This is the the first in
three four posts about “hacking” conventional academic conferences. The next two three will be about how to get in, and how to present, and networking, respectively.
I’ve recently become a big fan of THATCamp‘s “unconference” conference model, in which nobody presents (ahem, nobody grandstands), and the content of the unconference is determined collegially by the participants on-site. It’s a great thing, and yet, conventional academic conferences aren’t going away, but nor should they go away.
I love conventional conferences (there, my THATCamp friends, I said it), but I didn’t used to. I think I love them now because I’ve learned a system, an admittedly idiosyncratic system, for enjoying them, and for gleaning as much useful intellectual content from them as possible. I realize that some people have grown weary of conventional conferences, and I’ve grown weary of particular ones, but certainly not of conferences as an intellectual and social “genre.”
Upon realizing recently that I have been refining how I view and attend conferences, I thought I’d type up some of the ways that I feel I’ve made attendance of conventional academic conferences more productive for myself. I’ll start with an anecdote. At the 4Cs in New York in 2007, my first major academic conference as a graduate student, I made myself somewhat notorious within my grad program by, while in the audience at a presentation, leaning over to my friend (who shall remain unimplicated), muttering “This is why our field is a fucking joke,” leaving mid-presentation, and walking 30 blocks to a Manhattan fly fishing shop. (A “joke” to the disciplines that don’t respect rhetoric and composition, is what I was referring to.) The presentation was terrible, but part of the problem was that I hadn’t yet learned how to attend a conference. It’s this notion, that there are particular skills that we must learn to attend a conference productively, that prompts me to write this post.
What I should have done was save my comment for later (in my defense, I was very quiet, and nobody overheard me), and quietly slipped out to try another session that, ideally, I would already have scouted in the program and marked for quick reference. So long as you are quiet and discreet, there’s nothing rude about leaving a presentation. I left, but I blew off the whole conference for the whole day instead of finding another session. It is less rude to leave a session in between speakers. But, particularly at large conferences and in a large audience, one shouldn’t be shy about politely leaving. This is somewhat more awkward at small, intimate conferences, and so I’d use more discretion at those. Similarly, I’ve often not attended brilliant sessions because they were too packed. Particularly if someone I know is presenting, it’s not worth it to me to wander into a room, realize it’s full, and spend the next hour and a half standing and sweating. I can can catch them later. (Incidentally, people I know are very split on whether to attend all your friends’ sessions, to support them, to to venture into the unknown. I try to do both.) I’ll slip out to a less crowded session. So, be willing to leave, politely and quietly and dsiscreetly.
I have come to feel that small but elite conferences are the best ones to attend. Every field has its major conferences, and at least early in one’s career, it’s probably necessary to attend the majors, if only for networking purposes (which I’ll return to in a bit). Small conferences are more intimate because of their smallness, and I feel that this intimacy leads many presenters to think more thoughtfully about their contributions, and their interactions. The smallness also makes meeting and socializing with new people more possible, less awkward, and less intimidating. I recommend hitting a few small, focused conferences, even if they aren’t necessarily in your major field of study. Part of the fun of conferences is learning that you’re interested in something that you didn’t know you were interested in.
On a related note, it is simply important for graduate students to attend both small and large conferences within their field. Conference attendance is an important part of acculturation into the field, and one of the best ways to learn what people at other programs are doing and thinking about, one of the best ways to get out of the insular bubble that is your own program. I never was, and am still not, a fan of conferences specifically for graduate students. About the only thing they are really useful for is getting the experience of presenting, but even then, you can get that experience at a real conference, one that will count for something on your CV.
Similarly, many new faculty place too much emphasis on conferences. If you’re on the tenure track, publishing is far more important than conference attendance, both within your own institution and when you go back out on the job market (if you do). I’ve heard of several people hitting the conference circuit hard, not publishing in the mean time, and find themselves in bad tenure review situations. Bad deal–don’t privilege conferences above your publishing. But do use conferences to test new ideas, as a springboard into your publishing.
