers under certain conditions.  We are learning to create a program and make it respond to our commands, and that seems to give us a more intense or more satisfying pleasure than we get as users telling Google to execute a search or telling Windows to open a file. This satisfaction is particularly notable to me, and I presume to many of the other grad students in the Praxis program, because our work in the humanities is never so cut and dry with such easy, absolute measures of success and failure and with such ownership of the process from beginning to end.

While I’ve never programmed before, I recall a feeling somewhat like this from my time in middle management using a CRM system in a large call center. I was good at my job because I was just tech savvy enough to learn new functionalities quickly, to intuitively find ways to make our computer programs do what I needed them to do. I was so pleased with myself when I found the most accurate search terms or devised a shortcut that made workflow faster or easier. But when I was in a supervisory role, the skills I needed to succeed were much less technical. I needed to be kind enough and flexible enough to handle whatever issues arose with the people I supervised, from tardiness and time off to explaining why we were managing human relationships with a computer system. Success on this front was much harder to measure and I rarely felt such unqualified joy at my successes because I was never quite sure when I was successful. I wonder if this will prove roughly correlative to humanities computing. Learning to program is slow and tedious and difficult, but success feels hard-earned and justified and thus pleasurable. Humanities scholarship hasn’t ever brought me such a clear-cut sense of success, but it has brought me pleasures that I think mastery of computer algorithms cannot. I hope we can all enjoy the pleasures of mastery over our computers, but I hope we can do so without losing sight of the academic interests that brought us all here.

As Annie worked through the grade calculation task, she dealt with the gray areas of rounding up and rounding down and admitted that these decisions always vary. That very simple program had its limits when applied to an idiosyncratic situation, a lesson I will keep in mind as I learn more about and engage in humanities computing.

I am a 2011-12 Praxis Fellow, a PhD candidate in the UVa Department of English, and a former AmeriCorps member, campus civic engagement coordinator, and criminal defense investigator. My dissertation uses theories of waste and excess to examine American literary responses to disaster from the 1927 Mississippi flood to the present.

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