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[berkman] Diana Kimball: Coding as a Liberal Art

Diana Kimball [twitter:dianakimball] is giving a Berkman lunchtime talk on coding as a liberal art. She’s a Berkman Fellow and at the Harvard Business School. (Here are some of her posts on this topic.)

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

She says that she’s loved computers since she was a kid. But when she went to Harvard as an undergrad she decided to study history, in part because there’s a natural specialization that happens in college: the students who come in as coders are fantastic at coding, whereas Diana had greater strengths as a writer of prose. She found HTML and programming intimidating. But in her third year, she got interested in coding and Internet culture. She was one of the founders of ROFLcon [yay!]. She got hired by Microsoft after college, as a technical product manager with the Powerpoint team in Silicon Valley. “This was culture shock in the best possible way.”

When she graduated in 2009, she and some friends started found the SnarkMarket blog that considers what the new liberal arts might be (inspired by Kottke). She wrote an essay that’s a proposal for coding and decoding. She reads it. (It’s short.) An excerpt:

Coding and Decoding is about all modes of communication, and all are in its view. But it is built with particular attention to the future, and what that future will be like. Technological experts can seem like magicians, conjuring effects wordlessly. By approaching that magic as a collection of component parts instead of an indivisible miracle, we can learn to see through these sleights of typing hands. In seeing through, we will learn to perform them ourselves; and think, as magicians, about the worlds we will build.

Language, now, is about more than communication. It is the architecture behind much of what we experience. Understanding that architecture will allow us to experience more.

Her boyfriend taught her how to code. They spent a lot of time on it. “He picked up on something I’d said and took it seriously.” After two years at Microsoft, she was enthusiastic, but still a beginner. It wasn’t until she started at Harvard Business School that coding really took off for her. The entrepreneurial atmosphere encouraged her to just do it. Plus, she was more of a geek than most of the other students. “This was great for my identity, and for my confidence.” She also found it a social refuge. “It takes a lot of time to get over the hump.” She refers to Ellen Ullman’s “Close to the Machine” that talks about the utility of being arrogant enough to obsess over a project, cycling back to humility.

She decided to code up her own site for a project for school, even though the team had been given the money to hire devs for the task. Last fall she took the famous CS50 course [Harry Lewis, who created the course in about 1981, is sitting next to me.] CS50 teaches C, targeted at people who are either taking only that one class, or are going to take many more. For her final project, she did a project that used multiple APIs that she was very proud of. She’s also proud of her Ruby projects folder. Each project is something she was trying to teach herself. She’s more proud of the list than the finished products.

“Learning to code means reclaiming patience and persistence and making them your stubborn own.” [nice]

Ideally, everyone should be exposed to programming, starting at 5 yrs old, or even earlier, Diana says. Seymore Papert’s “Mind-Storms” has greatly influenced her thinking about how coding fits into education and citizenship. At a university, it ought to be taken as a liberal art. She quotes Wikipedia’s definition. And if “grammar, rhetoric, and logic were the core of the liberal arts,” then that’s sound like coding. [Hmm.] What the law was to the liberal arts, programming ought to be, i.e., that which you try if you don’t know what else to do with your liberal arts degree.

Why isn’t it seen that way? When computer scientists teach you, they teach they way they learned: at school. But many of the best programmers are self-taught. CS50 does give a variety of assignments, but it’d be better if students solved their own problems much earlier.

But the number one problem is the academic attitude, she says. Students get fixated on the grade, even when it doesn’t matter. Coding is critical for children because debugging is part of it, as Papert says. But grades are based on the endpoints. Coding is much more like life: You’re never done, you can always make it better.

Diana has a proposal. Suppose coding classes were taught like creative writing workshops. Take it whenever you’re ready. Taught by hackers, esepcially autodidacts. It’d vary in substance — algorithms, apis, etc. — and you’d get to choose. You’d get to see something on screen that you’d never seen before And you’d be evaluated on ingenuity and persistence, rather than only on how well your code runs.

She says what her syllabus would look like:

“Coding should be taught in the same breath as expository writing… Everyone deserves to be exposed to it.” She’s not sure if it should be required.

She quotes Papert: “…the most powerful idea of all is the idea of powerful ideas.” There’s no better example of this, she says, than open source software. And David Foster Wallace’s commencement address: “Learning how to think really means learning to exercise some control over how and what you think…If you cannot exercise this sort of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.” Diana says that’s her. She was wrapped up in writing from an early age. She has a running internal commentary. [Join the club!] Coding swaps in a different monologue, one in which she’s inventing thing. That’s the greatest gift: her internal monologue is much more useful and interesting. “If you wanted to be a novelist in 1900, you’d want to be a programmer today.” The experience of creating something that people use is so motivating.