One of the most obnoxious conference attendees is the one who asks a question at the end of a panel, usually eagerly, and uses the moment as an opportunity to: a) recite their own esoteric and usually irrelevant knowledge; b) mask some sort of comment in the guise of a question; c) baldly self-promote; d) disparage the presenter; e) all of the above. In short, don’t be that guy. It’s OK to ask a tough question, so long as it is relevant, asked politely, and doesn’t involve any grandstanding. As a presenter, I prefer a tough, even combative, question to having to deftly parry some mope who’s done nothing more than spend two minutes reciting everything they’ve read in order to make a comment on my paper that I can’t quite determine the relevance of.
One reason I enjoy conferences more now than I used to is because of my note taking. I take notes on speakers and presentations in conference programs (god help me if one of these annotated programs ever falls into someone else’s hands). Basically, I scribble “BAD” or “GOOD” over the entries for the individual speakers I see. Along with a quick reason for what made them a good or bad speaker. Now that speakers have developed “reputations” in my own mind, I refer to these past programs before attending a conference and make a point of avoiding speakers I’ve previously categorized as “bad” and seeking out those I’ve identified as “good.” Basically, I’m saying that it is better to go see a good, smart speaker on a topic of only tangential interest than a bad speaker who is talking about exactly the thing you’re most interested in (in most cases). Making use of such a system of course also means that you check out the conference program ahead of time. I love the routine of going through a program very thoroughly as I fly in to a conference, if I can get an advance copy.
- Socialize with people from within and without your own program, no matter how daunting it may seem. Introduce yourself to people, or ask friends in-common for introductions.
- Take notes on presentations and presenters, preferably within the conference program (whether analog or digital).
- Don’t try to attend every session, but . . .
- . . . attend a meaningful number of sessions.
- Get to popular sessions early.
- Don’t be a sycophant, with anybody.
- Follow a lark–attend a session that doesn’t on the surface appeal to you on the recommendation of a friend, or simply on your own whim. If it’s absolutely awful, politely slip out and to a session you’ve designated as a backup.
- Ask questions at panels, but refrain from comments. And keep your question CONCISE.
- Attend a combination of panels within and outside of what you think your areas of expertise/interest are.
- Enjoy a nice or local or exotic meal if you can, preferably with others.
- See some of the city/area (see photo).
This post has gotten too long already.
I should probably begin by admitting straight-away the persuasions of my bias: I’m a fully committed THATCamp evangelist after this, my second THATCamp experience.
THATCampSE was held on the campus of Emory University, March 4-6, 2011.
I attended the Pedagogy BootCamp session on Friday. There was also a Programming track and a Project track. The Pedagogy session was hosted by representatives of Emory’s ECIT, which is a robust, pedagogically informed, technologically equipped center designed to facilitate faculty implementation of new technologies in the classroom. I was very, very impressed by ECIT, its mission, and its staffers. The Pedagogy track was slightly awkward in that we had very disparate level of experience represented in the participants. What made the session worthwhile though was the conversation that developed over the course of the morning session, which I think reached into the ideas and concerns of most of the participants. The afternoon session was a little more relaxed, as we considered web presence for academics through a variety of platforms. I can’t speak to the Project track’s experience at all. But I did hear from some friends in the Programming track that it was a little over most people’s heads. In retrospect, it might have been nice to have had a track that fell somewhere in between the Pedagogy and Programming tracks in terms of required technical savvy. (This might be exactly what the Project track was–as I said, I didn’t hear any feedback on that particular BootCamp session for some reason.)
The Sessions I attended Saturday:
The first session I attended on Saturday had to do with digital images. A major topic of conversation was permissions and Fair Use. I personally think that academics (and particularly journal editors) need to get more aggressive about asserting the right to Fair Use of images in our noncommerical works. It’s clear that Fair use is culturally-legally defined, and not strictly legally defined. We are ceding too many opportunities for Fair Use.
During the second session I hacked a nap on the sixth floor of the library. Emory students beware, when you nap on the library couches, Emory faculty take pictures of you with their camera phones and laugh at you later. I’m just sayin’.
The third session on Saturday that I attended dealt with software that can help make archive visits and file organization in general more efficient. We learned about some excellent tools, like Hazel, that I hadn’t known about previously.
[DATA MISSING] For the fourth session I hacked another nap at the hotel (Damn you, Georgian Terrace! [not where I stayed, BTW]).
The sessions I attended on Sunday:
The first session I attended dealt with crowdsourcing, broadly conceived, and we simply had a very rich conversation about different crowdsourcing strategies, with an emphasis on the classroom and crowdsourcing teaching in a variety of ways.
