This year my trip to the American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies (ASECS) annual meeting was a little different. I started by heading off to camp! Alas, this camp didn’t involve bug spray, stories around the campfire or overindulging in marshmallows—but I did get to play with computers. My camp was THATCamp, also known as The Humanities and Technology camp, or “unconference.”
Started in 2008 by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, the THATCAmp movement has expanded into a number of regional, international and topic-specific meetings. THATCamps are informal, non-hierarchical get-togethers that privilege hands-on learning and impromptu discussion (see the THATCamp site for a more detailed description). This year’s ASECS THATCamp was organized by George Williams and Seth Denbo of the ASECS Digital Humanities Caucus, in conjunction with the Initiative for Digital Humanities, Media, and Culture (IDHCM) at Texas A & M. Held the Wednesday before ASECS started in the conference hotel, the day-long workshop was free of charge.
As is customary for a THATCAmp, ours begin with a collaborative organizational session. Many participants had posted ideas for discussion on the THATCamp/ASECS site ahead of time; other proposals for sessions were soon added to the mix, written up on a shared Google Document and projected on the wall. Participants then voted on the final topics and the schedule for the day was set. There were enough participants and ideas to run two concurrent meetings.
It was noted early on that the sessions seem to have naturally divided themselves into tool-based and idea-based streams, though this is a dichotomy that I personally reject (along with the over-used designations “hard” and “soft”). Because these were held at tables in the same room, there was no shame in switching midstream. Some participants kept collaboratively written notes on a Google Document, while others (including me) tweeted the sessions using the hashtags #thatcamp and #asecs12 (unfortunately, I don’t think these were specifically archived and may now be lost in the Twitterverse).
The first session I attended was “Remixing Scholarship,” a discussion of the new forms and possibilities of collaborative research we might embrace in the digital age, as well as the new problems that arise with these practices. Romantic, singular forms of authorship are still the norm in the academy, and many T&P committees are wary of non-print publications. We discussed not only how to change this institutional prejudice, but also acknowledged the real personal barriers that must be overcome, admitting that frankly, some work does not need to be shared until it is complete and that some research projects are best tackled by one individual. The point is to have options, of course, and to have a wide variety of practices and products acknowledged as valuable. Organizations such as ASECS can play an important role in setting standards and creating benchmarks by which to evaluate digital work in our field. In the meantime, we can continue to share the T&P criteria adopted by departments who are open to work in new media.
The next session, “Brainstorming a Professional Organization’s Online Presence” focused on thinking about ways that the ASECS website might become more user-friendly, interactive and reflective of contemporary digital design principals. We also briefly touched on the ways the Digital Humanities Caucus can best serve the organization and communicate with its members. We wrapped up with several action points, including an ASECS member survey that the DH Caucus will be working on in the next months.
Pedagogy is always a valued and popular topic at THATCamps, and the ASECS one was no exception. Our table’s discussion centered mostly on the often overlooked area of graduate students and DH. Many treatments of this assume high interest and high skills, but not all students come to graduate programs with digital experience. Yet because the digital humanities are becoming in many ways just the humanities, it seems ill advised for grad students to enter their fields (much less their respective job markets) ignorant of the new methodologies (much less burgeoning forms and structures of knowledge) available to, and perhaps eventually demanded of them. I don’t think we solved this problem in our hour of talk, but it was useful to begin to exchange ideas.
The last session I attended was a workshop led by Tonya Howe on Omeka, a digital archiving tool. Again, the short time period allowed us only to scratch the surface of this tool. However, introductions such as these are useful in that they enable one to pursue a tool or technology more completely in his or her own time. I may do so, or I may not; I haven’t yet decided if Omeka is something I’d use in my classroom or for my research. However, next time I am talking to a grad student or colleague about their digital archiving needs, I’ll have something to suggest, and next time a fellow scholar tells me about her Omeka collection, I’ll know what she means.
THATCamp was followed by a demonstration of 18thConnect by Director Laura Mandell.
I was exhausted by a day of intense computing and even more intense discussion. But that’s what makes THATCamp an unconference. You never get talked at; every session is what each participant makes it. And whether the topic was DH theory or hands-on hacking, my fellow participants made the #ASECS12 #thatcamp almost better than campfires and marshmallows.