Blog Post

P3 Conference 2010: Or, How Attending a Digital Humanities Conference Helped Me to Value Disconnecting

I returned yesterday from an amazing trip to Duke University for the 2010 P3 UnConference.  Many thanks to Fiona, Ruby, Nancy, and Cathy for organizing such an engaging event, and for inviting me and other HASTAC Scholars to participate! 

P3 stands for Peer-to-Peer Pedagogy, and the morning keynote speakers and afternoon breakout sessions all focused on ways that digital technology can promote a more democratic, collaborative, reciprocal approach to learning.  I'll cut to the chase.  I left with an arsenal of new resources and ideas, including:

  • NowComment ( a free online tool that facilitates digital conversations about digital texts.  For example, the program allows instructors to insert discussion questions at a specific point in the reading; these questions and student responses are marked with "flags" in the text. 
  • Digital Durham Project @ Duke ( this website offers students, teachers, and researchers a range of primary sources with which they can investigate the economic, social, cultural, and political history of a post-bellum southern community.
  • Pauli Murray Project @ Duke ( a digital humanities project that uses google maps and historical photographs to look at key places in Durham's prominent Civil Rights history
  • Three rules to live by: "Knowledge should be Shared" (The Franklin Center), "Collaboration by Difference" (HASTAC), and "Storm the Academy" (Mozilla Drumbeat Festival).
  • "Backchannel" (according to wikipedia): "the practice of using networked computers to maintain a real-time online conversation alongside live spoken remarks."  We used a chat room-style online space during the UnConference to hold a behind-the-scenes conversation during the keynote speakers and breakout sessions (
  • "UnConference" ( a conference in which session content is designed during the conference; it promotes collaborative, creative, peer-to-peer learning.  (The link on the HASTAC page is especially helpful!)
  • Virtual Harlem Project @ UMissouri ( a collaborative learning network whose purpose is to study the Harlem Renaissance through the construction and use of scenarios developed in Virtual Reality
  • Center for Documentary Studies @ Duke ( a collaborative effort to create documentaries that serve community needs while facilitating artistic expression
  • The Orlando Project @ UAlberta ( a community-authored digital history of women in the British Isles
  • HyperCities ( a collaborative research and educational platform for traveling back in time to explore the historical layers of city spaces in an interactive, hypermedia environment.  Geoscribe, an extension to HyperCities, will allow users to create maps of places related to books, and each point on each map will be linked back to specific pages in the books
  • Duke Center for Instructional Technology project examples site ( a list of digital learning projects at Duke sorted by subject area
  • Rubistar ( a collection of free rubrics for project-based learning activities, including digital projects
  • Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project ( a project that promotes the creation, exhibition and distribution of new films and videos that increase the visibility of queer women of color
  • Omeka ( a free, flexible, and open source web-publishing platform for the display of library, museum, archives, and scholarly collections and exhibitions
  • ( an academic social networking site
  • Mozilla Drumbeat ( an online organization that promotes practical projects and local events that gather smart, creative people around big ideas, solving problems and building the open web.
  • Peer 2 Peer University ( an online community of open study groups for short university-level courses
  • P2PU School of Webcraft ( A digital school created by Mozilla and Peer 2 Peer University that offers classes that are globally accessible, free, and powered entirely by learners
  • The Public School ( this digital learning community operates as follows: first, classes are proposed by the public; then, people have the opportunity to sign up for the classes; finally, when enough people have expressed interest, the school finds a teacher and offers the class to those who signed up
  • A great link to all of the HASTAC focums hosted by HASTAC scholars:
  • "Community Based Learning" ( a blog by Theron DesRosier, Jayme Jacobson, and Nils Peterson about community based learning.
  • "One small step for man" ( Nils Peterson's blog about technology and learning
  • Prezi ( live, web-based, non-linear visual presentations; an alternative to a powerpoint slideshow (see David Gibson's prezi presentation from P3 at; in particular, see the bit about "badges," which made quite a splash with conference attendees)
  • Designing Culture ( the online version of Anne Balsamo's (forthcoming) transmedia project
  • THATCamp ( a humanities and technologies UnConference-style camp
  • Google grants to study digitized books (
  • ( a free online collection of resources designed for K12 classroom use, including interactive sites, simulations, image collections, virtual field trips and streaming video

Excitement about new digital projects and tools built throughout the day, as I accumulated this enormous list of resources amidst a flurry of twitters, digital surveys, and more iPads than I've seen in one place. The energy radiating from the participants in the conversation was only surpassed by the energy radiating from our various electronic devices, the glow of excitement reflecting both literally and figuratively from our eager faces.  It was a day full of posting, commenting, and recording, with the frantic clatter of keys rising and falling with the pitch of conversation.  I could not wait to get back to work with all these new ideas, new resources, new tools, new links.

