With the winter break and the holidays it has taken me nearly a two months to get to this post! But, since the THATCamp movement seems to be carrying a full head of steam , it seems worth posting a somewhat belated reflection upon my own first THATCamp experience. In December I attended THATCampVA, hosted by the University of Virginia‘s Scholars’ Lab, which itself lives inside Alderman Library.
One thing the THATCamp experience made me realize even more acutely is the value of academic units like the Scholars’ Lab, which link technologists with academics. I’m lucky to have worked in a similar lab at UT Austin, the Digital Writing and Research Lab (DWRL), which is similar, though focused more exclusively upon the concerns of a single discipline, rather than a host of disciplines, which is what UVA’s Scholars’ Lab serves.
My first THATCamp experience was invigorating, but also exhausting. I attended the Friday BootCamp, and attended a session on using Geographic Information Systems. I have a distant background in GIS from my undergrad days and previous, albeit short lived, career, and the BootCamp session was a great refresher, and a great introduction to the more sophisticated elements of what current GIS software is capable of. It was nice to attend a session on a technology for its own sake, without being entirely clear in my own mind on how I might use that technology down the road. This allowed me to play during the session, which is how I tend to learn new interfaces best–when I’m not too focused on immediate goals, which tend to suck the fun out of things.
Saturday and Sunday the sessions began, and without getting too far into the nitty gritty, it was a tumult, in a good–no, great–way. For me the greatest value of the experience was simply conversing with intelligent people OUTSIDE OF MY OWN DISCIPLINE about a host of topics of general interest. We get so locked into our disciplinary identities, and yet, when we meet people completely outside of our own disciplines, it can be hard to break the intellectual ice and connect in a meaningful way. In my limited experience, this is the greatest value of the THATCamp experience, semi-structured conversation with very smart people who I otherwise never would have had the opportunity to meet. It really was that simple, and that valuable, for me. I especially liked the absence of formal goals or presentations, which allowed the unconference to take the form of almost pure brainstorming and intellectual cross-pollination. This is where things became exhausting–it takes a lot of energy to talk to new people about new ideas for 8-12 hours a day. I left exhausted, but in that most pleasing way.
In March I’ll attend my second THATCamp event, THATCampSE, at Emory University. It will be my first time on the Emory campus and I look forward to meeting a mostly new crowd (new to me, that is) of digital humanists, and catching up with a few of my new friends from THATCampVA. I’ll be working especially hard to recruit people into getting their classes to contribute to the very newly launched Rural Image Cooperative, which my grad class in Visual and Digital Rhetorics has begun to build.
My one regret about the THATCampVA experience is that I was too tired Saturday evening to stick around for the “vintage pan-Asian surf and garage rock” of Dzian. Next time.
Plenty of academic bloggers have fretted over whether they should be blogging or not, or whether other academics should blog or not. Over when it is safe to blog in one’s career, and when it isn’t. Over whether or not to blog under one’s own name or a pseudonym. Clearly, my own choices on this site indicate my own opinions.
Obviously, I’m willing to blog under my own name. However, I don’t, for example, blog my in-process writing or research. I would rather not be held to ideas that I’m thinking through seriously but incompletely. This is merely a personal preference–plenty of academics who I know and respect use their blogs to think through their most serious research, and derive tangible benefits (like feedback) working through their ideas in a public forum. That said, blog posts that I thought of as “throw-aways” have led me to pursue new ideas seriously. There is a lot of generative and inventional power in forcing yourself to come up with something to say.
I began blogging when three other UT Austin graduate students and I founded Viz., a visual rhetoric site that lives on today and attracts approximately 16,000 visits per month. In my capacity as a founding blogger at Viz., I tended to post quick things, without much analysis. This is in contrast to the current blogging style of Viz., which dictates much more developed posts than what we started out with. (I have mixed feelings about that development, which has occurred across many different blogs. The newer style of blogging on Viz. is much more intellectually robust than how we started out, but now I think the posts are simply too long. Blogs are supposed to be quick. There must be a happy medium somewhere. Of course, I’m guilty of the same thing here . . . Nevermind.)
Recently I received a little more confirmation of why blogging is worthwhile, and why it is important to blog on current topics relevant to your own expertise. Shortly after Obama’s election to the presidency I shot off a quick blog post basically wondering how political cartoonists would draw President Obama without invoking the history of racist cartooning. At the time the post was picked up and promoted by a number of other blogs and news sources, most notably a National Public Radio affiliate in Minnesota. It’s important for me to admit that my post was neither very polished nor very thoroughly thought out. But by being timely, accessible in its language, and provocative in its questions, the post has garnered a lot of positive attention, which I have to assume is a good thing for me as well. At least, it can’t be a bad thing. (For those in the humanities who lament our irrelevance in the broader public, blogging on topics germane to both your expertise and current events seems like the beginning of a remedy, to my eyes.) Now, years after that post, another NPR reporter has been contacting the DWRL (host of Viz.) to inquire about that post. If nothing else, blogging can give you the occasional confirmation that your work in the academy matters.
I consider my blogging activities to be a service to the profession and discipline, and that’s how I list them on my CV. Even though I am a big advocate of blogging, I think that portraying most blogging activities as scholarship is a pretty tough sell. Finally, I’ll say that I follow Jaron Lanier‘s ethic when it comes to blogging–if you’re going to blog it, own it, and don’t hide behind anonymity like this guy:
I finished my two conference papers and board the plane shortly. For those of your stumbling upon this site, be warned. It ain’t finished yet. Things remain in a state of digital disrepair. So please keep that in your brains, and mind any bent nails you find coming out of the floor. If you’ll be at the conference, call, text or email so that we can meet up.
By a twisting path I was directed this morning to this fascinating blog post about Edward Abbey living in Cullowhee, which I hadn’t known about. Apparently he was unhappy. I love a good curmudgeon, and for my money, The Fool’s Progress is one of the best American novels ever written, at least top three.
Also, special congratulations to Viz. and the Visual Rhetoric Workgroup in UT Austin’s Digital Writing and Research Lab (DWRL), which was named in a tie with ProfHacker for the Kairos John Lovas memorial Weblog Award. John Jones, Tim Turner, Vessela Valiavitcharska and I founded Viz. four years ago. Congrats Viz.!
Here’s a picture of a huge slug I found in the Hoh Valley on the Olympic Peninsula after the RSA conference in Seattle two years ago. The place was littered with ‘em. May my discoveries in Minneapolis be as exciting.