Friday, November 8, 2013

Why Arts and Social Science Needs Code: Testimonials

Part 2 of my "Why are we learning this?" guide for arts and social science students is a set of testimonials from people in the field that learned to code.  I'd like to share those testimonials here.

Angelica Lim, PhD Candidate

I do research on emotions across music, voice and movement. I believe that my background in programming has let me make unique psychological experiments that most people can't do.

Here's a video and article on something similar to my work: Programs have also let me automatically detect things like reaction time, instead of spending hours poring through videos to do manual annotation.

Kathleen Woestehoff, Desktop Support Engineer for

I work in IT presently but that was after a purposeful (and challenging) career switch.

I studied psychology as an undergrad and got my MS in Education with advanced certification as a School Psychologist.

I learned some code through online courses I took. I've found it super applicable to be relevant and respected in my current career. I've heard from many people that basic HTML is nice to be able to adjust things on social media sites (though I've never taken advantage of what I know in this way).

I've seen it be highly sought after as a skill set in many companies for their marketing department, sales, graphic design, and more.

Emily Daniels, Software Developer and Research Analyst, Applied Research and Innovation at Algonquin College

Dear Fine Artist Learning to Code,

Being able to code to express yourself is one of the most powerful tools available to artists today. Artists should look at programming languages as they do any other medium- watercolor, acrylic, clay- they are all tools to allow you to develop and communicate your vision with your audience.

Artists who work with traditional mediums often have problems keeping up with the speed of society’s technological advances. What worked for Rembrandt and Picasso does not work for many of today’s artists. The scarcity surrounding the creation of a unique work of art contributes so much to the value of that work, but the minute your work is shared on the internet it loses value. The catch for artists is overcoming obscurity in a world inundated with information fighting for your audience’s attention. There is little you can do to help this, unless you are independently wealthy, like working several part time jobs to fuel your art, or you change the medium you work with and the way you communicate with your audience.

Though I still love to draw, after graduating from art school I took a hard look at the mediums I used to create art. Oils and acrylics are toxic to people, bad for the environment, and a fire hazard. The act of learning by painting on 2D surfaces and throwing them out or giving them to friends seemed selfish to me and a waste of resources. Personally I think we have a responsibility to reduce or eliminate our burden on the environment as much as possible, but this way of thinking does not fit very well with making traditional fine art. It took me a while to realize how much better it would be for me to transition my art making to my computer, but when I did it was a revelation. The learning process of writing code and scrapping it or sharing what you’ve written online is cheap and wastes less time and resources in comparison.

Most software projects depend on collaboration and also individual creation, which I find is a nice mix and less isolating than the traditional artist working alone in a studio approach to creation. Solving a problem with a team of people can be immensely gratifying and can give you a sense of belonging that is hard to recreate as an individual artist.

Learning to code and using it in a project allows you to become a modern artist in many different ways. You can tailor your work to a format that a wide audience can understand and interact with easily, which increases your reach and scope. Artists want to reach people on a fundamental level and engage with them in meaningful ways, eliciting responses that go beyond the surface reaction to uncover a deeper understanding and appreciation of our world. Touching people in a meaningful way is not owned by any particular medium but by the way the artist chooses to use that medium to communicate their message.

As an artist you probably already have a thick skin developed by years of crits where others continually tear down your work and expect you to pick up the pieces. This will prepare you for similar responses to your programs and is also immensely useful in software development. It seems from my experience that most computer studies programs don’t spend nearly enough time preparing people to respond well to negative or constructive feedback of their work. It would benefit a lot of developers to be able to take criticism in stride like an artist can, so if you can, you are ahead of the game.

You will need to hone your analytic and logical thought processes in order to program effectively, but if you have a solid background in working with abstract concepts in fine arts, it is not too hard to make the jump to visualizing how components interact and being able to mold them to get them to interact in the way you wish. A well built program is a beautiful thing, simple and complex at the same time. Any application you make or contribute to will still feel like you’ve made offspring from your mind that you are giving to the world. Stick with it- the work you’ll be able to create after learning to code is a million times more rewarding than what you can currently create.