The last session I attended, during the last time slot of the unconference, dealt with faculty/librarians relationships. Working relationships. Miriam Posner has a great post on the session. Basically, there aren’t good social or institutional forums for faculty and librarians to collaborate, which costs both groups. This session created some of the liveliest conversation I witnessed over the weekend. We didn’t come up with any solutions though. I think we might have over thought it. If you’re a faculty member, you simply need to walk down to the library, buy your subject librarian a cup of coffee, and have a friendly, collegial chat about each of your projects. Then repeat. GRAD STUDENTS: MAKE FRIENDS WITH YOUR RESEARCH LIBRARIANS. I never did, and in retrospect, it was probably one of the worst mistakes of my graduate career. As a faculty member, I’m now going to be going out of my way to make friendly with subject librarians, just as I do with fellow faculty.
All in all, a wonderful conference, and my deepest gratitude goes out to the people who organized it. They know who they are, and I thank them.
Despite my THATCamp evangelism, I still have concerns about the digital humanities. I still don’t think it’s a discipline, and that we need to tread more warily in some respects. Our scholarship, I still contend, must be *better* than scholarship that doesn’t fall under the digital humanities confederacy (“confederacy of disciplines,” instead of “discipline”) if it is to gain credible wide acceptance (more quickly than it might otherwise–wide acceptance is inevitable, for the pixels are on the wall, so to speak).
Important Twitter hashtags from the weekend:
#thatcamp, #tigerblood, #thatcamp_puppy, #slothblood, #digimpact, #winning
The weekend was further enriched by ridiculous and unwarranted Charlie Sheen references, which added an absurd poetry to many of the backchannel #thatcamp tweets. #thatcamp #winning #owlblood
Ian, the picture is for you:
As the title of this post indicates, I’m not a huge fan of ascribing the name “digital humanities” to, uh, well, the digital humanities. Therein is the problem though, right? What else are we going to call it, this thing? And what is this thing? Surely it’s not really just a collision of the traditional humanities disciplines with new technologies, is it?
I’m sure that some people will find this polemical, but what if we just called it the humanities? Drop the digital part. My logic is this: I think that it becomes more and more of an obligation for humanists to account for and incorporate appropriate digital technologies in their work, whether those uses of technology are for the discovery of new knowledge and relationships, or for the transmission and display of finished work, or some combination of the two. In an era when the humanities disciplines are clearly under assault, both financially and intellectually, I would go so far as to say that not accounting for and capitalizing upon such technologies in one’s work is a disservice to one’s discipline. That’s a strong statement, I know. But bear with me for a moment. This doesn’t mean that people should stop doing traditional work, I don’t think. But any study–no matter the topic–can be enriched by new technologies of display and distribution, at the very least. And surely there are many more sophisticated ways than simply display and distribution that inquiry into virtually any topic or field can be enriched.
Insisting on the term digital humanities automatically creates an us/them situation. Either you’re a digital humanist or you’re not, and I don’t think that dynamic is to the long term benefit of the thing that we’re calling the digital humanities or to the humanities more generally. By creating a distinct thing, the digital humanities, we actually make it easier for some to resist the trend to combine new technologies with traditional modes of inquiry, and against the innovation of entirely new modes of inquiry. The humanities suffer enough in the current cultural, intellectual, and political environment. I think that we shouldn’t be splitting ourselves into factions right now, and that we should be very public in the production of our work, so as to demonstrate our value to those outside of the humanities and outside of the academy. Digital technologies enable that broader connection.
I also worry very much that in some cases the digital humanities simply becomes a worship of the newest and coolest platforms and interfaces, and that that infatuation with new software gizmos might in some cases come at the expense of the intellectual content of scholarship. This, of course, is likely to be the criticism of those within the academy who (for whatever reason) might be hostile to the digital humanities. That hostility–and we know that such hostility exists at many institutions, particularly among faculty who feel threatened by the newness and fast pace of new technologies–makes it even more imperative that those of us committed to the digital humanities produce scholarship that is especially intellectually robust.
