Category: THATCamp

More than THAT

“Less talk, more grok.” That was one of our early mottos at THATCamp, The Humanities and Technology Camp, which started at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University in 2008. It was a riff on “Less talk, more rock,” the motto of WAAF, the hard rock station in Worcester, Massachusetts.

And THATCamp did just that: it widely disseminated an understanding of digital media and technology, provided guidance on the ways to apply that tech toward humanistic ends like writing, reading, history, literature, religion, philosophy, libraries, archives, and museums, and provided space and time to dream of new technology that could serve humans and the humanities, to thousands of people in hundreds of camps as the movement spread. (I would semi-joke at the beginning of each THATCamp that it wasn’t an event but a “movement, like the Olympics.”) Not such a bad feat for a modestly funded, decentralized, peer-to-peer initiative.

THATCamp as an organization has decided to wind down this week after a dozen successful years, and they have asked for reflections. My reflection is that THATCamp was, critically, much more than THAT. Yes, there was a lot of technology, and a lot of humanities. But looking back on its genesis and flourishing, I think there were other ingredients that were just as important. In short, THATCamp was animated by a widespread desire to do academic things in a way that wasn’t very academic.

As the cheeky motto implied, THATCamp pushed back against the normal academic conference modes of panels and lectures, of “let me tell you how smart I am” pontificating, of questions that are actually overlong statements. Instead, it tried to create a warmer, helpful environment of humble, accessible peer-to-peer teaching and learning. There was no preaching allowed, no emphasis on your own research or projects.

THATCamp was non-hierarchical. Before the first THATCamp, I had never attended a conference—nor have I been to one since my last THATCamp, alas—that included tenured and non-tenured and non-tenure-track faculty, graduate and undergraduate students, librarians and archivists and museum professionals, software developers and technologists of all kinds, writers and journalists, and even curious people from well beyond academia and the cultural heritage sector—and that truly placed them at the same level when the entered the door. Breakout sessions always included a wide variety of participants, each with something to teach someone else, because after all, who knows everything.

Finally, as virtually everyone who has written a retrospective has emphasized, THATCamp was fun. By tossing off the seriousness, the self-seriousness, of standard academic behavior, it freed participants to experiment and even feel a bit dumb as they struggled to learn something new. That, in turn, led to a feeling of invigoration, not enervation. The carefree attitude was key.

Was THATCamp perfect, free of issues? Of course not. Were we naive about the potential of technology and blind to its problems? You bet, especially as social media and big tech expanded in the 2010s. Was it inevitable that digital humanities would revert to the academic mean, to criticism and debates and hierarchical structures? I suppose so.

Nevertheless, something was there, is there: THATCamp was unapologetically engaging and friendly. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I met and am still friends with many people who attended the early THATCamps. I look at photos from over a decade ago, and I see people that to this day I trust for advice and good humor. I see people collaborating to build things together without much ego.

Thankfully, more than a bit of the THATCamp spirit lingers. THATCampers (including many in the early THATCamp photo above) went on to collaboratively build great things in libraries and academic departments, to start small technology companies that helped others rather than cashing in, to write books about topics like generosity, to push museums to release their collections digitally to the public. All that and more.

By cosmic synchronicity, WAAF also went off the air this week. The final song they played was “Black Sabbath,” as the station switched at midnight to a contemporary Christian format. THATCamp was too nice to be that metal, but it can share in the final on-air words from WAAF’s DJ: “Well, we were all part of something special.”

Digital Journalism and Digital Humanities

I’ve increasingly felt that digital journalism and digital humanities are kindred spirits, and that more commerce between the two could be mutually beneficial. That sentiment was confirmed by the extremely positive reaction on Twitter to a brief comment I made on the launch of Knight-Mozilla OpenNews, including from Jon Christensen (of the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford, and formerly a journalist), Shana Kimball (MPublishing, University of Michigan), Tim Carmody (Wired), and Jenna Wortham (New York Times).

