Tag Archives: digital humanities

THATCamp, Digital Humanities, Hammers and Nails

Hey, y’all, I went to THATCampSE in Athens GA this weekend, and it was very cool.

In addition to getting the chance to reconnect with friends and colleagues, I had the opportunity to meet entirely new people and think about unfamiliar things–or at least, about familiar things that I really need to think about in new ways.  While in Athens, I got to engage in conversations about pedagogy, human interaction, graduate training, and digital libraries.  I learned about tools I can use in teaching (and other contexts), and connected with a set of scholars I hope will be collaborators and co-conspirators in projects I haven’t even come up with yet.

I was struck by the history of THATCamp (as presented by @amandafrench in her opening remarks at the start of the meeting) as an oppositional un-conference that would be all of the things that traditional conferences like MLA are NOT:  fun, informal, unstructured, unhierarchical.  THATCamp schedules are made the day of the conference.  THATCampers come from many different fields and disciplines.  THATCampers are academics, applied practitioners, veterans in their respective fields, and novices.  THATCampers are humanists, programmers, hackers, and luddites.

THATCamps have also been happening for a while, so there is an increasing number of THATCampers who are “repeat offenders.”   The intense feeling of being new-to-it-all (where “it” could be Digital Humanities, THATCamp, or just the particular group of people who arrived at THATCamp SE) was palpable, and fun.  How long can it last?  And is it what THATCamps of the future will look like?   How could some of that energy be transferred to more traditional conferences in the humanities?  How could traditional conferences learn from some of the things that are already happening around them, or in other fields, to give practitioners the opportunities for fun and connection that they are clearly craving in inventing things like THATCamp.  There are things that get built during THATCamps now–what more can THATCampers do to build on what has gone before, so it’s not just about the new and novel, but about building something that can inform future endeavors?

It makes me think of the big AAA conferences, and how people’s experiences transform through time.  It’s almost developmental:  graduate students present formal papers, young scholars finishing grad school attend job placement events and network like crazy.  Established scholars only go into panels as discussants, and senior scholars attend discussions and business meetings.  The ones who’ve really made it in the field (or, those who figure things out before the rest of us do) never leave the bar, cafe, or book room, and spend the conference doing the real scholarly work of reconnecting with colleagues over a meal, a drink, the enjoyable experience of seeing each other face to face after years/months/decades and diving back into a relationship that has been sustained via email, Facebook, Twitter, or even phone calls.   People tweet in concert with panels and other discussions at conferences (the “backchannel”)–even at MLA.  These things are not just possible but in practice in many corners of academia.   So, it will be interesting to see what the future of THATCamp holds, when the relatively fragile oppositional identity of THATCampers transforms into something more robust and defined on its own terms.

At the risk of sounding like I really like my hammer and see nothing but nails, I was struck again by the utility of the Visitors and Residents paradigm.  Where V&R helps me is in thinking of the variety of ways people engaged with the “digital” part of the DH umbrella we were all playing under this weekend.  Many people, especially those with previous THATCamp experience, had already put profiles on the website, started following fellow THATCampers on Twitter, proposed sessions for the Camp, in Athens, etc.  Those people were already THATCamp residents–they were Campers in a way that was visible on the internet not just to the people they would be sharing physical space with in Athens, but also with (potentially) anyone following the #thatcamp hashtag on twitter.  At least one of the “residents” has already blogged about the experience.

Some clearly approached THATCamp as a visitor–they were less visible on the web in their participation, but attended and proposed sessions, and did a lot of unconferencing in face-to-face ways.  Perhaps some of them are writing about it now, and it will end up in a publication (online or otherwise).   Perhaps they will simply talk about the experiences, the tools they learned about, etc with their colleagues, or share in other less-digitally visible ways.

Does that mean the residents are doing it right, and visitors wrong?  No, I don’t think so.  These are ends of a continuum.  There is a range of ways to effectively engage with THATCamp, just as there is a range of effective ways to engage with the internet.  And while the community being built through the collective experiences of THATCamp is very visible online, so much of the work is done in face to face contexts augmented with online tools like social media and other collaboration facilitators (making manifest @amanda french’s suggestion on Friday that “if it’s only online, it only half exists.”).  These digital tools do not take away the need for face to face interactions, but they can transform our starting point in those interactions.  The conference can begin before we get there, and continue long after we are gone.

I likewise wonder about this brave and increasingly less-new world of Digital Humanities.  I think there’s probably a visitor-resident continuum in that community, too, with one end where the digital = the tools people engage with to enhance or go deeper into relatively traditional humanities content, and the other end of the continuum is where the digital = utterly transformative not just in what can be done in terms of analyzing content, but also in revolutionizing the very meaning of what it is to be a scholar in the humanities.

It’s not just the “humanists” who are dealing with that potential transformation–these tools are turning the social sciences, arts, and STEM disciplines upside-down, too.  THATCamp-type comings-together can encourage our engagement with this (forgive me) new normal, where disciplinary boundaries are not walls but starting points, where technology gives us not just tools but new places to go with our work.

Open Access, AAA and the dilemma of scholarly communication in a digital world

So, this is happening, and lots of organizations are replying to the Request for Information (RFI, if you need an acronym) from the federal Office of Science and Technology Policy.  My own professional organization, the American Anthropological Association, submitted this reply, and it is being widely interpreted by vocal members of the discipline as towing the publishing industry’s rather conservative and print-journal-centric line about Open Access, and other less centralized models of scholarly publication and communication.

I do think it’s a conservative reply, and I don’t really agree with the principles embedded in the letter.  I think that the publisher-defined peer-review major-journal model of academic publications is one that doesn’t necessarily serve scholars particularly well anymore.  I think that some academic publishers are engaging in behavior that results in less access to scholarship rather than more (see, for instance:  Elsevier), and that there are increasing numbers of alternate models out there that we could begin to look at as a discipline (some are coming from our own subdisciplines).  I also think that we are not the only discipline struggling with trying to balance the needs of many of our members for tenure-and-review-worthy academic work (which is still largely defined as “publishing in major peer-reviewed journals, and/or publishing your work as a monograph with a major academic press”).   The folks talking about Digital Humanities are among those who are actively dismantling the traditional system with an eye to something very new, vibrant, and still rigorous and scholarly (not to mention, fun).

I encourage those of you interested in this to really mine the responses to the RFI.  I’m at a UNC, so I’m not supposed to say this, but I think that the response from the Duke University Libraries is an especially good one.  It strikes me as constructive not just because I agree with its stance on OA (pro), but because it’s clearly written by people (librarians!) who have an idea of what kind of information structures would allow us to get there.  And by “there,” I don’t necessarily mean an exclusively OA model.  Perhaps there will still be a place for journals in the future of scholarly communication.  But I think that the way forward can’t actually be thought up by asking anyone (including AAA membership), “What do you want the future of scholarly publishing to look like?”  Because you can’t know what you don’t know.

When, in the course of my work, I ask students flat questions like “What do you want from the library?”  they  often ask for more efficient or more numerous examples of the same kinds of things we provide for them.  They are not information or academic professionals, they don’t know what all is possible.  It’s actually more effective for us to look at the kinds of things they are doing inside and outside of the library, and think creatively then about how we might meet those needs.  Thinking creatively means consulting and collaborating with a variety of people, not just in the library, but in educational practice, in academic disciplines, in administration, in architecture and design.

AAA just finished a long journey towards a new code of Ethics, and presented it at our annual meetings last Fall.   To do this, they gathered a committee of a variety of different anthropological practitioners, and they started not by asking “what do you want in a code of ethics,” but, “what do you do to practice anthropology ethically?”  By starting (anthropologically) from a place grounded in actual practices, they could work towards a code that reflected the lived reality of anthropologists on the ground.

I think that something similar might be done with a publishing model.  How are anthropologists getting information about their field now?  What does that look like?  What kinds of scholarly communications are they producing?  What forms does that communication take, how are they disseminating the information and analysis they produce?  What parts are digital?  Which are analog?  How much takes place in face-to-face interactions?  Why?

In short, we need to be anthropological about it.  And we also should not let the request for information in two weeks badger us as an organization into producing a statement that might fall short of representing a perspective that reflects the priorities of our membership.  If we need more time to figure things out, we should say so.  If we’re leery of mandates in the form of federal instructions about OA, we should say so.  But we should also be open to possibilities.  And we can be most open if we are anthropological in our approach.

Get out there and figure stuff out.  And also:  collaborate with libraries.  They really do know what they are doing.

Science Friday, Digital Scholarship, and the End of the (Academic) World as we Know It (with apologies to REM)


If I didn’t listen to NPR, I think I’d never come up with blogpost ideas.  This time, it was listening to Science Friday that did it.   Ira Flatow was interviewing Michael Nielsen, whose book, Reinventing Discovery:  the New Era of Networked Science appears to be something I should get my hands on.   During the interview, Nielsen discussed the Galaxy Zoo, a project that allows non-scientists to get into NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope archive, and help classify galaxies by shape.   So far, more than a quarter of a million people have participated in the project.  That’s scaling up something fierce, and something that would not have been possible without the kinds of digital tools we now have at our disposal.  It’s also a kind of crowdsourcing. a kind of knowledge production made particularly possible and accessible by tools like wikis, blogs, etc. 

Crowdsourced knowledge is trusted by Digital Residents (so far as we can tell) far more than by Digital Visitors, who still seem to insist on institutionally produced knowledge as the authoritative standard.  Some fields, such as Bioinformatics, have scholars working with projects so novel that the peer-reviewed literature just has not been produced in enough quantity to be helpful to researchers when they are actively engaged in their research–they turn to blogs, tweets, emails, phone calls, and face to face conversations to keep up with the field–the latter two happening, I suspect, only after quite a bit of the first three take place.

My own library has launched a Digital Scholarship Lab, and while we expect that at first, there will be a large Digital Humanities component, I think it’s no accident that we are naming it Digital Scholarship, and Nielsen’s book makes me think my hunch is a solid one–these digital tools are, as he said in the interview I heard, fundamentally transforming the ways we construct knowledge, broadly defined.  This transformation is not limited to a particular field or discipline, it is global, and it is utter.

It is also frightening and destabilizing to many traditional academics, who see in digital tools as a way to trivialize, ignore, or fail to achieve the insights gained through traditional scholarship with old fashioned tools like books, paper,  images, and manuscripts.  Peer-reviewed journals are increasingly threatened by Open Access, blogging, and twitter, as primary ways to share and discuss scholarship.   Twitter and blogs make it possible to have a “conference” at any time, no matter where you are in the world–we do not have to wait for a national disciplinary conference to engage in scholarly exchange, nor do we want to wait anymore.

Nielsen pointed out that junior scholars and senior scholars tend to be happy to get on board with radical changes, and I can see why:  junior scholars are a part of the changes, they are fish in the water already; senior scholars are in a position to actually make change happen, and they are senior scholars, so less is at stake for them.  Scholars in the middle of their career, either trying to get tenure, or just post-tenure and now with even more work to do, may well feel that they’re being told to change doing everything that, up to this point, had been working out just fine for them.  It might be like coming up to someone halfway through their dissertation and insisting that they try this new reference management system.  Or making someone who is writing a book switch word processing software just as they are writing their conclusion.

I don’t have a conclusion here, just a string of thoughts that have come to an end (for now).