Among the students who participated in the Stanford Study of Writing, which followed 189 Stanford undergrads through five years, were a number of computer science students, and I had a chance to interview several of these students multiple times. One student in particular made the case, over and over, that computer coding was a form of writing; in fact, this student spoke at a CCCC meeting about how the two are related.
That was over a decade ago, and the years since have seen a concerted “learn to code” or “coding for all” movement in the United States, and I’ve been thinking about what this movement may mean for teachers of writing everywhere. Annette Vee, who teaches in the rhetoric and composition program at Pittsburgh and is a leader in the CCCC Caucus on Intellectual Property, has written extensively about the relationship among coding, writing, and literacy (see her article “Understanding Computer Programming as a Literacy”). She has also written a book, Coding Literacy: How Computer Programming is Changing the Terms of Writing, which is, I think, forthcoming from MIT Press. Vee reviews the history of the “learn to code” movement and connects that history to major studies in literacy and its history, arguing that understanding and exploring the history and practices of writing and reading can be of help in understanding computer coding (or programming) today. Viewing literacy in this new way, she argues, makes literacy a much broader concept and adds to the range of communication practices available to students.
I found Vee’s arguments provocative and engaging and even-handed, especially in recognizing that literacy (and computer programming) have both liberatory and repressive potential. (In other words, she is no starry-eyed enthusiast, either for writing or coding; rather, she seeks to contextualize both in ways that will be mutually illuminating.) Yet she is persuasive in arguing that the ability to code gives access to a crucial form of literacy, and she understands what is at issue in that concept of access. Just as access to traditional literacy was long denied to certain groups of people, so access to the potentialities of coding are denied (directly or indirectly) to many, including women and people of color. (Adam Banks examines issues of access in his Race, Rhetoric, and Technology).
I have only the most minimal, rudimentary ability to program--one reason I am so interested in Vee’s work and want to understand what it means to include coding in what we label “literacy” today. I agree with Vee that “We need to understand how programming shapes our composition and communication environments.” She goes on to say that
This does not mean we need to acquire the source code for every program we use as an ability to read it or write it, but we do need to learn how the procedures implemented I code shape and constrain the ways that we compose and communicate: what assumptions about information, texts, and people are embedded in the software programs in which we compose? What control do software programs wrest from us through their collection of our data?
These are powerful and important questions, and we need robust answers to them. That will mean, I think, that writing teachers everywhere now need to understand how programming works and be at least minimally able to program themselves—so that we can make sure that all of our students have access to such abilities. As Vee says, “Because programming is intertwining itself with writing in our composition environments . . . it appears to be changing what it means to be literate in the 21st century.”
During my 50 years in the field, I have watched our understanding of “literacy” expand and shift, and it is certainly doing so again. I have also, more than once (!), had to start at ground zero in learning new material and new skills. In fact, it seems to me that teachers of writing have had to make such leaps to acquire new knowledge much more than teachers of other disciplines. So I have confidence that we can and will make this latest leap: in fact, many writing teachers have already done so and they serve as an inspiration for me. In the meantime, I am grateful for scholars like Annette Vee for leading the way.