I’ve just returned from attending this year’s Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI), which is held each June at the University of Victoria. As the activity on the #dhsi2012 and #dhsiuc Twitter hashtags last week can attest, DHSI is an intensive learning experience that draws ever-increasing numbers of participants, many of whom return year after year (I was there once before, in 2010; Julie Meloni’s Reporting from Academic Summer Camp from that year outlines the structure of the Institute).
It’s good to disrupt your routine
The days at DHSI are quite full: colloquia presentations of current projects began most mornings at 8:00 am; class sessions run from 9:30-4:00; unconference sessions filled the lunch hour; and afternoon keynote speakers or colloquia started at 4:00 and finished at 5:30 or 6:00pm. Most attendees live in dormitory housing for the week, so that meals and casual hallway encounters in the early morning and evenings often continue the conversations started at other points during the day. Although looking at the Twitter feed in the evenings would reveal a vocal group of participants out socializing, there were also plenty of attendees who returned to their dorm rooms in the evenings to work on projects for their classes. Representatives from each course contribute to a show-and-tell session on the last afternoon, which reveal the results of many hours of learning and experimentation that often spill beyond the bounds of the formal class sessions. Almost everyone I talked with by the end of the week said they were feeling kind of tired, but really happy to be learning so much.
This kind of intensity is possible because DHSI is only a week long and because we were all uprooted from our usual locations and duties. Many people come to DHSI each year because they don’t have many resources for learning about digital humanities tools and methods on their local campuses. DHSI facilitates networking and community building among participants across academic ranks, institutions, and national boundaries.
It’s good to be a student again
Although I learn new things every week, if not every day, during the course of my usual research and teaching work, this was a different kind of learning, in a classroom setting with instructors, quizzes, and assignments. I like stepping into the shoes of a student again — to feel the ebb and flow of frustration and excitement when I’m struggling with a particularly recalcitrant problem. As a teacher, I also welcome the reminder of what it feels like to be a student, at the phenomenological level: curiosity, nervousness, restlessness, the muscle tightness I get from sitting for such long stretches, the feeling in my stomach of not wanting to be called on to reveal my quiz answers. These are all good things to experience and to bring with me into my encounters with my own students.
It’s good to talk about what doesn’t work
One of the recurring themes of the week at DHSI was articulated by Laura Mandell, the first keynote speaker, who spoke eloquently about the need to examine humanities methodologies and critical analysis, suggesting that “it is when things break that we can best see how they work.” Of course, when you’re learning a new programming language, as I was during the week, you make a lot of mistakes. That’s how you learn. Figuring out where you misplaced the parentheses in your code and fixing them teaches you the syntax far more powerfully than just reading the rules in the book. Not everyone at DHSI was learning a language, but everyone was trying to make something work — to use GIS software, to design a digital syllabus, or to create a database. You learn from what doesn’t work.
Mandell’s directive was echoed by several presenters during the colloquia sessions, several of whom discussed what didn’t work out as they had intended in their project design or implementation. Revealing the process and the problems behind the final outcomes not only helps other people who are working with similar methods or tools, but also demystifies the research process. Every researcher, no matter what the field, comes up against things that don’t work, or hypotheses that don’t turn out to be accurate, or archives that don’t hold the information you hoped they would. But there hasn’t always been space within humanities discourse for exploring those obstacles. DHSI created a supportive environment for productively learning from what doesn’t work as well as from what does.
It’s good to return home, too
I’m back home now, getting back into my usual routines for work and life. Part of what makes a summer institute such a compelling experience is that it is intense and of limited duration. There’s comfort, of course, in being with my family again and getting back to my usual daily rhythm. But I feel like I recharged my intellectual and professional batteries in ways that are only possible when you break free of your typical routines.
Have you ever attended a summer seminar or institute for faculty and/or graduate students? Let us know in the comments!