Monthly Archives: February 2020


In 2013 I was nearing the end of my PhD coursework and feeling truly despondent about the specter of writing a proposal for my dissertation. Nothing in the field seemed to be the right combo of interesting, feasible, and novel. I was supposed to be itching to read more, and build a research plan around some new and exciting thing in seventeenth-century Dutch art history, but I was spinning my wheels. With a little nudge from my department chair, and the leaders of the Michelle Smith Collaboratory in UMD’s department of Art History & Archaeology, I went to THATCamp Prime at GMU.

I didn’t put the pieces together until now, but THATCamp Prime 2013 was one of my first academic gatherings. I wouldn’t present at my first “big boy” conference (SCSC 2013) until later that year. And I am convinced it colored my impression of every “traditional” conference since, even though it was the only THATCamp I ever attended. I didn’t learn entirely new skills or have a singular ‘a-ha’ moment that weekend in Fairfax – that would only come through much more elbow grease, privilege, and good fortune from my academic community at UMD. But what I did get was the sheer sense of energy and relevancy I could find nowhere else in my home field, and so much of it pointed at the digital systems that I gradually came to realize underpinned absolutely everything about how we performed art history in the 21st century. THATCamp made upending these systems seem possible to me, for the first time ever.

In orbital mechanics, it is generally least expensive to try and change the plane of your elliptical orbit when you are at the apogee, the point farthest from the mass you’re orbiting, when your velocity is slowest, and thus your application of energy the most efficient. 2013 was an apogee in my graduate career: my intellectual velocity had slowed to a crawl, I felt more distant than ever from the cares of both academic art history, as well as the museum curatorial world that was my original end goal of trying to get a PhD in the first place. THATCamp kicked me into an entirely different orbit. I’m still refining my relationship with art history, and even my relationship with digital humanities continues to evolve and mature. But it’s less and less been about giving that perfect 20 minute talk at RSA, or CAA, or even at the ADHO conference, and more and more about knitting together data, systems, and tools to help our community make sense of the cultural heritage that is our source of study.

Like Quinn and Trevor and others have noted in their retrospectives, THATCamp really only worked because it was coming at just the right time for the field, where it was good and useful for anything to seem possible, even if we didn’t know how yet. We know know that our future (if we’re to have it) will need to be more about moving slow and fixing things – doing the arduous work of “how”. THATCamp was our booster rocket, but now comes the much longer journey. So thank you, THATCamp, for being the kick I didn’t know I needed, at just the time that it could do the very most. You’re leaving us with so much more work to be done, but looking over these retrospectives, I’m reminded more than ever that this community is truly legion, and that it’s more than ready to get to work.

THATCamp through the years

In 2008 I was an office associate in the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, halfway through my Library Master’s, and attempting to build a “professional network” on Twitter (an effort hamstrung to this day by my inability to stay professional on Twitter). I saw an early tweet about the very first THATCamp and said something like “wish I could go to this” to which an organizer replied with an offer of a small scholarship to attend. It was enough for it to make financial sense, and off I went. At THATCamp I found people that were immediately accepting and encouraging, and who pushed everyone to think beyond labels and roles. I proposed and ran a couple of somewhat awkward sessions (since I had never been to an unconference before, I didn’t know quite what to plan for) that led to great discussions and helped me refocus my interests and aspirations.

I liked the first THATCamp so much I attended 2009 and 2010 at RRCHNM, and THATCamp Iowa City in 2012. Every event has been transformative for me: new people, new ideas, new methods, and few barriers to access. My Twitter “network” is filled with fellow attendees/participants – people I talk to, share ideas with, and gripe with near daily. I liked the format so much that I helped run an unconference as part of a local coding group.

It’s hard to overstate the effect THATCamp has had on my professional life. When I look back at twitter posts from that era, I cringe at my inexperience, but the fact that this community nonetheless accepted and encouraged me is humbling. Watching other participants I met as early career scholars and grad students flourish in their careers has been a joy, and has served as inspiration.

At the CDRH, I have since moved on from the office associate role through designer, designer/developer, and development team manager roles. Many of the lessons learned at THATCamp stay with me to this day, especially in the realm of managing projects: iteration; talking through ideas good and bad; and an atmosphere that treats everyone as worthy peers.

Karin at THATCamp Iowa City in 2012, photo taken by Laura Weakly.

We’ll Always Have THATCamp

Saying farewell to THATCamp is saying goodbye to an era. That era probably ended a few years ago, but it’s ethos and enthusiasm lives on in all of us campers.

I must admit, I never expected that THATCamp would become a thing when Dave and Jeremy imagined it in 2008.

It made sense that an idea like THATCamp originated at the Center Roy built. Like many Center projects, it started with a simple idea to address a real problem. The costs were low and the payout was huge. THATCamp democratized the DH conference by breaking it into an unconference designed for folks interested in solving problems, building some things, and working collaboratively with a schedule built on-the-fly. It certainly didn’t break academic structures, but TC’s created a space for trading in titles and hierarchy for a t-shirt and a bag lunch. Experimentation was encouraged. Content experts admitted they were tech novices. Attendees were encouraged to get up mid-session to try something else. The wifi wasn’t always strong, but it was always available.

I missed the first one, because I had something planned on that weekend– a wedding or some family gathering. When I returned to work that Monday, I heard how well it all went. The first one was a success, and then, it became a real thing.

Participating in, and later running, THATCamps built my confidence and helped me to feel comfortable teaching, demonstrating, and sharing my own technical and professional knowledge. I was a graduate student and a project manager who didn’t feel like I belonged in academia. I belonged at THATCamp. TCs were fun, and exhausting. I connected with future collaborators, learned to tinker with new things, and sometimes I sat and wrote Omeka documentation or Wikipedia entries.

