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Notes from THATCamp Texas 2011

I was excited when THATCamp Texas 2011 was announced, because I’d never been to an unconference before, and I was curious to see how it would work. Over the past decade, unconferences have become increasingly common in certain research and industry areas, particularly in technology-related fields. Unconference organizers provide only a bare-bones framework for the event’s schedule, which is determined on-site by the participants. THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp) is an annual event hosted by CHNM that has now spawned numerous regional events. At THATCamp, the focus is on informal, productive collaboration across fields and disciplines. The idea for ProfHacker arose at THATCamp 2009, and Brian, Amy, Ryan and Ethan have written about their experiences at several different THATCamps.

Unlike most traditional academic conferences, sessions at an unconference don’t consist of one or three or five people delivering papers to an audience. Instead, they might feature project demonstrations, discussions, creative work sessions, or other formats that build on the knowledge and expertise of whoever attends. For the Texas THATCamp (and I think this is fairly typical at others), participants posted session ideas beforehand on the website, followed by a 45-minute scheduling process as THATCamp began. Topic headings generated by those initial session ideas were posted on the walls of a large meeting room, and participants circulated through the space to meet up with others interested in similar topics. After some productive chaos (which admittedly tested my structure- and schedule-loving personality a bit) the group developed a schedule of sessions that represented not only a variety of interests but also the desire to cluster certain topics into tracks. Like any conference, I frequently wanted to be in two places at once — which I see as one marker of the event’s success.

My Conference Experience

THATCamp Texas 2011 included a day of BootCamp, a series of introductory workshops on different digital tools and methods ranging from WordPress to Arduino Micro-Controllers. I especially enjoyed two of the BootCamp sessions I attended: an Introduction to R and ggplot2 for Visualizing Data, led by Hadley Wickham (@hadleywickham), and an Introduction to Regular Expressions led by Ben Brumfeld (@benwbrum). In the week since the workshops, I’ve come up with several ideas for how I’ll be using these tools in my own research projects. Wickham’s ggplot2, a package he designed for use with R, allows you to easily create clear and attractive visualizations from your data. I learned a lot from him about designing complex graphs with color and shape to enhance understanding. I’m looking forward to designing graphs for some upcoming presentations that will help me convey quantitative information from my research. Regular expressions allow you to define patterns for text string matching. Using them directly (rather than as they are already embedded in your document editor) can allow you greater power and flexibility. Since I’m working with large numbers of text files for one project, these will help me clean up the data and discover features of interest.

During the regular session schedule, I facilitated a roundtable discussion on productivity, during which participants shared tools and strategies for time management, email prioritizing, setting communication boundaries and other aspects of productive workflow. I also participated in a lively cross-disciplinary session about text mining and best practices for researching in academic databases. One of the interesting aspects of almost every session at the two-day event was that participants came from several humanities fields, computer science or technology departments, libraries, archives, museums, and independent digital projects, allowing for rich cross-over conversation between academic and non-profit interests and organizations.

In the collaborative spirit of the unconference, I invited other THATCamp Texas participants to share their experiences and three responded: Jessica C. Murphy (@jessicacm), Rebecca Frost Davis (@FrostDavis), and Laurel Stvan (@Ling_Lass).

Notes from Jessica Murphy

I really enjoyed the digital pedagogy sessions because of the variety of perspectives that were represented–high school teachers, resource providers for teachers, college teachers, graduate students, librarians, and software developers. This variety made for a really rich discussion. One of the most striking discoveries for me, though, was the fact that our institutions all have wildly differing interpretations of the limitations of FERPA. Since your institution’s take on FERPA is so crucial to how you design assignments that have an online component, these differing interpretations are unsettling. For example, one participant suggested that at his institution, you would be unlikely to be protected if you required an online assignment that was outside of the university-owned LMS and a student complained. In my own classes, I take great pains to make sure that these assignments are not only anonymous with unique user ID’s, but that they also provide an option for a general sign-in (a dummy account I create for those uncomfortable with using their names). Not requiring this assignment–creating an opt-out option–had never crossed my mind.

