An Art History Major Teaching Programming, Part 3: Meetups

This is the third and final part of a series of posts on how my background in art history has given me a unique perspective on teaching programming at UNC Chapel Hill.  The first and second posts are at those links if you missed them!

Part 3: Meetups are Studio visits

An active culture of studio visits amongst artists has been central to the development of artistic movements. Programming meetups can serve a similar purpose and are important tools for educators, especially those of us teaching in higher education.

The importance of face-to-face learning

I had an opportunity to spend several months in Santa Fe studying photography at the Santa Fe Workshops. It was incredibly artistically stimulating to be surrounded by so many talented professional photographers. The experience that has stuck in my mind the most was a studio visit with Bill Clift, a large format black and white photographer based in Santa Fe. As we walked through his darkroom, a compact but sprawling structure behind his otherwise unremarkable suburban house, we learned how meticulous he was, about his preferences in film and photographic paper, and about an amazing book of photographs he was in the process of publishing. A Particular Worldcontains 30 years of spectacular color Polaroids that Clift took of his family and his home. He told us how over the past 30 years he simply kept a Polaroid in his truck and one in his house and just took images whenever they appeared to him. Clift’s other work involves a massive 8×10″ black and white view camera that is heavy and slow to use. Seeing him produce these parallel bodies of drastically different work helped me understand how to use different types of photographic tools in my own work.
One of Bill Clift’s beautiful and intimate Polaroid portraits from his book A Particular World.

As a programming instructor at UNC, I’ve tried to provide similar immersive experiences for my students by requiring they attend 3 meetups or hackathons during my course. This has turned out to be one of the most popular components of my course, for the same reason that visiting Bill Clift’s studio had a huge impact on my understanding of the craft of photography. Face-to-face interaction is one of the most stimulating forms of experience we can have with other humans. It’s crucial to developing the motivation required to develop expertise – in programming or in art.

Meetups: Sharing Sketch Books

Tech talks at Meetups are a forum for programmers to describe their techniques or a recent project. These are directly analogous to artists visiting each other’s studios and discussing experimental sketches or works in progress. Great programmers are always experimenting, and meetups around open source code lets them share the experiments with each other as if they were passing their sketchbooks around. As a student, seeing this kind of material helps cement an understanding of how code gets built and provides a roadmap for what developing expertise might entail.

Hackathons: Seeing what’s possible

Beyond helping create group identity, open source helps programmers demonstrate to each other what is possible. Hackathons are spaces for programmers to form ad-hoc groups and build a functioning product in a short amount of time, usually 24 to 48 hours. The collaboration that happens during these intense events can be incredibly inspiring and helps participants see what’s possible because of their skills. For my students, hackathons are simultaneously intense learning experiences and demonstrations of how much they have already learned.

Art and Code

As I mentioned at the outset of this series, Paul Graham wrote eloquently about the connection between artists and hackers over a decade ago in an essay called Hackers and Painters. He certainly wasn’t the first to draw the parallel between Art and Code but his essay is notable because of the historical context he places around the medium towards the end of the essay. He notes that the greatest examples of many artistic media were produced within 50 years or so of the medium’s widespread adoption. We are undoubtedly within that range right now for computer code. This means that it’s highly likely that our present day culture of computation will produce some of the most enduring examples of beauty in the medium. It’s an exciting time to be involved in technology, and an even more exciting time to immerse students in its culture. My hope for my students is that they can not only experience this culture, but help shape its future.

This is the final post in a three part series on how an Art History major approaches teaching others to program. I hope you’ve enjoyed it!

Special thanks to Jenn Marks and John D. Martin III for their helpful comments on all three posts!!  You guys rock.