THATCamp became a signature event, and later a major project for RRCHNM. It was an alt-conference organized by alt-acs and graduate students. We couldn’t afford to attend the expensive DH institutes or conferences in the summer, but we could host and run an unconference. And people kept coming & organizing.

I appreciated the optimism that everyone brought… before the exhaustion settled in.

Thanks, Amanda, Jeremy, Tom, Dan, and Dave. I will always look back fondly on the movement you created and fostered. It will remind me of good times with you & the RRCHNM family, and the greater community created.

We’ll always have 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 logo

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.

THATCamp gathering

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.”

Just (geo)Duckie

It was my Dad, George H. Brett II, who told me about THATCamp. He was my introduction to many DH things – html, the world wide web, twitter, and RRCHNM. I was working in public history, and after he attended a THATCamp in Fairfax he encouraged me to attend the next year.

I remember that as we were approaching THATCamp (2010?), he paused and asked, with some trepidation, if it was okay if people knew we were related; I think he knew I was a little nervous, and he was willing to back off, to give me space to be my own person. I think I laughed, and I definitely said I didn’t mind people knowing he was my Dad.

cORbie da Elder and the Duckie

My experience at my first THATCamp was that it created a space where emerging digital humanists – myself included – felt just as welcome and heard as “old farts” (his term) like my Dad. Everyone was welcome, there was little to no hierarchy, and in its place a space for collaboration and discovery. I was, and am, happy to be “George’s daughter” – and THATCamp was a place where I, very briefly, also got to be his colleague, a fellow-traveler in digital humanities computing, seeing him in a new light.

There’s a clear line from my first THATCamp to where I am now: Dad introduced me to THATCamp; THATCamp introduced me to RRCHNM and George Mason University; now I’m RRCHNM staff and a doctoral candidate at GMU. In addition, the people I met through THATCamp introduced me to an idea of digital humanities that is friendly, engaging, and collaborative. I was nervous that day because I wasn’t sure I “belonged;” what I found was a group of people who welcomed me and my experiences. Whether or not I found my feet as a digital humanist at THATCamp, it’s definitely where I started to be comfortable with describing myself as one.

Ten years later, Dad’s attendance at THATCamp is a gift. There are people I work with, both at RRCHNM and the broader DH community, who met my Dad at a THATCamp, who experienced his sometimes overwhelming enthusiasm, his deep knowledge of humanities computing, his generous spirit. It’s hard for me to articulate why this is so important – it’s more than just hearing someone say “he was very kind.” For me, THATCamp will always be tied to my memories of my father, and the possibilities he shared with me.

[As a side note, if you have memories of my Dad at THATCamp – silly, serious, or otherwise – I’d love to hear them. Find me on twitter: magpie.]

When anything was doable

THATCamp Chicago (with space invaders) + 10 years of wearing this shirt

My first THATCamp memory is the poster for THATCamp Chicago in 2010. I downloaded it immediately and set to work adding Space Invaders. I couldn’t resist.
That meeting, which brought in folks from all over the Midwest to experience the THATCamp phenomenon sweeping the east coast, came at a strange moment for me. Project Bamboo, the Mellon-funded DH cyber infrastructure initiative I’d been working on since 2008, had just been funded for its technical development phase. But instead of being excited, I bristled at the direction it was taking: big on the cyberinfrastructure, small on the things humanists had said they wanted during our planning phase.
I was 25. I lived in a city that was too cold in the winter and too steamy in the summer to lure me outside and away from my laptop. I was married to a PhD student but having kids was filed away under “long-term plans”. I was ready to take on the world and single-handedly do the things that my million-dollar cyberinfrastructure project had let drop, during my nights and weekends, because someone needed to do it.
If you had asked me then, I wouldn’t have seen a connection between the politics of the time and THATCamp  but looking back, it’s hard to miss. It was two years into Obama’s first term, and while the “hope and change” wasn’t necessarily working out as planned, the rhetoric of “yes, we can” still resonated. THATCamp was like that.
I met Ryan Cordell at THATCamp Chicago, and a session on DH directories was the genesis of DHCommons, our answer to the need for a collaborator / project matching portal. I made a mostly-functional version that night, showing up the next morning with a prototype in hand.
Before long, we’d written an MOU with centerNet (drafted with help from such Google searches as “organization MOU example”), we were planning a pre-convention workshop for MLA 2012, we were pitching DHCommons to scholars at small liberal arts colleges as a “virtual DH center” at THATCamp LAC that Ryan hosted at St. Norbert’s College in the summer of 2011. MLA 2012 was the year that DH Twitter went wild over #mlatshirts. One of the ones I had printed — and actually wore — to the conference read “I’d rather be THATCamping.” THATCamp felt magical, a space where anything could be doable if we worked together.
DHCommons didn’t live up to my dreams. Neither did hope and change. The heady “yes, we can” was dampened by “no, we shouldn’t”. Today, we think more about how few of the things dear to us we can save, and less about what we can just make! Tonight! Sustainability actually won’t work itself out. Volunteers get burned out. Magic doesn’t scale.
I still have that “I’d rather be THATCamping” shirt. I live in California now, with three kids 6-and-under, and I wear as a layer under one of the colorful hoodies I’ve sewn myself. It’s what passes for winter wear around here. The phenomenon that was THATCamp is hard to explain — any attempt that comes to mind sounds kind of silly now. Even the idea of being able to go spend a whole weekend off somewhere just spinning up new projects with like-minded grownups feels more like a fairytale than something I used to do. But every time I grab that shirt from my drawer, a flash of memory takes me back to a time when it was revolutionary and empowering and intoxicating to be there — a Slavic PhD drop-out, now an anonymous face of Central IT at work — building the future together. We didn’t have the words then, but anticipating Hamilton, “Look around, look around, at how lucky we are to be alive right now.” It makes me smile for a moment. Then I grab a sweatshirt and head out to face 2020.