Here’s an outline of some of the main areas where digital journalism and digital humanities could profitably collaborate. It’s remarkable, upon reflection, how much overlap there now is, and I suspect these areas will only grow in common importance.

1) Big data, and the best ways to scan and visualize it. All of us are facing either present-day or historical archives of almost unimaginable abundance, and we need sophisticated methods for finding trends, anomalies, and specific documents that could use additional attention. We also require robust ways of presenting this data to audiences to convey theses and supplement narratives.

2) How to involve the public in our work. If confronted by big data, how and when should we use crowdsourcing, and through which mechanisms? Are there areas where pro-am work is especially effective, and how can we heighten its advantages while diminishing its disadvantages? Since we both do work on the open web rather than in the cloistered realms of the ivory tower, what are we to make of the sometimes helpful, sometimes rocky interactions with the public?

3) The narrative plus the archive. Journalists are now writing articles that link to or embed primary sources (e.g., using DocumentCloud). Scholars are now writing articles that link to or embed primary sources (e.g., using Omeka). Formerly hidden sources are now far more accessible to the reader.

4) Software developers and other technologists are our partners. No longer relegated to secondary status as “the techies who make the websites,” we need to work intellectually and practically with those who understand how digital media and technology can advance our agenda and our content. For scholars, this also extends to technologically sophisticated librarians, archivists, and museum professionals. Moreover, the line between developer and journalist/scholar is already blurring, and will blur further.

5) Platforms and infrastructure. We care a great deal about common platforms, ranging from web and data standards, to open source software, to content management systems such as WordPress and Drupal. Developers we work with can create platforms with entirely novel functionality for news and scholarship.

6) Common tools. We are all writers and researchers. When the New York Times produces a WordPress plugin for editing, it affects academics looking to use WordPress as a scholarly communication platform. When our center updates Zotero, it affects many journalists who use that software for organizing their digital research.

7) A convergence of length. I’m convinced that something interesting and important is happening at the confluence of long-form journalism (say, 5,000 words or more) and short-form scholarship (ranging from long blog posts to Kindle Singles geared toward popular audiences). It doesn’t hurt that many journalists writing at this length could very well have been academics in a parallel universe, and vice versa. The prevalence of high-quality writing that is smart and accessible has never been greater.

This list is undoubtedly not comprehensive; please add your thoughts about additional common areas in the comments. It may be worth devoting substantial time to increasing the dialogue between digital journalists and digital humanists at the next THATCamp Prime, or perhaps at a special THATCamp focused on the topic. Let me know if you’re interested. And more soon in this space.

Regional THATCamps: A Movement

During this year’s Winter Games in Vancouver, I joked that like the Olympics, THATCamp was a movement, not an event. Well, only semi-joked. I did think there was something to trying to spread widely a new participatory and inclusive academic meeting, one that would spread the digital humanities, encourage collaboration and sharing, and disseminate knowledge better than the standard panels-and-lectures scholarly society annual conference. I’m incredibly delighted that the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has now generously provided funding to support a network of THATCamps worldwide so that the unconference can serve many more people than we can here at the mothership.

THATCamp: The Humanities and Technology Camp was founded in 2008 by the Center for History and New Media’s Dave Lester, Jeremy Boggs, and Tom Scheinfeldt. (Dave is now the assistant director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities.) A strange and wonderful thing happened over the last year: THATCamps started to spring up across the country and beyond, many of them hosted and run by those who participated in the yearly event in Fairfax, VA.

I strongly recommend that readers of this blog read Tom’s full post on the grant and regional THATCamps to get a sense of what’s involved (you can also read my prior posts on THATCamp), and hope that you consider hosting your own THATCamp. You don’t have to wait four years to light the torch.

THATCamp 2009


What was both the most enjoyable and the most productive conference I went to last year? THATCamp: The Humanities and Technology Camp. OK, I’m slightly biased because THATCamp takes place at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, but you can get confirmation from last year’s other attendees. THATCamp is the brainchild of CHNM’s Dave Lester, Jeremy Boggs, and Tom Scheinfeldt.

