THATCamp is a user-generated “unconference” on digital humanities. This particular THATCamp was organized and hosted by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University on May 22–23, 2010. For the main THATCamp site, see

Latest Posts

Zen Scavenger Hunt

Friday, May 21st, 2010 |

This is a more playful session idea, but no less serious than anything else proposed: I’d like to hold a Zen Scavenger Hunt at some point during THATCamp.

I got the idea of a Zen Scavenger Hunt from ARG designer Jane McGonigal. A Zen Scavenger Hunt is essentially a reversed-engineered scavenger hunt. We form teams and each team goes out and finds ten or or so items and only afterward do they receive the list of the items they’re supposed to be scavenging for. The teams then have to improvise a series of hacks and demonstrations to prove that their items perfectly match the list.

How this might play out: perhaps sometime Saturday afternoon we form teams; then between the last formal session on Saturday and the first one on Sunday, the teams go out and find their items. Then sometime on Sunday the list is revealed and the teams defend their finds.

How does a Zen Scavenger Hunt relate to the digital humanities? It’s playful, process-oriented, and some locative media/GPS/geocaching could even be incorporated. And the list itself, well that will be comprised of various items relevant to the humanities…

The (in)adequacies of markup

Friday, May 21st, 2010 |

(Last minute session idea)

This discussion comes around every few years, most recently on the Humanist list, starting here and continuing for many posts. The essence of it is an argument over whether embedding markup (à la TEI XML) in texts is a theoretically sound way of digitally publishing texts or whether “standoff” markup that points at parts of a (probably plain text) document would be better.

Anyway, if there are any text hackers out there interested in looking at the state of play in document markup and seeing whether we can come to any useful conclusions or hack something together or make plans to hack something together, let me know.

One Week, One Book: Hacking the Academy

Friday, May 21st, 2010 |

Tom Scheinfeldt and I have been brewing a proposal for an edited book entitled Hacking the Academy. Let’s write it together, starting at THATCamp. And let’s do it in one week.

Can an algorithm edit a journal? Can a library exist without books? Can students build and manage their own learning management platforms? Can a conference be held without a program? Can Twitter replace a scholarly society?

As recently as the mid-2000s, questions like these would have been unthinkable. But today serious scholars are asking whether the institutions of the academy as they have existed for decades, even centuries, aren’t becoming obsolete. Every aspect of scholarly infrastructure is being questioned, and even more importantly, being <em>hacked</em>. Sympathetic scholars of traditionally disparate disciplines are cancelling their association memberships and building their own networks on Facebook and Twitter. Journals are being compiled automatically from self-published blog posts. Newly-minted Ph.D.’s are foregoing the tenure track for alternative academic careers that blur the lines between research, teaching, and service. Graduate students are looking beyond the categories of the traditional C.V. and building expansive professional identities and popular followings through social media. Educational technologists are “punking” established technology vendors by rolling their own open source infrastructure.

“Hacking the Academy” will both explore and contribute to ongoing efforts to rebuild scholarly infrastructure for a new millenium. Contributors can write on these topics, which will form chapters:

  • Lectures and classrooms
  • Scholarly societies
  • Conferences and meetings
  • Journals
  • Books and monographs
  • Tenure and academic employment
  • Scholarly Identity and the CV
  • Departments and disciplines
  • Educational technology
  • Libraries

In keeping with the spirit of hacking, the book will itself be an exercise in reimagining the edited volume. Any blog post, video response, or other media created for the volume and tweeted (or tagged) with the hashtag #hackacad will be aggregated at (submissions should use a secondary tag — #class #society #conf #journal #book #tenure #cv #dept #edtech #library — to designate chapters). The best pieces will go into the published volume (we are currently in talks with a publisher to do an open access version of this final volume). The volume will also include responses such as blog comments and tweets to individual pieces. If you’ve already written something that you would like included, that’s fine too, just be sure to tweet or tag it (or email us the link to where it’s posted).

You have until midnight on May 28, 2010. Ready, set, go!

UPDATE: [5/23/10] 48 hours in, we have 65 contributions to the book. There’s a running list of contributions.

Analogizing the Sciences

Friday, May 21st, 2010 |

One of the recurring themes of digital humanities—its methods, its modes of publication, its standards for tenure and promotion, its position within the academy, its disciplinary development, its future—is analogy to the sciences. I just made one such analogy myself (to 18th century electrical research) in a recent blog post.