Playing at Academia

When I attended THATCamp in 2010, I had just defended my dissertation, and I was trying to figure out who I was supposed to be now that I had supposedly grown up. Looking back at my session proposal that year, my post is full of earnestness, citations, and uncertainty—I proposed “Remixing Academia” but it is painfully obvious that I had no idea yet what that meant. I wasn’t even sure what the “digital humanities” meant, or if there was space for me in it. Exhausted from dissertation-writing and dubious about the future, I almost skipped THATCamp that year.

Writing this nearly a decade later, I realize how lucky I was in that moment. I had a job lined up: a visiting position, at the same university where I’d finished my not-a-PhD, which meant an easy teaching transition and the comfort of a stable salary for a year of applying to tenure track positions. A graduate today is unlikely to be anywhere near as comfortable, and it was in part thanks to that comfort that I could be in the state of existential anxiety, equally terrified about not being taken seriously and, perhaps worse, needing to be serious.

THATCamp provided something I didn’t know I needed: many, many models of how to be an academic, and space to play at academia. THATCamps, and the community I found and followed on Twitter, showed me that one could be an academic and have a Twitter account akin to performance art ala Mark Sample. It brought me to ProfHacker, and the spirit of sharing and collaboration driving that project, which in turn transformed my own approach to the classroom. While academic conferences showed me what I might strive for in my work, I credit THATCamp with the values I have as an academic today: a decade later, directing a PhD program in Texts & Technology, when I once questions whether I even belonged in the “digital humanities” at all.

I realized today as I was gathering thoughts to write this post that I have very few pictures of THATCamps. I have memories: sitting in conference rooms with fellow humanists making strange video games; exchanging Twitter handles with people who would later become the writers of foundational texts in courses I’d not yet imagined teaching; gathering outside and in random spots with others interested in topics—including games—that hadn’t quite made the cut for formal sessions. I’m honestly not even sure the phone I had at the time had much of a camera, and if it did, the badly-framed, low-resolution shots I no doubt took are lost to me.

With that said, I do have an image I can recall of a group of lunch compatriots gathering at THATCamp CHNM to discuss games. I feel like we sat outside, on the steps, but that might be my brain trying to make us cinematic in retrospect. The energy and enthusiasm of our group was compelling—this was years before GamerGate, years before the moments that would make it difficult for me to find any enthusiasm for games in the mainstream—and we were all envisioning how play might transform our fields.

We should have a THATCamp just about games, someone said.

Yes, we should.

And thus, Amanda Visconti and I became THATCamp organizers.

My “official” THATCamp attendance record lists 9 camps, but that’s in part because the two THATCamps that stand out most in my memory—the first and second iteration of THATCamp Games—were hosted outside the main platform, on my own server, where they still live on (for now). THATCamp Games is also the source of my favorite THATCamp photo:

THATCamp Games was an idea that shouldn’t have worked. I was a relatively new professor, two years out of graduate school and working at a small campus, primarily teaching programming and feeling more distant from the humanities with every passing semester. Amanda Visconti was then a graduate student working on an amazingly experimental dissertation, and her role at MITH and the support of our mentor Matt Kirschenbaum made it possible to float the idea of hosting an unconference.

Neither one of us had ever hosted anything before, but we were determined. Some of our decisions were questionable (Maryland in January, anyone?), and a few campers never arrived due to snow. But the rest of us played, and made, thanks to a day of workshops focusing on inclusive tools for design that offer a snapshot of a moment before Chris Klimas (in attendance at the camp) released a version of Twine that would capture the imagination of game artists around the world. It feels self-serving to wax nostalgic about that weekend, so I’ll leave my reminiscing there and say only that together, we were academics at play, and I at least believed then that our play could revitalize the universities and other institutions we would return to.

THATCamp Games had a few sequels, including the amazing “II” event hosted by Lee Zickel at Case Western, and a more low-key attempt by me to bring unconference collaboration to the NASAGA (North American Simulation and Games Association) conference when I hosted it in Baltimore. That was also the first THATCamp where I noticed the shift in the culture, a shift that would become more apparent as I started attending THATCamps in Florida – far from CHNM, with their own DH cultures and communities, and where the newcomer approach was still working.

It was at these later THATCamps that I noticed the diminished connections: the hashtag was slowly abandoned, and the sense of a larger THATCamp community was lost. For me, it was impossible to recapture the enthusiasm and optimism of my earlier THATCamp experiences: it’s not THATCamp that changed, really, but we did. Many tried to reimagine a THATCamp for us jaded veterans: I was honored to be part of the THATCamp Council and briefly play a role in supporting the community and trying to imagine that future. However, I’m not surprised to be writing this now, watching the last reminiscing of fellow THATCamp-ers realizing how much has changed for all of us in over a decade. What we need next is uncertain: stronger online communities, perhaps; ways to address our role as tech-focused humanists in climate change; and broader conversations about a frightening future for our universities. I hope whatever we build to face these next challenges has moments as playful, unruly, and un-disciplined as our THATCamp days.

THATCamp Reflections

THATCamp 2008 Badges

My path to the inaugural THATCamp started at the Society of American Archivist’s 2006 annual meeting in DC. I was a local grad student presenting my first poster: Communicating Context in Online Collections – and handing out home-printed cards for my blog. When I ran out, I just wrote the URL on scraps of paper. I found my way to session 510: Archives Seminar: Possibilities and Problems of Digital History and Digital Collections, featuring Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, described in the SAA program as follows:

The co-authors of Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web lead a discussion of their book and, in particular, the possibilities of digital history and of collecting the past online. The discussion includes reflections on the September 11 Digital Archive and the new Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, which collects stories, images, and other digital material related to hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma.

The full hour and twenty-four minutes audio recording is available online if you want to dive down that particular rabbit hole.

