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Reporting from ‘Academic Summer Camp’: the Digital Humanities Summer Institute

students in actionA 2008 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education described the annual Digital Humanities Summer Institute as “Summer Camp for Digital Humanists”.  This is a slightly fancier term than what fellow ProfHacker Natalie Houston calls “grown up nerd camp,” but I would argue the latter is more accurate. Call it what you will, but Natalie and I are both happy participants in this digital humanities extravaganza this week on the campus of the University of Victoria (yes, there are bunnies, and depending on your traveling methods, also whales).

What follows is a brief rundown of the event from the perspective of someone sitting in the middle of it at the moment, and ends with a call for participation in next year’s event, which promises to be even more exciting.

What is DHSI?

The Digital Humanities Summer Institute  is a week-long event in which participants register for one of (currently) nine courses organized into three tracks: introductory, intermediate, and advanced.

  • The introductory courses include “Text Encoding Fundamentals and their Application” (led by Julia Flanders, Syd Bauman, and Martin Holmes) and “Digitisation Fundamentals and their Application” (led by Robin Davies and Michael Nixon). One could argue that text encoding and digitization are skills and techniques at the heart of many digital humanities projects, and teaching these fundamental elements of digital humanities work fills a gap in the toolkit of many scholars (unless they also have the opportunity to attend, for example, NEH-funded seminars).
  • But because digital humanities (whatever it is; it contains multitudes) is not all about text encoding and digitization, additional courses in the intermediate track begin to expand the scholar’s toolkit even more.  Courses in the intermediate track include “Transcribing and Describing Primary Sources” (led by Matthew Driscoll), “Multimedia: Design for Visual, Auditory, and Interactive Electronic Environments” (led by Aimée Morrison), “SEASR in Action: Data Analytics for Humanities Scholars” (led by Loretta Auvil and Boris Capitanu) [this is the course Natalie is taking],  and “Geographical Information Systems in the Digital Humanities” (led by Ian Gregory).  Courses such as these provide hands-on instruction and times of playful work with tools that are likely to find themselves smack in the middle of a scholarly project; this, combined with feedback by peers, offers an unparalleled opportunity to jumpstart a project.
  • The advanced courses include “Issues in Large Project Planning and Management” (led by Lynne Siemens) [this is the course I am taking], “Out-of-the-Box Text Analysis for the Digital Humanities” (led by David Hoover) [ProfHacker guest author Jentery Sayers is taking this course], and “Scaling Digital Humanities, in Discipline and Interdiscipline” (led by Ray Siemens), which has been described by Meagan Timney thusly: “Feel like I’m sitting in the room with DH geniuses, who are laughing maniacally and plotting to take over the world.”.

The daily schedule for all courses currently includes five hours of official classroom time and one “institute lecture” each day, plus a graduate student colloquium each morning. More on this in a minute, but what DHSI does (masterfully organized by Ray Siemens, Cara Leitch and Melanie Chernyk from the Electronic Textual Cultures Lab at UVic) is combine coursework, seminars, workshops, lectures, and both formal and informal sharing/presentations into an intensive experience that allows a person to leave campus with project ideas, a path toward completion, and a network of peers that perhaps they do have at their home institutions.

Who Participates?

DHSI is roughly twice the size of a THATCamp and half the size of a regional or subfield-specific conference (I’m generalizing here).  The total number of registered participants for DHSI 2010 is 180—the largest number in their nine-year history.  But 85 of those participants (47%) are students.  This time for additional instruction, but more importantly the feedback on projects from more senior scholars and the creation of a peer network, should be considered invaluable by any student in attendance (and I say this having been one until very recently), and everyone would be wise to remember that and take advantage of the week you have.  Of the remaining 53% of non-students, approximately a quarter of these folks are librarians or university staff. Since scholars in these positions are integral parts of all digital humanities projects, it is heartening to know that there is a place for them to engage with the same tools and skills as the other potential members of project teams.

Despite being held in Canada, the majority of participants are not from Canada (although 44% is no small number).  Over the last nine years, DHSI participants have come from every continent except Antarctica, and this year there are participants from North America, South America, Europe, and the Middle East.  DHSI and related partner organizations have scholarships available to defray costs for attending.

General Observations

Since DHSI is a hybrid sort of event—you’re in class, you’re listening to lectures from experts in the field, you’re listening to presentations from early-career scholars, you’re socializing with everyone—it can be difficult to maintain the roles that one is used to performing when these types of events are separated.  This is a good thing, to my mind, as performing a role rather than being yourself can be tiring, useless, and ultimately purpose-defeating.  So, the structure of the institute is such that it forces you into a more honest mode of operation, which one could imagine leads to an ultimately more productive experience.  Put another way, if I only have one chance to pick Claire Warwick‘s brain in person, and DHSI has put Claire in front of me by virtue of guest lectures and general participation in the institute, I’m not going to waste that opportunity by thinking “oh gosh, she’s the director of the new UCL Centre for Digital Humanities and a vice dean and super connected so I can’t talk to her.” DHSI provides an experience in which you are expected to talk to everyone, because that’s the point.

Looking to the future of both DHSI and the big tent of digital humanities, I’m excited—and not just because I’m lucky enough to spend the next year or so working directly with the people who make the magic happen. I’ve heard of some incredibly interesting and exciting possibilities for DHSI programming next year, and I see elements of the unconference ready to spring forth. There is a strong sense of “more hack, less yak”/“less talk, more grok”, or (as Cameron Blevins said) ”The tool-building emphasis/legacy of digital humanities [is] really making an appearance”.

Another striking difference between DHSI and a traditional conference is the way in which graduate students are treated.  Besides the possibility for financial support, there is also the potential to present work at the graduate student colloquium each morning. As Stéfan Sinclair tweeted, it is “so great that there are more people (~70) at the grad symposium at #dhsi2010 than at most conference sessions (dh, sdh/semi, mla, etc.)”.  By this he meant more people in the audience.  I can’t imagine another event when almost 40% of the attendees would get up at 8:30am to listen to four graduate students.  Each day. For five days.

The future is bright, not only for the graduate students attending and writing about their experiences but also for everyone tweeting with the #dhsi2010 hashtag and working under the tutelage of a senior scholar who gets it.

The DHSI isn’t going away, and will only keep growing, thanks to generous support from the University of Victoria’s Faculty of Humanities, its Humanities Computing and Media Centre and its Electronic Textual Cultures Lab, and is sponsored by the University of Victoria and its Library, University of British Columbia Library, College of Arts, University of Guelph, the Editing Modernism in Canada project, the Society for Digital Humanities / Société pour l’étude des médias interactifs, the Association for Computers and the Humanities, the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada’s Image, Text, Sound and Technology Program, and others.

Next year will be the tenth DHSI, and I hope to see you there. Start planning now; what do you want to build tomorrow? Whether it’s a tool or a relationship, if you can fit under the DH big tent, come join in the fun.

[Image from the 2009 DHSI by Syd Bauman; used with permission under a Creative Commons license.]

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