I’d like to take a session at this year’s THATCamp to interrogate these analogies a little. Just how appropriate and useful are analogies between digital humanities and the sciences? Which analogies work and which ones don’t? How far can we take them? What practical work can they do for us?

This session will obviously be of interest to campers with academic backgrounds in history of science and technology and science and technology studies. But I would also like to invite anyone with an interest in popular science or science fiction and especially anyone with a working background in science and engineering themselves to join us.

See you all tomorrow!

Digital Literacy for the Dumbest Generation

Friday, May 21st, 2010 |

The scholarship done by the digital humanities community demonstrates that inquiry enabled by modes of research, dissemination, design, preservation, and communication that rely on algorithms, software, and or the internet network for processing data deepen and advance knowledge in the humanities. Marc Baeurlein argues that undergraduates now and undergraduates to come soon are “the least curious and intellectual generation in national history.”  Dubbing them “the dumbest generation” and “mentally agile” but “culturally ignorant,” Bauerlein decrees that The Web hasn’t made them better writers and readers, sharper interpreters and more discerning critics, more knowledgeable citizens and tasteful consumers” (Bauerlein, The Dumbest Generation 110). Baeurlein complains that undergraduates are passive consumers of “information,” that they convert history, philosophy, literature, civics, and fine art into information,” information that becomes, quite simply, “material to retrieve and pass along” (“Online Literacy”). In contrast, Wendell Piez and other digital humanities scholars insist that when we study “how digital media are encoded (being symbolic constructs arranged to work within algorithmic, machine-mediated processes that are themselves a form of cultural production) and how they encode culture in words, colors, sounds, images, and instrumentation,” we are “far from having no more need for literacy;” in fact, the cultural work done by and through digital media requires that students “raise it to ever higher levels.”
So, why isn’t there more discussion within the DH conference and publications about this essential aspect of undergraduate study?

That undergraduate studies are not well discussed within the DH community is part and parcel with the fact that it is a field that engages a wide range of disciplinary perspectives and it is a field that is represented by programs of study that are inflected by, but not necessarily called, Digital Humanities.  Already, I have created an online list of undergraduate programs generated through an informal survey conducted on Twitter, the Humanist Discussion List, and @ palms (my blog) see
The fact that the list already includes a broad range of programs encompassing information science, digital cultures, new media, and computer science reflects the difficult nature of training an undergraduate student in the “methodological commons” (McCarty 131) of the digital humanities, but it also reflects the provocative nature of describing what that curriculum might look like. What is important to teach these students? What is the core knowledge base needed? Who gets to decide?

When discussing current models, it is equally important to make transparent the institutional and infrastructural issues that are specific to certain colleges or universitie, large or small. What works for one institution will not necessarily work for another. By the same token, simply providing examples of existing programs would belie the extent to which scholars and administrators shape these programs (whether they grant degrees, certificates, or nothing at all) according to the needs of their specific communities.

In order to make these matters transparent and broaden discussion about the broad range of issues that underpin the formation of an undergraduate curriculum, I want to discuss UNDERGRADUATE DIGITAL HUMANITIES at THATcamp.

Oh, and I am disseminating a survey to the digital humanities community (Please take it! at asking basic questions concerning how an undergraduate program inflected by the digital humanities has been and might be developed within a variety of university settings. These questions are based on previous conversations (Hockey 2001; Unsworth, Butler 2001), but this previous work has focused primarily on graduate (or post-graduate) work.

Teaching Students Transferable Skills

Friday, May 21st, 2010 |

It’s no secret that the humanities are in a crisis in higher education. Those who are leaving graduate school are faced with one of the worst job markets in more than a decade. Many of those who are lucky enough to find a job will be working as lecturers or adjuncts at inequitable wages. Those securely ensconced on the tenure track face smaller budgets, dwindling enrollment, and charges of irrelevancy. Undergraduate students are entering an equally difficult employment environment, lacking skills that prepare them for specific work opportunities.

And so forth. Because it’s no secret that the humanities are always in crisis. (In fact, soon there will likely be a crisis for those who like to observe that the humanities have always been in crisis as they realize that their own genre of writing has also always already been in crisis. Watch for the Downfall parody soon.)