2006 was early in the “archives blogging” landscape. It was the era of finding and following like-minded colleagues. RSS and feed readers! People had conversations in the comments. 2006 was the year I launched my blog. My post about Dan & Roy’s session was only the 9th post on my site. I was employed full time doing Oracle database work at Discovery and working towards my MLS in the University of Maryland’s CLIS (now iSchool) program part-time. So I added Dan’s blog to the list of the blogs I read. When Dan invited people to come to THATCamp in January of 2008 and I realized it was local – I signed up. You can see my nametag in the “stack of badges” photo above. For a taste of my experiences that day, take a look at my 2008 THATCamp blog posts.

In 2008, the opportunity to sit in a room of people who were interested in the overlap of technology and humanities was exciting. As a part-time graduate student (and wife and mother of a 6-year-old), I spent almost no time on campus. I did most of my thinking about archives and technology at home late at night in the glow of my computer screen. There was not a lot of emphasis on the digital in my MLS program at UMD. I had to find that outside the classroom.

The connections I made at that first THATCamp extend to today. As mentioned elsewhere, I was part of the group who put together the first regional THATCamp in Austin as a one-evening side-event for the Society of American Archivists Annual Meeting in 2009. I swear that Ben Brumfield and I were just going to meet for dinner while I was in Austin, where he lives, for SAA. Somehow that turned into “Why not throw a THATCamp?”. How great to have no idea of the scale of what we were taking on! Ben did an amazing job of documenting what we learned and tips for future organizers, including giving yourself more time to plan, reaching out to as diverse a group as possible, and planning an event that lasted longer than four hours. All that said, it was a glorious and crazy evening. I still have my t-shirt. While our discussions might have been more archives-skewed than at most THATCamps, it also gave lots of archivists a taste of what THATCamp and un-conferences were like. Looking through the posts on the THATCamp Austin website, there was clearly an appetite for the event. We could easily have had enough topics to discuss to fill a weekend – but only had time for two one hour session slots, plus a speed round of “dork shorts” lightning talks.

I know I went to other THATCamps along the way. I graduated with my MLS in 2009. I started an actual day-job as an archivist in July of 2011 at the World Bank. Suddenly I got paid to think about archives all day – and I didn’t need my blog in the way I used to. I started writing more fiction and attending conferences dedicated to digital preservation. Somewhere in there, I went to the 2012 THATCamp Games at UMD.

THATCamps brought together enthusiastic people from so many different types of digital and humanities practice — all with their own perspectives and their own problems to solve. We don’t get many opportunities to cross-pollinate among those from academia and the public and private sectors. Those early conversations were my first steps towards ideas about how archivists might collaborate with professionals from other communities on digital challenges and innovations. In fact, I can see threads stretching from the very first THATCamp all the way to my Partners for Preservation book project.

Thanks, THATCamp community.

Bliss was it in that dawn

Me in a THATCamp 2009 t-shirt

When I think of the THATCamp era, 2008-2014, I think of the Wordsworth lines from The Prelude: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive / But to be young was very heaven” (see at Hathitrust). Wordsworth was writing about the French Revolution, which started out so promisingly: his initial passionate enthusiasm for it, and indeed for transformative social reform generally, an enthusiasm that later turned to disillusionment and disaffection as the Revolution turned into a bloodbath.

THATCamp was just part of a kind of general tech optimism that had its peak in the mid- to late 2000s, back when “Web 2.0” signaled forward thinking. I was certainly part of that tech optimism: what was appealing about it was not so much anything about actual technology but about the social reforms that seemed to come along with it – the increased egalitarianism, especially. Disintermediation. The Wiki Way. As a recent Wired magazine article about Wikipedia puts it, “Not too long ago, techno-utopianism was the ambient vibe of the elite ideas industry; now it has become the ethos that dare not speak its name. Hardly anyone can talk abstractly about freedom and connection and collaboration, the blithe watchwords of the mid-2000s, without making a mental list of the internet’s more concrete negative externalities.” Or as Trevor Owens just put it in his piece “Growing Up with THATCamp,” “It also feels like we’ve lost a lot of the optimism that surrounded those events, I think in part as it feels like the community became more aware and engaged with how problematic the values at play in digital technology ideologies are” — that very much nails part of my own attitude these days.

Yet THATCamp never did have a major fall from grace, and I still believe strongly that THATCamp was (and is!) a lot better than traditional conferences at things like de-emphasizing hierarchies, and that a lot of people learned a lot, a lot! And had fun. Like Wikipedia, I think THATCamp has managed to retain the values and methods of its inception, although perhaps that’s because the project has been quiet for the last six years, though by no means moribund.

So, how to sum up? Well, I’ll do my best. First, I’ll quickly repeat a few statistics that I’ve shared elsewhere:

  • There have been over 320 THATCamps since the first one took place in 2008, and nearly half of those were organized after the project’s grant funding ended in 2014. Hooray for sustainability! Costs for that post-2014 period, not inconsiderable, were chiefly for website hosting and systems administration, which were borne by RRCHNM. I myself did some volunteer work fixing bugs and user accounts and so on, but I swear I never spent more than a few hours per month on that.
  • There are at least 8,000 people who have been to a THATCamp. Hooray for broad impact!
  • Of the 1145 people who’ve filled out an evaluation form, over 95% of them agreed or strongly agreed that they found their THATCamp useful. I find that especially telling since all the THATCamps have different organizers and different content — surely, therefore, there’s something about the method or format that’s producing all that usefulness (cough, peer-to-peer learning).

THATCamp evaluations chart

Going beyond the numbers, I’ll say that I think the chief contribution of THATCamp was (as I’ve said above) that it really helped a lot of people learn a lot. Or rather, learn a little, through workshops, discussions, and perhaps above all the Dork Shorts, and then feel emboldened and motivated to learn more. This, I might add, was perhaps not its original purpose: I think THATCamp did begin as a place for “experts” to get together and build things, but it became much more friendly to the “yak” side of “More hack, less yak,” and much more friendly to what I always termed “the digicurious,” and that was partly by design.

