ThatCamp De-Brief

October 14th, 2010 by

ThatCamp Bay Area opened on October 9 and October 10 in an open-space loft with much excitement and energy. In the Bay Area, Silicon Valley looms large and the organizer Jon Voss was able to attract the likes of Google, Yahoo, OCLC, and the Internet Archive, as industry partners. Graduate students, faculty, librarians, programmers, archivists showed up to construct Saturday’s schedule, which was quickly and quietly revised as the afternoon went on. The green post-its are bootcamp sessions while everything else was an intriguing session. The only downside to the unconference are the choices! I proposed a session on pedagogy and digital humanities but had a difficult time setting the slot because every hour had something that I wanted to attend.

Saturday Schedule

But, I attended ThatCamp to gain some understanding, and, well, to feel uncomfortable. I wanted to immerse myself in areas that were not so familiar to me, sessions where I couldn’t be an authority. The invigorating aspect to the two days’ of sessions was that no matter how hard I tried to avoid familiar topics, I found myself reflecting on the intersection between my work and all of the cool, interesting work being discussed. Steve Ramsay was right; I was prepared to be the dumbest person in the room, and that prepared me for being inspired by the cross/multi/extra-disciplinary work that so many people came together to discuss.

Those are the generalities. Big questions plagued me during and after sessions, even at the bootcamps. But, these weren’t questions of despair; rather they were invigorating because they required that I think about pedagogy and curriculum in a different fashion, but they were there nonetheless: How can this apply in the classroom? How can I teach my students some of this technology without sacrificing content? Is this the content then in a Digital Humanities course? What kind of Humanistic inquiry comes from integrating tools with literary studies? How can I educate my colleagues about Digital Humanities using georeferencing as an example? How can GIS impact my work on history of the book. But mostly I just wanted to play with all of the toys in order to explore what kind of Humanistic inquiry is possible. I wanted to see what happened when a major corpus of work was available; what questions could I come up with, because I don’t have any to start with. Perhaps if I had a chance to play, though, I could find something. And this is the crux of the entire weekend – playfulness and imagination is perhaps something that academics and scholars have moved away from, something that is stolen from us as we move into full time positions. The demands of the position and the service steal that moment. I wish ThatCamp were really Summer ThatCamp. I definitely needed more time to work with and digest. I got just a smattering of everything that makes me uncomfortable.

Here’s some specifics on the bootcamps:

Adita Muralidharan offered a bootcamp session on text mining, an area that I’m familiar with and can perform, but one that is mystified behind linguistic computing and encoding. Using n-grams as a model, Adita took us through parsing parts of speech and plotting changes over history. Some of the participants pushed further to ask about irony, metaphor, humor – the things that literary scholars are interested in. Adita told us that it was a dream to be able to do that but we aren’t there yet. A musicologist however alerted us to the use of this type of parsing on sound files in search of melodic formulas. We lead each other into discussing dance and preservation of American dance culture, especially since some of the greatest choreographers have died recently and with it, shortly, their companies and style of dance. After my brief lamentations about marking up poetry in TEI for poetic elements, Matt Jockers jumped in to talk about a recent program his students have written to mark up metrical poetry. Wow! This applies directly to a collaborative project, The Poetess Archive

At the next bootcamp, Mano Marks offered help on Google’s new Fusion Tables, a beta Google Maps app that allows users to upload, store (up to 250mb) and visualize data, even more robustly than Google Docs. It’s in Google Labs now: http://www.google.com/fusiontables/Home. From that one, I was left with questions about the bootcamp itself; what did it teach me that I couldn’t teach myself from playing with the tool?

Saturday Schedule

Worldcat representatives offered a bootcamp on using Worldcat but I think the presenter was not used to a non-programming crowd and was a bit stymied about how to discuss the product. The final point he made was to demo Worldcat/identities – a chart that depicts the number of publications for authors. This was incredible! It visualizes all of the publication data of materials entered into WorldCat – I wish he would have lead with this one.

The bootcamp lead by biologists on georeferencing and mapping was immensely interesting if only because of the attention to exactness capable in using georeferencing. Again, though, I asked the question of the group in general how it could apply to Humanists’ study. The biologists were there to talk to Humanists about how to adapt the tool for them. We were all a little stumped and ran out of time. But mention was made then (and later over Twitter) about some projects that use georeferencing quite successfully, Barbara Hui‘s being one as well as Visualizing the Rural West project at Stanford. This is the moment that’s always frustrating; I know I have questions, but I’m not sure about what I know and don’t know. I mean, I know I need to learn things, but I’m not sure what they are.

I didn’t expect to walk away knowing a program language, but ThatCamp certainly pointed me in the direction of being able to articulate what I need to learn and how I can expand my own limited style of thinking. Now, I need to attend a TEI workshop or the DHSI University of Victoria’s week-long seminars. Whatever it is that I need to know, I’m so gloriously stupid and uncomfortable that it’s restored my faith in learning!

While I didn’t blog through the weekend, I did tweet prolifically. Those can be found archived with TwapperKeeper

What’s the result of all of this, other exorcising my existential professional ennui? I’m reporting back to my Dean about ThatCamp and potential for collaboration with industry partners. I met with other San Jose State faculty and students (several from our Library Science program were in attendance) – no small feat considering we’re all so fractured. I learned that San Francisco State University Literature faculty are attempting to create a Digital Humanities certificate (and we’ve now all been in contact). The representative from the Internet Archive has offered to work with me in scanning those 30,000 pages remaining in my digital project. Glen Worthey, from Stanford, made a great suggestion to review some Digital Humanities Conference proposals in order to help me understand the vetting process (and I’ve now been invited to do so). The Gap archivist, Google developer and a dance archivist all introduced me to new possibilities for collaboration. Another SJSU faculty, James Morgan, and I rarely have a chance to chat about DH curriculum and how to create project-centered courses; we had 3 hours in the car to do this and plotted some amazing curricular changes to be slowly developed over the next 5 years at SJSU. Based on my tweets Doug Reside invited me to attend a symposium in New York on digital preservation of dance (and my amateur enthusiasm for dance).

Finally, ThatCamp demonstrated that I know what I’m doing, that Digital Humanities is valid and authoritative. While encouraging me to dive into the unknown, the meeting restored some confidence in my abilities and offered a level of collegiality that is often missing from my daily work. This is because of the generosity of each and every “camper” to entertain and explore ideas in a truly free environment.

Thanks ThatCamp.


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