Having dispensed with the standard alarmism on the state of the humanities, I think it is still worth noting that we’re in a tough employment market. My own #jobmarket experience bears out the difficulty of such a search. But I’ve been lucky enough in this past semester to have had several interviews and job offers. Interestingly, all of these interviews have been for positions that Bethany Nowviskie and others have taken to calling #alt-ac: alternative academic careers. (See also Tom Scheinfeldt‘s 2008 post on “A Third Way.”) These #alt-ac job interviews weren’t concerned so much with my dissertation research. Instead, they were interested in how I use emerging technologies. This knowledge and skill set (which to be honest isn’t all that amazing compared to most of my fellow THATCampers) was developed in a rather haphazard way throughout my graduate school career, as I found myself in different fellowships or simply following my own inclinations. But no matter how I acquired these skills, it’s what got me the job. It’s what allowed several different employers to visualize me as making an impact on their organizations, despite my Ph.D. In other words, what I suddenly found myself equipped with was a set of transferable skills.

What I’d like to discuss at THATCamp is how we can go about teaching humanities students–both undergraduate and graduate–more transferable skills. This isn’t to say that the skills we traditionally teach humanists–critical thinking, analysis, clear and effective writing, etc.–are not transferable. Rather I want the “more” in my previous statement to be understood quantitatively rather than qualitatively. If we’re teaching X number of skills right now, X+5 might be more useful. That’s certainly been my experience.

One of the ways that I’ve worked to teach my students transferable skills is by the sorts of assignments I create. These assignments give students working with emerging tools (and some that have already emerged) such as wikis, Google Wave, Twitter, Zotero, browser-based social gaming, online timelines, and simple GIS tools. Each of these projects asks students to engage in work that is part of a standard humanities education–reading, writing, discussion, and more–with the goal of making an effective argument about the text under consideration. But while they’re polishing those skills, they are also learning to use new and different tools. For example, my timeline assignment asks students to populate the timeline’s data in a simple Google Docs spreadsheet. They learn how to do simple historical research, but they also gain experience working with a useful online tool and and learn what it means to work within the constraints of a database. In short, they do traditional humanities work, learn how it can be informed by new information technologies, and get a crash-course in those technologies.

I’m going to guess that the idea of teaching students transferable skills won’t be a hard sell at THATCamp, but I’d be intrigued to have a discussion for best practices for doing so. Moreover, what skills should we be teaching? Is my emphasis on Web 2.0 tools enough? Should we be teaching humanities students programming languages, as Stephen Ramsay and others do? How can we best integrate these skills into traditional humanities curricula?

At the last, then, I’d like to take the question one step further than Dave Lester does when he asks in his THATCamp post, “What if digital humanities centers were more like hackerspaces?” I’d like to know to what degree we can transform humanities classrooms–or humanities departments themselves–into hackerspaces?

Modest Proposals from a Digital Novice

Friday, May 21st, 2010 |

I’m a digital humanities newbie. There, I said it. I’m plenty of yack with hardly any hack. That is, while I can envision-and happily yack about-various projects that I’d like to pursue, I’ve less ability to get my ideas underway. But I’m learning (dabbling with Omeka to start), and that’s why I wanted to be part of THATCamp. I’m also here in my dual roles as an American Studies grad student and a mid-career professional. My checkered past has been spent as a writer and editor in the arts, museum, medical device technology, advertising & marketing and publishing fields.  

I’m interested in how digital technologies can transform my teaching and scholarship and, given my past and hopefully future work with museums, am interested in its public humanities aspects as well. Since I already described my proposals for that camp in my comments on Rob Nelson and Dave Parry’s  entries, I will, with apologies, re-offer those summaries in slightly altered form below. But, really, I’m here to learn, brainstorm and be inspired. It’s self-guided retraining as I wait for DSPOADHCFMCSOU to launch!  

Digital Pedagogy: Having just concluded an undergraduate seminar (From P.T. Barnum to Second Life: American Identities in the Museum) that incorporated digital humanities in modest ways, I’m keen to join in discussions about the challenges and possibilities that new technologies present for teaching. One of my THATCamp proposals involves adapting or developing an annotation tool for collaborative critical reading. Existing software such as Comment Press or Adobe Buzzword provide some but not all the features that I envision for this project. The aim is to leverage the reciprocal relationship between reading and writing by fostering critical reading skills that encourage students to examine how scholars structure and develop their arguments and, in turn, to think more critically about their own writing. The difference between this idea and, say, having students blog about what they are reading is that the tool would make students’ observations about the text-and the text itself-visible in the same shared space, inviting close re-examination of the text. And what might this look like if visualizations were possible, too? What might that offer?

