Across this past weekend I was one of about 100 people related in some way or another to this Frankenstein’s monster known as the Digital Humanities to take part in THATcamp Canberra. One of an international series of loosely affiliated events that are self-organised by groups of theorists and practitioners working in The Humanities And Technology (ie THAT), the gatherings are billed as “unconferences“, informal spaces for the exchange of knowledge and the development of relationships between people working on connected but diverse projects. THATCamp is built around a number of key principles that can be sumarised into three key points (paraphrasing Tom Sheinfeldt):
- THATCamp is FUN – everyone attends to participate in something that will hopefully enable them to do their work better, but the sessions should be enjoyable, stimulating, exciting, intellectually liberating.
- THATCamp is PRODUCTIVE – participants are encouraged to think about what sort of outcomes they’d like to see come out of each session and the program as a whole.
- THATCamp is COLLEGIAL – unlike many academic conferences, this is not about grandstanding, competitive, careerist intellectual work. This is about developing supportive, collaborative professional relationships that help to advance an emerging set of disciplines.
As a Master’s level student, I came at the event with a great deal of trepidation. I was fully aware that I was entering a space full of people who’ve been working on these ideas with great focus, rigour, discipline (and in many cases institutional support) for a whole lot longer than I have been. I tried to enter this space with humility and an open yet critical outlook. I was relieved to find that the promise of a challenging yet welcoming space was actually delivered, even for a relative novice like me.
The event ran over a day and a half, and in that time I attended sessions covering a range of topics: the semantic web, data visualisation, API data mashups, research tool zeitgeist, collaborative play-based learning, digital objects and texts. Some of these sessions were broad ranging discussions with no concrete objective or outcome, others were designed to address a particular problem that one ‘camper was bringing to the group, and some fell into the BOOTCamp program of practical trainings and surveys of a the digital humanist’s tools.
As I have said already above, my experience of THATCamp CBR was overall very positive, and I left the weekend with an invigorating sense of possibilities for my future studies and for the important and exciting course that this young field is charting. In the name of constructive critique, here are some reflections that I have on the content and process of THATCamp CBR.
Warm (stuff I liked, thought went well)
- The sense of collaboration, collegiality was very present and very genuine throughout. In spite of being one of the least experienced, least connected people present I felt able to ask basic questions and to bring my own perspective into discussions.
- The overall logistics of the weekend (space, wifi, transportation) went as smoothly as anyone could hope for, and this was obviously a result of very hard work done in advance by the co-ordinating team.
- The diverse nature of the sessions (some broad discussion, some specific problem-solving, some training) felt very balanced and rewarding. The facilitators and participants generally did a good job at the tricky task of managing rooms of people with wide ranging levels of expertise in any given topic and the diverse contexts they were coming from.
Cool (stuff that I think needs attention or change)
- The openness of the event, both on the session scheduling level and in the facilitation of each session felt too loose to me. I would have like to see some more active facilitation to ensure that everyone had equal ability to speak, rather than those people who felt most comfortable as a result of their social and professional experience with other people present, or simply the most confident people in the room, being able to direct the conversations. This was not the case in many instances, but it was only as a result of the general generosity and self-confidence of most participants that domination of spaces did not occur more.
- I don’t think I have ever participated in a more overwhelmingly white event. I recognise that the makeup of THATCamp CBR is probably representative of the makeup of the upper levels of digital humanities/archives in universities, governmental, other institutions. This factor became particularly problematic for me in conversations around the semantic web and the creation of historical and educational tools in which we were discussing the development of ontological schema and historical narratives that are intended to serve or represent diverse (if not global) populations.
A number of THATCamps are scheduled for the coming months, beginning with Cologne, Germany in September. THATCamp Melbourne is being planned for early 2011. I would strongly encourage anyone with an interest in the intersections of technology and the humanities to get involved. Frequent updates can be found at http://thatcamp.org/ and by following #THATCamp on twitter.