Research Recap: Burns on Coding and "Intellectual Craft" at Trinity University

By Patrick J. Burns

This October I was invited to the Collaborative for Learning and Teaching at Trinity University in San Antonio to give a talk on academic research workflows, specifically a talk about where computer programming has fit into my scholarly activity in my previous postdoctoral roles in the UT-Austin’s Quantitative Criticism Lab and Harvard’s Culture, Cognition, and Coevolution Lab, and now in my job as Research Scholar at ISAW. The talk was called “Coding as an Intellectual Craft,” its title inspired by an essay from 1952 by sociologist C. Wright Mills. In this essay Mills offers his students a glimpse into his research habits and how they relate to scholarly productivity. For Mills, the pedagogical imperative was “Tell me how you work.” He continues: “Only by conversations in which [we] exchange information about [our] actual, informal ways of working can ‘method’ ever really be imparted.” Taking a page from Mills’ book, I approached my talk as an opportunity to exchange the actual and informal workflows of the academic coder. I took the audience through the mechanics of my scholarly workflow, specifically the use of IDEs, virtual environments, and cookiecutter workflows, and how these code-specific practices have not only helped me become a better programmer, but have also made me a stronger writer overall.

With this talk, I was particularly interested in connecting the genre of writing advice books (books like Joli Jensen’s Write No Matter What, Paul J. Silvia’s How to Write a Lot or Robert Boice’s Professors as Writers: A Self-help Guide to Productive Writing). What I found was that the definitions of the “productive” academic in the literature from Mills forward focused— unsurprisingly!—on writing. Writing books, writing chapters, writing articles, writing notes. Basically, writing academic prose. But what about researchers like myself whose scholarly output is in no small part the product of writing computer programs? We do not (yet) have shelves stocked with books like How to Code a Lot or Program No Matter What. Where is the Professors as Coders guide? As I prepared this talk for the Collaborative—as well as another recent talk on “pragmatic” scholarship for Digital Humanities at Washington and Lee University—I thought to myself that the ISAW Library blog would be a good place for me to share my thoughts on the “intellectual craft” of academic coding. Watch this space in the upcoming year.

During my visit to Trinity, I was also invited to give a workshop on getting started with computational text analysis to an undergraduate Latin course taught by Tim O’Sullivan. The class had been reading Plautus’s Latin comedy Menaechmi this semester, painstakingly working their way through the text with all of the hallmarks of close Latin reading—parsing each noun and verb, hunting for the antecedents of relative clauses, wrestling with the peculiarities of Plautine style. But what I really wanted to impress upon the students was how we can leverage computer programming to “read” a lot of Latin, that is, to ask similar questions not just of Menaechmi, but of all of Plautus’ plays or all of Plautus and Terence’s plays. What does it take to write code to reveal broad-based patterns positioning Menaechmi within the entire corpus of Latin literature? This was the Plautus-heavy version of a workshop I have given so far this year at Stanford University and Universität Rostock. Moreover the workshop is the basis for my current book project, Exploratory Philology: Learning About Ancient Languages through Computer Programming. The “book”—I put it in quotation marks since it is, in fact, a collection of hosted code notebooks organized in a booklike fashion—consists of around 50 philological text-analysis tasks designed to show students of Latin, Ancient Greek, and other ancient languages how computer code can help them better describe the texts that they work with or make novel discoveries within them or even transform them into new formats. Work on Exploratory Philology continues, but the book will be finished in time to be used for the text-specific parts of next fall’s offering of ISAW’s Introduction to Digital Humanities for the Ancient World course.