Notes from Rebecca Frost Davis

With the unconference model I expected to see some innovative session formats. The ones I was in were conventional discussions. But I did learn that the value to be gained there–networking and sharing ideas–doesn’t need a lot of pre-planning other than getting the right people into the room. And, the work of building the conference schedule was, as Andrew Torget said in the opening, an excellent icebreaker.

I also hoped to get a better sense of digital humanists in the state of Texas, and I felt that I did.

There were two pedagogy sessions; we did practice first and then theory. I expected more explicitly DH practices to be discussed, but we began with a more general discussion of teaching with technology, e.g., twitter, blogs, etc. I was specifically looking for examples of classes that engaging students in explicit digital humanities projects or research, and I didn’t find that in the first session. I do think, however, that this discussion and these examples of engaging students with technology was a way of building in them the skills needed to be part of a digital humanities online community, like facility with twitter or blogging.

The next pedagogy session, the one on theory, more explicitly addressed the issue of how do you teach digital humanities. The group put together a list of specific readings and even some syllabi. We also developed an understanding of what elements might make up or influence such a course, including readings/texts, skills and applied project work.
I also attended the crowdsourcing session and learned more about what you would want to crowdsource (content, labor, perspective) and ways to motivate that crowd. I believe that humanists need to think about how they are engaging the public and since actually doing something is more engaging, crowdsourcing seems like an important practice. Projects that use crowdsourcing should think very carefully about their motivation.

I, unexpectedly, did the Arduino bootcamp. It was a fun way to end the day and a nice alternative to group discussion. I like the mix of hands-on with discussion; since digital humanities is often about making things, I think these bootcamps are important.

My biggest take-away from the weekend were my conversations with those outside of academia: independent software creators, those from libraries, museums and archives. I knew that THATcamp would have a mix of folks, but I really valued learning more about the perspectives on the (digital) humanities from outside of academia. I also valued hearing about the many interesting projects going on in the state. THATcamps play an important role in combatting isolation which can hamper all kinds of efforts in the digital humanities.

Notes from Laurel Stvan
I attended my first THATCamp last weekend in Houston and found the variety of projects on display, the pace of the training, and the topicality of the issues created an electrifying event that I will seek out again.

One big plus was how interdisciplinary the conference was. Indeed, I believe I was the sole linguist among many historians, archivists, genealogists, English literature scholars, and programmers. But I loved how the discussions revealed that everyone’s diverse projects had many related aspects to manage, such that I found more shared background in describing the subparts of my own research work here than at some more discipline-specific conferences I have attended.

A second plus: There was a good balance of hands-on sessions where campers got to try out particular tools (in my case TEI encoding and Omeka) and more conceptual sessions where we worked together to talk through a particular problem. Of the latter, one lively discussion focused on how researchers should report the results of searches in proprietary databases in history papers–i.e., can quantitative claims of frequency be made? What are the ethical and methodological issues involved? And how do researchers in other fields use such results? This turned out to be quite relevant to my research area since data base querying could be contrasted with the results expected from corpus linguistics. Another broad-ranging session discussed possible applications of crowd sourcing–is it best used for collecting primary materials or for getting metadata coded? How do you find enthusiasts for your topic? What aspects of quality control and workflow could arise? And what are the positive and negative aspects of gamifying the work?

Final Thoughts
Before attending THATCamp Texas 2011, I wasn’t sure if it was for me: I’m not a programmer and I’m not affiliated with a digital humanities center, program, or large scale project. Following various THATCamp Twitter feeds had piqued my interest, but I wasn’t sure what I would have to contribute. But I’m very glad I did attend this regional THATCamp, as I discovered many points of connection between my own current work and that of other people in the area. If you’re curious, check out the list of regional THATCamps and find one near you.

[Creative Commons licensed image from flickr user Patrick Hoesly]

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