This past weekend, November 12th-14th, I attended THATcamp New England . THATcamp is a humanities and technology unconference attempting to subvert the traditional academic conference model in remarkably rebellious ways. THATcamp is free. Free of keynote speakers, free of formal sessions, free of hierarchal labels, and free to attend. THATcamps take place in many cities all over the world, with the expectation that those interested in attending may do so with minimal travel and lodging costs. THATcamp is extremely participant driven. Every participant is expected to propose a topic to tackle during their particular THATcamp. Some camps have a set schedule and some have a narrow focus, and yet others are extremely free form. The 2010 THATcamp New England set up a blog where participants posted their session proposals in advance, and those proposals were then printed and voted on during breakfast the first morning. The schedule was then created in a Google Doc that everyone accessed via their laptops, tablets, or cell phones, and edits were made until everyone was content. This is another way THATcamp is able to keep overhead costs low; everyone brings their own technology, and they do not print out snazzy pamphlets or paper abstracts. However, participants do still get a nametag and t-shirt, along with breakfast, lunch, and snacks. These perks are orchestrated by the local organizers, who are usually students such as Lincoln Mullen and Stephanie Cheney, and are funded through grants from the Mellon Foundation and NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities). THATcamp New England took place at the Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston, but the THATcamp headquarters is The Center for New Media at George Mason University (the fine folks who brought us Zotero) and Amanda French is the coordinator (and my THATcampNE roomie).
The only pre-scheduled events at THATcampNE were the BootCamps. BootCamps are essentially training seminars for humanists interested in learning technological tools. Fortunately, I received a $500 micro-fellowship to participate in these BootCamps (THANK YOU). This allowed me to attend a THATcamp outside my region, which was very rewarding because I was able to reconnect with people I met at dh09, as well as meeting new scholars who represent some of the most prestigious schools in the country (after all, this is Boston). Also, I was able to hitch a ride with Lauren Klein, a student at the dissertation level of my program at CUNY. Our conversations in the car were extremely enlightening for me, and I thank Lauren for her guidance. One disappointing aspect of THATcampNE that was pointed out over Vietnamese food Sunday afternoon, was the lack of prominent senior faculty members from the Boston area. However, the participants did represent faculty, graduate students, archivists, librarians, instructional technologists, administrations, and many other alternative academic careers. The BootCamp instructors were extremely knowledgeable and well known in the digital humanities community. CUNY’s own Boone Gorges lead a BootCamp on Anthologize , his one-week, one-tool WordPress application. I attended a BootCamp session on “Introduction to Programming” led by Dr. Julie Meloni, a post-doc at the University of Victoria, who I know from the dh09 conference, and because of her prolific presence on twitter. I own @jcmeloni’s book on html and css , because I was one of the first five followers to tweet her one day. Although reading papers or presenting PowerPoints is completely forbidden at THATcamp, Julie did use a slideshow to keep the pace of her 75 minute class. The true genius of Julie’s BootCamp was her ability to approach programming from the perspective of a humanist. As Julie said in her session, “Humanities scholars are uniquely poised to ask the right questions on technology.” She explained the need for programming as a way of creating tools that “do things that take a long time or are difficult for humans to do,” and the need to learn programming language as a way to communicate with programmers who can help us create the tools we “need and desire.” Even as someone who has done some basic programming, understanding programming language in terms of semantics and syntax gave me a new vocabulary in which to present my ideas. Julie said to “ask the computer to act in a call and response way,” which for a professor of Harlem Renaissance literature was crystal clear. I also learned that in the ever changing world of programming, PHP and Ruby are currently the languages preferred in the digital humanities community. Julie’s concluding remarks: “What do we want to do? Figure it out, ask a programmer, then ask NEH for funding and chocolate.”
