Great Lakes THATCamp Review: Community, Student Engagement, and Digital Resources

The following review has been re-posted from my guest post for the Sweetland Digital Rhetoric Collaborative. The original can be found here.

The Humanities and Technology Camp (or as most of us know it, THATCamp), which may be responsible for bringing the word “unconference” into our collective vocabularies, has become a popular format for scholars interested in Digital Humanities to meet, talk, and develop new projects. As the many THATCamps across the globe (including the US, Britain, France, and Australia) have demonstrated, its flexible system can easily be adapted to the needs of its organizers and participants. Much like the Room of Requirement in the Harry Potter series, THATCamp is whatever we need it to be.

I recently attended my first THATCamp, Great Lakes THATCamp , this past month at Lawrence Tech University. I am relatively new to Digital Humanities, so I came in with an open mind. I hoped I would get to discuss ideas about digital pedagogy and digital projects but, more broadly I just wanted to learn from my colleagues around the area, the majority of whom I did not know (or had only just met at Network Detroit the day before). The (un)conference format did not disappoint: from the chaotic, lively schedule planning in the morning, to the Dork Shorts in the afternoon (where participants got three minutes to share a project, resource, or idea), to the actual seminar discussions—it felt refreshing to engage in collaboration and step aside from the paper-reading approach of traditional conferences.

The discussions crossed physical and digital platforms: while people suggested sessions and our organizers attempted to place them on the schedule (and on the board, and on the walls), my Twitter feed continued to roll out sidebar comments and ideas. During breaks, we stole quick moments to learn more about a colleague, review the Google Docs page from the meetings we missed, and refuel for the next round of discussions. Some minor issues aside, I found that Great Lakes THATCamp (already in its fourth year) was a great companion piece to Network Detroit, giving scholars from a variety of disciplines the chance to not simply continue conversations but to do so in a relaxed, community-driven environment.

As evidenced by our schedule, our sessions were mostly driven towards sharing ideas and suggestions, especially with an eye towards collaboration, pedagogy, and community. The three sessions I attended were especially focused on the latter: in “Digital Tools I” we ended up discussing possible platforms to publish online exhibits (like Omeka, Drupal, and Joomla) and places to go to get proper tech training (like DHSI). Arjun Sabharwal showed us the virtual museum Toledo’s Attic, which makes use of community contributions by allowing users to submit Instagram photos to the site through the hashtag #toledosattic, while Stephen Hoelscher demonstrated how a Drupal add-on (Neatline) can allows mapping and geo-tagging of materials to be posted on websites. In what turned out to be one of the overarching themes for the day, session participants reinforced the importance of community outreach, both in getting help for your project and in generating content once the website is online.

Setting up the schedule for THATCamp

The next session, “Getting a DH Project Off the Ground,” offered incredible insights about what to expect when planning a digital project, especially if you’re working on your own with little to no initial funding or support. Our leader, Amy Blau, helped us stay on track by engaging the group in crucial questions like: what should we know about a project before even getting started? When is it best to address issues of copyright and fair use? How and when should we seek funding and support from our institution?

It’s hard to pinpoint the most important advice: one of my favorites was: “projects always take longer than you expect.” While it is important to remain realistic, this advice reminds us to avoid panic or stress when projects get stalled. Another key element is collaboration: as the librarians, publishers, and museum curators in the room reminded us, the academic community expands beyond college departments, and oftentimes your librarian/archivist has the answers (and even the skills) you may lack. I also learned about @DHAnswers, a Q&A-style twitter page that uses community feedback to help answer frequently asked questions on digital humanities topics; and about DHCommons, a website where individuals can volunteer their skills and post requests for help on their own projects. But amidst all this technology, Setsuko Yokoyama brought up an important point: how can we take further advantage of the human resources in our area in more personal (that is, less digital) ways? As she pointed out, it’s often easier to discuss ideas with local scholars than to reach out to someone across the country whom we have never met.

This question transitioned to one of last sessions of the day, “Student Support/Infrastructure.” which invited us to think about how to engage students, both graduate and undergraduate, in Digital Humanities projects, especially in decentralized institutions across the state (or the Great Lakes Area as a whole). As Lisa Maruca had observed the previous day, it’s absurd to think that it would take a conference at another university for scholars in different departments to meet. And yet, that happens often. For graduate students in particular, it can be difficult for to feel connected to the field. Neither Lawrence Tech nor Wayne State University have DH departments (though, of course, we have faculty and staff invested in developing DH projects and classes), but the University of Michigan and Michigan State both have been developing a strong DH focus. But outside of local conferences, most of the graduate students in these schools will likely never have a chance to collaborate or even meet. Undergraduates can be even more difficult to engage. Adam Lovell, from the Detroit Historical Society, asked: in lieu of monetary payment, how can institutions encourage and reward students for their contribution to larger projects? Although the undergrads in the room were happy to say any practice and experience was more than welcome, we all agreed that assigning proper credit and disrupting academic power structures continues to be a difficult (though important) issue.

Despite the exhaustion of back-to-back conferences looming over us, we came out of our session with an idea: to create a platform or project that would connect student organizations across universities, which would facilitate collaboration, the sharing of knowledge, and even the sharing of skills. Steven has proposed a template for a digital meeting place. As he has argued, the level of collaboration in THATCamps is especially impressive—it would be fantastic if these conversations could continue past the conference room.

Our THATCamp group was largely focused on sharing and asking for advice, telling stories, and starting big conversations. If there was one thing our Room of Requirement that was missing, it was the hacking and coding seminars that pop up in so many other THATCamps: there were no proposals for TEI or XSLT sessions, no intros to digital platforms, no attempts to create a syllabus or digital text (although William Pannapacker’s session worked towards something similar).  As someone who is always looking for ways to learn more on the technological and coding side of DH, I was secretly hoping one or more participants would volunteer their expertise. But of course, this is one of the good things about THATCamp—as the unconference emerges from the needs and interests of the group as a whole, collaboration happens more or less naturally, and there will always be another unconference opportunity.

This was my first experience attending a THATCamp, and I left both energized and inspired. But Steven’s question continues to linger on my mind: how do we ensure that collaboration continues beyond our meetings? How can we create a network of contacts for exchanging information? And how do we attend to the descentralization of departments and schools? Would you be interested in continuing this conversation, perhaps in a structured (digital) environment?

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