For those new to the concept, THATCamp is an unconference, which means that there are no stodgy panels or fussy exchanges. Instead, the attendees self-organize on the first morning into sessions of interest, and then plunge right into learning from each other. Everyone is a participant, and subgroups often break off to try out new things. It is a very casual but fairly intense two days of conversation, coding, and comraderie. And it’s free. (We do pass around a trucker’s hat for donations to provide coffee and snacks.)

THATCamp 2009 will take place on June 27–28, right after Digital Humanities 2009 at the University of Maryland. You need to apply if you would like to come, and slots are limited, so unfortunately the organizers will have to be selective. We have a larger number of slots this year, but still expect to be oversubscribed, so please put on your application what you would be willing to share with the other attendees.

Also, there are a limited number of sponsorships available to organizations, institutions, and companies. It’s a great way to get the word out about your program or product, so if you’re interested in sponsoring THATCamp, send an email soon to

THATCamp 2009

THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp), which brings together scholars, librarians, curators, technologists, and developers for a two-day “unconference” that interactively explores the cutting edge of the digital humanities, was such a success this year that we’re bringing it back in 2009. Better yet, we are pairing it with the Digital Humanities 2009 conference being run by our friends on the other side of the Washington beltway, the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities. THATCamp 2009 will immediately follow DH2009 on June 27-28, 2008. Stay tuned to the THATCamp site for a more formal announcement and application guidelines.

Digital Campus #28 – Raising the BarCamp

On this episode of the Digital Campus podcast, Tom, Mills, and I think in greater depth about whether the stodgy academic conferences we often go to could be (at least partially) recast into more informal affairs along the lines of THATCamp, a “barcamp” or “unconference.” We also look at the upcoming iPhone 3G (soon to be the cell phone on campus at its lower price) and what mobile apps might mean for teaching and learning. [Subscribe to this podcast.]

THATCamp Was All THAT, And More

I was hoping to provide a wrap-up of THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp) in this space many days ago, but other commitments got in the way of my blogging.

Let me just say in summary that I completely agree with Mills Kelly’s sense (echoed by Tom Scheinfeldt and Marjorie McLellan, among many others) that going to THATCamp made me yearn for a serious makeover of the standard professional conferences I’ve gone to my entire career, especially the annual conference of the American Historical Association. (The digital humanities are not immune, by the way: the panels-and-papers format has infected these meetings as well.) In my opinion, such conferences tend to focus too much on the job market, padding the CV, and showing how clever you are, rather than building the discipline collaboratively. THATCamp showed how informative, engaging, and constructive a conference can be when everyone participates, there are no lectures or read papers, the format is highly flexible, and everyone feels open to speak—including candidly about the gaps in one’s knowledge as well as what one feels knowledgeable about.

For those looking for a more comprehensive sense of what happened, check out the Google Blog Search feed for THATCamp posts or scan the raw feed of our IRC channel. And if you’re interested in the digital humanities, it’s really worth making your way through the entire THATCamp blog for ideas and perspectives from THATCampers on the state of the art and the issues we face.

Hope to see you at THATCamp 2009!

THATCamp 2008 Day 2

After an incredible first day (I’ll do a full roundup of THATCamp when I get the chance), I’m starting off the second day by attending a session on mashups in the humanities. Raymond Yee is giving a quick master class on the technology behind mashups, and a great discussion has quickly started.

THATCamp Begins

I’m at the Center for History and New Media this weekend for our first annual THATCamp: The Humanities and Technology Camp, a spontaneous, participant-generated 48 hours of collaborative advancement of the art of digital humanities. It has started off with a bang: almost 30 ad hoc sessions have been planned, ranging from search technologies to interface design to civic engagement.

Unfortunately we had enormous interest in THATCamp and had to limit the size of this year’s edition, but those who can’t be here can follow the proceedings live on Twitter (follow @thatcamp or my Twitter feed @dancohen), IRC (, port 7000, room thatcamp), or on Flickr (the THATCamp set).