Digital humanities

Authors: Janis Chinn and Gabrielle Kirilloff Maintained by: David J. Birnbaum ( [Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 3.0 Unported License] Last modified: 2016-04-20T19:12:22+0000

Can humanities undergrads learn to code?

DH students at the University of Pittsburgh

Digital humanities students at the University of Pittsburgh

We were surprised to hear during the December 16, 2011 NITLE web seminar on undergraduate DH instruction a recurring motif along the lines that coding (markup and programming) is so difficult that undergraduates trained in the humanities cannot learn it quickly or successfully, and so potentially alienating and anxiety-provoking that it should be regarded as too advanced to be considered a core component of the undergraduate DH curriculum. As two undergraduate humanities majors (English Literature and Linguistics) with no prior technical background, we would like to share our own experiences with learning and using computational tools. We hope that our very positive experience will encourage faculty elsewhere to give their undergraduate students the opportunity to become deeply and seriously involved with this exciting and rewarding aspect of DH scholarship.

Admittedly, unfamiliar technology may initially appear overwhelming. Many humanities scholars (our past selves included) experience a moment of panic when viewing code, which is often regarded as obtuse and amorphous scrawl best left in the capable hands of the more mathematically inclined. As past subscribers to this overgeneralization, we would like to point out that the type of coding used by most DH scholars is no harder, and perhaps easier, to learn than any foreign language. As many humanities majors can testify, learning a foreign language may initially seem overwhelming, but the rewards are substantial.

The primary types of computational tools we employ, XML and XML-related technologies, are used to describe texts. Thus, even when we use computational tools, our focus is always on the text, and in that respect no different from the way humanities scholars have always engaged with their discipline. Consequently, we have often found that in our own DH research the difficulties that arise are due to philosophical questions about our texts, rather than coding-related problems. This also means that the skills most humanities majors have mastered as part of their academic training, such as formulating research questions and reading critically, carry over easily and naturally into the world of humanities computing.

We were both able to learn XML and a wide range of related technologies and incorporate them into our own research over the course of a few months. The basics of XML itself take only a few days to master at a level that enabled us to begin to conduct real research with our texts. In the course we teach at the University of Pittsburgh, Computational Methods in the Humanities, students are able to begin to encode a document with XML after the first one-hour class session. These students are humanities majors and almost all of them have no previous experience with computer programming or digital text technology. Most have never even seen an angle bracket before. We found that in our experiences learning to use and develop computational tools, a little goes a long way. Even before mastering a broad range of technologies we were able to encode texts, perform queries on our documents, and create webpages. By the end of our one-semester course, students have used humanities computing methods—both markup and creating programs to query and manipulate their texts—to investigate a specific research question in ways they could not do realistically by hand.

Our course is listed through the Honors College at the University of Pittsburgh, which means there’s a GPA requirement (B+ average) to enroll, and also that the work put into the course is expected to be more rigorous than a normal class might be. We cover a large number of technologies and concepts in 16 weeks and the course culminates in a final project, where students apply these methods to texts and research questions of their choice. The course begins with XML, and moves on to XPath, XSLT, XQuery, basic HTML, SVG, and CSS, introducing Javascript, PHP, and R along the way, This is the second term the course has been offered, and we are refining the structure and content in response to our successes and failures last time, but the fall semester was a general success and the students kept pace with the fast flow of information quite well.

In our experience we have found that the pay-off for learning XML is immediate, and is firmly rooted in the core values of the humanities: analyzing a document, developing a schema to model its structure, and marking it up enables us to see the text in a new way. In our own research we both found that encoding our texts with XML made us rethink our previous conceptions about certain elements of those texts. This is one of the most fulfilling aspects of text encoding. Humanities computing that incorporates, and even emphasizes, markup, programming, and text processing opens up a whole new world of scholarly possibilities, and it is fully accessible to interested and engaged undergraduate humanities majors even if they have no prior technological expertise, which we know to be true because it is our own lived experience. You can ask new questions of your text, create visualizations that make previously invisible patterns and trends accessible, and create tools for other scholars to use. Although what we used to call humanities computing may not fully define the goals and methods of DH, we think it is a valuable asset that can safely and effectively serve as the focal point of at least some DH courses for undergraduate students in the humanities, and that it should at least be addressed in some way in every DH curriculum. Humanities students and professors should not be afraid of humanities computing. Like many humanities majors at liberal arts colleges, we came into DH with little to no coding experience and today our projects incorporate technologies that allow us to explore questions previously inaccessible in their scope and subject matter. We would like to encourage the NITLE community to be willing to give their students the same opportunities that we have had.

About this essay: This essay originally appeared on 2012-01-31 on Techne, the former blog site of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education [NITLE].

About the authors: When this article was first published in January 2012, Janis Chinn was a senior Linguistics major at the University of Pittsburgh and Gabrielle Kirilloff was a senior English Literature major at the same institution. Both were undergraduate teaching assistants in Computational Methods in the Humanities (, which is cross-listed in eight academic departments and which is one of the very few courses that satisfies the University’s general-education requirement in Quantitative and Formal Reasoning in a way that can be integrated with the academic interests of humanities students.

Janis’s project when she was a student in our course is My immortal, and she developed Twitter register variation as a University Honors College Tina and David Bellet Brackenridge Research Fellowship project. She is now a member of the PraeceDev IT consulting team, where she creates custom dynamic websites and consults on online content strategy tailored to each client’s unique needs.

Gabi developed Exploring speech in Russian fairy tales as her University Honors College BPhil project before she became a teaching assistant in our course, and links to some of her writings and other projects are available at her homepage. Gabi is now a doctoral student interested in digital humanities, new media studies, and early twentieth-century American literature at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. She has worked for several digital projects, including the William Blake Archive, the Willa Cather Archive, and the Walt Whitman Archive. In addition to her work on archival projects, Gabi has also worked on several large scale text analysis projects. Gabi currently works as the coordinator for the Nebraska Literary Lab, an organization that facilitates student research in the digital humanities.