Thursday, September 12, 2013

Rails Girls: Closing the Coding Gender Gap in Digital Humanities

By Tawnya Ravy

Hello GW English Grads! You may remember a few months ago a small contingent of GW Eng-Grads attending a weekend conference called ThatCamp (you can read about our adventures here) following our department’s first Digital Humanities graduate class (taught by Dr. Alex Huang). Well our Digital Humanities education continues with Rails Girls, a group that aims to give tools and a community to women who are interested in technology. We actually learned about the noble goals of Rails Girls (closing the coding gender gap) at ThatCamp in June. One of our questions at ThatCamp was “how can we learn how to code?” In addition to other resources (like Code Academy), Rails Girls was championed as an excellent opportunity to stretch our newbie skills with digital tools. We all applied for the Rails Girls event hosted at George Mason University on September 6-7. A few weeks after submitting our applications (basically consisting of information on our level of knowledge of coding), we received notice of acceptance to the event with instructions for setting up our computers in preparation for the event. The first night was simply a set-up party designed to help folks who wanted help setting up their laptops with the software, and to meet the organizers and other participants. The following day we began to code. Upon arriving in the research hall we were sorted to different tables named for different characters in Alice in Wonderland (in honor of the DH theme) where we met the others in our group and our table coaches. Right away we got a short tutorial on various simple commands and their meaning – we even learned our first coding joke: rm-fr (a command which strikes fear into the hearts of programmers). Then we were instructed to follow a set of exercises designed to teach us some basics called 100 Minutes of Ruby. For the next hour we had our coach chair-hopping to help us, soothe our initial frustration, and fill in the instructional gaps. Let me stress that many of us were complete newbies at all of this – I didn’t even know how to open a command line to start. By the end of the hour I understood some of the basic rules of this little universe, and only felt slightly overwhelmed. Then we switched to the Ruby guide for creating an app. This guide gave us line-by-line instructions on how to build an app that allowed us to open a twitter line, plot an address on a map, and much more (much of which I did not even get to by the end of the day). This is the part for me with the steepest learning curve. It was, however, very satisfying when it all worked the way it was supposed to. I was even able to fix a problem by myself after an hour of calling over my coach every few minutes. Finally we took a break for lunch which consisted of two amazing tacos from a food truck that was pulled up right to our building just for us. We all sat on the building steps, ate tacos, and talked about our Digital Humanities projects. After lunch we had a quick presentation on how web apps fit together in a Bentobox like model. The rest of the afternoon we had an option of either continuing with our apps and exploring the extra features or joining groups to discuss different digital tools for DH projects. For example, I joined the mapping tool table, but there were also tables for data-mining and collections. We discussed already established mapping tools like GoogleMaps, DIS, and Neatline, and then we engaged in a thought-exercise in how we would go about designing and building a map app of our own (for finding tacos appropriately enough). Soon enough it was time for the Rails Girls Reception at the campus inn bar. We all had “drink me” tickets for a free glass of wine or beer, and many of us stuck around to discuss our DH projects and coding ambitions. I met so many amazing women, had a wonderful learning experience, and came away with a great appreciation for programming. I fully intend on participating in another Rails Girls event and checking out Code Academy when I get a chance. Rails Girls also organizes Meet Up events and online forums to turn to for support and advice. Even if I never build an app from scratch, I can see how useful this instruction can be for me in developing and expanding my DH project. Do you have a favorite DH tool you wish you could manipulate? Wordpress? Omeka? Find out the kind of code they use and take advantage of these incredible opportunities to learn code and become a member of this vibrant community of techies.

Interested in exploring the digital humanities in your own scholarly work? Join us next at our inaugural GW Eng-Grad Digital Humanities Working Group on Wednesday September 18th 11:00am at The Corner Bakery. Hope to see you then!