What I Learned at Digital Summer Camp

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Adventures at an academic conference, or, rather, unconference -- a freewheeling, do-it-yourselves, and inspirational model

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Academic conferences and business conferences are among the more predictable things in the modern world, which is why some people like them so much. It is also why some people despise them. Academics stand up and read papers to other academics who in turn, during the succeeding Q&A session, raise their hands and say, "This is really more of a comment than a question ..." At business conferences people talk their way through bullet points that the audience can already see on the screen. I exaggerate, of course. (Not so much, though.) By contrast, at the unconference I just attended, The Humanities and Technology Camp or THATCamp, nobody really knows what's going to happen, and that is just the point.

An unconference is "un" for this very reason: the organizers create a minimal structure, and once the participants arrive they figure out what they want to learn, what they're able to teach, and what they're interested in talking about. For those who crave predictability, it can be an uncomfortable scene, but for those who are willing to take some risks with their time, it can be immensely rewarding, though you never know in advance what the rewards will be.

On the first day of most THATCamps (I attended the most recent but THATCamps have sprung up on a couple of campuses over the past few years) people with expertise in some area of digital humanities offer workshops at which others can learn some tricks of the trade. As this is going on, participants are posting to a blog their proposals for sessions to be held the next day. Sometimes they do this because they want to teach something, though more often because they want to learn something. Early on the second morning people vote for the sessions they want: In the one I attended, at George Mason University's Center for History and New Media (CHNM), which is where THATCamp was invented, we did this by sticking little adhesive stars on proposals taped to a wall. Votes are counted, and the most desired sessions get selected. Some horse-trading then ensues among people who want to change their session time. ("I have to leave before then.") Eventually it all gets sorted out, and the campers happily traipse off to the sessions that have caught their eye.

Some people wear shorts and t-shirts, some favor business casual. Some are students, some are librarians, some are professors, some are IT people. But the whole scene has a delightfully Woodstocky anarcho-syndicalist feel. Participants are encouraged to leave sessions that don't turn out to be helpful and drop in on others. So they circulate. Moreover, the standard model shared by academic and business conferences -- in which people who are thought to possess authoritative knowledge speak to people to are thought to know less -- just doesn't happen at THATCamp. Egos are suppressed almost to a fault: No one wants to sound like a know-it-all because that's so alien to the ethos of the unconference. The first purpose of THATCamp is to get people who want to know stuff in the same room with people who do know stuff and give them the opportunity. The second purpose of THATCamp is to use social media, primarily, to enable people to share with one another and with the rest of the world what they learn.

I couldn't attend all the sessions I wanted to attend, but when I left my computer was full of links, bookmarks, and notes, and my head was buzzing with ideas. Moreover, when it comes time for me to put some of these idea into practice, I now know people who'll help me when I get stuck and point me to other resources. That's pretty exciting.

Many businesses, educational institutions, non-profit organizations, and maybe even government agencies could learn a few lessons from THATCamp. Not many institutional cultures support the THATCamp environmental style, which seems to have arisen largely from the humility and generosity of Roy Rosenzweig, who founded the CHNM in 1994, and his successor Dan Cohen, but institutions can change. I've already noted the key THATCamp features, but to sum up, here's what to do:

  • Create an environment with a fundamentally democratic ethos, so that no one expects all the authority and energy to come from the front of the room;
  • Encourage people to attend your event who genuinely want to learn, and aren't too rigid in their expectations about what they think is worth knowing;
  • Encourage people to attend your event who enjoy sharing what they know and don't worry too much about what they get in return;
  • Create simple organizational structures that let those people find one another;
  • Provide, or just point to, the digital tools that allow people to share what they learn as widely as possible;
  • Be willing to experiment constantly to find out what strategies, what methods, and what tools best promote the goals of learning and sharing.

THATCamp is a rare beast. It shouldn't be. The world needs more places like it. As the website indicates, there are a number of THATCamps around the country. If you have even the remotest interest in how the humanities connect, or in some cases fail to connect, with recent digital technologies, you should think about attending one. You'll not just learn something, you'll get some practice in new ways of learning.

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Alan Jacobs is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the honors program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

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