Sunday, June 28, 2009
What Happens at THATCamp...
...gets Tweeted all over the world. (So watch yourself.)
I have just finished up at THATCamp, "a user-generated 'unconference' on digital humanities organized and hosted by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University." It was a heady two days of presentations, debates, discussions and twittering about digital history with some of the most interesting people in the field. There was so much content and so many ideas it is hard to know what to blog. So rather than explore any one thing from the conference, I thought I would explain the "unconference" format of THATCamp and how it worked.
[And by the way, I hope THATCampers who read this will use the comments to correct me or make additions. I want this post to be a resource for next year's ThatCampers.]
Attendance at THATCamp is by application--you write a few paragraphs about what you will bring to share at THATCamp in terms of skills, experience, projects, or whatever, and also what you hope to learn. If you are accepted you receive an email with details about conference lodging and so on and also a user account to the THATCamp blog.
The blog is where the "user generated" part begins. People are encouraged to post their ideas on the blog and to use it to organize sessions. Many of us were not clear on this (and by "many of us" I mean myself) and participation on the blog was perhaps not what it should have been, but we did kick around some initial ideas. Here is my post.
On Saturday we came together at George Mason for breakfast. Along with coffee and baked goods there were three tables covered by large sheets of paper and handfuls of sharpies. The paper was divided into three large columns: Session Topic, Leaders, Attendees. The organizers had grouped the blog ideas into sessions and put down the names of the most voluble posters as the session leaders. We were encouraged to add ourselves as attendees or leaders or even to add new sessions.
We did this for half an hour and went to a sort of welcoming discussion. Twenty minutes later the staff had worked up a schedule for the weekend. We all bookmarked it on our iPhones and netbooks and filtered out to our sessions. (I thought about suggesting a printed copy but something told me that this just isn't done.)
The sessions were great. You know how at a regular conference you sit through the overly-long papers, checking your email and hoping that people stick to the time limit so you can get to the discussion? We skipped the papers. The sessions were extended discussions on digital history topics with people who are on the front lines of the digital revolution (and me).
Technology suffused the conference. The rooms were wired and included wireless signal. Usually someone would plug in a laptop to the digital projector and people would jump up to display a website or digital tool as it came up in the conversation. And there were power strips to plug in! More strips than there are snakes in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Another thing that made the conference different was the use of Twitter, which was encouraged by the organizers. At THATCamp Twitter serves as a social organizer, a platform for exchanging information, and most of all a back channel of communication during the sessions. Nearly everyone had a computer or cell phone at hand and as we talked about digital history a second conversation was happening online. By using the hash tag #thatcamp in our tweets we could customize a Twitter feed (if you have a Twitter account you can see the conversation here, or visit an archive of all the 2500+ THATCamp tweets here). Many followed the conversation online using the free application Tweetdeck. It might sound odd to anyone unaccustomed to the technology but Twitter really was an effective and natural tool for enhancing the conversations. Occasionally someone would say "Now Susan just made a good point in her tweet [paraphrases Susan] what do we think of that?"Another interesting effect of Twitter is that quite a few digital humanists not at the conference took part in the Twitter conversations.
One additional innovation was the series of three minute presentations during lunch, which were lovingly titled "Dork Shorts." People signed up to give three-minute presentation of their digital projects. It was enough time to give a taste of the project but short enough that everyone who wanted to could show off their work.
The one other thing worth mentioning about the conference format was the variety of attendees. We had people from museums and libraries as well as academics, and undergraduates and graduate students mixed with university faculty and staff. It was very democratic and welcoming.
The "unconference" format of THATCamp gave me a lot of food for thought. The format was not perfect. Some of the conversations wandered too much, a few of the session organizers spoke a bit longer than necessary, and it took half a day for everyone to get in the groove of the unconference. But it was so much better than any other conference I have attended lately. I walked away from THATCamp not only with a lot of new knowledge and ideas but with a sense of having made meaningful connections with a bunch of digital history people. One of my goals is to bring the Pacific Northwest History conference to Spokane one year (oh God, did I just say that?) and I like the idea of adapting some of the unconference techniques to a regional history conference.
THATCampers--what did you think of the format? What did I miss?
[The picture of the Dork Shorts board is from CHNM director Dan Cohen's blog, Found History, which has his end-of-conference impressions of the event.]