Coding as Inquiry

Writing, as many of us know, is a form of inquiry. Ideally when we write, and when we teach our students to write, we are not simply enacting an idea we have already had, we aren’t just putting our preformed thoughts down on paper. Rather, writing itself, as an activity, is a process – a process through which we learn, think, reason, create, and adapt. Sometimes this is hard, it is much easier, much more comfortable, to write what we already know. However, writing what we already know defies why many of us were attracted to the humanities in the first place. If we write what we know, how will we learn?

This idea is in fact important enough to merit the creation of a course here at UNL entitled “Rhetoric as Inquiry,” the goal of which is to move students beyond the idea that in order to write successfully, we already have to know the answers to our questions. As a matter of fact, the best writing usually occurs when we don’t pretend to know where exactly we are going. In some sense, the process of writing can become externalized consciousness. It can provide moments of self-reflexivity. As Katherine Hayles observes in her new book, How We Think, this type of action creates complex feedback loops; we think something, the process of writing changes our thoughts, which changes our writing, which changes our thoughts… Not only do our thoughts and the act of writing effect each other, other factors play key roles as well, such as the boundaries of language, the rules of the medium we are working in, and genre conventions. All of these things mesh together to form complex webs, networks, and loops. A writer may be heavily influenced by genre constraints, but a writer may also reinvent a genre.

We know all these things about writing, the scholarly act that in many ways defines the humanities, but can we also apply this focus on process as inquiry to the methodologies that shape DH? Hayles argues that we certainly can and I quite agree. Much of How We Think reminded me of the TEI, and the ways that using text encoding shaped my own work. Hayles writes: “attention selects from the vast repertoire of physical attributes some characteristics for notice, and they in turn constitute and objects materiality. Materiality, like the object itself, is not a pre-given entity, but rather a dynamic process.” I was working on a project a while ago in which I was using XML to encode speech acts and verbs of speech in some Russian texts. Since I was designing my own schema (or blueprint for the XML), not only was I choosing which characteristics were important to “notice,” I was also deciding how such characteristics should be named, structured, and categorized. “Dynamic process” pretty much sums up the experience, since I kept returning to the schema to alter it in accordance with my reading, and then kept returning to the text to alter my reading in accordance with the new schema. Before starting the project, I had a rough idea of what I wanted to encode, but the process of encoding dramatically changed my ideas, thoughts, conclusions, and questions about the text.

So, if coding, and other forms of media interactions (viewing, editing, tweeting, blogging) can be viewed as processes that constitute acts of inquiry, then the next question becomes: are the current conventions, boundaries, and rules of new media, creating situations that optimize inquiry? What type of inquiry? Or, as Hayles puts it, how can we “use digital media to intervene in the cycles of continuous reciprocal causality so that one is not simply passively responding to the pressures of accelerating information flow…” Perhaps a first step is to acknowledge the legitimate status of coding as a process that leads to a new type of thinking, a type of thinking that is not objective of free from interpretation. Writing is wonderful and useful because, as inquiry, it provides us with a new way of seeing. Why can’t we view coding in the same way? The other incredibly useful conclusion of Hayles’ argument is that those of us in the humanities need to accept a greater degree of responsibility for forming the tools we use. It might be useful to continue to think of these tools as analogous to writing: written texts shape us, they shape our construction of our own identity and they inform our perceptions of the exterior world. It is important for us to acknowledge that shaping, and, when necessary, to question it, critique it, and push back against it.

5 thoughts on “Coding as Inquiry

  1. Brilliant post! I too always wonder why scholars, or even students/researchers in general, are reluctant to the ‘usefulness’ of coding. They either ignore or reject its ability to prompt new questions in the field. As you say, why not treat coding as a writing language in the same manner of writing itself? I guess this would change with time, mainly induced by the technogenesis that Hayles writes about. Also by the collaborative nature of DH, which can contribute in promulgate the practicality of this new form of reading. Still, we have a lot of work ahead to make coding a speaking/writing language.

  2. Your post makes me think about technogenesis in a new sort of way – if coding isn’t value-neutral (as you argue and I agree), might there not be a sort of discourse of coding, in which scholars program new critical tools in conversation with each other? Might we not forward the great humanities project that way? It seems that the book doesn’t necessarily address that idea, but it’s something of a natural outgrowth of everything we’ve discussed so far.

  3. I think the point you make is spot on Gabi. Anybody who has coded and/or done any sort of work with text markup and encoding knows that it changes the way you think about a text, and is clearly an act of interpretation. And as you point out, for somebody like yourself who has designed their own schema or DTD, the reciprocal nature of the process is even more pronounced, because you not only have to think about how and when to “follow the rules” of the schema, but also about what “the rules” are in the first place. “Dynamic process” indeed.

  4. I agree with Kevin: we are inquiring into our choices that we make in a dynamic process of deciding what is important, what the rules are, and how to break and follow them. I think about Prufrock: there will be time to murder and create, time for all the works and days of hands that lift and drop a question on your plate.

  5. Reblogged this on englishisthenewmath and commented:
    Thoughts from a digital humanist on the day to day of DTD

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