I’m also very glad we encouraged so many workshops at THATCamps, because I had a great time teaching those (especially Omeka workshops) and a great time attending them. I especially liked when people put together workshops on the fly, when it became clear that someone could teach something that others were keen to learn — that happened relatively often, but the two I remember are when Jason Puckett offered to teach Zotero down at one of the THATCamp Southeasts (I think) and when someone offered to do a demo of the new features of HTML 5 in some hotel lobby somewhere. It was all very “Hey, my dad’s got a barn / I have some knowledge — let’s put on a show / have an impromptu lesson!” I also loved going to Tom Scheinfeldt’s project management workshops, which I did at least a couple of times. I also remember teaching a workshop on regular expressions and having someone ask me “So, what would you use this for?” That was a tough one, because if you’re working with code or with text as data, good heavens, what DON’T you use regex for? But not everyone does! (I never taught regex again, but Ben Brumfield did, several times.) I remember learning R (well, “learning” R) from Lincoln Mullen at THATCamp AAR (American Academy of Religion); I remember learning about using Layar for augmented reality at THATCamp Museum Computer Network from Markus Wust, and I remember NOT getting to learn about Google Fusion Tables from Mano Marks at THATCamp Prime 2011 because I was busy running around organizing everything and couldn’t go to the workshop. I remember having a working session with Nancy Ross at THATCamp College Art Association where we drafted an intro to Art History textbook right there in the room; I remember Michael Mandiberg, he who would later print out all of Wikipedia as an art project, helping run a Wikipedia editathon; I remember proposing a weird meditative session at THATCamp Virginia where Brandon Walsh and others where we sat around and listened to Listen to Wikipedia while free-writing.

I remember the people. Thanks to all of you for a great four years and beyond.





A Career Forged in THATCamps

I began by just trying to figure out how many THATCamps I attended.  I knew that I went to the original one at CHNM in 2008, presenting on a class that I had just finished teaching for the first time, and undergraduate Digital History course.

Then I realized that I actually had a section on my c.v. at one point that actually stated “THATCamp Sessions and Workshops”

So, something like 17 THATCamps in 11 years. [I may have missed some.]  I was a THATCamp devotee.  I felt from the beginning that I had found my people, at least some of them.  A significant percentage of my Twitter follows (and followers) came from these sessions.  The people that I met have become colleagues, collaborators, partners in digital pedagogy and work.  I have no doubt that I have been published, have been offered leadership positions, have received grants, have even been a finalist for jobs because of the community and what I learned and what I discovered among and in the THATCamp communities that sprung up around and between the various THATCamps I attended.

Perhaps not surprisingly though, my own experience at THATCamp changed over the years as increasingly my role was not to learn new things, but to teach others new things. Or to teach things I had already learned or at least could speak about from the increasing age and experience (if not wisdom) of a tenured faculty position.  [To be clear, there was (is) still so much for me to learn in DH, but by 2011 I was going to THATCamps as an organizer, as a workshop leader, as a DH-friendly department chair and explainer-of-how-to-get-tenure-promotion-while-doing-DH and not typically to learn new things myself.] Given that almost every time, most of the people who attended THATCamps were new to THATCamp and to DH more generally, so fulfilling those roles with a number of like-minded THATCamp true believers made sense. There were (and still are) people who want and need a low-key, friendly environment in which to learn about DH for teaching, for research, for themselves.  THATCamp’s role always worked best (in my observations) as an introduction.

And I think that’s part of why it has run its course.  [That and the fact that there wasn’t funding underwriting the coordination of it anymore.]  There wasn’t a clear next step for THATCamp to play in people’s own DH development.  THATCamp 2.0, THATCamp at the next level, THATCamp for Advanced Users never took off (for a variety of reasons both philosophical and practical).   Other options have emerged for people who wanted more than the introduction, who wanted to know what was next.

But I will always cherish the connections we made, the work we did, the fun we had, and will always be grateful for the home, the foundation, the scaffolding, THATCamp provided me over the last 12 years.


I Am Here to Have Fun!

Sometime toward the end of 2010, the organizers of ThatCamp Lausanne asked me to come and give a keynote to get the event started on the right foot. ThatCamp in Switzerland? Um, sure. I can definitely make it.

Off I went with some appropriately vague ideas of what I would say in my keynote. It was a ThatCamp after all, so too much preparation felt like I would be doing it wrong. And then I arrived at the University of Lausanne auditorium and there were lots and lots of people there — maybe half graduate students — and they were all looking so serious, like they expected ThatCamp to be serious business.

Being me, I threw out my initial remarks and told everyone to stand up. Out of 200 or so people there, I think about 20 stood up — almost all of them graduate students (or very young faculty). The rest just looked at me like I was insane. So being me, I insisted. “I’m standing, so you need to stand up too.” With a fair amount of grumbling and eye rolling, everyone else stood up. Or almost everyone. Then I made them take what I called the “ThatCamp Pledge.”

Repeat after me, “I am here to have fun.” Their first response was really, really weak. So, I made them all do it again. “Louder, please.” The second rendition was much more satisfying. And it tickled me to see that many of the younger people in the room were smirking at the discomfort of some of their older colleagues (people my age).

Having forcibly extracted my pledge, I then invited them all to sit back down and went on with whatever it was that I’d prepared to say. At which point we came up with topics of the event in good ThatCamp style, and started moving on to our respective rooms.

If you were there, you may remember the “Occupy Mills” movement that occurred when Mareike König and Eva Pflanzeter came in and “occupied” my session on graduate students and DH — as they should have done. It was truly a perfect ThatCamp moment — an unconference schedule being subverted in the middle of its unscheduledness.

