If you are new to digital humanities and want to learn more you definitely should attend a THAT Camp! I travelled to Canberra to attend a THAT Camp for the first time on the weekend. It was a wonderful weekend meeting people who I follow on Twitter, learning sooo much new stuff, being involved in stimulating conversations about issues in digital humanities and socialising. I have much to follow up, a ton of new things to learn. As one of the participants, Abigail Belfrage, so aptly observed on Twitter, “still in anaconda state after ingesting the goat that was #thatcamp canberra. will digest over the next few months…”
Will you feel out of your depth at times being a newbie at a THAT Camp? Yes you will, but how can you learn if you are not stretched? We had a boot camp the day before the conference started and it was well worth investing the extra day to learn new tools and consolidate previous learning. I have lots of things to follow up, but the thing that really excited me was discovering Google Fusion Tables for the first time. I don’t have access to GIS software at the moment but through Google Fusion Tables I can now create maps of data. Mmmm, the possibilities…. A big thanks to Paul Hagon for taking many of the sessions I attended – I learned heaps!
THAT Camp Canberra was all that it claimed to be – collaborative, participatory, free of ego, a place to learn, friendly and fun. These qualities were encouraged because THAT Camp is an ‘unconference’. How did the ‘unconference’ model work at THAT Camp Canberra? Firstly unconferences do not have a call for papers or a pre-determined programme. Participants were asked to propose session ideas before the conference via the conference website. At the first session of the conference the people who proposed the sessions gave a brief overview of what their topic was about. There was also room for people to propose new ideas for sessions. The conference organisers scheduled the topics, assigned rooms to them and wrote it all up on a whiteboard in the foyer of the venue. We were all set to go!
Skills for Digital Humanities
I’ll cover the details of the sessions that I attended in other posts, but it is relevant in this introductory post to share what was said at the session looking at the skills required for digital humanities. Suse Cairns summed up what we need to equip us in the field of digital humanities when she tweeted, “Attitude is a hugely important part in digital humanities upskilling. Willingness to experiment, play and get hands dirty.” (Of course an important feature of the conference was the #THATCamp backchannel on Twitter.) As Tim Sherratt said, “show your working, share, be prepared to fail, display your thinking process”. Digital Humanities is about experimentation and everyone, from beginners to leaders in the world of digital humanities, have to be prepared to confront what they don’t know, to make mistakes, to shout out for help. Collaboration, learning and creativity is what it is about. When we embark on the digital humanities journey we don’t have to have the skills, we have to have the right attitude. This fits into the current employment market where increasingly people are not hired for specific skills, they are hired because they are trainable and can fit into a team.
An important point made in the session was that those in digital humanities need the skills to manage and evaluate projects. This does not require specific technical skills but it requires the ability to determine whether we should learn the skills for a project or enlist someone who does have the skills. We need to be able to understand digital technology at the conceptual level so we can be involved in discussions about what can and can’t be done.
We also need to be aware of the tools out there so that we don’t re-invent them but also so that we can also take advantage of the wonderful work that digital humanists are doing around the world. Rather than focussing on what tool we need, we need to first focus on what the problem is that needs solving, then find a tool to fit, not the other way around.
Should those in the humanities learn how to program? There were a variety of opinions on this. Tim Sherratt argued that it was ’empowering’. Others such as Peter Sefton argued that it was more important to learn underlying programming principles than a specific programming language. James Smithies suggested that digital humanists learn pseudo-code which is a set of logical statements from which code can be easily written. Some argued that while a programming language should be taught it was important for us to remain technically ‘agnostic’ – don’t favour one particular language or technology, rather pick the best one to solve the problem at hand. Coincidentally while I was writing this Fred Gibbs from the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University has published a post on his blog in favour of those in the humanities learning programming.
Certainly programming is on my list of skills to acquire, but I don’t consider it an entry-level skill for digital humanities. There needs to be an achievable starting point that will entice and reassure those with limited technical skills to enter this wonderful world. I think the entry-point should be through the plethora of freely available tools that those with good technical skills (including the ability to program) have created. These are relatively easy to use and open an array of possibilities. Even those with very limited technical skills can be quickly rewarded after an hour or two playing around. I learned about some of these tools at THAT Camp Canberra and will discuss them in future posts.
One of the last comments of this session was about the importance of Twitter for learning and collaboration in the digital humanities. I would add that reading and writing blogs is also an important means to learn more about digital humanities and share with others. For this reason I have provided links to some of the participants’ blogs in this post. These people can also be easily found on Twitter. Alternatively you can go to the THAT Camp Canberra website and look up the profiles of the participants to find the Twitter handles and blogs of digital humanists in Australia.
At the beginning of this post I mentioned socialising at THAT Camp Canberra. I walked into the conference not having met any of the participants before, though I had followed some of them on Twitter and read their blogs. After spending a weekend with them I can say that digital humanists are a friendly bunch and great fun. We had an enjoyable dinner on Saturday night followed by some raucous karaoke singing and dancing. After the close of the conference a group of us had lunch together on the deck of the cafe in the botanical gardens, followed by a visit to the newly opened Treasures Gallery at the National Library. It was a great way to finish a wonderful conference – I’m looking forward to the next one!
Others are blogging about their THAT Camp Canberra experience – see this page for links to posts.