While emerging networked information technologies are commonly discussed in terms of their empowering impact on users, these technologies serve to amplify existing disparities based on race, class, and gender. A 2018 report from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that women comprise only twenty six percent of the computing workforce, and this statistic drops even more precipitously for women of color, with three percent of the workforce identifying as African American women; six percent, as Asian women; and two percent, as Latina women. This lack of representation points to problems of access and equity in programming, contributing to the rapid growth of alternative forms of coding education as an industry. Despite the growth of the programming industry and its influence on public discourses on literacy, the field of writing studies knows relatively little about the nature of the enterprise of contemporary programming education (Vee). As a result, current scholarship often focuses on the rhetoric embedded within code without addressing the context in which code is written.
My project, “Programming Women: Rhetorical Education, Literacy, and Coding,” remedies this gap by analyzing how coding literacy is understood, taught, and practiced in sites of programming education designed for underrepresented communities in information technology, including women of color, mothers, and gender-diverse individuals. As a rhetorical study deploying a mixed-methods approach, this project surveys the contemporary landscape of programming education, from online educational modules, to hybrid in-person and online meetups, bootcamps and workshops, and formal university courses in order to consider how existing sites of programming literacy education work within the larger tech industry. My research has the potential to enrich the already provocative theories of the rhetoricity of code through its focus on the material, social, and digital contexts where programming is taught and made.
Brief Literature Review
The disciplines of rhetoric and composition and technical communication have a long history of research on the relationship between writing, technology, and education. Within our disciplines, researchers have examined the rhetoricity of software (Beck), critiqued conceptions of software as a neutral, rhetoric-free tool (Chun), and complicated feminist discourses of technology (Hallenbeck). The claim that computer code and software algorithms are rhetorical texts, imbued with persuasive force and shaped by the implicit assumptions of their creators, is hardly a contested belief (Johnson; Nakamura; Noble and Tynes). Estee Beck, in her study of persuasive computer algorithms, writes, “Whether it is gender or race, ableism, class or Western values of organization and logic, the suasive appeals of persuasion . . . [shape] the encoding process of writing code.” Not only does code function rhetorically, it also offers new ways for understanding rhetoric and writing.
Put simply, as Annette Vee claims, programming re-codes writing. As the field of writing studies becomes increasingly concerned with the invisible infrastructure of programming and its role in rhetorical interactions, there is a need to consider further the relationship between programming literacy and rhetorical education. Using Stuart Selber’s digital multiliteracies framework, Deborah Brandt’s literacy acquisition models, and Adam Bank’s research on the interplay of identity and rhetorical education, my research yields insight into the literacy practices of coding education organizations for marginalized communities.
Methods and Methodologies
This dissertation, conceived as a rhetorical study of sites of programming literacy education, uses a range of methods dependent upon the contexts being studied, from close textual analysis to fieldwork and interviews. Such mixed-methods mean, for example, that digital educational platforms will be studied using a close reading approach, while other contexts necessitate turning toward the field. For research centered on literacy and technology, the field might be a university computer lab, industrial setting, extracurricular bootcamp, or even an online community on GitHub or Slack. As Heidi McKee and James Porter argue, online writing brings with it “very different rhetorical dynamics from print-based and face-to-face rhetorical dynamics” (170). A fieldwork approach looks at these dynamics in context, considering the material resources of the situation as well as the attitudes, actions, and affective responses of stakeholders (McKinnon et al.). Such an approach illuminates what might otherwise remain invisible in a rhetorical analysis of digital text alone.
Using methodologies developed within intersectional feminist rhetorics foregrounds the positionality of research participants and highlights the ethical imperatives of rhetorical research. For example, Kimberly Scott and Patricia Garcia found that girls of color are often left out of feminist interventions into coding literacy, thus necessitating an intersectional approach to encouraging coding literacy. Intersectional feminism, as defined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, is a theory addressing the ways in which interlocking systems of oppression affect marginalized individuals in a variety of ways dependent on their positionality. An intersectional approach is important to avoid essentialist views of women’s and gender-diverse persons’ experiences and to acknowledge the complexity of inhabiting multiple identities simultaneously.
My introduction, “Gendered Ecologies of Coding Education,” describes the project, its exigence, and aims. In each of my body chapters, I ask “How is literacy understood, modeled, and practiced by instructors and learners?” By using the same guiding research across each research site, I will trace connections, parallels, and distinctions between the varied contexts of programming education.
In the second chapter, “‘If you can read, you can code’: Online Educational Platforms,” I consider two online educational platforms, SkillCrush and Codecademy, reflecting on the kinds of literacy and student dispositions they facilitate.
In the third chapter, “Coding Meetups and Literacy Sponsors,” I conduct participant-observer research of several meetups, including PSU’s Association of Women in Computing and Women Who Code, considering how these meetups function as literacy sponsors and spaces where rhetorical and critical literacies are practiced.
In the fourth chapter, “Programming Bootcamps as Rhetorical Education,” I examine the in-person coding bootcamp as a site of literacy education and conduct participant-observer research of two bootcamps, GoBridge, Philly Tech Sistas, and Code for Her, coupled with interviews of organizers, instructors, and learners.
In the fifth chapter, “Degrees and Digital Badges: Formal Sites of Programming Education,” I move to the university as a site of programming literacy, featuring interviews with Penn State faculty teaching introductory programming courses and an analysis of a micro-badge program on HTML accessibility.
Finally, my dissertation concludes by turning toward the writing classroom and the pedagogical implications for understanding programming as a literacy.