Toward the end of the first day, one of the older scholars taking part came up to me and said, “I am having fun now!” And he was. He had a big smile on his face and was hustling off to another unstructured event…far from his comfort zone. I’ve often wondered if that moment of fun carried over into the rest of his professorish life?

My last ThatCamp was ThatCamp Digital Appalachia. I was at the very beginning of my new project on the history of the Appalachian Trail and right away I made a number of new professional connections that have helped sustain me over the past five years. That day I was just a participant, not a speaker, and even though there were only a few dozen of us in attendance, our time together was just like all ThatCamps — exciting, generative, collaborative, and, of course, fun.

THATCamp and Digital Art History

We at the Samuel H.  Kress Foundation are proud to have been among the early philanthropic sponsors of THATCamps. Our key interest was in jump-starting the evolution of digital art history. In retrospect it is abundantly clear that supporting a series of THATCamps for art historians – including THATCamps held in conjunction with the annual meeting of the College Art Association – was the best way of encouraging that development. If digital art history has reached a significant state of maturity in the short span of the past decade, THATCamp is to a significant degree responsible for that success. Thank you, THATCamp!

Reflections on THATCamp, the Franchise

I don’t remember how I first learned about THATCamp – perhaps it was from the HNN website, or perhaps it was from Twitter. I’m pretty sure the inaugural one passed me by entirely unnoticed. But when the call for participation came out for the second THATCamp in 2009 I was very eager to participate. I was at a crossroads in my own work and had decided that digital work was the direction I wanted to go. THATCamp seemed like the ideal place to discover the cutting edge work in the field. So I applied. And I was rejected. There were too many applicants for the room available. I felt terrible.

Ironically, my rejection from THATCamp 2009 meant that I was more or less present at the dawning of the “franchising” of the THATCamp brand. (A second irony is that, since I could not go to THATCamp, I decided to spend the money to go to DH2009, where I met a number of people I have come to associate with the THATCamp community.) I quickly learned from Twitter that I was not alone in being rejected. (Indeed, my personal experience of THATCamp is closely connected to my early experience of Twitter and evokes many of the same feelings today.) I recognized several despondent Twitterers as being located fairly close to me. Discussion online quickly shifted from “Oh, gee, why didn’t they want me?” to “you know, we could organize something like that ourselves.” And then Ben Brumfield, Lisa Grimm, Peter Keane, and Jeanne Kramer-Smyth did just that – organizing a THATCamp to be held in conjunction with the Annual Meeting of the Society of American Archivists held in Austin just a few months after THATCamp 2009. The organizers of THATCamp Austin helpfully produced a written template for organizing a meeting on the cheap. I had already been in contact with some of the people I had encountered on Twitter about holding a similar gathering at Richard Stockton College. Now, it made sense to align it explicitly with THATCamp.

There were a handful of regional THATCamps between Austin and THATCamp “Prime” 2010. And then came the deluge. I applied for THATCamp 2010 with the explicit idea of learning “how to THATCamp” and being part of that deluge (I was reluctant to try organizing a THATCamp without ever having attended one!) in addition to learning DH. This time I was accepted. My timing could not have been better. The RRCHNM had decided to actively support the development of regional THATCamps and had received a small subsidy to encourage first time participants to attend regional camps and to support Amanda French as a coordinator of THATCamp planning (Thanks, Amanda!).

By the time THATCamp Jersey Shore took place in April, 2011, it was already the 23rd regional camp. Two more followed the next week. But THATCamp Jersey Shore was the first to be held in the Northeast of the US. It was attended by organizers of subsequent THATCamps in Philly and for Community Colleges, among others. For me, the years 2011 and 2012 were the moment of my most intensive involvement in THATCamp. The experience was new enough that it was worthwhile for me to go up to Poughkeepsie for THATCamp Pedagogy and to seriously consider (though not ultimately go) going to DePere, Wisconsin for THATCamp Small Liberal Arts Colleges. I returned to George Mason for one more THATCamp Prime. But mostly, I became more or less a regular at THATCamp Philly which ran every year from 2011 to 2016, by which time the concept had lost its energy.

Like Trevor Owen, it has now been many years since I attended a THATCamp. I guess I was one of the most vocal opponents of the proposal four years ago to dissolve the THATCamp council and archive the website. I think it was the right call then not to shut things down. Fifty-five new THATCamps were registered at the site between the proposal to close the site and today. But it makes sense to make this orderly exit now.

It is easy to underestimate how important it was that the founders of THATCamp prime responded to the idea of regional THATCamps with encouragement and support rather than circling the wagons around “their” un-conference. May this archived site serve as a fitting memorial to the wisdom of that decision.

For those who are interested. While rummaging around trying to refresh my memory, I uncovered my reactions to experiencing THATCamp 2009 vicariously via Twitter here:

The Unreality of THATCamp

I attended my first THATCamp in 2009, less than a year before I quit my PhD studies. I descended on CHNM that June weekend wavering between: frustration about the hypercompetitive-hypermasculine-hypercynical world of academic philosophy; and resignation to the fact that I was grinding away on a dissertation that no one would ever read.

It was in this mindset that I first experienced the exhilaration that, in the years to come, I came to identify with THATCamp. The constrasts were stark: Academic life was characterized by gotcha-ism, while THATCamp pulsed with genuine camaraderie. Academic life was rigidly stratified, while THATCamp provided a space where undergrads and grad students and faculty and administrators and career professionals could speak and collaborate as peers. Academic life was deeply conservative in its subject matter and methodologies, while THATCamp felt like an incubator for the new, the radical, the slightly crazy. It was a thrill to be in the room.

The “camp” metaphor was apt. I remember the feeling of being a junior-high-schooler who stifled his creativity and voice during the school year, only to let loose for the week or two spent every summer at music and drama camp. Summer camp brought together individuals who identified as outsiders at home, and provided a platform for them to connect and collaborate, away from the judgmental gaze of the teachers and the cool kids.

