back from THATcamp

I’m back from an excellent weekend at the Center for History and the New Media for THATcamp prime, and also for some family vacation time in DC with old friends. (I mean, really old — going back twenty-five years.) I attended my first THATCamp just one year ago, and in that time its quite astonishing to see how quickly the unconference movement has grown in the digital humanities. There have been camps this past year or are camps scheduled in:

  • Australia (Melbourne, Canbera)
  • Asia (Saigon)
  • North America (Victoria, Montreal, University of Western Ontario, Kansas, New Englinad, New York, Philly, Michigan, Texas, New Jersey, Georgia, SoCal, Chicago, SanFran, etc.)
  • Europe (Paris, Madrid, Florence, Cologne)
  • Middle East (Cyprus)

One of my goals over the next year is to link up with people in Mexico or Ecuador and help host a THATCamp south of the US border.

The movement grew out of CHNM’s initial experiment with the unconference form just a couple of years ago. How to explain the astronomical growth? Is there a thirst for technological hacking of humanities questions? Do people yearn for conference experiences that offer time and experience value beyond the traditional model of sitting in rooms being read to? Are THATCamp attendees simply effective evangelists for DH and the unconference model? My guess is it’s a combination of the two.

This year, the main conference at CHNM was much larger than ever before, with some 150 attendees. It also offered for the first time a preliminary bootcamp day of set tracks that combined technology presentations and directed hands-on experience. It was clear from day one, though, that with the expanded participation in this years conference, deciding what to attend and what to forgo would be quite a bit more difficult.

I posted my notes from the three bootcamp sessions I decided to attend, on the most novice track: Intro to CMSes, Intro to Omeka, and Project Management. The hack track offered sessions on HTML5 and CSS3, hacking WordPress themes, and an introduction to jQuery. Finally, a special track by Google included instruction on data and mapping visualizations. I was torn between the three because I have experience enough with CMSes not to need basic instruction on installation or maintenance, but I’m also in the midst of building an omeka site, so I figured having a firmer grasp on the structural imperatives of omeka would make me more effective in utilizing its strengths and figuring ways around its weaknesses. That, and I’m not quite ready yet to start using the admittedly powerful new capabilities available in HTML5, CSS3, and jQuery for any sites I’m working on currently. Too much other stuff to do. (That will change, I reckon, when I migrate chadblack.net over to jekyll or hyde.)

I was happy with my choices larger because of the presentations given by Raf Alvarado in the Intro to CMSes and by Tom Scheinfeldt on project management. Raf explained the differences between wp, drupal, and omeka in the clearest terms I’ve seen yet, and with an eye towards the ontological implications of choosing one over the the other. He did this by exploring the content model employed by each of the systems, and connecting that model to a logic of presentation and form of hypertext. It’s the first time I’ve heard such an analysis, and it was particularly well suited to the audience. Tom’s 10 points on project management were nitty-gritty, and dealt with funding, managing relationships to funders, staff, and partners; with project leadership; with execution; and more. It also produced the most entertaining fake twitter stream of the weekend.

One of the day’s highlights included a live-studio-audience broadcast of Digital Campus, much of which was spent discussing the suit that has been filed by Oxford UP, Cambridge UP, and Sage Publishers have filed against Georgia State University over copyright and fair use. The suit has serious implications for universities and the way that we currently assign readings for classes. The plaintiffs are advocating an electronic reserve policy that would restrict fair use rights to something on the order of 6 pages per work. Anything longer than that would require paid licensing. The digital campus crew wondered if such a change would actually accelerate the movement towards open access and Creative Commons work in scholarly work. I’ve argued before that the nature of historical evidence and inquiry provide ample justification for making CC a disciplinary standard. More importantly, though, I think the OUP/CUP/Sage lawsuit is evidence for the growing disjuncture between the market-oriented mission of scholarly publishers, and the non-market needs of scholarly communication. Up to now, the scholarly publishing industry has existed in an artificial market place that represents a convergence of trends related to the tenure track, library purchasing, an explosion in new scholarship. The tenure track has demanded an ever growing standard of publication, and in history at least, that means new monographs (not just at R1s anymore, either). Libraries have traditionally been the main purchasing venue of these works through broad agreements with the leading academic presses who were more than happy to make overly expensive hardcover editions available to them. Finally, in connection with tenure expectations, and with a growth in graduate school attendance, there are simply many more people writing many more books that cover increasingly specialized subjects. The system isn’t sustainable. Departments have enjoyed for three decades the luxury of outsourcing tenure decisions to the press board and the free peer review labor of the academic press. Academic presses enjoyed the purchasing power of libraries that were willing to pay $100 or more per volume. That purchasing power has been shifted to the out-pacing-inflation costs of maintaining journal subscriptions in the sciences (and the humanities). And yet, new scholars need a venue for their work– and not just for 30 page journal articles. There is, I think, self-justifying merit in the long form argument codified by the bound codex that is a book.

That the model of the university press was developed for an age of information scarcity has become a truism of these discussions of late. We are, obviously, no longer in such an age. Recognizing this always leads back to a discussion of what it is that UPs offer scholars. The list isn’t long:

  1. Peer review.
  2. A distribution channel.*
  3. Copy-editing.*
  4. Advertising.*
  5. List focus.
  6. Gate-keeping.

If there’s something I’m missing, I’d love to know what it is. The three points above marked by an asterisk are relatively easily surmountable by the internet. List focus, gate-keeping, and peer review are, I think, linked to one another as disciplinary functions. They are more difficult, but I doubt they are insurmountable. In fact, I’d like to see the sub-disciplinary organizations (such as the Conference on Latin American History) to take over managing peer review, a clearinghouse model that would undo the need for list focus and certainly provide appropriate levels of gate-keeping. By removing those functions from the UP, we would also open the doors to more creative exploration of long-form narrative, research presentation, and the like. Once procedures are set up, we’d have a much better opportunity for the kind of buy-in necessary to marshall a transformation of scholarly communication that takes advantage of the possibilities of the post-scarcity age.