If it’s not a discipline (as I contend) then I think that it would be fair to describe the digital humanities more as an ethos, aesthetic, and philosophy of scholarship. Herein lies, I believe, the greatest asset of the digital humanities. New platforms and interfaces (that is, digital ones) allow humanists to connect to new, broader, more public audiences than ever before. For too many generations we humanists have spoken primarily to each other, with our work shielded from public view by virtue of its publication only in obscure, expensive print publications that have only been held (generally) in elite (university) libraries, walled from public access and eyes. A second exciting promise of new digital platforms and interfaces is the way(s) they allow us to actually envision, detect, and display previously unnoticed relationships. In these cases, new digital tools actually contribute to the discovery and manufacture of new knowledge, and allow us to display that knowledge more effectively than we might have previously.
Of course, there might be another phenomenon that I’m failing to account for (I know, there’s probably tons here that I’m failing to account for, but such are the luxuries of writing in an informal space). As a graduate student I was involved with UT Austin’s Science, Technology, and Society Center, a since de-funded certificate granting academic unit that sought to bring humanists, scientists, and social scientists into conversation. We held a very large event on nanotechnology, during which many scientists observed that nanotechnology research blurs the lines between traditional science disciplines. Consider that once there was just “science” (think Newton’s era, and earlier) and then individual disciplines differentiated themselves, and now new technologies and research into things like nanotechnology cause a coalescing of fields like biology and chemistry and physics that would previously have been unthinkable. My question is, do digital technologies do the same thing for the humanities, creating an environment in which traditional disciplinary boundaries collapse and the humanities disciplines collapse/expand into one massive uber-discipline? Could that be on the horizon? Is it good? Bad?
This post doesn’t represent my final perspective on the digital humanities. I’m open to persuasion, and I know that a lot of people are struggling with these issues, trying to figure out how to proceed. I may be contributing to the problem here, but maybe we’re putting too much energy into trying to figure out what the digital humanities is/are. We should just do our work, and that answer will arise organically, I believe. But, then again, here I am contemplating the digital bellybutton too . . .
On a completely serious final note, I worry that many “digital humanists” have forgotten what the internet was really built for–making war, and pornography (don’t worry–the links are totally safe for work).
In the interest of providing some different perspectives on these issues, here are some links where other academics take up some similar issues. I’m sure that this list isn’t anywhere near comprehensive, so please post additional links in the comments. I don’t pretend that this list is anything approaching comprehensive.
These are just some of the posts that prompted me to document my own two cents. I’d love to know what others are reading/thinking about these issues.
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.
After the semester wraps up here at Western Carolina I’ll be attending THATCampVA. THATCampVA is a regional incarnation of the larger THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp) “unconference.” The mission of THATCamp is pretty exciting in terms of how it shakes up the typical conference format, how its content is determined by the participants, its content is open source and note sharing is the norm, its prioritizing of conversations over presentations, and the unconference’s preference for short, PechaKucha style presentations. Check out their website for more info. THATCampVA is being held in Charlottesville, VA, on the campus of the University of Virginia. This will be my first THATCamp event.
THATCamp events typically include BootCamps, which are brief technology training sessions, and take place one day before the main THATCamp event begins. At THATCampVA I’ll be attending the GIS Track BootCamp, which is particularly exciting for me because I used to work in GIS when I worked for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) at the National Ground Intelligence Center (NGIC), which is also in Charlottesville. I imagine that the technologies and interfaces have changed quite significantly in the time since I was working with them regularly.
Now that THATCampVA participants have been selected, the participants have begun proposing topics of discussion for the weekend via the THATCampVA blog. The proposals should be less than 500 words each. I’ve pitched three ideas, and tried to hold myself to 250 words per idea, so as not to overwhelm the board. To be perfectly honest though, I’m not too worried about whether or not any of my ideas gain any momentum with the other Campers, but am simply excited to meet people working n the digital humanities (very broadly conceived) here on the East Coast. Most of the THATCampVA participants are on Twitter, and you can find a list of them HERE.
Here are the topics of discussion that I’ve proposed:
- the politics of expertise, and how the digital humanities (whatever that is) might take a role in returning ethics to the center of higher education
As per the spirit of THATCamp events, I’ll be blogging my notes/thoughts/screeds during and after the event itself in December. As always when venturing off of my mountaintop fortress and into public, my primary goal will be to not make an ass of myself: