Towards A Hi-Tech University?: Recapping THATCamp New England 2014

As I wandered over to Boston University to my first THATCamp I wondered if I had made a terrible mistake. I was two hours late and had somehow mislabeled both the date and location of the event in my calendar. I’m also by no means a technology guru. Sure, I can deftly navigate social media and get excited about Apple’s software announcements, but I don’t know how to program or repair computers. I had heard a great deal about the positives of THATCamp over the years from fellow Brandeis graduate students – and technology hucksters – Lincoln Mullin and Shane Landrum. Yet, when I looked at the schedule chock full of unfamiliar acronyms (D3.JS anyone?) and struggled to get online access through Boston University’s guest network, I thought it would be a long couple of days.

Upon meeting the other participants in THATCamp however, my concerns were almost immediately dispelled. Everyone was welcoming and friendly. They were genuinely interested in my research – however technologically unsophisticated – and displayed a wide range of technological proficiency. THATCamp’s openness is not only due to its participants character, but also the “unconference” format. Unlike formal conferences, which rely on calls for papers to form a schedule of panels, THATCamp organizes its schedule the day of the conference. Individuals with expertise in a certain area or with a certain tool are encouraged to lead workshops, but everyone is free to contribute workshops or discussions on topics of interest or concern. I think this format encourages innovation and contributions by younger scholars. There were workshops and discussions led by undergraduates. There were workshops on new digital humanities tools like Omeka and D3.JS led by non-experts on the technology. While this sometimes resulted in a blind-leading-the-blind dynamic, it also fostered a community feel and encouraged cooperative problem solving.

THATCamp was also heartening because it facilitated frank conversation about problems of accessibility and employment. I was surprised to find many of the difficulties and frustrations I had about archive accessibility were shared by archivists and librarians. I quickly realized my surprise resulted from an unfamiliarity with prevailing wisdom outside my own field. I had simply never discussed copyright and permissions with the library sciences community. I hope conversations begun at THATCamp between historians, librarians, and archivists will continue as more collections are digitized. Employment was another topic on everyone’s mind. At a lively discussion session on MOOCs, concerns about online courses’ impact on an already depressed academic job market were openly debated. It became evident that different types of schools (private universities, tuition-dependent colleges, and large state universities) were interested in MOOCs for different reasons. Whereas private universities largely promoted MOOCs as a public relations tool to provide a platform to showcase their most prestigious faculty, large public institutions viewed MOOCs as a way of increasing the student body without having to provide costly boarding, eating, and learning facilities. No consensus emerged about MOOCs impact on academic jobs, though few saw a large-scale MOOC increase as a boon to the academic job market.

More than anything else, I saw at THATCamp an antidote to the rationalization of the university. I witnessed first hand interdisciplinarity’s benefits and saw how different academic perspectives – united by a common interest in technology – could come together to form a cohesive university community. I also saw how my training as a historian blinded me to solutions to certain problems. I have long been frustrated by the slow pace of archive digitization. I assumed that the slow pace was due to copyright restrictions combined with concerns about the long-term viability of corporeal archives in a digital world. Instead, by talking with archivists I learned that manpower and metadata are the two major hindrances to archive digitization. Scanning and properly tagging documents takes time and sloppy tagging could leave documents untraceable or make them uncitable. Similarly, digital humanists wholehearted embrace of technology and large digital projects forced me to reflect (yet again) on historians’ fusty obsession with monograph dissertations and book publishing in a world of big data and data visualization. Book publishing is a contracting industry. Furthermore, technology presents historians with so many other research and publishing mediums. Some universities have begun to allow digital stand-ins for dissertation chapters, but not many.

In all, THATCamp New England was a thrilling and eye-opening experience. Not only did I meet a bunch of fantastic people and learn about some cool tech, but I think I also glimpsed a possible future path for the university. The university – and the humanities in particular – have often been entranced by nostalgia for a better time when their model was paramount and scholars operated in a kind of bubble protected by iron gates and tenured positions. We don’t live in that world anymore. Our model is no longer innovative or desirable. That does not mean we have to give in to economic adjunctification and popular irrelevance however. Using a model cribbed from the tech industry emphasizing openness, collaboration, and leveraging in-demand skills, the humanities can not only be salvaged but can thrive. We just have to be willing to take the leap.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *