June 6, 2008

Thoughts on THATCamp

2539671619_45e0d02289.jpg Last week CHNM hosted the inaugural THATCamp to what seemed to me like great success. Short for “The Humanities and Technology Camp,” THATCamp is a BarCamp-style, user-generated “unconference” on digital humanities. Structurally, it differs from an ordinary conference in two ways: first in that its sessions are organized by participants themselves (ahead of time through a blog, but mainly on the day of the conference) rather than by a program committee, and second in that everyone is expected to participate actively—to present a project, share some skill, and collaborate with fellow participants. We first started thinking about THATCamp as many as two or three years ago, and I was thrilled to see it finally get off the ground, thanks in large part to the extraordinary efforts and energy of Jeremy Boggs and Dave Lester, who will be presenting their own thoughts on the matter in a forthcoming episode of THATPodcast.

To begin with let me say the sessions were fantastic. I particularly benefited from conversations on F/OSS design and development processes, event standards, and sustainability. Nevertheless I have to admit I was just as interested in the process of THATCamp as I was in its products. Throughout the weekend I was paying as much attention to how THATCamp worked as to the work that was actually done there. I’d like to share three observations in this regard:

  • First and foremost, I think it is very important to stress that THATCamp was cheap. The cost of the weekend was around $3000. Total. That included a fairly lavish breakfast and lunch buffet on both days, lots of caffenated drinks, t-shirts for everyone involved, pretty badges and lanyards, office supplies (post-its, pens), room fees, and a couple student travel stipends. Those modest costs were paid through a combination of sponsorships (the GMU provost’s office, NiCHE, NYPL, and CHNM’s own Zotero project) and voluntary donations from THATCamp participants (we suggested $20 and passed a hat around on the first day). Most participants had to fund their own travel, but still.
  • Second, THATCamp was honest. Mills has already pointed out how the unconference sessions at THATCamp were so much more engaging than the standard “panelist reads at you” conference session model. That’s certainly true. But it wasn’t just the format that made these discussions more useful. It was the attitude. At most scholarly conferences, everyone seems to have something to prove—specifically, how smart they are. We have all seen people shouted down at conferences and how destructive that can be, especially to a young scholar (I have seen people in tears). But at THATCamp, instead of trying to out-smart each other, campers came clean about their failures as well as their successes, their problems as well as their solutions. By admitting, rather than covering up, gaps in their knowledge, campers were able to learn from each other. This honesty made THATCamp truly productive.
  • Third, THATCamp was democratic. In large part because Jeremy and Dave (both students as well as kickass digital humanists) did most of the work, but also because of the transparency, informality, and openness of the process and discussions, professional status didn’t seem to count for much at THATCamp. Full professors, associate professors, assistant professors, research faculty, museum and library professionals from big and small institutions at all levels, and graduate students seemed to mix easily and casually. More than once I saw a student or young professional challenge a more senior colleague. Even more often I saw the groups laughing, chatting, sharing ideas. That’s good for everybody.

I’m not going to lie. THATCamp was a ton of work, and it wasn’t perfect by any means. I’m not sure, for instance, how many publications will result from the sessions. But I do think it was a truly different and useful way of forging new collaborations, building a community of practice, making connections to people with answers to your questions, supporting student work and thought, and solving practical problems. The model is particularly appropriate for a very hands-on discipline like digital humanities, but the three observations above suggest it should and could easily be extended to other, more traditional disciplines. Mills has already called on the American Historical Association to dedicate 5% of its program THATCamp-style activities, and Margie McLellan is hoping to encourage the Oral History Association to do the same. I’d also encourage humanities departments, graduate student committees, and other research institutions to try. We all lament the lack of community and collegiality in our profession and decry the cutthroat competitiveness in our fields. It seems to me that THATCamp is a cheap and easy antidote.

[Image: “Dork Shorts” session sign-up board, credit Dave Lester.]


  1. Tom,
    Thanks for all the work you all did. It was one of the most productive conferences I’ve ever been to. I suspect that you might not see tons of publications, but you’ll see collaborations, grants, better coding, and digital humanities projects come out of it.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to share the details of the conference structure. Good food for thought. So many conferences call for non-conventional formats; yet, I’ve seen few departures from the usual panelists with papers approach. I’ll look forward to learning more from THATPodcast

  3. Tom, I thought THATcamp was, hands down, the conference of the year. I came back more energized and eager to experiment than I ever remember feeling, post-conference. We’re about to shake some things up here at home, and it’s a direct result of conversations had and concepts modeled at THATcamp. (Once I’ve got a few things rolling, administratively, I’ll post about them on the blog.) Thank you all!

  4. Tom,
    Thanks to you, Jeremy, Dave, and everyone at CHNM for such a creative, engaging experience. Lots to think on. Looking forward to continuing the discussion with you and the Ohio Humanities Council later this month.

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