Post from sabbatical-land 202 days to go: a tangent thought about the need (or lack thereof?) for teaching code in web writing courses

I have been doing some reading and writing that is more directly tied to my MOOC sabbatical project than this post, honest. Lately, I’ve been reading and writing about correspondence schools and how they were influenced by the 19th century Chautauqua Institute and movement. I’ll spare you the details for what I am assuming are obvious reasons, but here’s a fun fact of doing this kind of research nowadays. Part of what I needed/wanted to hunt down was a sort of infamous quote from William Rainey Harper, who was the first president of the University of Chicago and an early proponent of correspondence schools. He predicted that the day was coming where most students would take courses via the mail. Anyway, he has a longish part about his thoughts on the pros and cons of correspondence/distance education in an 1885 book by John Heyl Vincent called The Chautauqua Movement, which, conveniently enough, is available in its entirety via Google Books. Who says the Internets isn’t good for anything?

Where was I? Oh yes, speaking of the Internets:

In the fall, I’m liable to be teaching a class I’ve taught several times before, Writing for the World Wide Web, and I’m on the cusp of thinking that this might be the first time I teach that class where I only spend a minimal amount of time with HTML and CSS. Maybe just the Codecademy course on HTML & CSS; maybe not even that much.

I think the thing that has kind of pushed me over the edge on this is Jeff Bridges’ web site. Or more specifically, squarespace and their Super Bowl ad. That’s a service that’s perhaps a little more about selling stuff than we tend to talk about in Writing for the Web, but as far as I can tell, it’s a drag n’ drop kind of app for setting up a site. Then there’s wix. It’s a little wonky, but it is all drag-n-drop stuff and it took me about 3 minutes to make this free page. (Sure, it makes really ugly code, but it does work, mostly). Of course, there’s wordpress, which is something I introduce to students as it is, and it was the option of choice discussed in this Vitae piece “How to Build a Website in 5 Steps.” I’m sure there are a lot of other options there for this kind of thing.

Back in the old days, the WYSIWYG options for HTML/CSS editing were poor– and I would include everything from the versions of Dreamweaver I’ve seen all the way back to the editor that came with one of the early versions of Netscape. I remember as early as about 1997 there were folks in the computers and writing world who were saying there was no point in wading into coding. But while those early WYSIWYG tools were helpful, they were glitchy and unreliable, meaning they were more like “what you see is what you get a lot of the time but not all the time,” and if you didn’t know enough about coding to figure out what was going wrong, you were pretty much screwed. As a teacher, I learned pretty quickly it was more time-consuming to not teach students HTML building blocks because when they tried to make a web site with one of these apps with no clue about the code underneath, they would get stuck and I’d have spend a lot more time helping them get unstuck. In any event, I taught code back then because writing web pages required writing code. These weren’t two different functions/jobs, much in the same way that printers a few hundred years ago directly employed writers and were themselves the publishers and book sellers.

That was then and this is now. I haven’t spent a whole lot of time with wix or squarespace, but they both seem easy and robust enough for a beyond basic site. It’s useful to understand some of the basics of HTML/CSS coding stuff for WordPress of course, but it’s not critical. So if the goal of a class like Writing for the Web is to have students present/study content on the web in some rhetorically meaningful way, then spending time on code just isn’t as important as it used to be. If the goal of a class like this is to also professionalize students to work “in the field,” coding might be a bit more important, but maybe not.  Any kind of entity or company that would employ someone as a technical/professional writer (broadly speaking) probably would also employ a full-time IT person who deals with the technicalities of the coding of the web site. And of course, that IT person is probably working with a lot of other stuff that I’ve heard of but don’t understand– Python (which reminds me: I should check into my Coursera course on that today), Ruby on Rails, PHP, etc., etc.

Writing for the Web as a class has always been a class that has included elements of a computer programming class (not to mention a graphic design class and an audio-video production class), but it seems to me that the space between the coding/programming that makes the modern web work and the content delivered on the web has widened. And while it is arguably a good idea for anyone who is interested in going into anything that smacks of content development nowadays to take some basic programming classes, the course I teach focuses more on the content.

As I teach it at least, the course has moved more toward social media issues, web style, usability, and the decisions writers have to make to re-present “words in a row” essays into web sites. I still teach a large HTML/CSS component in the class, and I’m beginning to think that the time spent on that isn’t worth it anymore. Or maybe it’s a different class: that is, maybe there is a need for a “coding for writing majors” kind of course where the focus really is on working through all the exercises at Codecademy.

Something more I’ll have to think about in around 200 days.

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