Town Hall II ~ Program or Be Programmed: Do We Need Computational Literacy in C&W?


Review by Lynn C. Lewis

David Rieder, North Carolina State University
Annette Vee, University of Pittsburgh
Mark Sample, George Mason University
Alexandria Lockett, Pennsylvania State University
Karl Stolley, Illinois Institute of Technology
Liz Losh (respondent), University of California, San Diego

The Town Hall’s title, “Program or be Programmed” appeared to set up a problematic binary.[1]  (The title refers to a well-known mantra in the computers and writing community, chosen for this forum to represent the recent call to  learn to code.)  However, if, as the title suggests,  our options are “join or be cast out,” those of us who do work outside the paradigm, could be doomed.[2]  Luckily, the four panelists offered nuance as well as substance to the equation and, moreover, provoked a sleepy pre-lunch audience into energetic and thoughtful back channel responses.  Panelists included David Rieder, Annette Vee, Mark Sample, Alexandria Lockett, and Karl Stolley.  Liz Losh served as respondent.  Each panelist spoke for five to ten minutes, and while all were in agreement with the value of code for Computers and Writing scholars, their varied presentations suggest the potential richness of this area of inquiry for the field.

Below, I summarize the panelists’ arguments and provide space for the back channel commentary during this stimulating panel.  The back channel commentary is also suggestive of what participants “took away”[3] from this Town Hall.

David Rieder, Associate Professor at North Carolina State University, opened the conversation with his talk, “Programming is the New Ground of Writing.”  Rieder introduced a Mark Tansy painting titled “Picasso and Braque,” in order to trouble the notion of words as essential to writing.  The painting, Rieder argued, suggests that one can break free from the logocentric ground and push the boundaries of writing outward. [4]  For Rieder, the value of the newsprint wings of the flying machine lies in their flying machine functionality rather than their readability.[5]  The metaphor describes why writing should be regarded as generative and algorithmic[6] and, Rieder argues, mobile, transformative writing cannot therefore be limited to the logocentric framework.  In order to be part of the future, Rieder urges us all to write and create in code.[7]

Annette Vee, Assistant Professor at University of Pittsburgh, interrogated “good code.”  Her presentation, “Valuing Code,” problematized the notion of good code as Platonic ideal[8] because of the importance of context.[9]  Context situates the rhetoricity of code and, consequently, academics and software engineers value code differently.[10]  Vee demonstrated a sample of her own code which does what she wants it to do and yet would be deemed messy and unstructured by software engineers. Since code is rhetorical,[11] its values should be contextualized.  Finally, Vee called for a widening of the values associated with code — a critical move for academics engaged with code.[12]

Mark Sample, Assistant Professor at George Mason University, offered “5 BASIC Statements on Computational Literacy.”  Developed by Dartmouth in the 1960s, the BASIC computer language structured Sample’s approach to the topic.[13]  For Sample, these one-line programs provide insight into the nature of code and to its importance to the humanities.[14]  Sample explored each statement[15] in order to establish a definition of code as a historically situated, social private text, that values sharing and humor.[16]  Last, Sample suggested we use the term “competency” instead of “literacy” because of the troubled notion of literacy[17] as a gatekeeper rather than contextual and individual.

Alexandria Lockett, Ph.D. candidate at Pennsylvania State University, complicated conventional understandings of who codes with her talk titled, “I Am Not a Programmer.”  Lockett’s reflective narrative considered how her own identity as code switcher[18] from Standard White English to African American English, among others, gave her entree into a hacker identity.  Frustration with an old, slow computer and friendship with a computer software engineer neighbor led Lockett to an exploration of Ubuntu, an open source Linux OS.[19]  From here, she explored communities such as Slashdot, Reddit, and the Open-Source Software community in order to be able to envision these community’s values.[20]  Locket stressed the dynamism of code[21] as well as the ease of access into playing with code.  Because she hacks language,[22]she sees hacking code as essential to pedagogical practices and as a way of opening up exciting possibilities for her students.[23]

Karl Stolley,[24] Assistant Professor, Illinois Institute of Technology, argued for “Source Literacy:  A Vision of Craft.”[25]  Stolley described his vision for the future, in which computers and writing scholars work and engage with code on a daily basis.[26]  Stolley imagines craft as centerpiece of the field’s practices, [27] that is, making with the basic materials of digital production rather than through WYSIWYG automatons.  Stolley offered four strategies meant to ensure his vision’s viability,[28]  which involve learning Unix, GitHub, a good text editor, HTML, CSS, and languages such as JavaScript or Ruby in order to craft on the web.[29]  Stolle suggests that one is either with or not with this mandate:[30]  this is a matter of being responsible digital craftspeople[31].

Elizabeth Losh, Director of Academic Programs, Sixth College, University of California at San Diego was respondent for the Town Hall.  Losh saw learning code as essential work and noted the ways in which anxieties about learning code represent a kind of performance anxiety.[32] Losh suggested that after richness of the Town Hall’s presentations, the audience should feel less anxious.[33] The real issue,[34] Losh argued, is one of disciplinary turf,  an issue best answered by an application of procedural literacy.

Questions following the Town Hall presenters varied from asking how best to go about learning code to concerns about insider/outsider status.  This Town Hall sparked much conversation, and, unquestionably suggested numerous under-theorized questions to be explored as the field considers what it means to privilege code.  Such questions include

  • How best might the writing classroom work with code?[35]  What is included that is new?  What gets left out — and does it matter?[36]
  • Might a focus on code increase the height of the “Ivory Tower? “ Or might it provide deeper access to less privileged communities?[37]
  • If indeed “no one has permission not to know the politics of the machine,” as Lockett argued during the q and a,[38] what are the politics of coding and what tactics do they demand of scholars in the field?