The next BootCamp session was Text Encoding led by Dr. Vika Zafrin, aka @veek, who happened to be my roommate at dh09. As Vika clarified at the beginning, XML is not a language, it is a framework. The most important concept conveyed by Vika is that you can communicate any information you want through text encoding. Previously, I imagined the primary function of text encoding, such as OCR or TEI, to be searchability. If you have the word “madness” in a text, encoding that word would allow a user to find every text in a database or archive that contains that word. However, encoding text with empirical information opens up a world of theoretical possibilities. My example was to encode Jerome McGann’s A Rationale for Hypertext and code the name Tannselle with terms such as “author,” “male,” “textual scholar,” but also as “opposition” which would infer I as the encoder align myself with McGann’s side of this theoretical debate. This would enable a literary scholar to not only create critical editions of texts that are easily accessible and affordable, but also are annotated in a new space. There is quite literally a new layer to the text.
The Semantic Web was a thread that ran through all of my THATcamp sessions. As Wikipedia explains “Tim Berners-Lee defined the Semantic Web as ‘a web of data that can be processed directly and indirectly by machines.’ The key element is that the application in context will try to determine the meaning of the text or other data and then create connections for the user.” For me this holds the potential of connecting human-directed semantic tags, with image recognizing, and machine-driven tools. As scholars, this capability holds the possibility for real collaboration across barriers of geography, discipline, and profession. For example, in the first session of my THATcamp experience, we explored how best to support DH research. This session was driven by archivists hoping to crowdsource ideas on how to make their collections not only accessible to the scholars who need them, but also to connect their information to other archives and databases so that archivists and researchers do not unnecessarily duplicate the same work. The discussion turned to RDF, or the Research Descriptive Framework as well as OWL, or Web Ontology Language . Two campers took the stage, plugged a personal MacBook into the projector and began explaining how RDF works and possible applications for this technology in terms of archives and academic research. This is the perfect example of why the THATcamp model works so well. When a term or tool needs to be explained, someone steps in to demonstrate without insulting the audience or a presenter. However, significant questions were raised about programmatically discovering connections versus taxonomies and ontologies created by humans. What is trustworthy? How we do assess authenticity? For instance, academic databases that have relevancy ranks and “find articles like these” buttons, create “fuzzy” connections between material, but novice academic researchers trust these connections. These results can lead the researcher to certain conclusions. However, as one camper pointed out, this is not just a technical problem; historians always have to question the authenticity of a source, examining its bias, trustworthiness, etc. This group then began to break into smaller groups interested in different aspects of this debate, another positive aspect of the unconference model.
THATcamp Sessions tend to follow a pattern: first participants present ideas, then questions are raised about the role of technology or the limitations of technological tools and the access users have to the technology, which is followed by brainstorming solutions or sharing anecdotal success and failure stories relevant to the topic. I attended sessions on “The Book and Monograph Re-mixed,” “The Paperless Professor,” and “Information Overload.” You can follow the entire conversation on twitter here: http://bit.ly/cvKy2d . Twitter is an essential part of THATcamp. Most participants tweet key ideas and questions throughout every session so that those who are attending other sessions can stay informed, and so that the greater twitterverse can participate in THATcamp. As I am writing this blog post I am contributing to a conversation on composition and computation generating from the twitterstream of THATcamp Chicago.
I would like to wrap up by posting some of the questions raised in the session I attended at THATcampNE:
What can E-books do for us in the classroom?
Is having a paperless class punitive in institutions where students do not have equal access to technology?
How can we assess digital literacy in our students? How can we best address the needs of students who have never had access to information technology?
How do we address the needs of transfer students, continuing education students, and older faculty who do not have experience working with the digital tools that are increasingly becoming an integral part of higher education?
Do hypertext or multimedia research papers take away from writing and academic research skills?
What are the best tools for peer review?
How do we get other faculty members to accept and implement educational technology?
What is the future of the monograph? Will the monograph change in response to online scholarly journals and the creation of new digital tools? How will this affect the dissertation and tenure application process?
These are not new questions, nor are they easy to answer. However, I have a new perspective on these topics after participating in THATcamp. Thank you to everyone who was involved in making my first THATcamp experience a memorable one.