That said, without buy-in (which would include rethinking the connection between profit and scholarship) History as a discipline will continue its slip into the abyss of a UP/tenure/market model that is no longer tenable for the majority of work we produce. I don’t want to sacrifice serious scholarship to the altar of “readability” or “marketability” that some say is at the root of problems in scholarly publishing.

This is a big discussion, and one the DH world keeps turning to even as many of our colleagues that share departmental halls refuse to recognize or talk about. (I’ve had mind boggling discussions with people who haven’t published new work in 15 years who have no idea that the world of books and the world of scholarly publishing are hurling headlong into a crisis analogous to that of the newspaper.) It’s also a discussion that carried on over the next two days in sessions of the idea of an “unpress,” peer review, and journalism. (Allow me to add here that I think it’s time to put a fence around new uses of the “un” prefix.)


Day 2 returned to the traditional THATCamp model, and we started the day with a huge list of potential sessions that were pitched on the conference blog prior to convening. (All THATCamps, including regional camps, have a wp site hosted by CHNM that allow for pre-conference discussion of potential sessions and other ideas for the conference.) There was a bunch of yack and a bunch of hack that was proposed that I was interested in, and it was obvious that tough decisions would have to be made. I wanted to participate in discussions on digital literacy, advocacy and diversity in the humanities, avenues to establishing DH initiatives/centers, to get some hack on, design a wordpress theme from scratch, consider the future of Anthologize, and more. There were sessions on all this, and more. Alas, I didn’t make it to most of them. What I did do was this–

  1. A session on intro to hacking led by Patrick Murray-John that put us into javascript and greasemonkey in order to manipulate web pages. It was useful for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve never written any javascript, but I need to. I could, at least, read the code and understand what it was doing. Getting used to a new syntax always takes some time, and coming from python I found myself repeatedly omitting ‘;’ and ‘{}’. Second, it’s useful to learn how to manipulate web pages locally on one’s machine in order to arrange or extract particular information for researching online resources. A number of browsers now support local scripts. Mostly, though, the session was fun. As with any coding (read, new coding experience or problem for me), it took a little bit to get things set up right, and to figure out the problems I was interested in. What was that problem, you ask? Of course it was a practical joke. I got so sucked into playing with greasemonkey, that I didn’t manage to slip out to attend one of the other sessions I wanted to during that slot. This seemed to happen again and again.

  2. A session on advocacy that turned increasingly into a discussion of managing expectations in the relationship between a DH Initiative, faculty, and staff developers. There is a deep well collecting the frustration of people involved with DH who resent be treated as if they’re the digital equivalent of the copy shop. The theme cropped up on several occasions, as people reported some combination of naivety and arrogance propelling faculty to treat library and #alt-ac staff disrespectfully. I was a bit disappointed with the direction the conversation took, because what we started off wanting to talk about were strategies to evangelize/advocate to faculty and administrators who aren’t in to DH. Instead, we slid into a bit of the recurrent complaints on notions of credit, promotion, etc. At the same time as that session, in the big room at Research I there was a lively conversation on the notion of an “unpress” and what practical strategies are to encourage the development of alternative publishing models. I slipped in for the last bit of that session, which also had a lively twitter backchannel. In many ways, the unpress discussion was an extension of the discussion that dominated the taping of Digital Campus.

  3. A session on practical steps towards encouraging diversity in THATCamp specifically and DH more generally. One of the results was to start a page as a forum for planning and discussion. It’s a bit of a tricky situation in part because of the DIY spirit of DH and THATCamp. As Alex Gil noted with respect to the circum-Caribbean, getting DH discussions going there would require a commitment of expertise and hardware. There are regions of the world where the digital divide is very stark. Increasing diversity will require a concerted effort to outreach. Something I failed to mention was that last fall THATCamp NM met at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, and included a large number of hispanic participants. In part this has to do with the demographics of NM, and in part it has to do with the sponsoring organization and its ties to cultural preservation in NM. But, it was also the least academic-oriented THATCamp I’ve seen. The diversity question in DH seems to be slice of the diversity problem in academia.

  4. Finally, the last session I attended on Saturday was on the future of Anthologize. Boone Gorges demonstrated some new functionality that’s on its way, including the ability to keep comments with exports. It was also an interesting moment of checking on the development cycle for a piece of software that was conceived, designed, and originally implemented in just one week.

Speaking of Anthologize…

Dan Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt have been using Anthologize to construct the edited version of Hacking the Academy, a crowd-sourced book that was produced in a week last year. Well, the book wasn’t produced in a week, but the original site that aggregated the pieces did so in a week. Almost two hundred scholars submitted pieces – some short, some long – to that site. Tom and Dan selected and edited pieces for the final book, which will be published by the University of Michigan in both open access digital form, and in a bound volume. I’m happy to say that my piece made the final cut, and has been combined with one my Mark Sample for the Hacking Scholarship section of the book. Our chapter will be called “Voices: Sharing One’s Research.” I’m looking forward to seeing its final form. The table of contents of the new book is available here.

Edited to add: A whole bunch of collaborative google docs from the various sessions can be found here.

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

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One comment on “back from THATcamp
  1. […] on CMSs, Intro to Omeka, and Project Management from this year’s THATCamp Prime, as well as a roundup of my experience this […]

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Chad Black

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