All the Best,

Stephan Gruber, Associate Professor, Department of Geography & Environmental Studies, Carleton University

When I was about 25 and just about to finish my MSc, I had a key moment that I still remember: the day I was victorious over integrals. I knew what integral were from my high school math. But when I came across one in a paper, I would usually be left with an uneasy feeling. I knew what it meant, but had no idea, what to do with it. That day, I discovered, that I could discretize the integral in Excel and then just find an approximate solution. This then allowed me to explore the relationships I read about with practical examples that I calculated and plotted. It increased my understanding of the matter I was concerned with manyfold as now, I could interact with my problem and bring it from the abstract realm to, for instance, a plot or a number. Today, data processing and numerical experimentation, sometimes on high-performance computers, are a large part of my research. The power of this approach is what I believe enables me to chose great places to do research: mountain ranges across the world, the North, and Antarctica.

Learning how to organize and process large amounts of data and to write computer code has been the biggest single advance in my education. While it sounds counter-intuitive, I am convinced, that this is especially true for people who think they are not good at Math and who shy away from equations. Being able to write a small program to plot things is ultimately a tool to use the power of your brain better: viewing and manipulating a plot provides a broader experience than text and equations. If you work with data and models, you understand the subject you work with much better. And this will help you to better confront existing knowledge with the observations you make next time – or to plan more efficient observations.

And, there is another benefit. Writing computer code forces you to organize your thoughts. This is an analogy to how we see the writing of scientific text as an integral part of knowledge generation. Only when we formulate and structure what we have in our heads as text, do we see where it contains flaws or needs more work. Only then can you show it to someone and ask for feedback. Both ultimately let you grow in your understanding. The same is true for writing computer code. It helps us to be clear and to put the finger on areas that need work.

Learn how to program! It will be one of the most valuable skills you acquire in your studies. Don't be demotivated by having to spend many hours with the help function and Google to solve trivial things. All this helps you to acquire problem-solving skills and to be able to build the tools you need instead of being limited by what is available.

Stephanie Jackson, E-Communications Strategist, University of Ottawa

Word and Excel, just like the hardware of a computer itself, are tools to do a job. You wouldn't use a laptop to hammer in a nail, and you wouldn't use a screwdriver to analyze complex statistical data sets. Just about every complex task you work on requires the right tools for the right results. In the current technology-focused world, understanding the basics of major coding languages, as well as how they interact with one another, is critical for achieving the best results with the resources you have available. If I don't have a grasp on how various coding languages 'talk' to one another, even without having a proficiency in coding the language itself, I cannot effectively create a system which is both efficient and sustainable.

Of course, my experience is primarily web and web application based, so more php and ruby, less python, but the principle still stands ;o)

Kristen Jeanette Holden, Stay-at-home-mom, pausing from PhD studies at University of Chicago

I've got an MA in humanities from a top 3 school and focus on Japanese war/postwar film and literature. It's a small field with maybe a dozen experts outside Japan, and lost films and texts are still being found in secret vaults all over the world (the Japanese used film reels as fuel during the war, so colonial Korean and Manchurian political films were all thought to be destroyed). The crappy websites of eccentrics can lead to published papers and even full books because so little information is available. Just knowing html and Javascript is incredibly helpful. View Source got me through many big papers.

Who knew that my 15 year old self's desire to put up a page on with comic sans paragraphs over animated backgrounds and blaring midi music would help me in grad school?

Rachel B. Bell, Website Designer at Verbatim Design in Providence, RI

I majored in Studio Art at Smith College. My focus was on Photography and Reduction Linoleum Cuts. I took one class that included about a week of working with basic html. Little did I expect at the time that two years later, I would be a website designer and search engine optimizer.

Bonus: Chris Bosh, NBA Superstar

Being a kid of the 1990s and living in a house run by tech-savvy parents, I began to notice that the world around me was spinning on an axis powered by varying patterns of 1s and 0s. We’d be fools to ignore the power of mastering the designing and coding of those patterns. If brute physical strength ran one era, and automation the next, this is the only way we can keep up. Most jobs of the future will be awarded to the ones who know how to code.

We use code every time we’re on the phone, on the web, out shopping — it’s become how our world is run. So I take comfort in having a basic understanding of how something as big as this works.

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