Coding: Baby steps towards a new form of communication

Of course, the first blog post of the Time Sensitive is about coding. Not because I love it madly, but because coding may be one of the most, if not the most important and difficult learning curves in the career of aspiring digital historians. As someone who speaks three languages, reads four, and switches back and forth between two of them throughout the day, I full heartedly believe that coding will be the hardest process of language learning I have ever experienced. And there is more than one reason for that. 

The first reason is that it requires as much practice as any other language, but you can’t speak it, listen to a podcast in coding, or watch a movie with coding subtitles to do so. The best way to learn it might be by using a terminal to do small tasks that we would normally do through user-friendly GUIs (Graphic User Interface). For example, creating file directories, opening text files, editing them, moving files around, etc. Dr. Amanda Regan, my supervisor and co-director of the digital mapping project Mapping the Gay Guides, suggested iTerm2, a terminal emulator for MacOS, and gave me good tips on how to set up appearance and visual layout of the program in a way that makes it seem less scary. iTerm2 and Visual Studio Code have been good choices to kick off the learning process for a layman like me.

Opening a plain-text file in iTerm2.

The second reason is that it can be quite a lonely process. To work on the digital side of Mapping the Gay Guides has forced me to run the terminal and complete short tasks like the ones I mentioned above so that I could get bigger tasks done in the future. Dr. Regan also introduced me to GitHub, an interesting coding network platform well suited for large-scale collaborative projects with multiple working teams across the country. GitHub allows people to share their codes, keep track of changes to their data, and get valuable feedback. It’s great for data transparency and collaboration, and it sure makes coding less of a lonely road.

My profile on GitHub.

The third reason is more of a personal one, but for me, the variety of coding languages out there with their particularities can be overwhelming. I’ve heard about R, Python, SQL, and JavaScript jut as much as I’ve heard of new Marvel movies and TV shows on streaming services these past couple of years. Those languages are everywhere, and they can be used for so many different goals that require different levels of understanding of each language’s proprieties.

But recently, I came to realize that learning one of them might mitigate the struggle of learning (or dealing with) others. Short lessons like the ones offered in Codecademy are really helpful resources in this sense. My advisor and program director Dr. Douglas Seefeldt had us take two of them for his Digital Methods in History seminar. We took the first lessons of HTML and CSS during class and I’m excited to keep working on them in the near future. They were concise and hands-on lessons that helped me understand HTML as a markup language and CSS as a style language, which means that the former builds a static page while the latter adds more options of presentation and style to a webpage. Simple as that, and not as scary as those movie scenes with hackers invading government networks make it seem.

CSS lesson practice on Codecademy.

If you don’t even know where to start, Codecademy is the way to go. It will start by explaining the very structure of HTML (body, division, headings, paragraphs, names and values of attributes, etc) until you’re able to do more complex stuff and build your own webpage. And it will do the same for other coding languages until you’re able to understand the principles behind them and work with a variety of possible languages as needed. The secret, it seems, is to focus on one of them and let the learning curve do the magic.

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