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Programming as a Foreign Language

Should programming languages count for the graduate-level foreign language requirement in a Humanities department? Yes and no. My initial thoughts towards a department policy are as follows:

Knowledge of computer languages can both reveal new literary-cultural formations and serve as a powerful tool for the study of such formations. However, it should not be viewed as a substitute for foreign language proficiency, except for cases where such substitution is convincingly justified and where it is warranted by sustained, deep engagement with the material.

The following guidelines can be used when evaluating graduate student requests to fulfill their foreign language as a programming (computer) language.

There are two specific cases where a computer language as a foreign language request is particularly appropriate:

  1. Where a student’s projected research program involves aspects of computational culture as a subject of study. These include (but not limited to) topics in electronic literature, software studies, game studies, online deliberation, combinatorial poetics, virtual communities, fan culture, media studies, platform studies, sociology of knowledge, book piracy, politics of the archive, human-computer interaction, and history and future of the book, among other potentially relevant applications. Specific languages in this category often include (but are not limited to) historical or otherwise obscure dialects. Examples from proposed studies include FORTRAN, 6502 Assembler (Nintendo), and troff.
  2. Where computer languages are used instrumentally, as a method of study. For example, medievalists may wish to acquire reading knowledge of German to understand the secondary literature in that language. Similarly, a scholar of Victorian British literature learns Python to facilitate analysis of numerous texts across long periods of time. The proposed language in this category should reasonably belong to the family of “major research languages,” used in advanced courses of instruction. This list typically includes languages such as Python, R, C, Java, and Julia. It does not include markup languages (or typesetting systems) such as HTML, CSS, or LaTeX, since these do not typically sustain advanced graduate research methodology.

Format of the Exam

When possible the exam will be administered via a Jupyter Notebook following the format of similar exams in foreign languages: one “annotation” exercise that tests code comprehension and one “translation” exercise that tests for reasoning and basic literacy. Two hours are generally sufficient. Students can expect to exhibit “intermediate” level of proficiency, equivalent to one-year’s worth of coursework in the field (or similar experience).

A sample test can be found here.

Written in consideration of: Geisler, Michael, Claire Kramsch, Scott McGinnis, Peter Patrikis, Mary Louise Pratt, Karin Ryding, and Haun Saussy. “Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World: MLA Ad Hoc Committee on Foreign Languages.” Profession, 2007, 234–45.

The presence of advanced graduate-level classes in the proposed language are a good indicator of a major research language.

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