Bildung and Building: Hacking (and) the Foreign Language Requirement

Image Credit: “Hacker” by altemark

Recently, I suggested that the Department of English at Wayne State University consider allowing graduate students to use a computer language to fulfill their foreign language requirement. At the University of Texas, I learned two different languages (Java and PHP), though I was only required to learn one. I did that as part of the Digital Literacies and Literatures program in the English Department.  While Wayne does not have such a program, we do have a number of graduate students interested in digital media.

I’m currently serving on the department’s graduate studies committee, and that committee took up my proposal for the first time last week. This was a preliminary discussion, and I am now tasked with putting together a more formal proposal.

The brief discussion that we had last week raised some important questions and objections. Not surprisingly, the conversation quickly turned to the problems with our current foreign language requirement. Like many graduate programs, Wayne requires a translation exam that may or may not prove that a student is actually proficient in the foreign language in question. So, one defense of allowing students to use a computer language as their requirement involves the argument that students are currently “going through the motions” and they might as well come out of this process with something “useful.” I want to make it clear right up front: This is not the argument I would offer.

I do think it’s worth rethinking the rigor and purpose of any foreign language requirement. And I would hope that completing such a requirement is done with some purpose in mind. However, my argument that a graduate student would benefit from learning Java or C or Ruby on Rails is not only about giving students something they can use. This is true. But I’m also interested in the less tangible reasons for studying a computer language.

If the argument for the foreign language requirement is that students are allowed some space to think about language and to read texts in the original language, then I don’t think the study of a computer language is at odds with such an argument. Studying a computer language is about being able to build things, but it is also about something more difficult to define. It is about immersing oneself in another way of thinking, knowing, and communicating.

One member of the graduate committee mentioned that an upcoming Wayne State Humanities Center Symposium on “bildung” should make us pause over the more mercenary motivations for allowing a graduate student to subsitute Java for French. The argument, as I heard it, was that the foreign language requirement exposes students to something more than just a “tool.” The assumption was that learning a computer language was a tool for getting a particular job done. I think learning a computer language can be much more than this.

“Bildung” is a difficult to term to define and essentially untranslatable, and I won’t attempt to define it here. (I’m not qualified to do so.) But I can at least point out how the upcoming symposium is using the term:

“This symposium is about higher education in the 21st Century using the German concept of ‘bildung’. Whereas education functions to further the acquisition of knowledge, skills, and competencies that fulfil the needs and requirements of the day, bildung, in contrast, is a value in itself: contemplation moving beyond the necessity to survive. In short, if education is on the side of preparing for work and social life beyond school, bildung is on the side of individuality, ethics, and spiritual independence. Indeed, if education is for now, bildung is forever. Speakers in this symposium will examine the purpose and value of a college education in the early 21st Century. Scholars. educators, students and the general public are invited to this free symposium that addresses this important topic.”

While we might be tempted to put computer programming on the side of “knowledge, skills, and competencies,” it can also address the concerns of bildung. Programming is often about building something, but it is also about using a novel mode of expression. From video games to digital poetry to many other kinds of design involving code, a number of scholars and artists have shown us that code can express ideas and arguments. Code can be beautiful. Code is not only about communication with a machine. It is also about communication and expression writ large.

I recently spent an afternoon assembling and programming a Projbox. This box will not do anyone much good. When I’m finished with the project, I’ll be able to use it to control a piece of animation software that I’ve written. I’ve been learning all of this by following a course on Processing and Arduino offered by O’Reilly, and I’ve been doing so out of curiosity and because of my general interest in code as a form of writing. I will not be able to claim my Projbox on a Tenure and Promotion form. So, while I’m certainly building something, this project is much more about bildung. I imagine I will gain some technical skills from the project, but that’s not the main goal. It may not even be the most important goal.

So, this is one defense of allowing graduate students to learn a computer language in lieu of French or German. It is also a defense of hacking in general, which is about exploring possibilities even when the utility of such possibilities is questionable. My hope is that English studies can see this kind of work as part of what we do, rather than something that is at odds with (or separate from) what we do.


  1. N B
    Posted November 19, 2010 at 2:06 am | #

    why has the contradiction become for the sake of it–hacking computers or networks is just another utility in which you practice the philosophical art of contradiction

    benefits vs benefits
    the second benefit is encoded
    or the first
    or both

  2. Posted January 12, 2011 at 1:02 am | #

    This reminds me a little of Ramsay’s On Building which defines DH as building things. Procedural literacy, or Vee’s proceduracy, has been a hot topic and I know of several writers including Kirschenbaum (Hello Worlds) that have advocated for programming languages in the humanities. For my part, I am a hacker that believes that more C++ or php would have been better for me than Spanish, but I also understand the hesitation in departments to grant credits for computer languages. In 30 years, php may be as relevant as FORTRAN. Still, Ramsay argues, as I believe you are here, that the value of programming is in the mental work of the procedural creation. To build something is to model it (what Bogost might call understanding and designing procedural rhetoric). A similar rhetoric exists in the architecture of language, the differance of linguistic signs which I believe is more often valuable for students of English. Maybe I’m old school, but I believe foreign languages teach us more about English than computer languages. The problem has a great deal to do with mentoring and standards within English departments as well. How does one prove proficiency in an environment where English professors don’t code? Where does “hacking” become “building”? Where do courses allow for the “essay” to meet the “program”?

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