Hacking in the Humanities

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Miles Efron’s latest blog post about humanities computing reminded me of a breakout discussion we had at the BooksOnline’08 workshop about expectations of humanities scholars with respect to computation. I don’t remember everyone who was at that table, but we talked about the need to build tools for specific analyses, and how that might take someone several months to do. My take is that while we cannot (and should not) expect researchers in the humanities to create complex systems (we don’t even expect some CS types to do it!), a certain proficiency with scripting should be a desirable (if not required) part of any Masters’ program, along side philosophy and ancient languages.

It doesn’t matter if students learn how to use perl, Ruby, Groovy, or some other language du jour; what’s important is that they gainĀ  the problem-solving skills and the confidence to apply them to problems that interest them. Modern programming languages can be much more expressive, and modern computers are more forgiving of unoptimized code, making it easier to get stuff to work. Giving students the ability to express themselves in a new medium should improve both the scholar and the scholarship. And this applies to iSchools, too.

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  3. Amen to that. Programming skills, or at least (as you put it) scripting skills, are something that any educated professional or scholar should have nowadays. I can say this with a reasonably clear conscience, my undergraduate degree having been in History. Part of the problem is motivating students in non-technical streams to see this as important. Interesting tools in the humanities that can be extended by simple scripting would be a good place to start.

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