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More Hackety Hack, Less Yackety Yack: Ruby for Humanists

ruby_drycleaning_signIf you’re a regular reader of ProfHacker, you’re likely to have some interest in the digital humanities. After this year’s Modern Language Association Convention, William Pannapacker caused no small amount of controversy by declaring the digital humanities “triumphant” and comparing the field to “the culture of Big Theory back in the 80s and 90s.” Perhaps the most salient point of Pannapacker’s argument—which Matt Kirschenbaum responds to beautifully—is that DH work can look, from the outside, quite alien. If, as Stephen Ramsay provocatively argues, one must know how to code in order to do DH, how could a traditionally-trained, mid- or late-career academic (or, for that matter, a traditionally-trained, early-career academic) ever hope to join the field? It’s easy to pick up some basic HTML—but what if you want or need to learn something more sophisticated?

A problem of this magnitude will ultimately require sustained attention to the infrastructure of digital humanities work—large-scale, institutional solutions. At larger institutions, digital humanities centers offer training to interested scholars. Programs like the University of Victoria’s Digital Humanities Summer Institute seek to help a range of scholars gain tangible DH skills that they can then bring to their scholarship. The recently-launched DH Answers also addresses this need, helping scholars connect with DH experts who can answer their questions—be they technical or programmatic.

Today I wanted to point ProfHacker readers to two narrower projects that could help them learn one of the web’s most popular programming languages, Ruby. These two projects sprang up almost simultaneously, and I plan to use both in the coming weeks and months to expand my own technical skills. If the mantra of DH is to be “more hack, less yack,” I have some work to do.

First I’d like to mention a free program called Hackety Hack, which you can download for Windows, Linux, or OS X. On the program’s webpage, the developer describes it like this,

Hackety Hack will teach you the absolute basics of programming from the ground up. No previous programming experience is needed!

Hackety Hack includes a series of interactive lessons that walk you through some basic Ruby commands, and encourage you to practice using the built-in editor. Right now there are only a few lessons—you’ll work up to drawing some basic shapes and make a simple interactive pop-up box—but the developer promises that more lessons are coming soon. I had a blast playing through the first lessons in Hackety Hack; it reminded me of the LOGO programming lessons I loved in elementary school. If Hackety Hack development continues, it could be a painless—dare I say fun?—way to expand your technical chops.

Next—and more directly germane to digital humanities work—is “The Rubyist Historian.” Jason Heppler, a graduate student in the history department at the University of Nebraska, recently began using his blog “to write an accessible introduction to Ruby and demonstrate not only how to write small programs but also think about ways programming can help scholars in their everyday tasks.” Jason’s guide is accessible, even to a complete novice like me. In the series’ most recent post, Jason walks readers through creating a basic program that will take a webpage and convert it into a wordcloud based on word frequency—an exciting feat for a new programmer. I recommend that anyone interested in learning Ruby subscribe to this feed.

If you’re interested in learning Ruby—or just interested in learning more about programming than you already know—I recommend both “The Rubyist Historian” and Hackety Hack. Do you have any other suggestions for where aspiring digital humanists can learn to code? Tell us in the comments.

[Creative Commons licensed photo by Flickr user pixeljones.]

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