Black Girl Learns to Code: “Computing for the Humanities”

William & Mary offers a week long, no credit course for graduate students called “Computing for the Humanities.” If you remember, I spent time last semester in community with Black digital humanities scholars at “Intentionally Digital, Intentionally Black” and then spent a lot of time afterwards trying to understand how my own work fit into this larger conversation about the digital. So naturally, after deciding that my scholarship fit into this conversation about digital humanities, the next step was to then increase my knowledge of the field. I was already enrolled in a Digital Humanities (DH) course, but I wanted more. I wanted to learn how to code.

So I signed up for “Computing for the Humanities” not really knowing what to expect. After the week long course was over, I was surprised at how much I had learned. Professor Deverick was kind and patient with us as we learned the basics of computing, built on those foundations, and then used the skills he equipped us with to solve our own problems. One of the most successful aspects of the course was that we spent a lot of time applying the programs we were learning to run to our own data sets; it was hands on in the best way. There was very little time spent lecturing, though Professor Deverick was very careful to explain what was happening in each line of code, which I found particularly useful as it made it much easier to replicate the example with my own data.

Each day was different, but followed the same pattern: in the mornings, we learned how to execute a program, what each of the components meant, walked through each piece together, and answered questions and attempted to problem solve. We learned how to create HTML web pages, how to scrape web pages for information, how to work with tabular data, how to create and run an Optical Character Recognition program in python, how to create visualizations, how to map things and we even had a tutorial on social media and how to scrape Twitter. Then, in the afternoons, we were set free to try our hand at executing the same program on our own data. So when we learned how to scrape web pages, I spent the afternoon collecting a CSV (comma-separated values) file full of information on my Black Girl Does Grad School posts; I created one spreadsheet collecting the title and dates of all of my posts and then another of all of the my guest posts. On the day we learned to do OCR, I spent the afternoon (unsuccessfully) trying to teach my program to read comic book pages. And on the day we did some work on social media, I was able pull down 3,200 of my own tweets and then see how many of them included references to my friend Micah (LOL).

The feeling of successfully creating a code and seeing it run properly is unparalleled. I was always so pleasantly surprised when anything ran correctly, and was always brimming with pride when visualizations popped up or when I was able to write a code (almost) on my own. Part of why I loved doing this work is the feeling of gratification when you have solved a problem. I think you have to be willing to fail, and be okay with failing, in order to work with computer programming. Yet, I think it’s more than being okay with failing– I think it’s more about a willingness to try and try again. It’s about a willingness to try a different way to the solution. It’s about problem solving and thinking on your feet. It’s such a creative enterprise and deeply artistic in many ways.

I love any type of project where I can show my results to my parents in a way in which they value. So for me to be able to show my dad my visualizations and my code and talk to him about what I had accomplished each day, was such a valuable experience for me.

At this particular moment in time, I’m not sure how much I will delve into programming on my own, but I know I want to try and create something, which is a pretty typical Ravynn move. If there’s anything I love, it’s making things. And the skills that I gained at “Computing for the Humanities” just gave me more tools for my arsenal. I can’t wait to see what I create.


Additionally, I just want to give a shout out to the undergraduate TAs for the course, Meg and Ali, who were wonderful and so helpful the entire week. Both of them sat with me at different junctures and walked me through how to do cool things with my information and I absolutely would not have been able to do so without them.

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