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. 

2 Responses
  1. Thanks to Lee Skallerup for sharing the link on her Facebook page. I’m actually copy/pasting my comment from there. Thanks for your great work Martha and others here at UMW, you allow us to stand on the shoulders of giants.

    I believe that it is crucial that I train my (mostly) engineering students to express themselves on their own blogs and via social media as well as listen to the voices of others.

    Funny thing is after doing this for a couple of years, I find it normal. Other teachers are looking at me like I am from another planet; well, that is true since I’m from Canada and live in México. 🙂

  2. M le Comte

    As a recent grad working in the tech world, as an English major no less, I feel like professors have a responsibility to encourage students to figure out what they want from their degrees. It’s naïve to assume students are in school solely for the pursuit of knowledge. Higher education is one of the very few avenues a person can take after school in the pursuit of a career that provides some personal fulfilment as well as a steady living income. Long gone are the days where any ole undergraduate degree can get someone a decent paying job, and I feel like that’s honestly what many students want.
    I realize this presupposes the idea that a college degree should translate into a job, and that premise alone is subject to scrutiny. For many students however, securing employment upon graduating is paramount if not a downright necessity (depending upon how they were able to afford tuition). Yes, students can go to graduate school to further specialize their skills once they get a general “well-rounded education” at a liberal arts university. But at what price? How long will it take to pay back the loans? How might that affect someone’s position to start a family? The current costs of preschool alone rival that of in-state tuition at a public university. I’m…getting off topic.
    Sure – everyone’s experience is going to be different. In my experience, if a person is going to school to secure a “good” job, then liberal arts should come second. Critical thinking and creative problem solving alone, while essential skills in any workplace, do not translate to employment. It isn’t impossible to get one of these “good” jobs with a humanities degree, but it makes it more challenging. I was always told to study what interested me in undergrad; this would show employers I could be trained. Unfortunately most employers don’t want to waste time training anymore. They want candidates to already have quantifiable qualifications and experience. Postings for entry level position in almost any field, save maybe sales, require 1 to 3 years of experience.
    I think what I’m trying to say is that students should know liberal arts will not be enough. Major in STEM and minor in the arts. At a liberal arts school like UMW, there are still plenty of other required credits they have to pay for that will leave them with “a well-rounded education.” A STEM background will afford them the leisure of time spent on things other than the filling out of endless job applications, and a minor gives them a jumping off point for a true passion.
    I don’t regret my English degree for many reasons. Although sometimes it feels like I could have just gone to the library.

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