The Two-Discipline Problem: Life as a Humanities Kid in STEM
If we can all – professionals, employers, educators, peers – view an educational background, or any background for that matter, as a flavor informing approach and not a hierarchy of absolute value, imposter syndrome will be completely irrelevant.
Learning dead languages is an awful lot like learning to code, when you get right down to it.
Or at least that’s the line I’ve been peddling for the better part of a decade, as I try to explain why a Classicist with an English minor (who is a Librarian by trade) is an obvious fit as a full stack web developer, database admin, and data visualization consultant.
While initially I may have settled on that sentiment as a kind of bulwark against inroads of imposter syndrome, I have meant it quite in earnest for the vast majority of that time. I could carry on at length (to many people’s chagrin) about how the frustratingly important breath diacritics[i] of Attic Greek invoke the infuriating snarls that a single incorrectly placed quotation mark can have on a line of code or how the design, blocking, and rework of a data visualization mimics a writer’s development of plot – a lot of editing, redesign, and frustration is required to distill down to the good.
Both disciplines require you to be a lover of puzzles and a seeker of stories; both require you to be something of a masochist when it comes to following (or intentionally breaking) rules. If you can master the grammar and style of the thing – and if you can get your mind in the right place – it becomes a fairly simple matter to employ the vocabulary at your will to unlock a kind of magic. And when you finally find your own style, it becomes your magic.
If the data doesn’t make it through to the future, and perhaps more importantly, survive in a format that is meaningful to those who come behind, then neither do most of the stories of our era.
Through reflection on these overlaps, I ultimately came to realize that I was not just another “humanities kid” who, through the perfectly boring and benign coincidences of life, ended up on an alternate career path. Truthfully, I had been drawn to specific parts of the humanities in my education often because I was interested in their “technical” components. I suspect, if people who have followed similar meandering career trajectories look back on their own initial areas of focus, quite a few may find a similar trail of breadcrumbs to where they’ve found themselves.
Lately, in my rare quiet evenings, while trying to keep a foot in the humanities and maybe actually finish a perennially half-baked science fiction novel, I have been taking Neil Gaiman’s Master Class on The Art of Storytelling. In his segment on sources of inspiration, he highlights that we often forget to consider our personal sources of inspiration when/if they fall outside our professional discipline. While he was talking primarily about writing and the creative arts, the concept struck me as highly relevant to the point I’m trying to make here: namely – it was actually the humanities that inspired me to try and solve some of the technical puzzles that exist in our modern world. I became a programmer and a data analyst because I studied Classics and English, not in spite of that fact.
I may not have been able to articulate it as cleanly when I was younger, but I have always wanted to leave a story behind – to contribute to our collective canon. And in this age of information overload, it is often the people diligently sifting through the literal ocean of data we have created as a species who have become responsible for painstakingly pulling out these modern stories so they can be told, preserved, and entered into the record. If the data doesn’t make it through to the future, and perhaps more importantly, survive in a format that is meaningful to those who come behind, then neither do most of the stories of our era. I suspect this heavily influenced my bent towards librarianship and digital stewardship, which has served me well in many of my recent professional projects both in the requirements gathering stage or in its inevitable documentation.
Ultimately, I realized that not only did my love of the humanities contribute to the kind of work that I’ve decided to pursue, but it also shaped my individual style around how I perform that work and the ways I interact with the tools I choose to employ. I realized that my love of postmodernism made me prefer code frameworks that allow you to jump around, that are sparse and fluid, but sometimes end up harder to read for their simplicity. I also adore it when people make light in their code comments, like some kind of technical Terry Pratchett[ii] providing amusing asides that end up telling more than the main text itself. I always try to leave myself a few of these behind.
