Tag Archives: Programming

Coding in History Education

My colleague Fred Gibbs recently posted an excellent overview of some of the issues surrounding coding in history education. To teach coding or to not teach coding is an issue I’ve wrestled with for years and have, thus far anyway, always come down on the side of not teaching it. For one thing, I’m not much of a code monkey myself, and so I could only teach very limited skills to my students. In fact, most of my skills fall into the category of site design (not that this site is an excellent example of such skills), and so I’m really not going to be much help to my students.

What I have made a strong case for in various venues over the past few years is that we have to teach our students higher order technical skills, especially information search, retrieval, and analysis, if we want them to be able to take advantage of the wealth of historical content now available online. To leave it to Dr. Google or Dr. Yahoo to teach our students these skills is to abdicate our responsibilities to our students.

I checked, and the first time I raised this issue here was in 2007. Since then, I’ve incorporated teaching search and retrieval skills into all of my classes and, overall, my students seem to appreciate the time we devote to the topic. This semester I’m teaching an honors research seminar in the program I direct these days and I’ve assigned The Craft of Research (Booth, Colomb, Williams, 2008) and this book devotes exactly one page to searching the Internet for sources. (75-76) As a result, I’m devoting a lot of time in class to working with such sources, because much of what my students will be working with will be found online.

But I’m not teaching them anything that might be considered coding, and because this is an honors program I do feel a little guilty that I’m not. After all, shouldn’t our best students get the most sophisticated work we can offer?

Fred makes a very useful distinction between programming and scripting–a distinction I hadn’t really thought about until I read his post. I think that if we can lower the entry barrier on scripting, then teaching that, rather than programming, holds much greater promise.

At its simplest level, one way to get students to think about scripting is the “advanced search” feature on most search engines. The search interface does the actual scripting for the user, but it seems to me that this interface is the best place to introduce the concept of scripting. Once students play with those tools a bit, then they can be shown the advantages that more sophisticated scripts might offer them as researchers.

Will that inspire them to start coding? Perhaps…but likely not. I have taught long enough to know that only when something we are teaching becomes intrinsic to the entire course–not just to this week’s assignment–will large numbers of students buy in.

Fred says in his post that he’s intending it to be the first in a series. I look forward to reading whatever comes next.

Stretching the Physical Boundaries of the Humanities

[Originally posted at hist.net]

Regular readers of this blog know that I consider Bill Turkel to be one of the most innovative historians to be found anywhere in the world. What follows is a post I wrote about his Lab for Humanistic Fabrication for the blog hist.net…

It’s not very often that someone finds an entirely new way to think about the humanities. Bill Turkel, a historian at the University of West Ontario, has managed this trick by stretching physical boundaries of the humanities. Turkel, one of the co-authors of The Programming Historian is also the founder of the Lab for Humanistic Fabrication. The Lab is the place where Turkel, his colleagues, and his graduate students experiment with ways to build “communicative devices that are transparently easy to use, provide ambient feedback, and are closely coupled with the surrounding environment.”

What does this mean in the context of the humanities? As Turkel explains, historians “have tended to emphasize opportunities for dissemination that require our audience to be passive, focused and isolated from one another and from their surroundings.” He proposes to change this by creating new physical interfaces between the analog and digital world that will (or at least may) transform the ways we interact with the vast amongs of digitized data (text, image, sound, video) being poured into online databases every day by scholars, archives, libraries, governments, and individual citizens.

What these interfaces might look like, sound like, or feel like is anyone’s guess. But Turkel and his team have already begun to come up with some prototypes–prototypes developed in a fabrication lab — not the kind of place we typically think of humanists as working. Turkel’s work challenges us to think about how we will experience the past in the not so distant future.