But on my way home, left with the buzz of only one machine, like the low hum of insects on a hot summer afternoon, I realized that the big message I took away from this UnConference was rather UnDigital.  As I was bombarded all day by new ideas and resources, I realized that I was quietly reminded at the same time of a counter-message. 

This whisper to disconnect began quietly at first, as one particpant complained, "This chat is a distraction. I can't process lecture and discussion at once." Although this comment seemed to go rather unnoticed, other participants remarked that "this is exactly why I *probably* won't be using backchat with my large undergrad classes."  I realized that in following the conversation of the backchannel, I had missed several slides in David Gibson's presentation.  Rather than turning off the chat, however, I am embarassed to confess that I skimmed it for a link to his powerpoint. 

Later that morning, Anne Balsamo's keynote (which can only be described as empowering) encouraged skepticism for digital tools.  Creating a tag cloud manually rather than digitally, she asked us to consider ways in which our digital tools mislead us, reinscribing the same boundaries we had hoped they would erase.  The knowledge represented in the tag cloud we created didn't do justice to the diversity and richness of our conversation.  "Tag clouds," Anne explained, "give ontological weight to certain terms and make others peripheral epi-phenomemon."  We did not have to look far to realize how unrepresentative perspectives, small voices, minority ideas--often providing some of the most thoughtful and valuable contributions, the voices that academia purports to value--were relegated to miniscule type at the corners. 

By the afternoon, I had given up on my clunky laptop and started taking notes on a legal pad.  Because I write more slowly than I type, I could take fewer notes--but I hardly noticed the handicap, as I was reminded how useful it can be to share eye contact with a speaker.  I suddenly felt more, not less, engaged.  And during the breakout sessions, I felt drawn to the other participants without laptops, more comfortable without the wall of a screen beween us.  I didn't note in the backchannel when someone made a comment I liked--I smiled at them. 

In some ways, my real learning hardly began until after the conference was over, and both computer and notebook were tucked away.  At the reception following the final session, I had a conversation with Nils Peterson in which I learned more about technology-based pedagogy than I had learned all day.  It was a great conversation, even though (or maybe because?) it wasn't being recorded, tweeted, or backchanneled as it was taking place.  Nils talked about building an online identity, creating community-based rubrics, and sharing student work online.  He gave me his stories, his advice, and what was more, his undivided attention.  It was a remarkably un-digital moment, but it was my favorite moment all day.

As the HASTAC scholars gathered over dinner to reflect on the conference, I shared a pork chop with a fellow graduate student with whom I had previously shared the task of hosting a discussion forum.  And while I had learned to appreciate and respect Jentery in planning the Democratization of Knowledge forum, I grew to really like him over that split plate of molasses-habanero BBQ.  Working with him online was rewarding, but finally meeting him in person was a delight. 

Even at a digital conference, it's ultimately the people that make that time worthwhile.  P3 reminded me that it's not about the technology--it's about the people who create it, collaborate on it, and question it.  The links I've posted above will probably not mean much to me in a month or two.  I'll reference a handful of them for my work-of-the-moment, and I'll hang on to one or two in my day-to-day work.  But years from now, I'll still remember Nils explaining that there is nothing I ask my students to do that wouldn't be valuable for some online community.  I'll still be checking the food blog Fiona told me about after dinner.  I'll still remember Cathy as less a master of digital technology than a great leader who values people and relationships.  And I will still remember finally meeting all these people I had known only online, and thinking, "Wow!  These people are amazing... I knew I would value them as colleagues, but now I value them as friends."

My travels to Durham were bookended, quite literally, with two readings that really capture my experience at P3.  In closing, I would like to recommend these books to anyone craving more humanity within the digital humanities, or more life within a digital life. 

