Learning Python and Thinking Differently

I recently joined a group at my institution that is learning the Python programming language. The group began when Dr. Pamela Eisenbaum approached our resident computer and computing experts, Dr. Justin Barber and Michael Hemenway, about using computers to address certain questions of authorship in the New Testament’s Pauline corpus. At the beginning of my sabbatical in the summer of 2016 I joined the group, which had been working for about a year. My interest in doing so is not so much to become a programmer (although this could happen) as it is to become familiar with a modern programming language and how this language might help me think differently about my research and teaching.

Nine months into this journey, I think I have reached an initial level of competence. If this were one of the other research languages I’ve studied, I would describe my current skill leave as a basic reading knowledge, but little speech facility. I think reading knowledge comes more quickly when studying a language than does speaking it, and that’s pretty much the situation for me now. I generally can read and explain code and follow its logic – at least for the projects the group is working on – but am much, much slower writing code on my own. My writing abilities are improving with more time and effort.

What this work has done for me is precisely what I hoped: it is helping me think differently about my work. For example, I am scheduled to teach two new master’s level courses in the 2017-18 school, year: The Bible and Contemporary Issues, and The Bible in the Digital Age. In both courses I will spend time (less so in the first course, more in the second) reflecting on the impact of technology on this portable library called “the Bible.” The Bible is, itself, a technological product, of the alphabet and other technologies, including ink, writing materials, education in the language, socio-economic systems that produced scribes and readers, libraries, and many other operations that came together at a particular period in time and made possible this thing, the Bible. Book culture, and later print culture, has had an enormous impact on Western culture and thought. With the rise of the digital age, this is changing. Most of my students access their Bibles, at least in class, in a digital format: a Bible app, a computer program, a website, and thus use their smart phones, tablets, laptops, or (horrors!) a desktop. This raises the question of what is the “Bible” in digital form? The words may be the same, but what effect does the new medium have on our understanding of the Bible? Also, what changes occur in a reader’s relationship with and to the Bible when it is in digital form? The Bible exercises a governmental authority over those people and religious traditions that consider it authoritative because they accept it as canonical (the Word of God, at least for many). What sort of authority is this when the Bible is read and encountered digitally rather than as a print book? How I teach and discuss this issues will proceed in more nuanced ways because of my work learning Python. I have a better understanding of how programs are created, how code works, and the types of decisions made in writing code that create these digital tools. All of these “behind the scene” actions shape the experience of users and readers. How are the similar to, or different from, the ways print books shape experience? These are issues to consider in class next year.

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