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Humanist Archives: Dec. 9, 2018, 6:12 a.m. Humanist 32.258 - teaching coding

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 32, No. 258.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                   Hosted by King's Digital Lab
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        Date: 2018-12-08 16:08:47+00:00
        From: savoye@eapoe.org
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 32.253: teaching coding

As an English major who ended up in a 30+ year career as a computer 
programmer (mostly mainframe COBOL), perhaps an incident from my own 
history will be of minor interest. Having found, to my sad surprise, 
that employers were not eager to hire me, with my freshly minted BS 
degree in English, I decided to go back to school to learn about 
computers. Initially, my idea was to become a technical writer on 
subjects related to computers, but it turned out that I had a knack for 
programming, which had greater opportunities and generally better pay. 
At first, it was all very confusing, and I still vividly remember 
sitting in a chair in my parents' front yard on a warm Spring day, 
reading a section of the book we were following for my introductory 
course to COBOL, feeling quite lost and wondering if I had made some 
terrible mistake. Suddenly, as if a light turned on, a small point 
unexpectedly made sense. I realized that although the line in COBOL read 
MOVE FLD-A TO FLD-B, the value after the command was executed was in 
both FLD-A and FLD-B (so that it was really more of a copy than a move, 
a point that now seems painfully obvious but was not so prior to that 
realization). From that moment on, it started to make sense (until we 
got to table handling, which never really made sense until I actually 
began working and made regular use of the feature in meaningful 

Hoping for a little forgiveness in saying so forthrightly, I have been a 
very good programmer, evidenced by the fact that I have tended to be the 
lead on most projects to which I was assigned and being the person 
sought out to solve the most challenging problems. When asked why I am 
such a good programmer, I usually say that it is, somewhat ironically, 
due to my background and training in the humanities, which gave me a 
good grounding in logic and weighing various ideas of somewhat 
intangible merit while searching for an ideal outcome, or at least a 
practical one. (It also helps that my communication skills are useful in 
obtaining, clarifying and understanding requirements, and appreciating 
the important distinctions inherent in situations where nuance and 
shades of meaning have significant variances in application.) Another 
point I will note is that I have always been willing to help my fellow 
students, when I was studying, and my fellow workers, since entering the 
professional world, and there is nothing for learning quite like working 
out problems and trying to explain things to others. Along with the 
previously mentioned "The computer does [blindly and precisely] what you 
tell it to do, not [necessarily] what you want it to do," my motto has 
always been that it is good to learn from your own mistakes, but even 
better to learn from the mistakes of others. Programming is a humbling 
business. If one cannot tolerate taking risks and making mistakes, it 
would be best to pursue something else. The good news is that most of 
our mistakes can be corrected and that many of our worst errors need 
never see the light of day.

Jeffrey A. Savoye
The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore

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