Project Brainstorm: My other THATCamp topic concerns my still-in-proposal-stage dissertation on the wartime work of U.S. museums.  It is my hope that integrating digital humanities into this project will not only augment the types of analysis that can be pursued but will also expand the ways in which the research problems themselves are formulated—and the arguments made. That said, I’m having difficulty conceiving of what this might be in part because I’m new to this enterprise of digital humanities. So I would love to talk about the larger issues of digital scholarship and brainstorm ideas. I’m keen to learn more about Matthew Slaats’  and Daniel Chamberlain’s entries, for example.

Creative data visualizations

Friday, May 21st, 2010 |

I want to have conversations about dozens of the ideas already put on the table, but a topic that I have been thinking a lot about lately are ways in which we might think about how data visualizations might circulate beyond academic boundaries.  By this I mean that while we should think long and hard about the data we choose to visualize and we should think reflexively about the role of humanistic inquiry as we move toward graphic representations, we might also consider how creative and thoughtful visualizations might be deployed as forms of public scholarship.

The best visualizations (and infographics) present a complex set of information in a creative form that respects the complexity of the issues while expressing an argument at the same time.  Even as infographics are circulating through mainstream media outlets and are increasingly trending as social media phenomenon, data visualization efforts are a key aspect of a number of innovative scholarly projects.  I would like to press a little bit on the idea that creative visualizations – which might well be a collaborative effort between scholars, coders, and designers (and scholar-coders, coder-designers, etc.) – might allow critical work to circulate in quite public ways.

At the same time, while we should certainly develop and expand our individual and collective repertoire in this realm, we should also consider the role of data visualization in teaching digital visual fluency skills to our students.  While a fair amount of creativity and technical skill is needed to create some types of visualizations, students can begin with more manageable, off-the-shelf visualization tools and still begin to learn how to effectively decode their ideological and technological foundations.

OpenStreetMap for Mapping of Historical Sites

Thursday, May 20th, 2010 |

OpenStreetMap is a wiki style map of the entire world.  It has a flexible key/value tagging system that allows the data in it to evolve relatively easily.  This flexibility has allowed it to be used in everything from disaster response to micro-mapping of locations such as zoos and parks.  There are lots of examples of historical sites mapped within OSM.  One local to the Washington D.C. area is Arlington National Cemetery.

In other areas there have been efforts to create maps from OpenStreetMap data towns at various snapshots in time.  This is done by utilizing begin and end date tags for buildings.  That way if you render a map for the year 1840 for example only those buildings standing during that time while be displayed.  Frankie Roberto has an interesting series of slides showing this idea of start and end attributes in OpenStreetMap.

When I asked on one of the OSM community mailing lists for examples of sites of historical significance in OpenStreetMap I received many responses.  I’m interested in discussing this application of the project as well as potentially others of interest to the digital humanities.

soft circuits

Thursday, May 20th, 2010 |

Hey, nerds. I’m going to bring some leftover supplies from Hacking Wearables and E-Textiles, the soft-circuits workshop that Bill Turkel and I recently hosted at Great Lakes THATCamp. Participants combined traditional (often gendered) techniques and materials — like embroidery stitches and grosgrain ribbon — with conductive thread, coin-cell batteries, LEDs, and interactive switches to create toys and wearable art. We also tinkered a little bit with sensors and the programmable Lilypad Arduino.

Stacey's Pigg Cheryl modded her THATCamp shirt Stéfan's light-up finger puppet Nancy's counting glove

It takes a while to get even a small project off the ground, so I don’t suggest we hold an actual session and start modding our THATCamp t-shirts, or designing finger puppets, circuit pigs, and light-up counting gloves (pics above) — but I will have some small example projects on hand and a 3-minute slideshow that demonstrates how to sew a basic circuit. If you’re interested, grab me at lunch or on a break. I can quickly show you how to turn a regular LED into a sewable bead with which you can create a “self-meriting merit badge” like the ones below.

self-meriting merit badge2 by nowviskie, on Flickr" href=""> self-meriting merit badge #<a href=2" width="180" height="240" />

I’m happy to cut a length of conductive thread for anybody who asks, and to hand out LEDs (while supplies last!). Even if you’re not especially artsy-craftsy, you might want to snag some conductive thread for your gloves next winter. A couple of quick stitches, and you’ll be able to use a touch-screen even in the coldest weather!

If you’d like to get a better sense of the theory and practice of wearable electronics, check out our Zotero group — where you’ll also find some smart pedagogy articles.


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