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.
About a month ago I had the chance to visit two (one and two) very good friends in Detroit. They, along with another a friend of mine here at WCU who is originally from Detroit, have frequently bemoaned the genre of Detroit blight porn that has been spearheaded by The New York Times. Surely enough, Detroit faces more than its fair share of economic and related real estate woes. But those woes go back much further than the current economic crisis.
More to the point though, my first ever visit to Detroit left me entirely wowed. I had amazing BBQ at Slow’s, and wonderful red flannel hash for “blunch” at The Fly Trap, to name just two of many phenomenal and gluttonous dining experiences that were crammed into the four day trip. I was stunned by the collection at the Detroit Institute of Art Museum, even though I only had time to take in a sliver of the museum. And everywhere my Detroit hosts and I went it was obvious that artists of all varieties are using the deflated real estate prices in Detroit to undertake great projects and risks that wouldn’t be possible in other environments.
One of the oldest of these art projects is the Heidelberg Project (do yourself a favor and surf around the project’s website). The project spans several city lots, and is named after the street where the project resides. “Project” becomes a loaded word, for the economic crisis journalist-pornographers would certainly call the neighborhood a “project” in the pejorative sense, even though it has never really been a federal housing project. But “project” of course really refers to the art project that the space has become, a site of re-used and recycled objects juxtaposed in ways simultaneously macabre, profound, and whimsical. See my photo of a crucified stuffed rabbit below. Stuffed animals like these are nailed up everywhere, to trees and abandoned houses, slowly mildewing and melting in the midwestern winters and rains. Shopping carts sit in and atop trees. A painted boat is filled to overflowing with more stuffed animals. A lawn mower sits atop a massive pile of discarded shoes. Inorganic garbage is repurposed everywhere.
I was pretty much completely smitten by the project, and almost had to be dragged away by my camera strap. But in addition to my love for the ridiculousness and randomness and audacity of the project, I have to appreciate it also for how it reinvigorated in my own mind some longstanding quandaries of mine. As a once avid photographer (whose interest in creating, and not just critiquing, photography has been reinvigorated by a photographer friend recently), I’ve always been troubled by how difficult it is to capture the scale and detail of an event such as the Heidelberg Project. Details are easy, but capturing the “whole picture” is a bitch. In anticipation of THATCampVA (THATCamp_SouthEast is now accepting applications too), I’ve been wondering what digital interface-gizmos I might down the line develop in order to try to represent such a massive project in photos. I have no concrete ideas, let alone solutions, yet. But something is definitely in the digital fermenting vat.
All in all, a great trip to Detroit, and one that, due to the sheer volume and visibility and audacity of its art projects, I will be mulling over for a long time. It was great to see friends and to get the opportunity to meet some of their colleagues working in rhetoric and composition in the Wayne State Department of English. Unfortunately, one of the rhet/comp folks I didn’t have a chance to meet was Richard Grusin, whose book Premediation: Affect and Mediality After 9/11 I have since read, and which I found to be completely-and-completely badass. I highly recommend it to any rhetoricians interested in the digital humanities, and am already finding some applications for his theory of premediation in my own work.
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: