Code? Not So Much


I dedicate this post to all those digital rhetoricians out there who made it a goal to “learn to code” this Summer. I hope you did, and I hope you had fun. But I also hope you get back to doing your real job. We need you. Don’t panic, I’m not against making stuff with programming languages. I make software. And I think you should too. But writing code? You should leave that to other people.

As for my summer, I spent a lot of time thinking about teaching and learning in online spaces. I taught an online first-year writing course that began just one week after the Spring semester ended. I taught a hybrid graduate seminar called Teaching with Technology. And my colleagues and I saw our online review service – Eli Review  – through three different three-week development sprints to improve the user experience and add new features.

As a digital rhetorician, I make software for the same reasons I write journal articles or teach classes: to put ideas into the world in a way that might make a difference. But I don’t write the code. I hire folks who do. And that’s…ok.

It’s fine to want to know how to do things with programming languages. I do. And I love it when I can put some characters in a row that – almost like magic – do things that a traditional text cannot. It is a thrill. But let’s not confuse knowing how flow control variables are used and how to call a function from a script library with developing commercial-grade software. It would be sort of like suggesting one could build a commercial airliner after putting a radio-controlled model plane together from a hobby store kit. Real airliners are built by teams of specialists. So is most of the software that is worth using.

When I came to Michigan State to join the Writing in Digital Environments (WIDE) research center, I was excited to have the chance to make software in a way that could have reach and impact as well as academic integrity. I saw it as a chance to move beyond the software equivalent of making digital videos with a consumer-grade camera and iMovie and into the world of making feature-length productions that folks pay money to see. Indeed, that’s how I understand what I do in conjunction with Eli. I’m something like the director of the picture. We also have the equivalent of producers, a cinematographer, and a host of technical people who do sound, cinematography, editing, casting, costumes, and even craft services. I yell cut. I review the dailies. I take the heat if the algorithm does violence to writing pedagogy.

Eli review logo superimposed over algorithm, flow diagrams

We need more people playing director and producer roles in the production of digital resources – software and services – that expand the reach of rhetorical theory into the lives of people. What does that take? Experience in software development helps. Before I came to WIDE, I got some experience working in software engineering at a big, blue technology company. I also had spent years thinking computationally about rhetorical theory and writing practices. That’s another thing I encourage, by the way. And if I had to choose, I’d easily select computational thinking over knowing how to do things with programming languages as the critical skill of a digital rhetorician. What is computational thinking? Jeanette Wing, Chair of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon, has a wonderful discussion of it. And her definition is great too: “Computational thinking is the thought process involved in formulating problems and their solutions so that the solutions are represented in a form that can effectively be carried out by an information-processing agent.”

It’s much more valuable and important to be able to think computationally about rhetorical issues than it is to be able to write a program that simulates blackjack or even one that, say, computes a score for evaluating students’ performance as reviewers. The hard part is designing the algorithm that produces a valid result, something that not even an advanced programmer can do without knowing what makes one review performance better than another. So my advice to my fellow and aspiring digital rhetoricians is this: forget about code. It’s like mastering the five paragraph essay rather than learning to write well. Instead, learn to make algorithms. Learn to tune them and do useful things with their output. Work in a programming language to do this if you like, or pseudocode, or just plain math. But make a rhetorical idea computational. That’s a cool Summer project!



  1. Pingback: Code? Not So Much — Jerz's Literacy Weblog

  2. I teach professional writing and editing, and I worked as a professional writer for several years before grad school. I regularly had to fix crappy Dreamweaver code when I was on the job. Yes, the writing is the most important part of what we teach – but I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t even explain to my students the very basics of HTML to prepare them for work. In PW, it’s a balancing act between teaching theory and preparing students for what they’ll be doing on the job.

  3. bonnie lenore kyburz on

    I began building webpages w/ Janice Walker and Todd Taylor at USF’s first computer writing lab (early ’90s). Since then, my work overtook my time for writing code. I have felt *guilty* for not participating more fully in many of the recent conversations and activities surrounding code talk in the field. Yet, my time is still oppressively thin for such work, though I’m glad that the conversation is ongoing and in the hands of experienced and enthusiastic scholars such as yourself, Karl Stolley, Dave Reider, (and many more).

    More to my point, I am simply writing to thank *you*, Bill, for you unburden me, a bit, when you write, “But I also hope you get back to doing your real job. We need you. Don’t panic, I’m not against making stuff with programming languages. I make software. And I think you should too. But writing code? You should leave that to other people.” I thank you. My teaching load thanks you. Great post!

  4. Re: “So my advice to my fellow and aspiring digital rhetoricians is this: forget about code.”

    We read the entry and dwelt on its more polemic points the other day in ENGL444, Bill, which is a course for upper-division undergraduates at EMU in which they gain experience with XHTML and CSS, many of them for the first time. We talked about whether basic introductions to code ought to be required in Gen Ed, whether there was value for them in learning more about code, and why. Almost everyone maintained that they wished there was more willingness on the part of faculty across the disciplines to venture into code, to demystify it at the very least. More than “Code: Not so much,” we generally agreed that a set of related questions–Code: How much? When?–would be more helpful to students and faculty alike, especially when we don’t have the means to hire programmers. And I should add that “code” probably could use more specificity in this discussion because some would discount XHTML/CSS as code, while others would probably identify them as solid markups for beginners to start with. There’s quite a separation, in other words, between fine-tuning a style sheet or setting up a simple PHP form that helps run an online writing center and the months and years-long development of more complicated software, such as Eli.

  5. Both Karen & Derek make a great point. I use the word “code” here without being careful to distinguish it from working with markup languages, CSS, and even some scripting languages. That is too imprecise, given the way we talk about “code” when we refer to all of these. I was thinking of commercial-quality programming, and not those things by and large. I agree that learning markup and working with unrendered source for authoring in XHTMl, certain XML variants like DITA, and CSS is absolutely important and necessary for digital rhetoricians.

    I also heartily accept Derek’s friendly amendment – the much more appropriately phrased “Code: How much?” – as the best way to carry this conversation forward in a productive way. I did not intend to say “don’t code at all” or “don’t learn about it.” I did mean to say that there are other ways for digital rhetoricians to contribute to the development of software and services, and perhaps more important ones than writing code (based on the scarcity of our expertise).

    And it is that last point, perhaps, on which Bonnie & I find agreement.

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  7. I learned a small amount of coding, in HTML, for part-time work unrelated to academia, but I don’t think the work of my department, or at least the Writing Center, could go on without coding knowledge.

    Apart from its practical usefulness, coding is a component of writing. Are you really teaching students to “write” if they don’t have to at least add a href once in awhile?

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