Coding as a Foreign Language

In the session “Digital Skills for Art History Students,” learning computer coding was compared to learning a foreign language. One participant went so far as to suggest that perhaps traditional art history graduate program language requirements could perhaps grow to include coding as a substitute for a language that might not be useful for specific students. As the importance of digital tools and digital humanities projects expands in academic settings could it become more useful for art historians to know how to code than to read German?

Depending on one’s area of interest this idea is definitely thought provoking, but is it valid? On the one hand, one can argue that the knowledge of coding can lead to digital projects which have potential for groundbreaking research and scholarship, not to mention the ability for an art historian to work sans collaborators, a costly and often time consuming consideration, for more basic projects. Possessing certain computer skills could be similar to having knowledge of multiple foreign languages in one’s tool kit.

However, for most art historians, we only learn how to read  languages. The ability to write, and often speak, in any language requires additional years of study which most of us do not have the opportunity to undertake. While it seems implausible that coding language could come to replace our need for knowledge of foreign languages or that we will require art historians to learn how to code as an additional stop on the road to a graduate degree, we do need to start thinking about incorporating digital tools into methods classes as they become a ever-more essential piece of our field. For now, at least, familiarity should probably remain more important than fluency with the tools.

Sara Ickow, Graduate student, Institute of Fine Arts

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