Birnhaum, in “What is XML and why should humanities scholars care,” addresses how we should teach XML. He suggests that the Text Encoding Initiative’s, or TEI’s, Gentle introduction to XML is not gentle enough and suggests learning the syntax of XML after the introduction (although, under this stance, character entities could have been removed from this introduction).

Birnhaum’s gentle introduction was written for an undergraduate course called “Computational methods in the humanities.” The course was “designed specifically to address the knowledge and skills involved in quantitative and formal reasoning within the context of the interests and needs of students in the humanities” (taken from the class syllabus at

In his gentle introduction, Birnhaum takes the stand that digital humanities scholars will need to learn XML at some point, and this stand is even clearer in the syllabus. How should we teach XML?

To help me explore that question, I try to relate it to how I’ve learned programming languages. How did I learn HTML? Mostly by reading online references like and practicing through Notepad. Every new command I read I tried to recreate on my local server. It was very skill based.

Yes, I wanted to be able to create a website, but I mostly wanted a skill to put on my resume. I didn’t think about design and functionality (other than, does the code do what it’s supposed to do). I didn’t think about why I, as an English student, should care or how HTML could be used in a context other than putting content online.

I’m currently learning Javascript through an introductory web development course on Udemy, and so far, I (and the instructor) have been focused on building a skill. I partitioned my screen to display the online reference on the left and Notepad ++ on the right. After I enter new code, I save and refresh my browser window to see if it worked.

The instructor likes to let the code’s output explain itself. He repeatedly says “this will make more sense later in the course.” Sometimes after successfully writing a section of code, I try to think of how it will be useful, and sometimes I can’t answer that.

The instructor essentially throws us in there with very little introduction, but I like that full immersion. HTML and Javascript are languages, and if immersion is an effective technique for learning French or German, why can’t it be an effective technique for learning programming languages?

It was hard for me to learn about XML from this introduction. It was especially hard to learn the terminology without seeing them in action. I actually felt like McDonough’s “XML, Interoperability and the Social Construction of Markup Languages: The Library Example” did a much better job at contextualizing the use of XML in digital humanities, even though it was specific to digital libraries.

Whether a digital humanist slowly learns XML or is thrown into the deep end probably depends on the person and the context. Regardless, I think it’s extremely beneficial to have XML (and other computer-based) classes specifically designed for digital humanists.

Those classes could fill in the gaps that, for example, occurred in my skill based learning. The classes could include discussions about XML problems in the digital humanities, such as interoperability, which is a problem that would not be as urgent to a web developer creating a website for a business.