Digital Humanities Scholars Should Learn How to Program

Categories: Computer Software

The digital humanities (DH) is a relatively new academic field that still puzzles scholars and institutions with its growing scope and endless evolving possibilities. The term “digital humanities” has developed from “humanities computing”, it represents the intersection of digital technologies and the disciplines of the humanities. This area of scholarly activity keeps discovering new things that can be done with digital humanities tools and methods and it is still being formulated, rethought and questioned by a diverse and international community of scholars and practitioners.

One of the ways this development presents itself is demonstrated by projects and collaborations of different sorts. With a massive expansion of the digital technologies, digital humanities are developing at impressive speed while it takes years for scholars to adapt and analyse the changes it brings. Moreover, it is in the process of transforming digital humanists from scholars that know computing to humanists that must know programming. The primary objective of this essay is to analyse why it is essential for scholars to gain programming skills in digital humanities and how it can support them in formulating more focused research questions.

It is still debatable who digital humanists are and what they can do. The scholars from multiple disciplines that are applying traditional methods of analysis and critiquing to digital objects refer more to “humanities computing” rather than to “digital humanities”. According to S. Ramsay, digital humanists are scholars that can build and make things, otherwise they are not digital humanists?. This might appear as a radical statement.

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However, the current technological changes shape the field of the digital humanities. New demands to researches and their methods are rising and basic programming skills are becoming necessary for building. Coding, building and hacking are now turning into definitional activities in the field. It would be sensible to point out that in the DH community almost everyone is involved in building something: network visualization and analysis, data mining, the basics of programming (HTML, CSS, PHP), tool and database design, text analysis, GIS, etc. As Ramsay states: “all these activities involve building and only a few of them require programming, per se?”.

Some argue that scholars that know at least one programming language and some basics of programming tend to undertake more complex research tasks and, as a result of understanding operations and algorithms, do better analysis. It certainly is not a demand that all humanities scholars must become full time programmers, but they need to “understand the transformations that algorithms attempt to bring about”. One of the goals of this essay is to underline that basic coding skills are essential for scholars who want to build and be rightfully called digital humanists. Many scholars in humanities see programming as a daunting and utterly frustrating activity. Some do not even aspire to learn the basics, which may lead to a situation where scholars use available tools and algorithms without understanding how they work or generate new data. Thus, scholars are missing many opportunities in their research work.

It is important to understand the reasons of prejudices and frustration that are sometimes experienced by the scholars trying to learn programming. One of them is the perception of students itself, whereas programming is considered to be a dull chore. Another reason is that academia still struggles with the teaching approach for digital humanities. Humanists are generally people who rely on critical thinking and imagination. They would benefit from seeing coding as a process of creation. Historians, librarians and literary critics can model their own realms of ideas. Learning how to model these ideas in a digital environment will allow them to analyse a larger volume of information and open up new opportunities. Thus, the universities need specialists that can create such environment. The dilemma of acquiring coding skills can be approached from a different angle, where programming is seen as creative as writing poems. To prove this claim, it is reasonable to attend to a new phenomenon of code poetry, or so called “code poets”.

Code poets have been assigned a few definitions, but officially they still remain unidentified. In this essay, we will assume that a code poet is a programmer that expresses his or her ideas in a creative and imaginative way using one of the programming languages. From this definition, we can draw a parallel to a humanist, who writes poems transforming an ordinary language into something outstanding like beautiful verses. The “Black Peri” poem can serve as an example of code poetry. This notorious piece is a program that produces no output. When executed, “Black Perl” exits on line one, upon reaching the function “exit”. Code poetry reveals a hidden insight of programming and opens a door for digital humanists to be once more persuaded that acquiring such coding skills can be poetic and original.

One of the reasons for digital humanists to learn programming is an opportunity to express their ideas using machines. The same data and concepts can be presented in infinite ways with programming languages and be as diverse and creative as thoughts expresses by a writer or poet. A programming humanist can stream his or her ideas into code and lead their research in a direction that is more useful and profound. Such a scenario paves a perfect path to generate unique results and to praise individual aspirations instead of making use of the tools with unknown purpose and relying only on a personal interpretation. A comparison between acquiring programming skills and learning an additional language can be made. Literature students study a foreign language to be able to scrutinize the existing translations, while students that are interested in computer text analysis need to study coding in order to write a program that might not exist yet.

Proficiency in a computer language “can fulfil many of the same functions – accessibility, self-reliance and heightened critical awareness”, according to Kirschenbaum”. The benefits from knowing a computer language is similar to the benefits of having a proficient level in a foreign language. To fully understand the need of basic programming skills in the modern digital age, it is essential to refer to the concept of procedural literary. I. Bogost suggests that “procedural literacy entails the ability to reconfigure basic concepts and rules to understand and solve problems, not just on the computer, but in general”. Furthermore, according to the recent definition by Edu Tech, “being literate in computation or acquiring procedural literacy means an awareness of the constraints of specific tools (or programming languages) and being capable of considering a larger space of computational possibilities” It can be suggested that digital humanists might find a better approach to programming through learning about virtual worlds. If compared with films and novels as representations of certain realities, virtual worlds can be viewed as “rhetorical and ideological spaces”.

