Graduated Experiences in Golf and Programming

A recent post about efforts to counter the declining popularity of golf got me thinking. I’m a pretty terrible golfer, but still have fond memories of playing with friends and family over the years, and do my best to make a couple of rounds each summer. The reason I started playing wasn’t my father, who admittedly is an avid golfer, or stars like Tiger Woods on TV every Sunday. The single greatest influence was a place just a few miles from where I grew up called Woody’s.

Woody’s was a golf complex with a driving range, two mini-putt courses, a 9-hole chip & putt course, and an 18-hole par-3 course. Many summer nights were spent with friends on the driving range, the mini-putt courses, or simply hanging out. Woody’s offered three things that made it a great introduction to golf: an accessible environment, beginner-friendly equipment, and graduated experiences.

Woody’s made golf accessible. It was nearby, cheap, and had a welcoming atmosphere. Rather than sitting at the end of a winding, cloistered driveway, the facility and parking lot stretched along a busy highway. People of all ages and backgrounds could be seen there on any given day, from those practicing drills on the driving range or putting green, to others whiffing on swings and generally making fools of themselves. There was an air of playfulness to this prim sport.

A big factor in Woody’s accessibility was that you didn’t need to invest time researching and money purchasing your own equipment. Woody’s provided putters, a rack of old clubs to experiment with on the driving range, a pitching wedge and putter combo for chip & putt, and full sets to rent for the par-3 course. And whether you decided to borrow clubs or bring your own, there was no stigma. Well, you might have gotten some looks bringing your own putter to mini-putt, although apparently it’s not unheard of.

Most important of all, there were graduated experiences. Individually, none of the courses at Woody’s were the best. There were mini-putt courses with far fancier animatronics and better-groomed 18-hole courses for sure. But Woody’s offered proximity between these different activities. The sum was greater than the parts. Each activity was a complete, self-contained experience, but you were exposed to them all and could easily transition from one to another requiring more skill. When you started outgrowing the chip & putt course, you’d be tempted to try the par-3 course.

Time spent at Woody’s wasn’t as highly focused and organized as it would be through golf lessons, yet its impacts were long-lasting. For me and most people who spent time at Woody’s, we didn’t start by identifying ourselves as golfers. The goal and reality was never to become a professional on the PGA tour. But we were rewarded with developed skills, rich experiences, and an affection for the sport, whether we winded up as spectating fans, casual hobbyists, or the obsessed.

A few years ago, Woody’s was closed to make way for a hospital. My hometown still boasts many 18-hole golf courses where khakied and cleated men make the rounds, and driving ranges (often accompanied by batting cages—another narrow slice of a sport) where boisterous children play. But where Woody’s once provided intermediate activities that acted as pathways to “real” golf, there is now a chasm. Hard to imagine anyone but the most determined and resourced making it from the driving range to the clubhouse.

What’s This Got To Do With Programming?

To me, concerns about the declining popularity of golf parallel those about getting people involved in programming. Golf and programming share many criticisms, from being the domain of a privileged few to requiring a steep learning curve to start, let alone enjoy. This leads me to wonder about the Woody’s of programming.

Like Woody’s accessible atmosphere, there are initiatives like Mozilla Webmaker that create a welcoming environment for learning to code and free online courses like Codecademy that target beginners. And like the putters, pitching wedges, and basic golf club sets you could borrow at Woody’s, there are free and easy-to-use tools like Thimble and openHTML suitable for beginners.

But I’m not sure where the graduated experiences are. Technology can be explicitly designed to support this, as in the case of Nimble. But missing is the social component, akin to what sociologists Lave and Wenger refer to as legitimate peripheral participation.

You might argue that the web as a whole serves this function. But that’s about as true as the roads helping kids get from the driving range to the country club. Open source projects can also provide these experiences. Doubtless there are many examples of contributors who have gone from fixing typos in the readme to the core team. But if you’re spending time on GitHub, the battle’s already been won. Perhaps ultra-inclusive hackerspaces would be a start.

Where are these communities where programmers of different levels of expertise, from the most novice of novices and casual of casuals, can have complete and meaningful experiences, yet still play and work in proximity with, observe, and learn from one another? Where are the pathways from the driving range to the clubhouse?

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