As the conference nears it conclusion (the afternoon will be spent in a different location and in a different mode of experience), I have found myself inspired to reflect a bit more closely upon the experience of HASTAC. While I'd like to promise a more general post-mortem, I know that once I hit the airport, real life will again call. So consider this my goodbye to this excellent conference.
When Hastac puts together panels, it doesn’t always develop an explicit link between the presenters or topics. Of course, links arise because we’re all engaging with the use and analysis of digital technologies. But there’s something rather marvelous about the random knowledge you can acquire by sitting through a series of panels that feature work not directly related to your own.
For example, I knew I wanted to see Eric Hoyt’s presentation on the Media History Digital Library (right in my wheelhouse, and an incredible resource), but otherwise, I was rather free to explore in the pre-lunch timeslot. So I picked a topic near-ish to my interest—history.
The panel, “Communicating Book Histories with Digital Metadata” ended up being rather delightful. The speakers were young (perhaps grad students in some cases). Perhaps their experience contributed to the low turnout in the room, which was a shame (Andrew Prescott was in the room tweeting more than I, so check out his comments: http://twitter.com/#!/Ajprescott). Their youth acknowledged (note: I am a grad student), their talks nevertheless were among the most careful, detailed, specific, and relatable that I attended.
The trick with talking about technology at a conference like HASTAC is that you are sometimes talking to a mixed audience. For example, when Josh Greenberg asked the (large) audience for his keynote how many people in the room had written code, and about one third to half the room raised their hands. So what about the other half? How do they engage with ideas that are sometimes so explicit and technical as to seem another language?
Of course, exposure to a different discourse (particularly a technological one) is an education in itself. I started playing a game, celebrating each time I recognized the acronyms casually tossed out (how happy was I when OCR was as term I knew). So while I strugged to keep up with Dan Atkins' keynote about Cyberinfrastructure, I gained a lot from the exposure, from the contextualization he included, from the encounter with the uncanny.
So back to the panel. Lindsey Eckert began with a discussion of TEI (an acronym I did not know—Text Encoding Initiative), framing the talk through her concern for how the materiality of books is not accounted for in metadata. In fact, the code does not create a space for this data—does not even acknowledge its existence within its format. So scholars like Eckert strive to open spaces to include a discussion of the work's materiality (its circulation, its publication context, heck, its size).
Eckert’s talk was somewhat technical—she produced images of code, noting the spaces where she had to insert her own data to account for the material history of the book. Her larger point may seem obvious, yet it gained resonance from her examples—demonstrating what we may miss when we encounter books and other material objects in a virtual space. More to the point, scholars have a responsibility to demand increased functionality, to create that functionality at times, and to heighten awareness of these links to a deeper past. Eckert's framing made the talk insightful, her knowledge of TEI made the talk educational, and her humility (noting that she needed to research the topic to accommodate her research) made the talk accessible.
The next talk, by Kirstyn Leuner (CU, Boulder), described an undergraduate multi-media project through which she introduced her students not only to descriptive bibliography but also to actual, material books (through her library’s special collections). This explicit link between the actual books and the web descriptions of them that she asked her students to create seems an astute pedagogical move. She speaks to the students in their language (a digital interface) but also raises awareness of the material experience of an old book (smell, touch, fragility).
I have a past life in literature, so these talks resonated in a nostalgic manner. Yet more than that, I appreciated the concrete and tangible examples of the link between the virtual and the material. Through their small case studies, I found a host of broader connections to make to my own teaching of media studies (an area where the material often goes unnoticed unless scholars shout loudly enough). This seems a real asset of a conference like HASTAC—inherently interdisciplinary and sometimes not quite what you thought you were looking for, but somehow always exactly what you need.