This past spring I wrote a seminar paper called “Write the Color-Line into Coding as Literacy.” In this paper I Iooked back historically and thought about how African American intellectuals have considered literacy, and then suggested some parallels to coding based on a review of the literature that compares literacy to code.
The discourse on coding as literacy treated programming language as a tool unencumbered by any ideology. This reminded me of the autonomous model of ideology, as explained by Brian Street, that historically reading and writing was also treated as a neutral skill, a purely beneficial skill that resulted in both tangible and intangible gains, but it was actually tied closely to ideology. Literacy was and still is used to exclude other people and to assert power over others. The history of African Americans in this country is just one example.
If we were to take the coding as literacy argument seriously, we should ensure that aspects of race enter the discussion. This would avoid a historical repeat in which people of color struggle to gain access to programming language while Whites monopolize on this opportunity to code (looking at the diversity reports from Google, Facebook, and Apple, that is already the case).
As a starting point for this conversation, I described how African Americans considered literacy as a tool not only for economic and functional reasons, but also to generate intellectual thought and art. I focused on the Harlem Renaissance when many African Americans really began to position themselves within the White American mainstream culture. Alain Locke declared the early 1900s a tipping point by releasing his anthology of creative and intellectual Blacks’ work, a showcase, if you will, of the culture they had to offer America through the lens of Black identity.
I found that programming language also had similar uses, not just for building software, for making every aspect of our everyday lives run, but also for art (code poetry) and intellectual thought (Critical Code Studies and Software Studies). I concluded with a series of questions, but the main idea was this: How can computational literacy instruction take into account the educational background and experience of African Americans? More broadly, how can intellectual, artistic, and even activism through code be enriched by other identities–people in the LGBTQ community, other people of color, those with disabilities.
My colleagues in Composition and Rhetoric and in curriculum and instruction were receptive to my project. My faculty mentor and my faculty advisor in particular thought the seminar paper could lead to a long-term research project. This summer I’ve considered what direction I could take this project. Two ideas come to mind: one links to the argument that everyone should code while the other links to the argument that no, not everyone should code but they should at least understand how coding, or software, works.
The first is doing an ethnographic study of African American computer programmers. Considering that my seminar paper diverged away from utilitarian uses of code, I would investigate programmers living off the grid, so to speak. Men and women who code in DIY fashion, doing code as a hobby or as an interest or even for social justice. What are the literacy practices of these programmers? What contributions do they make to coding and how can we bring whatever values and practices they have to the programming community that has marginalized, ignored, or just hasn’t noticed their existence? This project, then, would look at coding-as-action, and would mostly likely fall under digital literacy studies. I’ve noticed that ethnographic studies in this field looks primarily at how people use programs on the screen–Twitter, text messaging, Facebook, video games. But I haven’t seen anyone go underneath these projects and look at coding itself as a literate practice. So I think this project may contribute to digital literacy studies, push the field to think about coding itself.
One difficulty with this project is finding participants. Where would I go to find programmers? Possibly attend hackathon events focused on people of color? What are my other choices?
The second project steps away from the seminar paper but adds another thread at the same time. Taking up the idea that we should at least understand how coding works, this project would investigate the logic and worldview of coding and software. In other words, how does coding and software’s perspective on information and end-users perpetuate unintended racism, classism, or sexism? What cultural and social values bleed through code and software, and what are the ramifications for this values as other people–people of color in particular–enter spaces to learn programming languages? This second project is rooted in the work of other scholars such as Adam J. Banks and Tara McPherson, but especially Cynthia and Richard Selfe’s “Politics of the Interface,” which examines how the design of computer interfaces perpetuate “the systematic domination and marginalization of certain groups of students, including among them: women, non-whites, and individuals who speak languages other than English” (481). This second project would probably rely heavily on using a theoretical framework to analyze texts articles and personal journal entries or conversations about code.
These are preliminary ideas that needs further refinement as I continue reading current and past scholarship.
Banks, Adam J. Race, Rhetoric, and Technology: Searching for Higher Ground. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 2005. Print.
—. “Looking Forward to Look Back: Technology Access and Transformation in African American Rhetoric.” African American Rhetoric(s): Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Eds.Elaine Richardson and Ronald Jackson II. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004. Print.
McPherson, Tara. “U,S. Operating Systems at Mid-Century: The Intertwining of Race and UNIX.” Race after the Internet Eds. Lisa Nakamura and Peter A. Chow-White. New York: NY: Routledge, 2012. 21-37. Print.
Selfe, Cynthia and Richard Selfe. “Politics of the Interface.” College Composition and Communication 45.4 (1994): 480-504. PDF.