Alt-Ac Advice: Why classicists make good web developers

As many of you no doubt remember, the Library of Antiquity went on a brief hiatus this summer so Jackie and I could pursue some other projects. Well, I’m very excited to tell you about my own summer “project”, a web development immersive bootcamp!  

You might be wondering how a PhD candidate in ancient history ends up spending her summer in an intensive web development program. The short version of the story is that I was out of funding and there was no readily available teaching for me. The longer version of the story will come in a later post. What I’d like to talk about today is why I think that classicists who are considering alt-ac careers should consider web development.

Both my BA and my PhD are in history and it never fails that the career center will make presentations for historians about how they already have all the skills to work as researchers or archivists (which is true). I also know some classics majors with awesome spoken language skills who have gone on to use Italian, French, or German to find careers. But many of us only read these languages, and I have yet to attend a talk about what fields our particular kind of language skills transfer to. I hope that I can convince all of you that if you can read Greek and/or Latin, you have the skills that you need to be a web developer.  

I suppose I should start with some background about myself. I was already pretty web savvy when I started the immersive program. I was capable of building simple websites from scratch (using HTML, CSS, and very minimal JavaScript). I used my skills to make a little extra money during the PhD, charging modest sums to get websites up and running for people and small businesses that lacked the knowledge to get themselves online. I knew that I liked web development before I started, but I had no idea how similar web development and classics really are. About halfway through the course I made a really important discovery: being a good web developer means being able to look stuff up.  

Languages like JavaScript change so much and so often that there is no point in memorizing them fully. Besides, they are just way too big for it to be feasible to memorize everything about them in any realistic timeframe. Furthermore, it’s better to diversify and be competent in more than one language. For all these reasons, it’s better to be comfortable with fundamentals and documentation than it is to just “know” how to write the code off the top of your head. Besides, anything you can’t remember is just a quick internet search away.  The documentation can be a bit daunting, but it isn’t nearly as intimidating as my first venture into the Oxford Latin Dictionary!    

Programming languages and ancient languages also aren’t that different. There are rules that the language has to follow in order for it to work. If you don’t know what something does, you have to look it up. You need to pay attention to every single little word if you want the program to work or if you want to understand what the program does. Sight reading in programming is about as distressing as you’d expect: when you code something new while someone is watching ,it’s very intimidating. I’m not sure anyone really likes it (but it makes you a better coder). To be successful as a developer, you need to continuously learn new things. You need to pay attention to how the languages are evolving, and you need to learn new languages. You also need to be able to teach yourself these things. It’s not really that different from knowing how to read Latin and teaching yourself French or Italian for your reading exams.  

Some notes on web development immersive programs:

I chose to complete a program for a number of reasons that might not make the most sense for everyone. It was the right choice for me though and I’m happy to tell you about my experience and why I would recommend it  I enrolled in Bitmaker’s Full Stack Web Development 12 week immersive. Bitmaker is located in Toronto (where I currently live), but it’s affiliated with General Assembly, which facilitates campuses all over North America and Europe.  

I’ve completed intensive summer programs before: I took both the Latin and the Greek workshops at UC Berkeley when I was an undergraduate. I happen to think that immersive learning can really benefit students if they have the time and the resources to dedicate themselves fully to the course for the full duration of the program. Immersive programs often end in disaster for students who are unable to commit entirely for the full period (missing the first week or taking a long weekend in the middle, for example), because once they are behind it is nearly impossible to catch up.  

I found the quality of the education of the program to be amazing. The assignments were well thought out, and I could tell that a lot of time and effort was spent developing and maintaining the curriculum. I chose Bitmaker because I already had a background in HTML and CSS, and I wanted to learn more and different languages. What really makes Bitmaker stand out from some other development immersive programs is what they refer to as ‘Outcomes.’ The Outcomes program is really important because it teaches you how to conduct yourself on the job market. Not only did I get a crash course in development, I also got a crash course in how to brand myself, how to find jobs, and how to make sure that I get people’s attention. Since I was coming from academia, it was a difficult transition to what turned out to be a completely different approach to finding a job and presenting yourself. I was happy to have the career coach to help me navigate the process. If you happen to be in the market for a code boot camp, make sure to ask not just about their job placement rates but also about what kind of support they give you to help you find a job.  

I really do think that classicists have more in common with developers than they do with people who work in modern languages or in history and archives. The more traditional path of librarian is of course still open, but I hope that I’ve convinced any classicist who is looking for interesting work outside the academy to look seriously at web development. Plus, there are so many great opportunities these days in digital humanities.  If anyone wants to talk further about it, feel free to reach out or (for those in the know) take a look at my GitHub!  


~m

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