Coding, Serendipity, and Domain of One’s Own

Serendipity can be a wonderfully fruitful thing. Just after we had our first Domain of One’s Own reading group, The New York Times published To Write Better Code, Read Virginia Woolf. In the piece, author J. Bradford Hipps eloquently defends the need for more humanities students, not to counteract or stand apart from the STEM fields but because the STEM fields themselves needs more humanists. This essay, alongside our discussion, has pushed my thinking even further on the importance of our DoOO initiative here at the University of Mary Washington.

Hipps recalls his own experience as a programmer with a large technology firm. Tasked with with rewriting an extensive and complex billing system, Hipps and his mostly engineering-trained colleagues often struggled to trace the convoluted logic of the existing program, discovering that, as in a great novel, every narrative thread of code was attached to other threads and that pulling on one threatened to unravel the rest. It took a new hire with a background in music, Hipps explains, to discover how to navigate the complexity of the system, drawing upon her training as a pianist to follow intricate patterns and themes through a musical piece.

Hipps explains why, therefore, humanities training can’t be an afterthought or a “plugin,” added onto an education only after the technical intricacies of STEM have been mastered. In fact, it makes far more sense, he suggests, to begin with the liberal arts, providing students with a solid grounding in problem solving, creative thinking, and critical thinking.

Beyond my appreciation of Hipps appreciation for the fundamental importance of the liberal arts, I was drawn to the piece immediately by his reference to early 19th-century author and feminist, Virginia Woolf. When we launched Domain of One’s Own four years ago, we were aiming at providing student and faculty with their own domain names and open-source Web hosting. The title of the project is, of course, cribbed from Woolf’s 1929 text, “A Room of One’s Own,” which we have been recently revisiting in relationship to the DoOO project as it grows and expands.

In that extended essay, Woolf builds an argument for why women need space (literal and figurative) of their own in order to explore their potential as writers. Domain of One’s Own operates on the assumption that within an academic community in 2016 we need new kinds of spaces in order to explore our potential as citizens of the increasingly digital world we live in. Our own domains allow us to name and place ourselves within the larger landscape of the Web, a landscape that every day seems to dominate a new aspect of our modern lives. Open-source Web hosting allows us to instantiate ourselves within these domains, unshackled from the private, proprietary, and corporate spaces that tend to overwhelm our online experiences.

Given the name of our project and UMW’s status as a small, liberal arts college, Hipps’ juxtaposition of the realities of the field of programming with the words and ideas of Virginia Woolf seemed, frankly, serendipitous — even if Woolf serves as little more than a symbol in his title and a minor reference in his piece. His argument, more importantly, does undergird many of the values of Domain of One’s Own, and perhaps our project even extends his argument in a new direction: must we choose between STEM and humanities from the onset? Is it possible to imagine spaces, experiences, and opportunities for our students to wed the praxis of coding with the philosophies of the humanities?

I would argue that Domain of One’s Own extends Hipps argument even further. Yes, we need to figure out how to prepare a generation of students to appreciate music and code, whether they become pianists or programmers, because these two fields are more tightly woven than we often imagine. But we also must train our coders as humanists because code is never without an ethic or an agenda. As digital spaces increasingly become the platforms upon which we live our lives, we must teach students to understand that those platforms are coded spaces, built by humans with business goals, political opinions, and complex identities. There is nothing agnostic about Facebook, We the People, or Amazon. Each of them, and every other digital space we inhabit, inflicts values upon us. In the future, the world we live in will be increasingly shaped by how those values are encoded and who chooses what those values should be. Who is better able to navigate this complex landscape of technology, culture, and humanity than the liberal arts major?

Martha Fay Burtis is the Director of the Digital Knowledge Center here at University of Mary Washington.