The Hacker and the Professor – Switching Roles

As discussed in previous posts in this series, navigating the waters of the scholarly and technical assumptions each of us bring to the Perseids collaboration is not always simple.  Some of this disconnect has been beneficial to the project — when we each stick to our respective roles and areas of expertise we have very little redundancy of effort.


But, when it comes to joint decisions about the direction of the project, our Hacker and Professor run into some disagreements. Bridget regularly has to remind the team that the inclusion of new unplanned features and workflows mean that other things we had hoped for would have to wait or be dropped entirely. But Marie-Claire can be frustrated by the “workplan-waving.” This recurring issue stems in part from Marie-Claire not being able to fully assess the complexity of the technical solutions, and Bridget not understanding what drives the scholarly and pedagogical requests. These misunderstandings make it difficult for them to decide which things should remain in the workplan and which new avenues should be pursued with students.


So, in keeping with the experimental nature of Perseids, The Hacker and the Professor have embarked on a skills exchange as an experiment of their own. Bridget has been coaching Marie-Claire through a self-initiated journey into programming and web design. Marie-Claire has been mentoring Bridget through an assignment she normally gives to her Greek mythology classes, which aims to analyze the transmission of a classical Greek myth through its representation on an ancient artifact.


It has been a truly fascinating journey so far. What follows are some of the thoughts they have about their skills exchange.



First, I have to confess that my interest in helping Marie-Claire obtain some more technical skills is not entirely altruistic … I hate the part of my job that requires that I be realistic about timeframes and the effort needed to develop code. I want Marie-Claire to gain these skills for her own growth, but also so that when we prioritize the work the burden for understanding what takes time is more fully shared. I am not a natural teacher though and I am incredibly thankful for the outstanding free resources available for this. The Khan Academy site in particular has been great in providing a logical order to tackle topics, exercises, and examples to work through.  (A side-benefit of this for the project is that it has been allowing us to think more concretely about certain features of the ePortfolio and self-assessment tools that we hope to make available on Perseids). We then take those examples and Marie-Claire applies them in the context of work she is doing with her students using the Perseids platform.  


I do believe that I have the better end of the bargain here though. Marie-Claire is a world-class teacher who cares tremendously about her students and her subject, and I could not ask for a better mentor. As a young college student I was focused on getting out into the real world as quickly as possible to save time and money and didn’t take advantage of my education to explore some of the topics in ancient religion and myth that serve as the underpinnings for our society. I have passed by thousands of objects in museums and public spaces without thinking about what they say about our social history and our internal perceptions of ourselves, our human relationships, and our culture. I have tried over the years to be more well-read and informed in a self-directed, and often misguided, sort of way, but doing so without context makes it hard to get engaged with the material. Reading the primary and secondary sources with a specific question in mind changes that. What I find particularly interesting about this experiment is that when we first embarked on it, I found myself getting distracted by thinking about superficial aspects of the digital tools that could enhance presentation of the material or my eventual reporting on it. But as I delve deeper into the actual content and discuss the questions I have on it with Marie-Claire, aspects of digital presentation and publication are actually quite far from my mind. I am very curious to see if and how they reenter the picture as I get closer to producing the results of my little research project.



Learning programming has been an exhilarating experience so far. Let me be clear: I am not saying that it all comes easy and everything is great. Quite the contrary. I struggle through the basics and often get stuck on little things. I also often get it into my head to undertake projects that are too difficult at my current level and I sink into quagmires. Yet, every small success is a reward, and Bridget’s support, patience, and encouragement is a constant motivation. In fact, I feel that I’m getting the better end of the bargain in our skills exchange, because I have access to Bridget’s advice and experience, without which it would be very difficult not to be intimidated by the material. The excellent Khan Academy tutorials also do a great job of rewarding every bit of progress. I am constantly reminded of the very similar effort I had to make when I was learning Greek and Latin, and the immense joy of discovery I experienced as I got better. As a teacher, I never want to lose sight of the challenge of learning.


In fact, becoming a better teacher motivates me through this learning experience. Anything I learn, my students will get to learn too. So as I make my way through my lessons and the sessions with Bridget, my head is buzzing with ideas for student projects that will take advantage of these skills and transmit them to my students. As a Classics professor, I strive for my discipline to be taught better and more widely, so that the wealth of wisdom and beauty that we inherited from the ancient world be made accessible to as broad an audience as possible. In today’s world, that includes code and programming. These techniques enable us to study our field in deeper and more meaningful ways than we ever could before and to disseminate the results in sustainable ways. Technology also makes our discipline more inclusive than ever before, because it allows us to approach the Humanities from a common middle ground that crosses cultural and social gaps.


As you can see, I am the dreamer in the Perseids team… For me, programming is very much like fine arts, music, or languages. It is creative, yet also exacting, and forces me to think in a disciplined fashion. Hopefully, that will help me stick to the workplan.


Alright, enough musing. Can we talk about code now?