-Lily K Marks, NY6 ThinkTank Student Fellow, Hamilton College
Originally published on her blog "Arts & Humanities Connections"
Writing programs in Python requires the sort of precision most of my writing doesn’t demand. A missing letter, an extra comma, or a poorly arranged phrase are more than just confusing; the smallest spelling mistake will stop the program completely. In Python, typing “print” will tell the program to print the characters that follow this command. Typing “Print” yields nothing. Computer Science is not so forgiving of my penchant for typos. Whenever I discover these small problems: the missing colon, the extra space, I want to shout, “it’s close enough!” But of course, the computer can’t “figure it out” the same way a human would. I don’t think I’m the only one who was initially repelled by this. The computer doesn’t act like a human. It doesn’t grasp nuances or appreciate aesthetics. Yet this is what others love about computers: the fact that they aren’t human. They don’t make human mistakes. They aren’t inconsistent or volatile. If the code is written correctly it will work. Every single time.
This precision may encourage the pretty prevalent fear that technology is taking over human roles. I’m sure some people welcome the idea of increased efficiency as much as others are afraid of being replaced. But this division doesn’t quite make sense. Each programming language, as unforgivingly precise as it may be, has a sort of musicality to it. The repetition of certain phrases is not unlike a refrain. Much like how learners of foreign languages must adjust to unfamiliar syntaxes, coders develop fluency in these patterns. Additionally, the required symmetry of code recalls certain poetic forms. Rules like the logic of “if…then” statements or the required indents following colons demand a structure with its own internal logic. The brain processes required to master this science are certainly similar to the process of learning a new language, or even understanding the format of a sonnet or villanelle in one’s own language. Much as literature, the same program could be written in a variety of styles. The diverse inner workings of similar programs can be visually stunning, sometimes even to those who don’t totally understand the language.
Once coders master the use of a programming language, they can add reflexivity to the experience by creating a program to play with the English language. For example, haiku, a highly structured form of poetry involving three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables each, are easy to generate through computer programs. A few years ago, when a friend and fellow Hamilton student created such a program, I was amazed by the beauty in some of these computer generated poems. How could we find meaning in these authorless works? Our reactions to the haiku were devoid of influence from authorial intent, because there was no author, in the traditional sense. Our ability to read meaning into the poem despite this fascinated me. Here was a tangible example of how interpretation allows us to generate ideas. Reading these poems didn’t leave me in fear of being replaced by technology. Instead, it felt like an ultimate creative act. The text on the screen bore no intentions. It was presented to me without any design beyond the syllable count. Yet in reading, we created meaning.
My friend’s program did not account for grammar, only syllable count. The program chose either words or bigrams (sets of two words commonly used together) from a dictionary to fulfill the haiku pattern. They say that art cannot be produced in a vacuum, but in a way, these were. The combination of words were devoid of the literary and cultural allusions which permeate our literary cannon. Perhaps the phrases that impressed me most in these haiku were only possible thanks to freedom from literary constraints. Yet, at moments, the generated haikus did evoke familiar tropes and images. Simply having a background in literature caused me to read these would-be nonsensical poems within that framework, for better or for worse. This reminded me how much our ideas and experiences influence our everyday actions. If I could draw connections from a string of random words, then much more of my experience must be filtered through this lens. For me, finding meaning in these poems displayed how much my studies in the humanities have influenced how I understand the world around me. Creating programs that play with words for us gives us a new way to explore the questions which literary theorists have been asking for years.
Later, I learned that creative writing and computer science fit together more often than I would have expected. Just as code can generate poetry, poetry can also generate code. At the Code Poetry Slam at Stanford, participants use code to create poetry. The writers interpret this in a variety of ways, but the most impressive are those which are double-coded, meaning that they make sense in multiple languages at once: English and programming language. Beyond simply incorporating the unique phrasing of html, python, or C++, these poems are dynamic. They are legible in English, yet also prompt the computer to do something when the program is run. From both sides, computers let us observe creativity in a new way. We can observe the way our brains process information as well as the way they can make things happen.
To program without creativity should seem as ridiculous as penning fiction without imagination. Even programs not related to poetry require creative approaches. The computer is our tool; we shouldn’t use it blindly. We should use this tool with as much care and imagination as we would our pencils and paintbrushes.
More about the haiku generator:http://www.rachelf.com/post/50393137209/generating-haiku-poems-uncontrolled
Examples of Code Poetry: http://stanford.edu/~mkagen/codepoetryslam/
Lily Marks, NY6 Fellow launches her blog with: "Creative Computers: What the Overlap of Programming and Poetry Teaches us about Creativity"
4Humanities.org announces its Shout Out For the Humanities student prize contest. Prizes are offered for best undergraduate (1st prize: US $1,000 – 2nd: $700 – 3rd: $300) and best graduate student (1st prize: US $1,000 – 2nd: $700 – 3rd: $300) submissions by students from any nation, working individually or in teams, that speak up for the value of the humanities in today’s society.
4Humanities wants to showcase student ideas and voices on such questions as: * Why is studying the humanities–e.g., history, literature, languages, philosophy, art history, media history, and culture–important to you? * To society? * How would you convince your parents, an employer, a politician, or others that there is value in learning the humanities?
Submissions will be judged by an international panel of distinguished judges for message, quality, and impact no matter the medium or format. Possible submissions include: essay (less than 2,000 words), video, digital work, poster, cartoon, song, art, short story, interview. (See Contest Kit for ideas, resources, and tools.) Submissions are due March 1, 2016.
Students may enter the contest as individuals or teams if they are currently enrolled in an institution of higher education or graduated no more than two years beyond the contest submission deadline.
For more information go here.
NY6 Think Tank Fellow, Danielle Iwata, from Colgate University launches Blog.
