Image credit: GHBrett’s “THATcamp”
I’m just unwinding from a full day at THATCamp 09 hosted by GMU’s CHNM, and I truly find it odd how much I have been mentally gushing about this event. In fact, it’s really not my style, I usually have some crack or other to make about a conference or event, but I’m coming up empty after THATCamp—what’s up with me? Am I getting soft? Has the edge dulled? Am I just a lackey for the man? Maybe, but I’ll let you be the judge of that. I guess why I’m riding so high on this event is that it was the first real unconference I ever attended that lived up to that term. It truly was “a participant-driven conference centered around a theme”—in this case digital history. The entire day was loosely focused on what this term—and its related practice, theory, methodology, community, etc.—might mean, if anything at all.
I won’t try a play-by-play because I’m exhausted and it might erroneously suggest I’ve actually digested even a fraction of what went on today. Rather, I’m going to say that from the very beginning of the event when Tom Schienfeldt laid out the ground rules (which were simple and effective: no presentations, no grandstanding, and no petty bullshit—my paraphrase) until the end of dinner over 10 hours later I was comfortable. Let me say that again, I was comfortable. It may not seem like much, but for me this is a rare occurrence at events like this. At a lion’s share of the conferences I attend I’m downright awkward, I feel oddly removed and out-of-place. But that was not the case at all with THATCamp, as soon as the first break-out session started—adroitly framed by the ever-capable Jeff McClurken around the topic of archiving social media—it seemed like the ground rules established were already in full effect and I could just kickback and talk about things related to specific topics within digital humanities as part of a larger, free-wheeling conversation. No full-featured presentations, no sense of the distinction between presenter and audience—simply a space to talk. A spontaneous seminar with protean possibilities and shifting topics every hour and half or so, but framed by the over-arching question of what is this digital humanities we speak of.
It was liberating. No laboring through 60 minute presentations, and no shamefully tip-toeing out to have a smoke. It left me both relaxed and as intellectually engaged as I’ve been in a long time. I was digging on what others had to say, and was excited to throw out an idea here or there and then sink back into a form of thoughtful listening and imagining as the conversation unrolled in real time all around me amongst embodied people in true proximity—which is both welcome and wild. It was exciting to think hard for short, intense, and focused periods of time about anything from the nature of power to the self-propelling logic of capital to the question of revolutionary rhetoric to the future design of academic publishing to the problematic hierarchies and divisions that stultify institutions of higher ed. I love this stuff, this is the conceptual manna that undergirds everything that is important about the field of edtech in my mind, and THATCamp not only provides the occasion for such intimate and convivial conversation, but somehow made it look easy—even natural. And let’s face it, naturalizing the process of engagement, excitement, and collegiality at an academic conference is no small feat—in fact it may be a miracle!
So, in short, kudos to the CHNM crew (Dan Cohen, Tom Schienfeldt, Jeremy Boggs, Dave Lester and anyone else I am neglecting) for providing an occasion that’s
cheap free, open, friendly, and deeply thoughtful.