Dissertation Abstract

Computer programming literacy is increasingly understood as vital for participation in today’s global economy, but faces significant issues of access, representation, and equity. 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. In response to information technologies that exacerbate existing disparities of gender, race, and class, the industry of coding education designed for marginalized and minoritized communities is growing rapidly. Within writing studies, scholars have examined the rhetoricity of code, considered the intersections of identity and technology, and theorized literacy practices in technical and educational contexts. However, to date, writing studies researchers have just begun to consider how literacy, technology, and identity interact within the varied landscape of coding education. My dissertation, Programming Women: Rhetoric, Literacy, and Coding, extends this scholarship through its analysis of sites of contemporary programming literacy education for marginalized communities in technology. Through a rhetorical study deploying a mixed-methods approach, I consider how literacy is taught, understood, and practiced in a range of sites of coding education, from online educational modules to meet ups, bootcamps, and formal courses. In doing so, my research has the potential to contribute to ongoing conversations on literacy practices and technology in writing studies, as well as to public discourses of equity in computer programming.


The disciplines of rhetoric and composition and technical communication have a long history of research on the relationship between writing, technology, and education. Computer code and software algorithms are rhetorical texts, imbued with persuasive force and shaped by the implicit assumptions of their creators. 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. Analyzing sites of programming education through the lens of multiliteracy highlights the interplay between the functional literacies often touted as avenues to economic mobility, the critical literacies that reveal the racialized, gendered, and ableist logics embedded within code, and the rhetorical literacies involved with creating and challenging existing coding logics.

Chapter One

My project is structured around sites of programming education: online educational platforms, hybrid online and in-person meetups, structured workshops and bootcamps, and formal university courses and micro-credentialing programs. In each of my body chapters, I analyze how is literacy understood, modeled, and practiced by instructors and learners, tracing connections, parallels, and distinctions between the varied contexts of programming education. My introduction, “Gendered Ecologies of Coding Education,” describes the project, its exigence, and aims. I begin by describing computer programming’s reach into a wide range of contemporary life and programming’s problems with representation, access, and educational and economic equity. Next, I turn to argue for the rhetoricity of algorithms and the ways in which algorithms can often create or reinforce rhetorics of oppression. Finally, I outline the ways activist coding organizations have responded to this multifaceted problem.

Chapter two

In the second chapter, “‘If you can read, you can code’: Online Educational Platforms,” I consider two online coding educational platforms, SkillCrush and Codecademy. These sites offer structured models designed to teach coding literacy, and often serve as an introduction to programming for individuals coming to programming without formal education. Though championed as “disruptive” new educational models, both platforms reflect behaviorist pedagogies of early twentieth century teaching machines. Consequently, each platform offers learners a limited, functional literacy disconnected from the computational thinking needed for industry participation.


Chapter three

In the third chapter, “Coding Meetups as Tactical Technical Communication,” I turn to hybrid online and in-person coding meetups. These meetups serve as both educational and social spaces, where participants gain both programming literacies and knowledge for navigating industries and institutions. This chapter offers an analysis of three coding meetups, Women Who Code, R-Ladies, and Write/ Speak/ Code. I argue that these meetups offer a tactical technical communication designed to subvert exclusionary industry practices, revealing an understanding of literacy as networked and co-constituted.


Chapter four

The fourth chapter, “Programming Bootcamps and Literacy Sponsors,” considers coding workshops and bootcamps designed by and for marginalized communities in tech. In the United States alone, coding bootcamps are a 240-million-dollar industry, graduating twenty-three thousand developers in 2019, with growth rates of 900% since the industry’s inception in 2013. In this chapter, I study three activist coding organizations, GoBridge, Philly Tech Sistas, and Code for Her, and argue that such workshops constitute a new form of literacy sponsor, one that forwards a theory of literacy as affective and closely tied to learner’s self-perception, emphasizing the importance of cultivating dispositions of confidence.


Chapter five

In the fifth chapter, “Degrees and Digital Badges: Formal Sites of Programming Education,” I move to the university as a site of programming literacy. While a substantial (and growing) number of developers learn programming outside formal educational institutions, it is clear that university programs in computer science, software engineering, and information technology are still one of the most common paths to a programming career, with 80.7% of software developers entering the workforce with a STEM degree. This chapter features interviews with faculty teaching introductory courses in programming paired with classroom observation and review of course syllabi and related materials. In addition, this chapter examines one university’s HTML accessibility micro-badge credentialing program.


Chapter six

Finally, my project concludes by turning toward the writing classroom. What are the pedagogical implications for understanding programming as a literacy? How might writing courses cultivate a reflective programming literacy? In a moment when writing instructors are tasked with teaching an increasing range of genres and media, some writing studies scholars have called to consider programming a kind of writing. Joyce Locke-Carter compellingly articulated the stakes of reconceptualizing writing and coding, explaining, “When I talk about making, I’m flipping the power and flipping the epistemology, and saying that when you make, you dictate what will happen.” I offer strategies for cultivating this agentive making and programming literacy in writing classes.

updated 11.25.20