ASECS Conference Report: THATCamp

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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.

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5 Responses to “ASECS Conference Report: THATCamp”

  1. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Thanks so much for this detailed, informative account of THATCamp at ASECS 2012. It was the first that I attended, and I was impressed with how productive the sessions were.

    While I attended many of the sessions that Lisa describes above, I also attended the workshop on semantic searching. EMOB had posted briefly on this topic a few weeks ago, and I was anxious to learn more. While traditional keyword searching uncovers a given word or phrase, semantic or meaning-based searching seeks to retrieve concepts and relationships. Businesses and the commercial sector have taken the lead in developing and employing semantic searching, but librarians and other scholars have become increasingly interested in this development and recognize its usefulness. We also discussed how the construction of databases—the tagging, metadata, the architecture used to structure the information—will always influence a given database’s use, types of queries, and results retrieved. As part of this discussion, we pondered the ways in which databases built for conceptual searching would also be subject to the perspectives and thinking of their creators.

  2. shgregg Says:

    It was a real shame I couldn’t be there for these workshops, so thanks so much for the summary. It was certainly interesting to see how many sessions were directly or indirectly addressing digital humanities at ASECS this year – a real explosion, if I were allowed to use a cliche. Many of the panels did seem to come back to the issue of how digital projects are managing their data to best enable their users.

  3. Digital Humanities and Archives @ ASECS 2012 « digitalhumanistbeginner Says:

    [...] include the pre-meeting THATCamp workshops: for a good review of that see Lisa Maruca’s post on Early Modern Online Bibliography). I’ve posted already on the use of digital technology in teaching 18thC culture, but there were [...]

  4. sdenbo Says:

    Thanks for this excellent review of the sessions you attended at THATCamp ASECS 2012. It was great to have you there and overall I’m very pleased about how the event went and hope we can build on the success next year.

    On the subject of archiving of tweets, if the tweet included the hashtag #thatcamp it will be archived centrally by the #thatcamp coordination office at CHNM, so they aren’t lost. During ASECS itself I started archiving the #asecs12 hashtag and I have most of them in Evernote at the moment. When I find some time in the next few days I will try to export them and post them on the eighteenthcentury.org blog.

  5. two more useful follow-up posts to asecs ’12, digital humanities | The Long Eighteenth Says:

    [...] get enough coverage of ASECS ’12, check out the terrific follow-ups at EMOB (by Lisa Maruca) here, and at the new Stephen H. Gregg blog, digitalhumanistbeginner, here, here, and [...]

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