The hitch, of course, is that camp wasn’t Real Life. This was part of its magic: When you enter a world where no one has ideas about who you are and the way you should act, and when the cost of failure has been reduced near zero, you experience a kind of freedom and lightness and plain old fun that isn’t possible back in Reality. At the same time, the Unreality of summer camp had a way of setting upper bounds on its ability to directly improve the camper’s Reality – just ask anyone who returned home bragging about their “camp girlfriend”.

THATCamp was unreal in similar ways. The unburdened creativity, the radical egalitarianism, the heartfelt spirit of openness and collaboration – these were able to flourish precisely because THATCamp was an artificial space, away from the structures and strictures of Real Life. This kind of fantasy camp – Unreal as it might have been – had countless positive effects on my non-THATCamp life: friends made, ideas explored, websites built. Indeed, if the only benefit of THATCamp was that it gave us all a chance to blow off steam – to jam – it would have been worthwhile, and totally awesome.

At the same time, the disconnect with Reality had its downsides. The kind of folks attracted to The Technology and Humanities Camp are those who are naturally excited about Technology, and when these people are in a room with their fires stoked, optimism and enthusiasm about technology can ramp up overly quickly. The glory days of THATCamp coincided with – and were typified by the obsession with – the early days of social media; the impending ubiquity of the smartphone; the introduction of the iPad; the mainstreaming of online learning. Considering how these trends have panned out over the last decade (spoiler alert! – mostly terribly) our giddy enthusiasm has not aged well. The pioneer generation of THATCampers was uniquely equipped to think critically and skeptically about the effects of new technologies, on the university and on ourselves. Looking back from the vantage point of 2020, it feels like an opportunity largely missed.

Speaking more personally, the Unreality of THATCamp played a key role in the way my own career unfolded. Those weekends spent in the congenial and optimistic THATCamp atmosphere made it all the more unpleasant to return to the drudgery of Real Life. THATCamp, for me, became one of the lenses through which I could envision a different way of effecting change through my work: the possibility that I might help more people, make a better name for myself, do more good, by building software, rather than by writing philosophy. In time, I came to realize that the Reality of this (alt-ac?) work is not as romantic as THATCamp might make it seem. Yet there is wisdom and beauty in the very THATCamp-y idea that you can forge your own path through – and in and out of – the academic world. For that, I’m grateful to have been a part of it.

Growing up with THATCamp

The Humanities and Technology Camp (THATCamp) has announced the program is sunsetting and is hosting a retrospective on the site. I’m crossposting some quick reflections there and here. 

I think I’ve been to at least 9 THATCamps. I was at the the first one at CHNM in 2008. I missed 2009. But I was at the CHNM ones in 201020112012, and 2013. I also went to THATCamp NCHP in 2012 and then that I went to THATCamp Leadership in 2013, THATCamp DC in 2014, and THATCamp AHA in 2014.

In piecing that together, I’m realizing that I think it’s been six years since I’ve been to a THATCamp. So I went to 9 of them in one six-year period and apparently haven’t gone to any of them in the subsequent six-year period. Time is strange. The first one in 2008 feels like forever ago and the more recent ones feel like things that happened not that long ago. But I realize and recognize that the strangeness of time is also connected to how the camps fit into my career.

Running the registration desk with Dave Lester at THATcamp 2012

My First Camps

In 2008 I was finishing a masters degree and working on Zotero at CHNM. We got a lot of work done and we had a lot of fun. I kept buying shirts on Shirt.woot.  I have fond memories of going out to lunch with the group, setting up websites, buying up domain names, going out on the road to push open source software for reference management. The first THATcamp was wild. People came from all over and it was invigorating.

The idea of the unconference felt really powerful. Reserve some space on campus, set up a wordpress instance, buy some coffee and donuts, and let people sign up to propose things they wanted to talk about and then all of a sudden there was a whole conference happening. It was a great conference too. Folks left with a whole bunch of new connections and awareness of a bunch of projects that related to work they were interested in.

That was very much my experience at least. At those first camps I found myself meeting all these new folks and connecting with new work and ideas. There were undergrads there that just figured out how to do some cool thing and they were teaching full professors about it. The ‘un’ ness of it was really strong. It felt like there was buy in that

There was just a lot of inversion of hierarchies. As I wrote about in 2011, it felt like there was this DIY spirit that animated many the work in the space and that was invigorating. It’s also funny looking back on that blog post and seeing that people left comments there. In a lot of ways the early days of blogging feel like part of the THATCamp heyday when we operated in some pretty fundamentally different conversation spaces.

My Later Camps

At THATcamp NCPH 2012

I have less vivid memories of some of the later camps. That said, when I did that run of them in 2012, 2013 and 2014 it felt like the concept of the camps had become a rather well-functioning system. It also started to feel like a lot of the same conversations were playing out again at some of the camps.

It was fun to take part in that. It felt great to become more of a facilitator of some of that. That said, in some of the later camps there would also be times when someone would pitch “Shouldn’t there be a thing like X, what if we started making it right now!?” and then one of the folks who had been coming for a while would chime in with something like “That sounds a lot like A, B, C, D, or E and four out of five of those letters ended up being unsustainable for somewhat intractable reasons 1, 2, and 3.” In that context, I think I burned out a little from some of the can do attitude of just roll yourselves up and make a thing ideals that I feel like were so central to THATcamp. The hustle of that DIY world and impulse gets exausting. It’s also clear that the big, hard, challenging seemingly intractable things keep coming up and don’t lend themselves well to the format. It also feels like we’ve lost a lot of the optimism that surrounded those events, I think in part as it feels like the community became more aware and engaged with how problematic the values at play in digital technology ideologies are.

