Responding to the Coding Crisis: Introduction

Cultural anxiety about the negative effects of media and ubiquitous computing on traditional literacy skills has persisted into the 21st century in the form of what John Trimbur (1991) calls a narrative of literacy decline (p. 281). A second, powerful narrative of “rising literacy expectations” (Trimbur p. 281) has emerged in response to the same conditions: everyone should learn to code, or, everyone (because of this call for universal education), should develop computational literacy. This coding crisis discourse can be traced to Douglas Rushkoff’s (2010) Program or Be Programmed in which he argues that the US is losing significant global power, and the fate of all humanity is on the line, because, and we are paraphrasing Rushkoff, “the kids still can’t code” (p. 18). “By this account [of rising expectations]” Trimbur writes, “literacy crises take place when a cultural lag occurs, when literacy practices and education have not quite caught up to increased expectations and heightened demand. ... In this view, a heightened demand for literacy is linked to job performance, productivity, and the need to improve the competitive position of the United States in the world market” (p. 284). The coding crisis discourse has followed the pattern of a rising expectations narrative exactly as Trimbur articulated.

After Rushkoff’s book appeared, crisis discourse began circulating in The Chronicle of Higher Education (Salter 2012) and it appeared in various guises within edited collections like Debates in the Digital Humanities (Gold 2012). Attempts to address and capitalize on the crisis discourse resulted in the Codecademy, an online educational company, proclaiming 2012 to be “Code Year,” followed in 2013 by’s “Hour of Code” (2013a) the ultimate easy on-ramp for learning this apparently essential skill. As of this writing, almost 40 million users have tried Hour of Code and 1.425 million have signed a petition to give every student in every school in America a chance to learn computer science. has enlisted the ethos of a variety of public figures to endorse coding as the key to personal success and global competitiveness, but also fuel the coding crisis discourse (see Figure 1). In 2014, coding crisis stories have been running regularly on National Public Radio (NPR Staff 2014) in Newsweek (Maney 2014) and in Time Magazine (Nicks 2014). The crisis has escaped the academy, become a “headlong global frenzy to teach programming” (Maney 2014) and seems to have overshadowed the narrative of literacy decline, for now.

Screen capture of homepage.
Figure 1. Screen capture of’s home page on Feb.12, 2013 with images and quotations from thought leaders about the value of learning how to code.

What role, if any, do literacy experts have to play in responding to the coding crisis discourse? Trimbur (1991) noted that “Writing teachers and writing-program administrators have not been immune to the rhetorical power of [a] literacy crisis,” and “There is little question that writing programs and composition studies have been direct beneficiaries of the current literacy crisis” (p. 277). Sure enough, a Town Hall session at Computers and Writing 2012 took up Ruskoff’s slogan: "Program or Be Programmed: Do We Need Computational Literacy in C&W” (Sample & Vee 2012). The consensus of the panelists was yes, with David Reider and Karl Stolley offering no caveats, Annette Vee, Mark Sample, Alexandria Lockett and Elizabeth Losh offering more moderate views including Vee's call to value all forms of code-writing styles and practices and Sample’s suggestion that we strive for “code competency” rather than literacy. The panelists’ collective message seems to be that if rhetoric and composition teachers and scholars want to participate in the full range of expressive powers available today, and if our field wants to fully engage with the capabilities of the computer as a communicative medium, we need to seriously consider how we can develop our own and our students’ computational literacy.

So no brainer, right? Literacy scholars, and particularly the computers and writing subfield, have lots to gain from taking up computational literacy: status as writers and coders, expressive and perhaps institutional power, funding from NEH for digital humanities projects or even NSF for collaborative efforts in pursuit of a “Computational Education for the 21st Century” grant. If “computational literacy” is folded into literacy development efforts, we will be doing the right thing for our students, ourselves and society.

Maybe, maybe not. We have to admit that we, the authors, have been swept up by the coding crisis discourse, and formed a working group (2010-13) we called “Sugar Labs @ NDSU” that focused on learning how to effectively use the open source operating system “Sugar” and introduce K-6 students to computational literacy. Our goal has been to increase our understanding of computational thinking while also bringing computational literacy to local students. Our team of six, led by the authors, ran a pilot program in 2010-11, then a 14-week curriculum in 2011-12 with thirteen students from our city’s most diverse and economically disadvantaged elementary school. We expanded the curriculum to a second school in 2012-13, but we draw almost exclusively from the 2011-12 data in this article. We had fun, the kids had fun, they may have learned some things about computational thinking, but we might also have been playing right into a pernicious discourse that touts 21st century skills and upward mobility. We might have inadvertently sorted students into “programmers” and “programmed” along gender and race lines. We might have been privileging technical skills and a screen-obsessed culture while neglecting our discipline’s most powerful technology, language.

Trimbur tried to warn us. “In the flurry of activity it has taken to launch new courses and programs,” he says of the growth composition studies and writing programs saw in the 70s and 80s, “we have not stopped often enough to ask what we are subscribing to when we say the magic words ‘literacy [or, now, coding] crisis’” (p. 278). This essay is an opportunity for us to stop and assess 1) the coding crisis discourse generated by Rushkoff, Codecademy,, and others, and 2) our own attempts to intervene in this apparent crisis by offering access to computational literacy to fourth and fifth graders through an afterschool curriculum. Before we and others embrace this discourse fully and seek benefits from it, we also need to make sure we understand what we are gaining, losing, and inadvertently subscribing to.

In the section, “What are we subscribing to?” we will examine how three concepts Trimbur found at work in the literacy crises of the 70s and 80s—global economic competitiveness, individual credentialing, and social stratification—have played out in the current coding crisis discourse. We provide some historical and local context for our efforts in “Crisis Intervention Planning” and we analyze the limitations and successes of our efforts in “Crisis Intervention Analysis.” Drawing on preliminary findings from fieldnotes and video data, we will acknowledge the problems and successes in our afterschool code literacy efforts, avoiding both the crisis and salvation rhetoric that dominates this and other literacy crises. In the conclusion, we support the development of computational literacy but argue that a historical and critical perspective on the crisis should modulate our rhetoric and encourage a long-term, sound approach to computational literacy rather than looking for magical solutions.

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