why english majors should learn to code

(and why we need them to)

(Originally published 3/9/14)

A few weeks ago I was at the flagship Half Price Books, a rambling mass of pre-owned perfection. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, until a chain reaction of book titles and daydreams reminded me I’d been meaning to read Gödel Escher Bach. It’s quite an interdisciplinary read, so I went to the information desk to ask what section I could find it in. Math? Philosophy? Science? Psychology? It’s defiance of classification makes for a fascinating read but a difficult search.

If they had a copy (they didn’t) it would have been in Science Writing. Instead I got another book by Douglas Hofstadter, Metamagical Themas, which someone on the internet said was better than Gödel Escher Bach anyways.

I like it so far. Hofstadter writes in such a tapestried way that he could work any dissimilar themes into a worthwhile, insightful piece. But what takes his writing above mere amusement is that you can tell how passionate he is about the subjects he combines. Standing alone the topics are informative — woven together they’re magic. And we need more magic.

I’m writing this from where my worlds collide. I’m writing this as someone who majored in English. As a current graduate student studying human-computer interaction. As someone who’s asked all the time: wow what made you make that change? and aren’t they totally different? and why didn’t you stick with English?

I don’t get tired of answering these questions, I don’t get tired of explaining the things I love. How the way we make sense of the world is through stories. How we can apply this to artificial intelligence for more intuitive systems. How our journey through the technological landscape is a narrative itself. I love it.

And I would love to see more people, students, artists, creators move through passions unconfined.

I’m sure we need more developers who understand biology, journalists with a deep knowledge of statistics, and politicians from literally everywhere else besides law, but I’m writing this from a place I know.

And I know more English majors should learn to program. If they’re interested in technology or in having more power, more say in how we communicate today, they should at least not automatically write it off. Why?

  1. They’ll be good at it because they get the Big Things

English majors are comfortable with the idea that text is powerful, that it takes words to create worlds. They’re familiar with grammar, semantics, and syntax, which are all intertwined with the most necessary aspect of code creation: logic. They’re used to the esoteric, to a corpus of knowledge beyond any one person’s understanding, and the research this requires.

2. They’ll be good at it because they get the Little Things

They can switch from comprehensively thinking of the work as a whole down to the minutia of a single word or mark of punctuation. Oh, your code is not working because you forgot to close a parentheses? This isn’t a ridiculous detail, and English majors of all people won’t get frustrated that a language would require such exactness for understanding.

3. It’s an employable skill

Look, I’m not your parents. And I honestly believe no matter what you major in, you can get a job doing almost anything (this is a REALLY great guide for that). But if you feel drawn to the cutting edge, if you’re interested in working at a tech company, just know that you don’t have to stay in HR or marketing because you don’t have a technical degree. Use the degree and skills you do have to propel yourself forward.

It goes the other way too. As a community, tech companies, organizations, start ups, and groups could benefit substantially from embracing people who come to them not from the typical channels, but a wider variety of streams. Because:

  1. We need better written stuff

Do you think an English major would have created PHP, with its grotesque abuse of the poor quotation mark? No. It’s okay, the onus of conjuring a sleek new language has been lifted, Python is beautiful enough for now. But documentation and tutorials are typically poorly written, often to the point of convolution. I know some people who spent four years studying how to best convey an idea in the English language that could help with that…

2. We need more interesting things

You got me — this was a trick.

This is essentially why I wrote this whole post. To coerce liberal arts undergrads to dabble in programming. Because I am selfish and because I am bored.

I am bored with technology for the sake of technology.

Give me something better. More code poetry slams. More pixilated flash games with goddamn deep narratives. More helpless robots.

There is a heavy richness to the humanities that softens technology into something that slips inside your soul. It adds something that makes you want to laugh, or cry, or exhibit any other emotion besides retweet.

Learn to code and build something beautiful.

P.S. Here’s a great, long article about programming and humanities majors.