THATCamp SoCal — The crafts 5

Apologies to all for not writing this up sooner. This will be one of a few posts.

I went to THATCampSoCal!. Through a series of financial and friend-of-friend-related reasons, I also ended up staying with the organizer, Jana Remy. This gave me an interesting perspective on what it takes to host a THATCamp, and probably more than anything else increased my desire to do so sometime in the not-too-distant future. (And now, clearly, my allotment of hyphens for this post has been used up.)


For those who don’t know, THATCamp is an unconference. This format did not make a lot of sense to me at first, even all the way through the first THATCamp I went to, but someone (sorry, I do not recall who) explained it to me at this THATCamp as “You know when you go to a conference, and the Q & A after the panel leads to really exciting conversation in the hallway that really starts going somewhere just when you have to leave and go to the next panel? This is an attempt to organize an event just around those conversations.” This was the best explanation I’ve ever heard, and explains pretty thoroughly both what I like and don’t like about the format! Fortunately, what I don’t like is easily enough addressed by continuing to go also to traditional conferences. Some of the greatest ideas I’ve ever had, and some of the best work I’ve ever done has been inspired by sitting and listening to papers. I hear lots of people talk about “sitting and listening to papers” as if it is the 8th circle of hell for them–but I enjoy it. A lot! I think it’s an incredibly useful way to find out what people are doing and to get inspired to do things myself. However, this is not that. Or rather THAT is not that!

This THATCamp

Every THATCamp (really, like every conference!) is different. However, the thing that contributed more than anything else to the uniqueness of this THATCamp was the craft table. Craft table?? Penny Richards organized a craft table in the main room of the conference. She has written up her experience of it here, but I would like to expand a little on the comment I made to that post.

  1. First, one of the chief complaints I ever hear (or make!) about THATCamp is that it’s disorienting. Too much at once! Too many things going on! The spontaneity is both exhilarating (that’s the good) but also very easily overwhelming. I think this is related to the unconference vibe–because the sessions are not structured around, say, one person’s work, they lend themselves very well to drawing huge connections between widely and wildly disparate topics, ideas, texts, disciplines. This can leave one feeling as if one doesn’t know anything because one doesn’t know everything. (Never mind that no one in the room knows everything; it always seems like they do!). No matter how much we (academics, technologists, museum workers, and the other participants) sometimes feel ourselves to be creatures entirely of the brain–having a place to engage the body was just wonderful. The feeling of taking time out from THATCamp without actually leaving, or even without really tuning out, was lovely. Of course, if that were only it, a yoga room would have worked just as well!
  2. A chief reason why the craft table was so much better than a yoga room was in its relevance. Penny didn’t just bring “stuff.” A craft table… we could have been tie-dying, making bracelets, or making candles (the chief things I did in my years at summer camp…). Instead, she brought things entirely relevant to what we do–mostly collaging supplies. And not just any collaging supplies! She brought old, decommissioned card catalog cards, recycled miscellany (primarily cereal boxes) and a collection of photographs printed from Flickr Commons. Already, before anyone sat down, Penny’s table was a commentary on open access, bricolage, and the temporal boundedness of classificatory and cataloging systems. That’s quite a lot for one craft table! And the conversations bore that out. During the time that THATCamp was in session, a series of conversations (perhaps epitomized by this post, perhaps not) about the meaning of “building” in digital humanities was raging. I found the process of collaging (a form of art that, I think, has long since established itself as a form of art “creation,” which I’d submit as the art-equivalent of “building”) with physical objects to be a useful thought exercise in the meaning of building or creating. On the one hand, I didn’t “make” anything at that table. On the other hand, I made a name tag, a wall hanging, a button, and an inspirational bidirectional pocketfish! All of it was “just” putting pre-existing things together–“just” cutting and pasting–“just” arranging in space. And yet, it doesn’t feel like there was any “just” about it. I’m not really coming down with a clear stance on what is and what is not “building” in digital humanities, but I do know that if I ever do take a stand on that issue, it will be strongly influenced by my experience at that craft table.

In case you’re curious, here is the inspirational bidirectional pocketfish. I only have a picture of it in a unidirectional fashion right now…