As such, digital humanists should turn to the creators of virtual worlds. It is believed to provide them with a brilliant opportunity to express their complex ideas by creating virtual models, algorithms and codes that can reflect the world around them. As was mentioned before, it would be unfair to demand from the digital humanists to fully understand the complex and sometimes inaccessible algorithms; however, many arguments suggest that DH should have knowledge about the digital playing field. So, the main question is to what extend DH is expected to gain knowledge of coding. One of the answers lies in exploratory programming, the process of writing programs by trial and error. This approach allows scholars interested in programming to explore new concepts and find new solutions and algorithms. The results are usually unknown in advance, which opens a gate to an unexplored digital world where humanists can create new kinds of artwork.

Exploratory programming is the specific practice professor Nick Montfort introduces as “the one that involves using computation as a way of inquiring about and constructively thinking about important issues”. The key to learn programming for digital humanists is in an exploring approach. Scholars must learn how to be curious and see computers as tools of discovery and inquiry. In a bigger picture, digital humanists can omit what is required for computer scientists, just by seeing abstractions and using general calculations. A substantial part of exploration can be done without understanding core concepts like, for example, binary trees. The Literature suggests several effective ways to get started and exploratory programming is known to be one of them. A few other solid reasons for digital humanists to learn programming can be found in Nick Montfort’s arguments.

According to Montfort, programming will allow scholars to think in new ways, offer them a better understanding of culture and media system, and can help to improve society. It is sensible to develop these arguments a bit further, for instance, by looking at humanities’ thinking with computers. Humans interact with technology using the knowledge they already have without realizing that; by trying and testing, they obtain new knowledge that broadens the horizons of their minds. Programming also helps to develop humanistic and artistic thinking when, for example, a person works on designing projects. Thinking with computers can contribute to various processes, including engineering, business, art and humanities. It is proven that programming can help digital humanists to apply new methods of research to the questions that have always interested them.

Without any programming skills scholars are limited in their ability to build things, like builders without necessary tools. As Kirschenbaum puts it, “computers are no longer black boxes”11. Digital humanists should be in a process of transformation from readers and users to builders and makers. Finally, a vast amount of literature is dedicated to general benefits to society that digital humanists with programming skills can bring. The digital world is a complex realm with millions of people accessing it without necessarily understanding how it works. It is now becoming crucial to have at least basic knowledge of how media and communicating systems are programmed. It will allow many students to understand why developers or designers makes a certain choice and more importantly, to avoid being manipulated. Some of the programs like BASIC, Photoshop and word-processing software are undeniably related to changes in computer, visual and literary cultures. Some scholars argue about a gap between the two cultures of computer science and humanities.

One of the ways to bridge this gap is to encourage humanists to learn programming, taking into consideration the fact that the majority of computer scientists had at least some humanitarian courses in literature or history. It is argued that digital humanists with coding skills allow a better communication and an interdisciplinary collaboration in between two fields. Summarizing provided arguments, it becomes clear that computer science is no longer a forbidden realm for humanists. They are strongly recommended to indulge into codes and algorithms, create new social spaces or develop utopias via computer games. The possibilities are truly endless. Basic coding skills are essential for scholars who want to build and express their ideas using machines. Programming will allow them to think in new ways, explore and be justly called digital humanists. With the right approach, skills and tricks of programming, humanities will become an open book for the generation of cultural and creative explorers. Digital humanities scholars are yet to realize what a profound impact their potential programming skills might have on society in general. Therefore, it is expected that universities encourage digital humanists to take up programming courses and explore the countless benefits that programming skills bring along.


  1. Bogost, I., “Procedural Literacy. Problem Solving with Programming, Systems, and Play”, in the Journal of Media Literacy, 52 (2005), no. 1-2. EduTech Wiki, “Procedural literacy”, <> (17 April, 2017).
  2. Humphrey, D., “Towards a definition of the Code Poet”, <> (13 April, 2017)
  3. Kirschenbaum, M., “Hello Worlds”. Chronicle of Higher Education, 2009, Vol.55(20). < Worlds/5476>
  4. Perl Monks, “Black Perl”, <> (13 April, 2017).
  5. Ramsay, S., “On Building”, Stephen Ramsay Blog, 11 January, 2011 <> (17 April, 2017).
  6. Schmidt, B., “Do Digital Humanists Need to Understand Algorithms?”, in Gold M. & Klein L. (Eds.), Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016, (Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota Press, 2016).
  7. Schreibman, S., Siemens, R., Unsworth, J., A new companion to digital humanities (Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture; 93), (Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, 2016).
  8. Underwood, T., “Where to Start with text Mining”, <> (12 April, 2017).

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Digital Humanities Scholars Should Learn How to Program. (2021, Sep 29). Retrieved from

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