Some THATCamp Reflections

I was lucky enough to attend THATCamp Prime at the Center for History and the New Media at George Mason University this past weekend. For those who don’t know, THATCamp is an unconference on Digital Humanities, started three years ago by the CHNM that has now spawned a whole slew of local meetings. (For more, see this report in The Chronicle.) An unconference is essentially a user generated conference with no set schedule of panels, no formal papers, no powerpoint presentations, and no ego posturing. It is, to say the least, refreshing. And, in the case of THATCamp, it offers the possibility for interesting communication amongst the various constituencies of the Digital Humanities world- digital historians, new media studies people, text miners, hackers, museum curators, literary types, edtech, directors of big projects, funders, and more. In addition to varying constituencies, THATCamp includes a mix of experience levels, from digital beginners through people with serious chops. Given this mix, it would be easy to imagine some knee-jerk hierarchies emerging. As a relative digital-newbie, I never felt that at all. For my first experience at an unconference, it was great to see THATCamp live up to its ground rules: Fun, Productive, Collegial. Certainly, the fun part included meeting a ton of people I’ve “known” through twitter for a long time, as well as meeting some totally new people.

Sessions I attended covered such topics as designing digital humanities/digital history curriculum for undergrads and grads, issues surrounding the conception of large and small scale digital projects, text mining small textual corpora, constructing a series of asynchronous, free online courses for mid-career humanities professionals who want to get digital skills, the limitations of TEI mark-up schemas, particularly in marking non-hierarchical observations or observations that break the hierarchy, and on privacy, education, and data rights as an analogue of academic freedom. And there were many more sessions I was sad to miss, including “All Courseware Sucks,” which was intended to take the courseware discussion beyond simple blackboard bashing (here’s a great write-up on this session), “Who Wants to be a Hacker,” in which Patrick Murray-John walked people through some Javascript coding, “Zotero Hacking,” “Open Peer Review,” which by all accounts witnessed a lively discussion on the limitations of peer review and it’s 1-to-1 adoption in a digital format. The take away quote from that session, if I remember my tweet stream correctly, was that we may ultimately move from a system of pre-publication gatekeeping review, to one of post-publication evaluation. And there was more– sessions of teaching quality collaboration to students, using digital texts in the classroom, Alternative Reality Games, HTML5, geolocation, visualization of text data, hacker ethics in educational settings, OpenStreetMap for historians, and the role of social media in the university and for humanities non-profits.

Here’s my original submission when I applied to the conference:

What I would like to discuss are integrated approaches to the research, writing, and digital presentation of research projects that are primarily archival. I’m at the beginning of a new book project, the first in which my goals have included start to finish digital applications, and I’m thinking through the process of how to integrate the collection of archival materials, the transcription and analysis of manuscripts (in this case 18th c. sex and murder criminal trials), the construction of databases, the curation of research materials online, and the combination of long-form monograph and web-based historical presentation. This work, as I said, is primarily archival, in a form where digital forms of the documentation do not yet exist.

And here you can find the blog post I put up the week before we all met. And, while I didn’t get all of my own questions answered through the course of the weekend, I certainly feel much more prepared to tackle them myself. That’s one of the great things about user-generated conferences, they engage both the DIY, but do so within the context of community.

I was most excited about the possibilities of Julie Meloni’s vision for an online resource for mid-career scholars looking to up their digital chops. As someone with zero DH training who is feeling his way along this path, I’ve often wished for just such a resource. There so many manifestations of digital skills of varying levels of complexity, some guidance on what is worth one’s precious time would be excellent. Should I bother learning PHP, TEI, GIS/Geolocation, text mining, video and photo editing, relational database design, Javascript, Python, how to manage and customize an Omeka installation, a WordPress installation, or Drupal? The list could go on endlessly, and the answer is essentially that it depends on what one wants to do.

Finally, I’ll mention that Tom Scheinfeldt and Dan Cohen posited putting together a crowd-sourced book on hacking the academy in one week. The idea was hatched in response to the successful crowdsourced 48hr magazine, though hopefully without the subsequent legal action. The One-Week-One-Book project is already underway, and accepting submissions via tweet or blogpost through the end of the week. Check out it’s website for more information. I’m brewing something as I type that will hopefully be included, and I’m interested to see what the final product will look like.


Associate Professor of Early Latin America Department of History University of Tennessee-Knoxville

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Posted in Conference Reports, Digital History
3 comments on “Some THATCamp Reflections
  1. Thanks very much for this review. We hope to put on an ThatCamp here in Melbourne later in the year. It is a good concept for expanding the DH field.

  2. Mimi Roberts says:

    Mark your calendar for THATCamp New Mexico at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, October 2-3.

  3. ctb says:

    Hi Mimi–

    Stumbled on THATCamp NM before I saw your comment. Looking forward to it.

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