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In 2012, I wrote this email to Dave Lester and Jeremy Boggs:

Yesterday, I was telling someone that I’d had three big breaks to be able to do DHish work as a career.  Enumerating them I realized that two of them were or involved THATCamps!
Thanks, guys!  I’m following my dreams thanks to y’all.

THATCamp was the first encounter I’d had with academia since graduation.  The original call for participants was so open that I expected the gathering to be like a tech conference or user group, so I was astonished to discover that most of the other campers had (or were working on) PhDs.  However, their welcome and enthusiasm soon set me at ease.  By the end, I’d made some good friends and gotten over most of my technical challenges.

I missed THATCamp in 2009, but Dave and Jeremy were enthusiastic about non-CHNM folks like me holding another THATCamp here in Austin while Jeanne Kramer-Smythe would be in town, so–with Lisa Grimm and Peter Keane–the first regional THATCamp was born.  Conversations at the 2012 THATCamp AHA gave me an opportunity to quit my industry job and work on DH full time, and–with encouragement from yet more THATCampers–I started a more meaningful career.  Over the past dozen years, the generosity of the people we’ve met to share their wisdom and perspectives has been a model that my partner Sara and I have tried to emulate.

So thanks again to Jeremy and Dave, to RRCHNM, and to all the colleagues–too numerous to list–who have been part of the conversation at THATCamp.

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.

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.





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.

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.