In the analytics space, I realized that my fascination with time series data, with the peeling away of the layers in some unexplained spike to show the actual truth behind, was certainly informed by my preference for (mind-bending/time-spanning/non-linear) literature. I have always enjoyed the detective work in discovering what perhaps unseen environmental factors contributed to a change. The worldbuilding of data. It’s not a new idea, of course, that data tells stories. I just didn’t realize that the kind of data stories I care about track fairly consistently with the styles of fiction and the mysteries of antiquity that I love as well.
And in a wonderful kind of ouroboros, the work I have done in the data and analytics spaces, the people that I have met there and the kinds of alternative storytellers that I have encountered, have made me a better writer, a better Classicist, and a different kind of thinker. I find now, whenever I try to sit down and write, that my characters, their voices, and even my personal thought processes have a different kind of depth. I’ve learned that this depth comes from understanding the impact of data, large or small, on the world – past and present. It’s like a heads up display of new insight, like I’ve put on some futuristic glasses in one of my favorite types of stories.
When you get down to it, what are writers but analysts of people and culture? The good ones arrange the code so well that you don’t see the steps -- it just works. I set out to write this essay initially thinking it would be a piece about avoiding imposter syndrome as a data professional of a non-traditional background, but in a fitting parallel, what I ended up realizing is that you don’t need to fight against imposter syndrome at all if you genuinely believe that your background has prepared you for what you’re doing.
It’s not just about trusting your technical skills. That may keep the demons at bay for a little bit, but if all you have is faith in the empirical correctness of your output, you’ll only have a scaffold the likes of which inevitable human mistakes will crumble. If we can all – professionals, employers, educators, peers – view an educational background, or any background for that matter, as a flavor informing approach and not a hierarchy of absolute value, imposter syndrome will be completely irrelevant.
A genuine liberal arts education has undoubtedly made me a better programmer, analyst, and consultant than I personally would have been with a more typical educational background, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right path for everyone. In fact, when I have been deployed in tandem with those individuals possessing a more formal theoretical background in data science, the combination has led to amazing and mutually beneficial partnerships that more employers should be actively pursuing when forming their rosters and targeted teams. The goal should not be a token combination of soft and hard skills, not specifically the blend of humanities and tech, but simply a complementary set of people, methodologies, and potential insights.
I’m eternally grateful to the employers who have taken that chance on me over the years and to the bosses and peers that have fostered and cultivated my education in the technical space without ever batting an eye over whether or not I should be doing it. I hope that I can be such a support system for someone one day, or even for anyone reading this article who might be feeling a little lost, wondering which way to step, and trying to decide if striking a new path is brave or just stupid in such an uncertain job market. I hope the answer for at least a few of those people is that it is neither brave nor stupid – just a logical next step in a career path they’ve always been on.
After all, per the oft-quoted but rarely sourced Latin aphorism[iii], “Astra inclinant, sed non obligant.”
The stars incline us, but they do not bind us.
Katy Sandlin is a Sr. Data Visualization & Analytics Consultant with Cleartelligence.
She holds a M.S. in Library Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and two B.S. degrees in Latin and Classical Culture, with a minor in English, from the University of Georgia.
[i] For anyone who may want them, a few free online references of different media types on the concept of diacritics and breathing marks in Attic Greek: - Polytonic Greek: https://ancientgreek.pressbooks.com/chapter/3/ - Al Duncan’s YouTube Series on Attic Greek designed to follow C.W. Shelmerdine’s Introduction to Greek (Focus Press, 2nd Ed., 2008): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NcBMEoDLIBA - A Digital Tutorial for Ancient Greek, created by Jeff Rydberg Cox in the Classical and Ancient Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City based on John William White’s First Greek Book: https://daedalus.umkc.edu/FirstGreekBook/JWW_FGB2.html [ii] A footnote about Terry Pratchett’s use of footnotes: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/78903.Once_More_with_footnotes [iii] As is often the case with many famous Latin aphorisms, I can find no origin source for this particular sentiment in a primary text. There are a few different versions of the quote that can be found, such as “Astra inclinant, non necessitant,” but given the lack of primary source material, I chose the iteration I preferred for the context.