[1] DennisJerz  Occupy #cwcon ? No, the “Must We Code… Really?” (paraphrased) town hall just delayed by a locked door.
[2] AlienWeedManFWIW, “Program Or Be Programmed” is also a recruiting slogan for the Borg. #cwcon
[3] The term “take away” originally meant to seize rapidly, a definition that invites a way into reading the back channel conversation.  However, the back channel is not only rapid response.  These conversations eddy and swirl still on the twitter stream.
[4] ahhitt “In computational media, writing wants to take a walk. It doesn’t want to sit on the couch and be analyzed.” #cwcon
[5] visrhet #cwcon Rieder at Town Hall Why limit the value of text to its readability?
[6] DennisJerz  Rieder: Content has diminishing value; algorithmic generation of content is more valuable “in flight” #cwcon #townhall
[7] rhetoroxor  David Rieder invokes Jill Morris’s geek/jerk distinction to get us thinking about the generative nature of code/algorithm. #cwcon
[8] vymanivannan  No such thing as a platonic ideal of good code.’ So true. Starting to miss my (limited) coding past. #cwcon #townhall
[9] DennisJerz  @anetv There is no good code without context.m #townhall #cwcon But tech folks presume code only exists in tech context.
gossettphd  @anetv “There is no good code without context.” // Yes! #cwcon
_AmandaWall @anetv Code, too, is rhetorical. Its value and “goodness” depends on context, despite what some programmers say. #cwcon
[10] ikatowi  @anetv: “Coding is rhetorical.” Damn straight. #cwcon
[11] AnitaDeRouen  “Code is rhetorical.” –Annette Vee YES! #cwcon
[12] _AmandaWall  We need to “widen the values associated with coding,” says @anetv Word. #cwcon
[13] chris_friend  The “5 BASIC statements” from @samplereality are written in BASIC. Hold on to your butts. We’re going back to the 70s. #cwcon #townhall
[14] AlienWeedMan        The odd Earth custom of tripping over each other in an attempt to be the deepest geek. #cwcon
[15] gossettphd    RT @LizaPotts: Does putting our field’s words onto another field’s practice make us feel included somehow? Hmm… #cwcon
[16] ikatowi  @samplereality discusses multiple levels of meaning-making in code (beyond executing operations). I love this town hall. #cwcon #critcode
[17] afwysocki     #cwcon @samplereality “suspicious of ‘literacy’.” no shit.
[18] AnitaDeRouen  Alexandria Lockett–“I’ve been translating languages as long as I can remember.” #cwcon smart thinking on code switching.
[19] kristinarola  Lockett’s first response of Linux (in sum)  “how was I to use Linux, that’s for the dorks!” ha, yes, a huge gap for many to overcome #cwcon
[20] rhetoroxor  Weirdly excited by Alexandra Lockett’s totally unselfconscious/unironic use of the word “interwebs.” #cwcon
[21] afwysocki  Alexandria Lockett #cwcon operational limits of grammar and coding (politics) flow across and open into each other: possibilities.power
[22] _AmandaWall  Lockett says we can be hackers, subverting institutional restraints on both technology and language. LOVE this metaphor. #cwcon
[23] rhetoroxor  Lockett: hacking as code/discourse switching. Definitely an emergent motif for #cwcon
[24] s2ceball  It’s true, @karlstolley can pull dinosaurs out of his pocket. He’s magical and yet makes coding simple for a lame-o like me. #cwcon
[25] anetv #cwcon @karlstolley has issued his fair share of warnings regarding code. Indeed! 😉
[26] MikeRTrice  And @karlstolley comes out firing, as expected. Learn to program right after lunch! #cwcon
[27] kkprins  @afwysocki @karlstolley Heck yes, it’s all about craft! #cwcon
[28] academicdave  I think @karlstolley is saying “everyone should program like me.” Isn’t diversity in programming a value? #cwcon
[29] kristinarola    @karlstolley has a vision for the future in which I fear i may have to live in the woods and go Luddite. Quit scaring me Karl! #cwcon
[30] vkuhn  @karlstolley Let’s all start coding after lunch! I must catch up at code academy:  #cwcon
[31] _AmandaWall  @karlstolley says craft involves a sense of responsibility. This is so important. #cwcon
[32] carl_whithaus  @lizlosh ‘s response to #cwcon townhall DIY hackers…. good for teachers, but WPAs, admins, beware promotion discipline boundaries blur blur
[33] kristinarola    Ok, @lizlosh is talking me out of the woods. #cwcon
[34] academicdave  i think the ? about programming is at heart a struggle with collaboration. Academics not so comfortable at necessary collaboration  #cwcon
[35] amygoodloe  CSS provides an easy way to teach the value of a correctly placed semicolon! #cwcon
[36] jimkalmbach  #cwcon If we imagine a world where everyone codes who gets excluded?
[37] TylerBranson  OK coding is important but a la Stuart Selber, if not tempered with critical literacy practices it’s just another oppressive literacy #cwcon
[38] anetv Alex Lockett says that none of us has permission to not know the politics of our machines and our software. #cwcon
timlockridge  You must know the politics of your machines and writing spaces. Great point to end on. #cwcon
AnitaDeRouen            Lockett–need to know “politics of your machine”–YES! #cwcon
rhetgaming  Key thought from Alexandria: no one has permission not to know the politics of their machines #cwcon

Lynn C. Lewis is an assistant professor in Rhetoric and Professional Writing in the English Department at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Oklahoma.  Her research interests are in new literacies and digital and visual rhetorics and her current book projects include an edited volume, The Kids Still Can’t Write: Literacy Crisis Discourses in the 21st Century, and a single-authored manuscript, Writing in the Age of Speed.

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