Coding, being an English major, and the Digital Humanities

I recently graduated from college as an English major, and after having spent four years convinced that I wanted to study literature for the rest of my life–with the occasional foray into the Italian language–I found myself applying to Dev Bootcamp. Dev Bootcamp is an eighteen-week long coding bootcamp that aims to introduce newbies to web development.

During the summer of 2014, I had the fortune to work with Scott Enderle on a digital humanities project called “A Distant Reading of Empire.” At the time, Scott was already quite proficient in Python. On the other hand, I had never seen a line of code in my life and never fathomed coding was something that people “like me” did.

When I asked Scott if I could work with him over the summer in December of 2013 I assumed we would work on something a bit more traditional. He shocked me by suggesting I apply to Re:Humanities, an undergraduate digital humanities conference jointly held by Haverford, Swarthmore, and Bryn Mawr. At the time, I was abroad studying Italian language and literature in Bologna, Italy, but I immediately got to work. I scoured the internet trying to uncover exactly what the digital humanities were and thinking non-stop about what kind of project I could propose. In about four days, and with a tremendous amount of help from Scott, I sent out my application.

To my disbelief and excitement, I discovered I had been accepted to present my research at Re:Humanities in the spring. I was thrilled, and entirely taken off guard. Between December and February I had taken the time to learn a bit about the command line, but that was it. For anyone interested, http://programminghistorian.org/ is a great resource for humanities scholars looking to start coding. Thank goodness for that website — without it I would have been completely lost.

After putting my project off for a month and a half, I finally got started on it — and found I had no idea what I was doing. Eventually I managed to pull off a project of limited scope, titling it “A Postcolonial ‘Distant Reading’ of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Anglophone Literature.” It was a hit at the conference, and I was astonished by the interest other scholars exhibited in my work. I felt inspired by the feeling that I was doing something new and innovative, rather than merely regurgitating the thoughts and ideas of many scholars before me. This was something exciting and that I owned. As a millenial, I couldn’t help but feel that technology was in part mine to wield, and that I was helping to drag the reluctant humanities into the 21st century. I was irrevocably hooked.

In July, Scott and I started work on “A Distant Reading of Empire.” He handled all of the coding, but I started to ask more questions and to do some research on my own. I started looking into Code Academy and thought a bit more seriously about coding. Scott was tremendously generous and spent quite a bit of time answering my naive questions. I’m so grateful.

After this project ended, I went on with my normal humanities life, writing a fairly traditional Capstone on language in Joyce’s Ulysses. It wasn’t until the spring of my senior year that I became interested in coding again. I started taking a MOOC called “Programming for Everybody.” It introduced basic Python, and I found myself obsessed. I realized I could spend hours poring over a problem as simple as assigning letter grades to their accompanying numerical values.

In March, after being rejected from Comparative Literature PhD programs across the country, I started to look for other options. I am so glad I did. One day, I read about coding bootcamps online and began applying. After a fairly excruciating Skype interview, I was accepted to Dev Bootcamp, a nineteen-week code school in New York City. I made my decision on the spot.

I graduated from Dev Bootcamp three days ago. The experience was undeniably taxing. Nothing prepared me for the eighty hour weeks, or the feelings of both failure and success. It was nothing like my experience in college had been — it was much more challenging. I am so thankful.

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