Blogpost: Ellen Vanderstraeten: Cracking the Code

As part of our recent Digital Humanities Doctoral School's programme, participants were asked to write a blogpost capturing their experiences with the digital humanities. In this week's blogpost, we hear from Ellen Vanderstraeten, who recently obtained her Master's degree in Digital Text Analysis - English from the University of Antwerp where she now works as a researcher. Employed at the Centre for Manuscript Genetics, Ellen contributes to the Samuel Beckett Digital Manuscript Project which uses XML and TEI encoding to digitize the manuscripts of Samuel Beckett. In January she will start her PhD which will focus on bridging the gap between digital archives and critical editions, taking Beckett’s Murphy as a case study.


Cracking the Code

In the past year I’ve learned that programming is more than simply writing code and getting the result you want. As part of the course ‘Programming in Linguistics and Literature’, taught at the University of Antwerp, I was required to devise my own project that illustrated my grasp of the Python programming language. My project entailed coding a textual analysis of the fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm. The idea for this textual analysis was simple: I wanted to test whether or not Vladimir Propp was correct when he suggested in his Morphology of the Folktale (1928) that the structure of folktales can be reduced to 31 plot functions and 7 character functions. In order to test Propp’s hypothesis, I had to learn how to code first. This turned out to be a difficult, frustrating, but in the end also greatly rewarding process. 

The main reason why programming was often frustrating and challenging was because finding solutions to small coding problems sometimes took hours of scouring the internet. I quickly learned that the place to be was the website Stack Overflow, which always managed to provide a solution, even if that solution wasn’t always what you expected it would be. Seeing the community on Stack Overflow actively helping out other struggling programmers showed me that I wasn’t alone in my endeavor. 

Despite the support from the Stack Overflow community, programming proved to be a slow process. When I began the Grimm project, I expected to get results fairly quickly, but the opposite was true. Every line of code took time and research and I became aware that the manner in which I was programming, illustrated many of my preconceptions concerning my test corpus and programming in general. I had certain expectations as to what the results of the analysis would reveal about my test corpus and I became aware that those expectations could influence my programming and therefore the output. In other words, I could program in such a way that the result would be what I expect it to be. This, of course, would not only be highly subjective, but would also contradict the outset of the project, namely, to not adopt Propp’s functions and therefore take them to be true, but instead test his hypothesis and see if the structure of the corpus yields the same result. More and more, I realized that similar to the way you can hear traces of your vernacular when you’re speaking a foreign language, you can hear remnants of your voice in the code you’re programming.

Thus, programming became a very personal process which challenged many of my preconceptions and taught me various skills. It is strange, then, that many literary scholars, and even literary students, are hesitant to program themselves. Employing the expertise of a professional programmer can certainly be helpful, but it would also mean that you are left in the dark as to the process that transforms your corpus to output. I believe that understanding this process can only be helpful when interpreting the output. I say this at the end of what certainly has been a tough learning process, but I wouldn’t do it any other way. Learning how to program myself meant getting my hands dirty and struggling, but also getting that rewarding feeling when my code finally worked. So, to other aspiring programmers struggling out there,  I would give the following Beckett wisdom: “fail better”, “go on” and keep on programming; there is always Stack Overflow.


List of Works Cited

Propp, Vladimir. (1928) 1968. Morphology of the Folktale. Translated by Laurence Scott. Austin: University of Texas Press.