THATCamp Temporal Vertigo

Thinking back over the 12 years from the beginning of THATcamp makes me feel something a bit like a professional vertigo. When the first camp happened, I was 23 and half way through a master’s program and about two years into really working my first full-time job. It felt so exciting to be connecting with folks at all levels of their careers and getting positive feedback about ideas I had for projects. It’s hard for me to process through what parts of my feelings and thoughts about the camps are about the events themselves and what parts are really about my growth and development. So take all of my reflections on this with a grain of salt. I don’ t believe I can separate out what parts of this are about me and what parts of them are about the events.

Growing through and and from THATCamp

With that said, it does feel like things have substantively changed in the digital history and digital humanities spaces since those camps. As areas like digital history and the digital humanities went through a range of periods of growth and faced substantive criticism they changed. In many ways I think they changed for the better. It feels like a more critical set of approaches and thinking going on across these spaces these days. As the fields THATCamp helped to energize have grown up it feels OK that we may have outgrown it as a tool.

With that said, I also accept that I can’t extract my history and experience from this perspective. I grew up professionally in dialog with those THATCamp events and I know they were formative in shaping how I think about and approach things and many of the collaborations and relationships that my career is anchored in.

A told, I think I mainly am left with a lot of gratitude for the chance to be in the place and time where THATCamp came together. I owe so much to the people who I was able to learn from in those events and they are going to forever be a foundational part of my career.

THATCamp, DH, and my Wardrobe

The sunsetting of THATCamp is bittersweet for me. It played a fundamental part in both my personal and professional development over its entire span. From the initial reactions on Twitter, and the retrospectives written here, I’m not at all alone. The outpouring of love and respect reflects well the experiences we have shared.

But more broadly, THATCamp has had a lasting influence on Digital Humanities as a professional and intellectual environment. The unconference model introduced a vibrancy to scholarly gatherings that resonated deeply, so much so that others across the country, and indeed across the world, worked to host their own THATCamps. It is no surprise that the Digital Humanities was not the only area to embrace the model. Transparency Camp, sponsored by the Sunlight Foundation, for example, similarly engaged the same approaches and inspiration. Clearly, there was a hunger during that time for new models of communication, much like Twitter became a staple of Digital Humanities communication during the same time, and the two became closely intertwined. (Slack seems to be the next evolution in this space, filling the needs that Google Wave tried unsuccessfully to meet.)

The hard collision between technology and the humanities, though, turned out to be provocative beyond the unconference model. The unofficial motto of “Less Yack, More Hack” (and its predecessor “Less Talk, More Grok”), forced fruitful conversation about the role of technology in the humanities. Do the Humanities require technological knowledge? And will someday the “Digital” qualifier of Digital Humanities become a vestigial redundancy? What does it look like to apply ‘traditional’ modes of humanistic study to technology itself? One of my favorite THATCamps, THATCamp Theory, very nicely brought these together. We continue to see these issues and approaches playing out in monographs and guides for dissertation and tenure and promotion committees from such organizations as the MLA and AHA.

Certainly, those collisions also led to ruptures within the “big tent” that THATCamp often tried to present. Those, too, are still being worked out. And somehow, THATCamp — and I think Digital Humanities in general — missed some potentially fruitful intersections. With just a few exceptions, I saw little representation of the crit-code folks at THATCamps. Similarly with the ed-tech folks. I don’t really have an insight into how those opportunities were missed, but if I could go back, I’d try to rectify that.

Hopefully, though, those interactions have happy homes in other conferences and meetings that I’m not yet connected with. I like to think that THATCamp served as a helpful prompt for large conferences to include unconference-type events and sessions, as THATCamps that were tacked onto the beginning or end of the conference became incorporated into the main structure. Such creative combinations of space, organizations, and practices are spreading and going through their own evolutions. My experiences in this vein started with THATCamp, but I’m profoundly optimistic to see that spirit popping up in other, newer, ways.

Now, my only problem is how to replenish my T-shirt wardrobe.


THATCamp shirts THATCamp shirts

[Long live AlienWeedMan]

Where We All Ended Up

I don’t know if I can say what impact THATCamp had on (checks notes) Comparative Literature, but I do know, personally, what impact it had on my teaching and my career. A decade ago, I was a contingent faculty member in the middle of nowhere. I had learned how to hand-code in HTML as an undergraduate, did pre-seminar discussion boards as an MA, blogged before it was blogging on my friend’s zine, and even tried a wikipedia assignment in a literature class, but it wasn’t until I got on Twitter and found (among others) the THATCamp community/network that I was finally able to learn about digital pedagogy, digital research, digital teaching and tools.

I looked on enviously as THATCamp after THATCamp happened far away from me, economically and geographically unable to attend. But the spirit of openness and community that infused all of the THATCamps meant that I could follow along at home, following the Twitter thread, visiting the blogs, asking questions, participating however I could from my corner of Appalachia.

As I transitioned into a faculty development/academic technologist role (filled with knowledge and skills that I gained in no small part because of THATCamp), I wanted to radically re-imagine how faculty development had been traditionally done. I still don’t think that the unconference has caught on yet in my professional circles, but the success that THATCamp had in “training” so many made it impossible to ignore.

Most importantly, I think, THATCamp played a large role in pushing the academy to think differently about what “counts” as scholarship. I’ve written about it elsewhere, but I really do think that this explosion of academic podcasts would not have happened, and as quickly gained acceptance as it has, without THATCamp and the community and activism that sprung up from these gatherings.

I work with faculty every day for whom Timeline.js is still a revelation. I learned about it through a THATCamp, one I didn’t attend, but saw on Twitter. THATCamp is still changing teaching and research and technology in academia simply by having existed and opening up a new world to so many of us, people who are still talking about and sharing what we learned, from tools to techniques to just the general ethos. Do not discount the impact that ethos has had. More important that any individual tool, it equipped and empowered us to push, to experiment, to try, to fail, to keep trying, to support one another in our work, to work together.

That is revolutionary. And it will continue to ripple outwards, onward, upwards.