"I am heavily involved with the dance community at Colgate, and have been pushing to have dance integrated into the academic curriculum and receive equal recognition as fine arts, music, and theater have on campus. Dance’s strength as an extra-curricular on campus is immeasurable. Dancefest (a semi-annual showcase hosted at the Colgate Memorial Chapel) is always packed beyond what is established as a safe number by the fire department. It has the student support from the audience, as well as the passion and talent from the participants.
Dance develops skill sets that are incredibly valuable inside and outside of the classroom. We learn about stage presence—having that confidence to stand up in front of 750 people and perform something personal. We learn about trust—knowing that other members of your group (who have likely become family) will catch you during the falls and pull you up during the lifts. We learn about bodies--understanding where we are in space and being aware of others around us. We learn about teamwork--developing those relationships with other members and being comfortable enough around them to explain the past experiences and emotions that go into a piece. We learn about passion--committing ourselves to the pieces and the people.
This is why I dance.
And this is why I am a NY6 Fellow: to present dance as academically rigorous and valuable coursework; and to spread appreciation for dance as an insightful experience of corporeality and inspiration.
This blog will feature profiles of students, professors, and alumni who have been involved with dance in an effort to encourage others to consider dance in a more serious light. It will also display photographs and videos from my work with the Colgate Dance Initiative, which aim to showcase the talent and passion of students on campus, with the hopes that we can garner a greater appreciation for our art."
Student Fellow, Miri Reinhold (Colgate University) to launch new Instagram feed for her project titled "Humans of the Humanities."
"Think the humanities aren't a practical academic pursuit? Think you'll get nowhere with a degree in arts and languages? Think again. Do the work you love, and you'll love the work you do. This is why we love what we do. This is #HumansoftheHumanities"
Co-authored by Catherine Tedford who directs the Richard F. Brush Art Gallery at St. Lawrence University and writes about street art stickers on her research blog Stickerkitty. On behalf of the NY6 Think Tank.
You might not have observed what is called "street art stickers" before, but once you do, you'll start seeing them everywhere. Measuring around 2x2 to 3x5 inches, and drawn or printed on paper or vinyl, stickers are usually made individually by hand or in small batches through cheap online printing services.
In bigger cities, stickers can be found "hidden in plain sight," slapped up on signposts, light fixtures, and every other imaginable surface of the built environment. On college campuses, stickers cover bulletin boards and bathroom stalls. At home, stickers decorate laptops and skate decks.
In the United States and around the world, stickers are used to advertise the latest streetwear, hip-hop bands, or social media sites. Some artists make stickers to "tag" a space and claim it, at least temporarily, as one's own, though nowadays many American cities have pretty active anti-graffiti laws in place. Stickers also carry socio-political messages that ebb and flow over time and space, depending on who is in office or what issues are playing out in the government or on Wall Street.
But wait. Street art stickers? In a college classroom on Spanish literature and culture?
On a cold autumn afternoon at St. Lawrence University's art gallery in Canton, New York, fourteen undergraduate students sit in a semi-circle on a rug, visiting as part of Professor Marina Llorente's class on Literature, Film and Popular Culture in Contemporary Spain. Some are leaning up against walls, a few others splayed out on beanbag chairs strewn across the floor. They're not here to talk about the current exhibition on display. Rather, everyone is poring over street art stickers from Madrid, Catalonia, Asturias, Galicia, and elsewhere in Spain. Some are new, sent from artists, political organizations, and colleagues who knew about the course project. Other stickers are old, torn, gritty. The students touch them. Smell them. Look at them, realizing they once inhabited a difference space. Everyone is curious to know, to understand, to make sense of messages still infused with the polluted air of a city, the dirt on the walls, the honking of car horns, and the eyes that once glanced at and ingested these messages on the streets of Spain's cities.
Why are the students so stuck on the sight of these stickers? Because flashing before their eyes are artistic sound bites of something much larger: political agendas, cultural idiosyncrasies, or economic realities that speak about the Catalonian separatist movement, worker's rights, the environment, gender or sexuality, and other issues. Some stickers shout; others whisper. One from 2003 calls for a General Strike and No a la Guerra or "No to war" in Iraq. In the background, a picture of Picasso's Guernica reminds Spaniards of their country's violent past under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco.
A more recent sticker shows the contemporary Catalan politician Arthur Mas dressed as a dark Gothic Edward Scissorhands with Contra les retallades, Defensem els serveis públics, or "Against the Cuts, Defend Public Services." A third small sticker presents a simple drawing of a crown covered by a red circle with a line through it, the universal No symbol, referencing opposition to the Spanish monarchy.
Students excitedly begin to investigate and synthesize the clues, using their linguistic skills, their visual and textual analytical skills, their background knowledge in the history and politics of the Basque Country or of Catalonia, and their cultural understanding and ability to put messages and ideas into context.
Students unstick these stickers from the walls, cars, and containers to which they previously adhered, and in a different time and place, here in northern New York at this small Liberal Arts college, they begin to listen and learn as the streets begin to talk.
If you are interested in submitting short blogs that reshape public conversations about the Arts and Humanities, please send them to
All authors and opinions are welcome.
In the news:
Ny6ThinkTank Fellow Emily Tong is quoted in the Clyde Fitch report saying "…the humanities are the study of the ways in which people have created meaning over time and the arts are some of the physical presentations of such meaning…. We create meaning by sharing, understanding context, making connections, and expressing ourselves."
NY6 Think Tank Fellow Colleen Moore Tackles Diplomacy, Musical Activism
Katherine Walker and Donna Davenport in the HWS News.
"Faculty Reflect on the NY6 Think Tank"
Cathy Tedford, Ronnie Olesker, Christopher Watts from St. Lawrence Univ to attend "Humans vs. Zombies" event.