THATCamp@Penn: Thoughts on the Day

When I was a kid, my parents sent me to the Summer Arts Camp at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia. SAC was a six-week program focused on the arts, where other campers and I chose from different courses taught by CHC faculty and independent artists—usually, I think, taking four or five courses a summer. SAC gave me a chance to try out different things without making a big commitment to them; some of these experiments worked (I loved ceramics so much that I took it every single year) while many didn’t (tap dancing, circus arts, drawing/painting, acting, others I’ve blessedly erased from my memory). Every spring, I impatiently waited for the SAC schedule to arrive in the mail, anxious to see which courses the camp had added and decide which ones I would take. I chose carefully, often realizing with disappointment that two classes I found appealing were scheduled opposite each other while some timeslots had nothing that really called to me. I would then have to pick a class that only looked okay, though that occasionally worked out well—“Music and Computers” one summer turned out to be far more interesting than I’d expected, for example. And I often watched the more advanced students with awe, hoping that one day I too would sing, or dance, or play an instrument as well as they did. (That day never arrived. Six years of Summer Arts Camp ended with the realization that I have practically no artistic talents.)

I was thinking about SAC this morning as I prepared to attend a different sort of camp at a different Philadelphia college—THATCamp@Penn, an “unconference” focused on the digital humanities hosted by the University of Pennsylvania. During the past year or two, I’ve noticed more and more of my colleagues talking about going to THATCamps, which are generally one or two days long and sometimes attached to professional conferences (the one at this year’s meeting of the American Historical Association seems to have been particularly vibrant). I’ve intended to go before, and even registered for two THATCamps previously, but always had to abandon those plans when work and life interfered. So I was excited this morning when I realized that I really was going to be able to make it, with only a tiny bit of hesitation about not staying home and working on other things.

But, as THATCamp coordinator Amanda French reminded us in her opening remarks, we should think of THATCamp as a day on, not a day off. We were all there in some sort of professional capacity, looking to share our projects, discuss ideas, and make connections with other digital humanists in the Philadelphia area. It might be a “camp,” but it isn’t totally divorced from the realities of our daily lives/careers.

As the day went on, I found myself reflecting on the ways in which THATCamp resembled the Summer Arts Camp of my childhood. As at SAC, I had to make some tough choices about which sessions I would attend and which I would pass up; today’s THATCamp had three main timeslots in the day and five or six sessions scheduled for each one, so I couldn’t do everything I wanted. Like SAC, THATCamp gave me a chance to learn about and try out some new things in a low-risk, low-impact fashion*: even if I never return to Omeka, now I know something about it thanks to a 90-minute introductory session I went to in the afternoon. And as I had when I was younger, I felt confident in some of my skills but watched with admiration as others demonstrated their more sophisticated ones, hoping that sometime in the future I might be able to play around with WordPress (and maybe Omeka) with the same fearlessness that they showed.

This was not only my first THATCamp, it was also my first experience with any sort of unconference. The unconference model certainly wouldn’t work for most academic conferences (I can only imagine what chaos would beset the Association for Asian Studies annual meeting if there weren’t a program set ahead of time!). But I think it’s perfect for anything small and comparatively low-pressure, where the emphasis is on collaboration and project development rather than disseminating research. I imagine it would be productive to have an unconference on Chinese history, where people of all levels (grad students and faculty) show up with projects in different stages of development and simply talk through their ideas, the problems they’ve encountered, and possibilities for moving forward. I’ve been to a couple of graduate student conferences that sort of followed that kind of structure (or devolved into it), but they were still conceived of as formal academic conferences, with pre-circulated papers, presentations, and discussants. I’d like to give a more relaxed, discipline-specific unconference a try.

What follows are short notes and comments about the three sessions I went to at THATCamp@Penn. In summary, I had a great time, met some interesting people doing exciting work, and left with a lot of ideas for how I might apply some of what I learned to my own dissertation research and writing projects. I’m definitely hoping that I’ll make it to more THATCamps in the future—I enjoyed being a camper again, if only for a day.

Session 1: Designing a graduate certificate in the digital humanities
This session was proposed by a graduate student in the History department at Penn, who wanted to explore the possibility of formalizing some sort of digital humanities program that would lead to a graduate certificate. About twenty-five people attended the session, primarily from Penn, and there was a good mix of grad students and faculty/academic staff in the room. I found myself mostly listening, especially toward the end, when talk turned to Penn-specific institutional processes that would have to be followed to establish a DH grad certificate program. A lot of the discussion concerned how to fit a digital humanities certificate into a grad student’s already packed schedule—would this be best pursued in short bursts (weekend intensives, one- to two-week summer schools like the Digital Humanities Summer Institute), or periodic workshops held during the academic term? I asked a question about the possibility of opening a certificate program to students from other area schools. Philadelphia has a number of universities with graduate students, but I doubt any except Penn would have the resources to establish a DH certificate program. Could Penn become a regional hub for grad students working in the digital humanities? Do we need several such regional hubs around the country?

There was also a lot of conversation about what sorts of skills would be required of students pursuing this certification. I’d say there was a strong agreement that since DH changes so quickly, it wouldn’t make sense to require facility with specific programs or tools, but rather seek a more general knowledge of DH concepts and the ability to apply them to a capstone project.

Finally, a difference between a regular academic meeting and an unconference struck me right away as this session got started. The proposer sat down, set up a Google Doc for collaborative note-taking, and tweeted the link so we’d all have access to it as we talked. Given how rarely conferences offer free wifi, this wouldn’t work at most of the meetings I attend.

Session 2: Introduction to Omeka
Omeka was the one thing I definitely wanted to learn about at THATCamp today. All of a sudden, I feel like everyone around me is talking or tweeting about it, but I’ve been so busy learning the ins and outs of WordPress, Zotero, and (to a lesser extent) Drupal that adding a fourth DH tool just wasn’t possible. I knew that Omeka was a way to collect, organize, and display objects, and since I’ve been amassing images related to my dissertation topic, I figured I’d want to impose some sort of order on them sooner or later. I also really like the idea of having a website or online exhibit to complement my written dissertation, even if I keep it password-protected and restricted to people like my committee members. My topic is so visually driven that not showcasing that in some way seems absurd.

Amanda French taught the session, which was a very straightforward and clear explanation of how to begin constructing an Omeka site. I set up an account for myself and played around with it a bit, feeling like I’d basically gotten the hang of it after a few minutes. My confidence, however, was short-lived …

Session 3: Advanced Omeka/Presenting research online
WOW. Some of the digital projects I saw in this session blew my mind—especially when I learned that at least one of them is an undergraduate class assignment. The people leading this session spoke about how they had made major edits to the Omeka themes and plugins for their sites, customizing them to look and perform just right. I have to admit that at least 80% of the tech-y talk at this session went way over my head; I just tried to keep my ears open and listen to as much as I could, figuring that I might understand some of it later if I work with Omeka more. I felt a lot better when Amanda mentioned toward the end that most of the time, small cut-and-paste jobs will be sufficient to make WordPress/Omeka behave the way you want—it’s not necessary to become a champion coder before embarking on a DH project.

Still, an online learning program that I heard mentioned several times throughout the day—Code Year/Codecademy—really appeals to me right now. I definitely don’t have the time to add five hours of coding to my schedule each week, but it’s rather tempting after seeing other THATCampers show off their impressive skills.

* I should note that while SAC was low-risk and low-impact for me, my parents shelled out what I now realize was a considerable amount of money for me to discover that I would never be a circus performer, dancer, actress, painter, etc. Thanks, Mom and Dad.

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