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Home » academia » Are programming languages languages? A question about digital humanities CVs

Are programming languages languages? A question about digital humanities CVs

It’s that time of year, and I’ve been refreshing my academic CV to see how it’s taking shape. Although I’m a part-time PhDder and work full-time in another industry, I try to be as active as I can in academic endeavours, so there’s plenty of updates and tweaks to be made.

Taking a look at some colleagues’ CVs for tips and hints on structure, etc., it began to strike me that those of us who are interested in digital humanities face a challenge: where do our programming skills belong?

Sometimes, it’s easy. There is a role or project that involved particular development work. But increasingly people put HTML, or CSS, or Java alongside French or Japanese, with a “fluent” beside them (I’ve yet to see anyone using an ILR or CEFR scale marking, though). The first time I saw this I smiled a little smile to myself. Well, we’ve got to try to get these things on the CV somehow. But after a while, I started to wonder: when we say this, do we mean it? As a literary scholar, I have strong feelings about the fact that words mean things. And as a spouse of a professional developer, I feel sceptical.

What does it mean when we say we are “fluent” in a programming language? Is coding ever so smooth, graceful and effortless as speaking or writing in a ‘natural’ language? Do we ever code easily and accurately in the same way as we might speak our mother tongue?

The rate of bugs or errors in your average professional code—the type produced by developers at Apple or Google—is about 1 every 10 lines. If one were to have a typo or lexical error in every 10 sentences of written work, one’s supervisor would raise a red flag!

Now, perhaps we may quibble about whether a line of code is equivalent to a sentence (or, indeed, the comparison to a mother tongue), but I think the point stands. The rate of error is much higher in professional “fluent” code than in academic written prose.

Similarly, professional coders do not for the most part store the whole or majority of the language intuitively in their brain in the same way as one’s mother tongue. The reliance on coding reference materials, such as Stack Overflow, is higher than the reliance on linguistic ones, such as dictionaries. Tales of developers finding a perfect and helpful answer on such repositories, only to discover that they themselves submitted it years before, are legion. What would be the equivalent in terms of a ‘natural language’? Stumbling across the idea of using consonance to convey a certain effect, having forgotten that it existed?

All in all, reading “fluent in HTML” on an academic CV strikes me as a category mistake. And it makes me wonder about their French, too…

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