Monday, March 12, 2012

THATCamp, Digital Humanities, Hammers and Nails

Hey, y'all, I went to THATCampSE in Athens GA this weekend, and it was very cool.

In addition to getting the chance to reconnect with friends and colleagues, I had the opportunity to meet entirely new people and think about unfamiliar things--or at least, about familiar things that I really need to think about in new ways.  While in Athens, I got to engage in conversations about pedagogy, human interaction, graduate training, and digital libraries.  I learned about tools I can use in teaching (and other contexts), and connected with a set of scholars I hope will be collaborators and co-conspirators in projects I haven't even come up with yet.

I was struck by the history of THATCamp (as presented by @amandafrench in her opening remarks at the start of the meeting) as an oppositional un-conference that would be all of the things that traditional conferences like MLA are NOT:  fun, informal, unstructured, unhierarchical.  THATCamp schedules are made the day of the conference.  THATCampers come from many different fields and disciplines.  THATCampers are academics, applied practitioners, veterans in their respective fields, and novices.  THATCampers are humanists, programmers, hackers, and luddites.

THATCamps have also been happening for a while, so there is an increasing number of THATCampers who are "repeat offenders."   The intense feeling of being new-to-it-all (where "it" could be Digital Humanities, THATCamp, or just the particular group of people who arrived at THATCamp SE) was palpable, and fun.  How long can it last?  And is it what THATCamps of the future will look like?   How could some of that energy be transferred to more traditional conferences in the humanities?  How could traditional conferences learn from some of the things that are already happening around them, or in other fields, to give practitioners the opportunities for fun and connection that they are clearly craving in inventing things like THATCamp.  There are things that get built during THATCamps now--what more can THATCampers do to build on what has gone before, so it's not just about the new and novel, but about building something that can inform future endeavors?

It makes me think of the big AAA conferences, and how people's experiences transform through time.  It's almost developmental:  graduate students present formal papers, young scholars finishing grad school attend job placement events and network like crazy.  Established scholars only go into panels as discussants, and senior scholars attend discussions and business meetings.  The ones who've really made it in the field (or, those who figure things out before the rest of us do) never leave the bar, cafe, or book room, and spend the conference doing the real scholarly work of reconnecting with colleagues over a meal, a drink, the enjoyable experience of seeing each other face to face after years/months/decades and diving back into a relationship that has been sustained via email, Facebook, Twitter, or even phone calls.   People tweet in concert with panels and other discussions at conferences (the "backchannel")--even at MLA.  These things are not just possible but in practice in many corners of academia.   So, it will be interesting to see what the future of THATCamp holds, when the relatively fragile oppositional identity of THATCampers transforms into something more robust and defined on its own terms.

At the risk of sounding like I really like my hammer and see nothing but nails, I was struck again by the utility of the Visitors and Residents paradigm.  Where V&R helps me is in thinking of the variety of ways people engaged with the "digital" part of the DH umbrella we were all playing under this weekend.  Many people, especially those with previous THATCamp experience, had already put profiles on the website, started following fellow THATCampers on Twitter, proposed sessions for the Camp, in Athens, etc.  Those people were already THATCamp residents--they were Campers in a way that was visible on the internet not just to the people they would be sharing physical space with in Athens, but also with (potentially) anyone following the #thatcamp hashtag on twitter.  At least one of the "residents" has already blogged about the experience.

Some clearly approached THATCamp as a visitor--they were less visible on the web in their participation, but attended and proposed sessions, and did a lot of unconferencing in face-to-face ways.  Perhaps some of them are writing about it now, and it will end up in a publication (online or otherwise).   Perhaps they will simply talk about the experiences, the tools they learned about, etc with their colleagues, or share in other less-digitally visible ways.

Does that mean the residents are doing it right, and visitors wrong?  No, I don't think so.  These are ends of a continuum.  There is a range of ways to effectively engage with THATCamp, just as there is a range of effective ways to engage with the internet.  And while the community being built through the collective experiences of THATCamp is very visible online, so much of the work is done in face to face contexts augmented with online tools like social media and other collaboration facilitators (making manifest @amanda french's suggestion on Friday that "if it's only online, it only half exists.").  These digital tools do not take away the need for face to face interactions, but they can transform our starting point in those interactions.  The conference can begin before we get there, and continue long after we are gone.

I likewise wonder about this brave and increasingly less-new world of Digital Humanities.  I think there's probably a visitor-resident continuum in that community, too, with one end where the digital = the tools people engage with to enhance or go deeper into relatively traditional humanities content, and the other end of the continuum is where the digital = utterly transformative not just in what can be done in terms of analyzing content, but also in revolutionizing the very meaning of what it is to be a scholar in the humanities.

It's not just the "humanists" who are dealing with that potential transformation--these tools are turning the social sciences, arts, and STEM disciplines upside-down, too.  THATCamp-type comings-together can encourage our engagement with this (forgive me) new normal, where disciplinary boundaries are not walls but starting points, where technology gives us not just tools but new places to go with our work.

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