On the way there, I read The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age, by Cathy Davidson and David Theo Goldberg, the founders of HASTAC.  The book begins with the basic premise that our learning institutions aren't keeping up with our learning technologies.  "Modes of learning have changed dramatically over the past two decades--our sources of information, how information informs and shapes us," the authors write.  "But our schools--how we teach, where we teach, whom we teach, who teaches, who administers, and who services--have changed mostly around the edges."  Digital, participatory learning, they are quick to point out, does not grant any intrinsic value to technology.  Instead, it points out how technology has made learning a more engaged, virtual, global, collaborative process, and these "new ways of knowing" may "inspire us to revitalize those institutions of advanced formal learning." 

As one solution to the gap between the energy of peer-to-peer learning versus the seeming unchangeability of institituions, the authors offer an alternative definition of the institution as a "mobilizing network."  By highlighting the distribution of authority, customized learning practices, multidisciplinary and participatory collaborations and play-based horizontal learning possible through this definition of institutions as mobilizing networks, this book offers an exciting vision of the future of higher education.  This new institution will value knowing how over knowing that, lateral rather than hierarchical modes of learning, individualized educational strategies, global vision, lifelong learning, and collaboration by difference.  Ultimately, the book shows that "technology is not just software and hardware.  It is also all of the social and human arrangements supported, facilitated, destabilized, or fostered by technology." 

On my way home, I read William Powers' Hamlet's Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age.  Powers argues that by living in a world where "everyone is connected to everyone else all the time," we become disconnected from our own self-awareness and inner depth.  (If you can make it through the self-help-book feel of the inner-peace lingo, you'll be rewarded with a modern means to "life deep and suck out all the marrow of life" that will ring all too true).   Powers offers a new digital philosophy in which the "human need to connect outward" is balanced by the "opposite need for time and space apart."  This philosophy, of course, is not really new.  Today's digital technology explosion is no different from the advent of language, writing, mass-produced print or the telegraph.  But subscribing to Digital Maximalism (the assumption that the more connected we are, the better off we are), does not sit well with Powers' Seven Philosophers of Screens: Plato, Seneca, Gutenberg, Shakespeare, Franklin, Thoreau and McLuhan, who lived through other technological explosions.  And "somewhere inside," Powers says, "we all know this [Digital Maximalism] isn't the path to happiness." 

Powers is no more anti-technology than Anne Balsamo; he simply promotes Franklin's virtue of temperence.  "With booze," Powers explains, "at least there's a genuine distinction between pushing alcohol, which the industry does, and pushing alcoholism, which it doesn't.  In promoting a lifestyle of never-ending connectedness, the technology business... in encouraging the unhealthy extreme, the digital equivalent of alchololism."  This addiction to the Internet takes away quiet moments that become our best moments of creativity at work or our best memories of togetherness at home.  Even worse, this addiction means we are never alone.  Quoting Paul Tillich, Powers differentiates between loneliness, the pain of being alone, and solitude, the glory of being alone.  Turning off our phones and our computers, Powers says, gives us access to the latter.  Internet-free airplanes create involuntary disconnectedness: "Buckling in my seat, I felt my mind relax as I was liberated from a burden I didn't even know I'd been carrying.  It was the burden of my busy, connected life.  The burden of always knowing that everyone everywhere is just a few clicks away."  But what if, he asks, we were to participate in voluntary disconnectedness?  By following the lessons of these seven philosphers in "a tour of the technological past," Powers shows how we can combat "the conundrum of the connected life" with techniques he calls the "Walden Zone" and the "Internet Sabbath," sacred times and places to disconnect with the Internet and reconnect with ourselves and our loved ones. 

Both of these books, like the P3 UnConference, celebrates technology not as an end to itself, but as a means to enhance the human experience.  And like the P3 UnConference, both value time away from technology as a way to enhance that experience even more.  I went to Durham on a quest for the digital, and I have returned with new appreciation for the remarkably un-digital.  So, forgive me for concluding rather abruptly--but I am going to disconnect now, to reconnect. 



It was such a pleasure hosting you and the other HASTAC Scholars here, Bridget.  And this blog encapsulates the whole range, the tools and the hints and the websites, and the very special moments of togetherness.   Thank you so much!


Just a quick note to thank you for this very thoughtful post. I can't believe we didn't get a chance to meet (?!!) -- or, actually, I can, since it was a hectic day, hardly short on interesting conversations! I'm sure there'll be a "next time." Thanks again for this record of the event.



I am very much looking forward to the "next time"!


Thanks so much for this post, and the great conversation during P3, Bridget! I'm looking forward to hearing more about your locative media project as it emerges.  See you soon!


Bridget, this is a fantastic recap! So useful -- many thanks!