‘Coding for Humanists’ workshop presents new research avenues

Although “coding” and “humanists” are words not typically found in the same sentence, a campus workshop May 13 and 14 proved the two can happily inhabit the same realm.

Organized by Dr. Andrew Schocket, director of the American culture studies program, and taught by Dr. Jerry Schnepp, visual communication technology, the two-day learning experience brought together faculty, staff and graduate students for an introduction to computer programming and exploration of possibilities, along with hands-on experience.

“There’s a wealth of information out there,” Schocket said. “The workshop presented basic concepts about what computer programming is and what the possibilities are for using it to investigate and research large corpuses of materials.”

Following the success of last year’s Digital Cultures Institute, more hands-on activities were wanted, said Schocket, who taught a graduate-level digital humanities course this spring.  Thirty participants from 10 areas across campus signed up, plus an English faculty member from the University of Toledo. They came from music, philosophy, theater and film, popular culture, English, American culture studies, German, Russian and East Asian languages, University libraries, the College of Arts and Sciences office, and even computer science. Their digital skills and familiarity varied from beginner to more advanced.

Schnepp, whose doctorate is in computer science but whose earlier background was in communication, music and digital art, “has a very good sense of the humanities and how to think about these problems that humanists would be curious about,” Schocket said.

Schnepp provided basic instruction in the programming language Ruby, which Schocket described as “more human-like and easier for beginners to parse. It’s a computer language very prevalent in the digital humanities.”

Using Ruby, participants got an introduction to writing programs to extract categories of information from documents and to strip away the computer coding of digitized material in order to be able to more easily read, search and analyze the content. They also learned about the uses of the Application Programming Interface (API), which provides a way for users to write a program to extract data from a website’s database.

Most large bodies of information, such as Twitter, Facebook and Google maps, contain one or several APIs. “We can learn to write programs to extract and manipulate information in the creator of the API never imagined,” Schocket said. “There are all sorts of wonderful things you can do with an API.”

“Everybody picked it up,” Schnepp said, noting that with the nearly universal familiarity with computers today, most people have a fairly strong foundation. “I saw a lot of that ‘Yes!’ gesture when people hit Execute after writing their program and it did what they wanted it to do.

“It’s learning to describe what you want the program to do and specifying that using the syntax of the programming language. You can have it do fairly complex things, like looking for a string of words, in any order, but only following a certain phrase.”

The skills will be especially useful for graduate students, who need to conduct primary research, he said.

Kate Schaab, a graduate student in American culture studies, said, “I think the workshop opened my eyes to a lot of research possibilities and the possibility of extracting data from APIs.”

Her research focuses on manifestations of xenophobia, sexism and classism in immigrant-themed texts and cultural products, which range from novels, documentaries and photographic archives to online video games, commercials and tweets. She foresees using the programming language to quickly cull relevant information from, for example, Twitter responses to the Coca-Cola Super Bowl commercial in Google.

Making materials, especially BGSU’s, accessible is a major concern for the University’s librarians, said participant Libby Hertenstein, cataloger and metadata librarian in Collections and Technical Services. Many of the items in the special collections, for example, are not open to the public, but as they are digitized they become searchable and usable by faculty, staff and students.

“The librarians are really interested in developing transferrable skills in manipulating data and becoming more familiar with coding so we can collaborate and partner with other faculty and see what kinds of projects we can help with,” Hertenstein said.

Held in the active-learning classroom in Hayes Hall (“the perfect setting,” noted Schocket), the coding workshop was sponsored by the Center for Faculty Excellence, the School of Cultural and Critical Studies and ITS.

The team hopes to hold more sessions of the introductory workshop and other, slightly more advanced sessions to cover specific topics.