Blog Post

#HASTAC2011: Notes from a Perennial Newb

I've been giving some thought to what was a tremendous conference experience this last weekend in Ann Arbor. I found myself so uplifted and inspired by the people I met and the projects I learned about. I realized that the event was something of a coming out for me as a digital humanist. I've been flirting on the fringes of the community for some time, but didn't really see how I fit into it. I'm not that geeky, I work in a historical period, and I had mild prejudices against what I imagined might  be an insiderish club of technophiles. I have also been sensitive to critiques of DH as being less representative of using race, gender, sex, and class as a politically engaged analytic. Micha, Karen, and Cathy's thoughts about that echo my own concerns and also exemplify the fact that there are already many DHers doing precisely that kind of work. I hope to be part of a trend towards increasing that vein of work within the field. Little by little, over the last year or so, my prejudices have been whittled away, and here I am, one of apparently many HASTAC members working on race in a historical period.

One thing that the conference really drove home for me is that the HASTAC community practices what it preaches. It is organized to be a network of networks, a point of connection that depends upon participation. Like with other social media, the users are the content, so it is up to us to contribute our ideas and energy into making the opportunity what we want it to be. This is a challenge for someone like me, to whom blogging does not come easy. I'm the type of person that wants to figure out just precisely what I think before I share my ideas in writing. I know I'm not alone in this regard and in addition to my low-technological skills, I have been slow to engage. But by god, I tweeted more in the last few days than I normally do in a semester, so it's a start.

For the most part, my fascination with new media is epistemological. I heard some conference attendees (lightly -- we were a happy crowd for the most part) complain that the papers and presentations tended to be very meta -- all about process and not as clarifying about details. Well, I gobbled it up! The profound shift in form and data infrastructure that has accompanied the digital turn mandates self-awareness about our methods for knowledge production. From the keynotes, to the lightning talks, to the chatter over beers, these concerns were enlivened by the voices of scholars most senior and most junior, all committed to renovating academic culture from the ground up.

I picked up a few takeaways:

1. Collaboration is where it's at. I was profoundly stimulated by the discussion of the Authorship Digging into Data project, whereby an international group of humanists and computer scientists developed and tested algorithms to make historically situated trends in authorship readable by computer. You can read about their project here. Michael Simeone's discussion of the team's process was theoretically compelling and detailed the complex and time-consuming process of collaboration. The project seemed to me to be a very sophisticated example of the power of collaboration to enable deep, deep critical thinking about concepts both cultural and computational.

2. Project-based scholarship makes people proud. I was so moved by Maria Cotero's presentation of the Chicana por mi Raza archive of the Raza Unida Party. As a scholar of 70s chicana feminist activism, Cotera began to need access an archive of materials that didn't seem to exist. So, she enlisted her mother (la Raza activist) to begin collecting materials from her own collection and that of her friends. It was a pleasure to witness Cotero talk about an academic enterprise that meant a great deal to her as a daughter and also as a scholar and teacher. The creation of the archive has reunited the community of feminist activists as well as inspired students (two of them got tattoos of images in the digital archive). My sense is that it wasn't just building the archive, but building the team that created the archive that made the work so rewarding and interesting for Cotero. What an inspiring model for research!

As a further example of the power of project-based work to create a positive atmosphere, I sensed a general lack of fear and anxiety surrounding people's presentations at the conference. Generally at academic conferences there is a great deal of worry. By and large, I got the impression that folks were really excited to share their work, especially when it was conducted within a team that had built something accessible to the world online. I'm inspired to create digital projects with others that are accessible, interactive, and informative.

3. Twitter is wild. I say wild because there's just so much to describe that it will have to be done in another post at a later date. I will say two things for now. Twitter was the key to unlocking the mysteries of what the heck digital humanists are and do for me. About a year ago, I finally joined and began to quickly develop a deeper sense of what the intellectual conversations are in DH. I highly recommend it to other perennial newbs. At the conference, engaging in twitter was something like a roller coaster ride, more so than at other, more analog and disciplinary affairs. At times, tweeting distracted me from listening to talks, at others, it enabled me to be in two places at once and stay up to speed about presentations occurring at the same time. It felt sort of like a mosh pit at a rock concert -- you just had to keep jumping up and down and bumping into people. Cause it's fun.... and it's not like you can just get out of the mosh pit once you're there. The formal affordances (and restraints) of twitter fascinate me and I look forward to a deeper reflection on that in future.

Like I said, I'm a total newb! I write this post in honor of my fellow newbs, so that they may get a litle window into the HASTAC world. Thanks enormously to the University of Michigan organizers. Not only did you put on a fabulous conference, you managed to feed us in abundance and style. Thanks also to the staff and students at the Michigan research commons labs for letting us visit your amazing spaces and letting us have hands on experience. (I made 2 stop-action animation films with Cat in the Stack!) Fiona, thanks for making the HASTAC Scholars a lively community and for all the micro and macro-organizing you did to get us all connected. Thanks also to my fellow HASTAC Scholars, who inspired me with their analysis and contributions. And to the array of kind and brilliant scholars I met, I hope to see you again soon -- I'm on pins and needles to see what you do next.


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