Illiterate in Coding

I’m bad at math. A lot of people are bad at math, and there are lots of reasons for that, but as an English educator I want to focus on one reason, literacy. People tend to think of the English discipline when they hear the word literacy, but there are actually many more types of literacy than people realize. Math has a literacy to it. You have to be able to understand the deeper meaning that certain sets of symbols have when placed together in order to decipher the code. I’m talking about solving an equation, but I may as well be talking about reading a complex story or poem. I’m literate enough in math to solve basic equations, but it takes a lot of mental gymnastics. I have to look up the order of operation, use a calculator, and probably phone a friend. It isn’t second nature to me because I’ve never been interested in math, so I never bothered to become really fluent in math. However, I can write ten pages analyzing a single poem just for fun. I’m the annoying English major who will obsess over why a green light is green and what that means. I understand the way the authors use motifs through their writing because I was interested in English enough to become very proficient at the skills involved in the discipline. Beyond being literate enough to understand the symbols involved with math or English, there’s also the jargon involved with those and other disciplines. It helps to have the right vocabulary to talk about a discipline. Where I’m leading this is in the title, there is a literacy to coding too. 

This is something that I knew on a surface level before we had to go home. It was while we were getting into the thick of Git Bash that I began to understand that coding in a type of literacy. My journals that are full of commands are just vocabulary lists. That made the work we were doing in class a lot less daunting. I had a real handle on things, but then we were in the middle of class when we found out that we were coming back after spring break. Starting online classes took a huge toll on me because I love learning above everything else. I want to be an educator because I’m a life-long learner. Not having classes anymore hurt, especially in this class because I didn’t feel like I had learned a lot yet. I took this class because I knew there was so much I had to learn in it. When I decided to take this class, I had several expectations. I was excited to learn more about English in the digital age because I want to be able to assure my future students that English is still useful and worth learning more about. My main expectation was to be learning about the role English takes in the technology age. I thought we would be discussing how English as a discipline needs to react to technology in order to stay relevant, current, and updated. Needless to say, it was quite the shock to find out that no one could define digital humanities, and I’m still waiting on an answer to the question, what is digital humanities? I think that the class as a whole weren’t quite literate in code enough to keep up with what we were supposed to be getting done. That’s no one’s fault, but then on top of us being behind, COVID 19 hit. Because we weren’t having synchronous classes anymore, I decided to do my own research. I realized that I knew very little about coding save for what we did in class, but from the little I knew, I could tell that coding is just another type of literacy. There are symbols, orders of operation,  I am far from fluent in any type of code, but I would say that I am really good at understanding poetry which has a ton of symbols as well. In order to approach digital humanities from a lens I might be able to understand, I combined coding and poetry. 

It turns out that I’m not the first person to think of this. There are whole books of code poetry. I read several poems from the book Code Poetry: Poems Written in Programming Languages, and I did not understand them at all at first! It turns out that there are poems in every type of programming language, not just markdown. I had to do a lot of research for every poem I read. I combined my ability to analyze poetry with the little knowledge I had and was gaining about coding, and it was incredibly challenging and fun. One some level I knew that programming languages are languages, but I never thought of them as languages that could tell stories and convey deeper meanings. It showed me that code and English can not only coexist but cooperate with one another. There is room for the literacy of coding in the English discipline, and when the two work together, the result is complex, creative, and keeping English current in the digital age.

Universal Design for Literature

Tribes in Africa were calling each other way before the invention of any modern means of long-distance or instant communication were invented. However, their technological breakthrough was ignored because of racism and western-centrism. These tribes could have conversations with one another from miles apart in a language spoken by drums and their drummers. Before you could just pick up your phone to check the news or call a friend, these tribes were communicating news of arrivals, warnings, and even jokes with one another by using their drums. This kind of innovation closely resembles a principle that comes from architecture and education. What in the world does architecture have to do with education? They are both the most effective when using universal design. Universal design is when architects consider all types of abilities when they are creating a new building. This leads to fully functional and incorporated wheelchair ramps, elevators, and anything else that may help people who have disabilities navigate the space. You can tell a building hasn’t been built by anyone who’s heard of universal design when there is a rickety wheelchair ramp awkwardly slapped onto it. In education this is called universal design for learning. When writing a lesson plan a teacher can either write a lesson plan for the general population of the classroom and then modify it for students with special needs or write a lesson plan with all students in mind. Often the lesson plan that’s written with the individual students in mind is better for all students, not just those with special needs. 

What does this have to do with talking drums? Well universal design is only just picking up traction because people have a very difficult time thinking about people with disabilities if they don’t have one themself. Why would an architect who doesn’t use a wheelchair think to incorporate a ramp into the design of a building? Furthermore, people often don’t realize that making things accessible for people with disabilities can be useful for everyone. For example, no one expected texting to be popular. Texting was simply a late addition to phones so that people who are deaf could use phones to communicate. Personally, I hate talking on the phone, but I text constantly. I’m not deaf, but this addition to phones is something I use every single day. No one thought that it would be popular because it was originally thought of as something only people who are deaf would use. People who don’t have disabilities have an incredibly hard time realizing that things designed with all types of abilities in mind are usually more effective. Similarly, Europeans “described Africans as ‘primitive’ and ‘animistic’ (Gleick 16) which is why the drum system never caught on anywhere else. People couldn’t see past their racism much like today people have a difficult time seeing past their ableism. 

This affects the world of literature, and especially digital literature, much more than anyone might realize. A huge question people in humanities have today is, where do the humanities fit in this ever-growing technological world? People wonder what’s lost when a book is no longer ink on paper, but they never question what’s gained. With computers, books are more accessible to everyone. Audio books help people who are visually impaired or have a reading disability such as dyslexia access the world of literature easily. Not only are audio books more accessible than something such as braille, people who don’t have a visual impairment or reading disability also enjoy audio books. The ease of access to audio books and furthermore eBooks has sparked a revival of reading. More people can read or listen to books right on their phone. While academics wonder what we’re losing by converting our reading from paper to computer, they don’t realize that this opens the world of literature to a whole group of people who previously weren’t able to access books this easily. Instead of following the lead of the Europeans when faced with the talking drums, humanities academics should take the transfer of books from physical to digital seriously as it invites more people into the conversation. Ignoring what can be gained from literature’s collision with technology would be as foolish as waiting years and years for Morse Code when the talking drums exist as a means of instant communication. Letting racism blind them from all of the technology and culture of Africa was a major mistake made by the world. The same mistake shouldn’t be made when it comes to adapting universal design to literature. Just because texting was made for people who are deaf, doesn’t mean that everyone else doesn’t benefit from it. Similarly, just because audio books benefit people who have visual impairments or reading disabilities doesn’t mean that everyone else can’t also benefit from them.

Switching to universal design in literature may seem like going “directly from the talking drum to the mobile phone, skipping over the intermediate stages” (Gleick 27), but it’s not as far fetched of an idea as it may seem. Just like how the talking drums are not that different from the mobile phone in their goal or level of complexity (while the drums didn’t require the invention of the computer, you don’t have to learn an entirely new language that involves no alphabet to use your cell phone), the traditional form of literature is not that different from a universal design of literature that’s built to include all types of people within its community.