Q: Would you be willing to webcast yourself programming and let people join in? I do this all the time when at hackathons. I think, OMG, there must be 10,000 kids in India who want to be here. And so here they are. “Hackers at Berkeley” does this really well.

A: That’s awesome. I want more people to have more access to that experience of sharing.

Q: Are you familiar with RailsBridge — non-computer scientists who are teaching themselves how to code via weekend workshops.

A: RailsBridge is extraordinary. It’s great to see this happening outside of the university context.

A: [me] Great talk, and I’m a humanities major who spends most of his hobby time programming. But aren’t you recommending the thing that you happen to love? And programming as opposed to traditional logic is an arbitrary set of rules…

Q: Yes, but it would be really useful if more people loved it. We could frame it in a way that is exciting for humanities majors. I’m proposing an idea rather than making an airtight argument. “You’re basically right but I don’t really care” (she says laughing :).

Q: I like your idea of teaching it like a writers workshop so that it doesn’t turn into just another course. But I’m not sure that colleges are the best at doing that.

A: not everyone loves programming.

Q: [harry lewis] I take responsibility for eliminating the Harvard requirement for a programming course. Also, take a look at Third, the academic world treats computer science the way it does because of our disciplinary specialization. That label — computer science — came about in the context of fields like political science, and arose when computers were used not for posting web sites but for putting people on the Moon where a bug could kill someone. The fact that CompSci exists in academic departments will make it very difficult for your vision of computing to exist, just as creative writing is often an uneasy fit into English curricula.

A: That’s very fair. I know it’d be hard. RIT has separate depts for CompSci and coding.

Q: There’s an emergent exploration of coding in Arts schools, with a much more nimble, plug and play approach, very similar to the one you describe. My question: What do the liberal arts have to offer coding? Much of coding is quite new, e.g., open source. These could be understood within a historical context. Maybe these need to be nurtured, explored, broken. Does seeing coding as a liberal art have something to offer sw development?

A: ITP is maybe the best example of artists working with coders. Liberal Arts can teach programmers so much!

Q: Can we celebrate failure? That’d be a crucial part of any coding workshop.

A: Yes! Maybe “find the most interesting bug” and reward introspection about where you’ve gone wrong. But it’s hard in a class like CS50 where you’re evaluating results.

Q: This is known as egoless programming. It’s 40 years old, from Weinberger [no relation].

Q: You’re making a deeper point, which is not just about coding. The important thing is not the knowledge you get, but the way you get there. Being self-reflective about you came about how you learn. You can do this with code but with anything.

A: You’re so right. Introspection about the meta-level of learning is not naturally part of a course. But Ruby is an introspective language: you can ask any object what it is, and it will tell you. This is a great mirror for trying to know yourself better.

Q: What would you pick to teach?

A: I love Ruby. It would be a good choice because there’s a supportive community so students can learn on their own afterwards, and it’s an introspective language. And the lack of ornament in Ruby (no curly braces and little punctuation) makes it much more like English. The logic is much more visible. (My preference is Sinatra, not Rails.)

Q: What sort of time commitment the average person would have to put in to have a basic grasp of a programming language? Adults vs. children learning it?

A: I’d love to see research on this. [Audience: Rottmeyers, CMU (?)] A friend of mine reported he spent 20 hours. The learning curve is very halting at first. It’s hard to teach yourself. It helps to have a supportive in-person environment. CS50 is a 10-20 hour commitment/week and who has that sort of time except for fulltime students? To teach yourself, start out a few hours a time.

Q: How about where the MOOCs are going? Can you do a massively online course in compSci that would capture some of what you’re talking about?

A: The field is so focused on efficiency that MOOCs seem like an obvious idea. I think that a small workshop is the right way to start. CS50 requires so much fear of failure and resilience that it wouldn’t have been a good way for me to start. At CS50, you can’t let others read your code.

Q: We shouldn’t put together Computer Science and programming. Programming is just a layer of expression on top of computer science. You don’t need compSci to become a programmer. And the Net is the new computer; we’re gluing together services from across the Net. That will change how people think about programming because eveyrone will be able to do it. The first language everyone should learn is

Q: I’m a NY Times journalist. I love languages. And I love the analogy you draw. I’m 30. Do you think coding is really essential? Would it open my eyes as a journalist?

A: It’s never too late. If you keep asking the question, you should probably do it. You don’t have to be good at it to get a lot out of it. It’s so cool that your children are learning multiple languages including coding. Learn alongside them.

Read the original blog entry...

More Stories By David Weinberger

David is the author of JOHO the blog ( He is an independent marketing consultant and a frequent speaker at various conferences. "All I can promise is that I will be honest with you and never write something I don't believe in because someone is paying me as part of a relationship you don't know about. Put differently: All I'll hide are the irrelevancies."

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