HTML as a Second Language?

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. –Mark Twain

These words from Mark Twain plagued me the last few days as I ventured into the realm of Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) to create a simple webpage.  Working with markup language, I realized quickly that the right word and the “almost right word” will produce quite different results.  This is frustrating, but it illuminates an interesting relationship between the written word and the digital world.  As historians are confronted with digital technologies they will be happy to know that their knowledge of language can help rather then hinder them in their work.

Historians are, more or less, comfortable with the written word.  Writing as creative expression requires a command over the form and function of language to effectively communicate a thought.   You not only have to know which words are best suited for your message, but which format works best for its presentation.  A medieval historian must possess a linguistic knowledge of Latin and Greek and have a firm hold on the language of Catholic theology, monastic liturgy, and Germanic jurisprudence, if his writing is going to successfully re-create that period for his audience.  In addition, he must choose whether he wants to communicate these languages through an academic essay, a short (or long) monograph, an historical fiction, a blog post, or a haiku.

Whatever form we select, it is important to remember that words represent and impact reality.  The specific arrangement of words make possible worlds in which the author intends to bring his readers.  Punctuation directs the flow of language at the command of the author.  Consider the comic below, and the difference one comma makes.  Commanding a pause in the flow of the sentence, the cartoonist indicates,  saves lives.  This command over the written word translates into a valuable skill in the digital world.

Historians are perhaps less comfortable with digital technologies.  This might be because creation in virtual reality requires knowledge of programming or markup languages.  Entering specific commands to manipulate data (textual, visual or audio) is a seemingly more difficult challenge than indenting a paragraph or entering a comma into a sentence.  However, if the historian understands the comma as a command that structures his narrative by directing the flow of text, he might be led to see the benefits of programming commands which perform a similar function.

Since my experience in this area is limited to a tutorial of HTML over the course of the last week, I will offer THREE lessons I learned while creating my own webpage.

First:  All languages, whether Latin or Markup, require a degree of internal logic.  

By the end of my tutorial, I visualized the logic of HTML as one of those Matryoshka dolls from Russia.  You know those wooden dolls that appear as one whole, but when you open it up, you find a number of smaller dolls inside?  The HTML document is the overarching whole, indicated by tags at the start (<html>) and at the end (</html>) of the page.  As you move to the center of the doll, new boundaries are created: The visible information is bound by <body> and </body>, and paragraphs are bound by <p> and </p>, etc.  Although it was confusing to write text and remember these commands, I did see some method in what initially appeared to be madness.

How I see HTML

SecondCreation, online or offline, requires structure.  

Tags in HTML offer necessary structures in which to create.  When I forgot the end tag to my listed items, it was as if I forgot to dam off the flow of text properly and I watched as it flooded out into the next section.  However, once the structure of the webpage became evident, I began to find more freedom to create within it.  For example, between the tags <h1> and </h1> I played around with styles, fonts, sizes, colour for headings.  When we write an academic essay, we similarly thrive on structure.  Page length, number of materials or guiding questions offer a framework for creativity.  When that structure is gone, our creativity seems to flow out in every direction, usually wasted.

Third:  Greater command of language = Greater creative process and product.

Once the framework was set up, I played around with the text, inserted images and links, changed colours, and manipulated fonts.  As another student recently remarked, there is a feeling of pride in being able to make a computer do what you want it to.  Separating my data neatly, and inserting breaks made felt as rewarding as Moses parting the Red Sea.  At least that is what my ego felt.  However, it remains frustrating to have a vision for your webpage that you are incapable of bringing to life.  As with most things, goals of becoming better or more creative in digital design, will only be realized through a greater knowledge of programming language, and more hours of practice.

My ego after HTML tutorial.

As the field of digital humanities grows, there is a debate concerning the necessity of training “digital humanists” programming and markup languages.  After this brief tutorial, one question continually resurfaced:  How creative do historians want to be?  We already enjoy commanding and directing language in our written work.  Why not extend this creativity by learning a new language to manipulate digital work?  Maybe we do need HTML as a second language for graduate students in the Digital Humanities?


4 thoughts on “HTML as a Second Language?

  1. Thanks for the shout out Dave! Your conclusions are insightful – I particularly like your comment on creation requiring structure. As someone that thrives on structure, it was initially daunting to create something from nothing as we did in the HTML assignment. However, the structure of HTML and the instructions of the assignment directed the flow of creativity into specified outcomes. Without those guidelines, I would probably still be staring at a blank screen.

  2. No problem Lindsay. Yes, structure is key for me as well. I’d be a mess without it. One thing I enjoyed about teaching was being able to create a classroom structure and watch how effective it was for allowing creativity. (Just to say that it is also fun being the one to make the structure, and not always have it make you : ] )

  3. This is really interesting Dave. As someone who loves language, creativity, and structures, but has no clue about the mysteries of programming and html language, I’m intrigued by this idea of programming as “sub-creation” (as Tolkien might call it). However, I just wonder if this comparison holds water… I mean, when you write history (or poetry, or a short story, etc.) the form and the content play off each other and interact in complicated ways and the best writers know how to do this very well. I guess I’m wondering how adding in a “3rd dimension” of programming a webpage to presumably display this content might change how we read it? Also, programming seems to be a reduction to utilitarian theories of language (that is, each word is good as long as it “does” something); is there something inherently aesthetic about programming language? Does that matter since no one even sees it anyway? I like the post, I’m just not sure how real writing and programming compare since they seem to function so differently.

    • Doug, you raise a number of good questions in your response, particularly about the aesthetics of programming language. While I do see an inherent aesthetic in Hypertext Mark-up Language (html), I think that some clarification is needed about HTML because, like you say, its function is different than “real writing.”
      HTML, at least in my limited conception of it, cannot be compared to the finished poem or polished academic paper. It is more comparable to the edits one uses on drafts before unveiling the finished product. The function of such edits, or “mark-ups” is to direct the flow of the written word properly into the form you have decided to create (i.e. poem or paper, in this case). So, is there something inherently aesthetic about editing an academic paper? I would argue that allowing language to flow in a more effective way to communicate a message is somewhat sexy.
      So, if HTML is really marking up digital data in order to create a webpage there is now that “3rd Dimension” you also need to take into account. If “form and content” playing off one another define good writing, this is equally true for good web design, and historians (or all humanists) engaging in the digital world are asking what are the possible new forms that we can put our content into, online. How does history look online in contrast to a monograph? Since HTML directs the flow of information not only linearly through the webpage, but non-linearly, allowing you to navigate through multiple webpages, or narratives, the possibilities are interesting to consider. (For more on this read: Edward Ayers “History in Hypertext”: )

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