Lessons from Teaching Historians How to Code

My inaugural version of a course on “programming for historians,” colloquially and better known as #clio3, finished a few weeks ago. As syllabi for teaching difficult technical skills to historians (or other humanists) remain scarce, I thought it might be worth sharing a few of the more important lessons learned. These suggestions mostly come directly from the hardworking, dedicated, and insightful students and the breadcrumbs they’ve left on the course blog. I have simply tried to flesh them out a bit here.

Early Lessons

A good first few weeks of any course are usually crucial for its success, but the stakes are even higher for this kind of course that builds on itself so extensively from one week to the next. Some of the most important things that the students taught me had to do with adjusting the focus of the first few lessons.

Systemic Improvements

Lastly

To end on a positive note, I’ll close with one thing that worked well and will continue next time: Having students create tutorials and present introductions to various topics. This proved valuable and useful not only as learning experiences for the presenter/blogger, but also in creating course resources that people were able to refer to and use throughout the semester. No one was expected to become an instant expert, but rather act as a guide for getting started with a new technique. Tackling unknown technologies was encouraged; I tried to make it very clear that part of the expected course work is to fail, and that when students got stuck they should stop and blog about it. Many of them eventually solved their own problem, but even if not, that’s fine. Explaining the problem helps other people in their own work and the act of writing it out helps the author as well. I hope the students are as proud of their work on the course blog as I am.