Is this thing on? Digital History, Programming, Python

*MICROPHONE FEEDBACK* Whoa, whoa, hot mic here! Sorry folks.

So, I haven’t written a blog post in 5 months. Here’s what happened in that time: I studied for, took, and passed my comprehensive exams; I submitted an article to a journal, got it back, made revisions, and resubmitted it; I went to Bogotá, Colombia for a two-week preliminary dissertation research trip; I applied for research fellowships from Fulbright-Hays, Fulbright, Social Science Research Council, and the Council on Library and Information Resources; I started revisions on a paper I’m presenting at the American Historical Association annual meeting in New Orleans in January. I’ve been a little busy.

I am also taking a Caleb McDaniel’s Digital History Master Class, and doing some of the lessons/tutorials over at The Programming Historian and that’s what I want to write about today.

Last week, Chad Black (@parezcoydigo) came to Rice and delivered a lecture about criminality and institutional profiling in colonial Quito, but also talked/worked with us about Python. Much of what we discussed in our workshop had to do with using digital tools like Python to solve problems. We seemed to come to a consensus (or at least I thought we came to a consensus, perhaps because this is what I was thinking) that you need to have specific problems that need solving in order for digital humanities to “work” for you, but at the same time, you need to have some kind of familiarity with digital tools in order to think of digital solutions when these problems come up.

With this in mind, I have started the Programming Historian tutorials. It seems like Python could be really helpful with a lot of text-based issues/problems that might come up while trying to research, organize that research, and write over the next few years while writing my dissertation (and over the course of my career). I’ve only gotten through the first two lessons, but so far the process reminds me of when I first learned HTML. I’m hoping that these tutorials will get me to a point where I have enough of a base to go rogue, and start looking up my own Python-based solutions as problems arise. I plan on periodically posting back here to give updates on how learning a new language is going, ask questions, etc.

I swear (to myself) it won’t be another five-month hiatus. I’ll be here every week.

Try the meatloaf. Tip your bartenders.

4 thoughts on “Is this thing on? Digital History, Programming, Python

  1. Glad to find you’re getting into the Programming Historian lessons! I like your analogy with the first steps of learning HTML; I’ve found that to be true in my case as well. It also demystifies it somewhat—we tend to think that learning a language must be more complicated than learning a markup language like HTML, and maybe that scares us off. But many of the underlying principles are the same.

  2. Yeah, I definitely think that’s true. Using a language like Python somehow just feels like I’m doing something way more complicated and dangerous (or something). Obviously it is indeed more complicated in a lot of ways, but I think you’re right to say that a lot of the underlying principles are the same.

  3. Hi John,

    If you’ve got a problem that needs solving and want to try your hand at using Python for that, we’d be thrilled to have you do that as part of a lesson for the Programming Historian 2 that you share with others. I taught myself Python by writing lessons for others. Nothing ensures you know the problems and solutions inside out better than having to teach someone what you’ve learned.

    If you’re interested in giving it a go and have an idea feel free to drop me a line.

    All the best,


    1. Wow, thanks so much for the offer! That’s not something I’m exactly prepared to do at the moment (for a variety of reasons) but I will definitely take you up on that at some point in the (hopefully not-too-distant) future.


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