Blog Post

Belated reflections on THATCamp Pacific Northwest

Greetings, HASTAC-ers! Apologies for my silence here in the Blogosphere to date.   Hoping to remedy that, this quarter. For my maiden voyage, I offer you the following.

Professor Jentery Sayers, (University of Victoria) hosted the second annual THATCamp (The Humanities and Technologies) PNW at the Center for Serious Play at University of Washington, Bothell, a research center devoted to gaming this past November. Our theme was social justice.

I spent the morning at unconference sessions on "Neo Geo" aka the emerging field of critical, participatory methods in geography and another addressing our theme of social justice. We wrestled with a variety of questions, including those surrounding the use of Google tools- so easy to access and utilize, but who owns what is created? Vs. Open Source tools- so democratic, but less easy to use. This topic also took us to the heart of complex and contested topics regarding “the digital divide”and access to the internet.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Neo Geo session more effectively addressed issues of "social justice" than the session thus named, which was a bit harder to ride herd on and repeated many of the themes of the prior discussion. I sensed a resistance in the room to meaningfully engage in the difficult dialogues necessary to address topics like race, socio-economic status, and other aspects of identity that are really necessary to interrogating and transforming systems of power.

How best to facilitate these conversations in the future in the arena of digital scholarship? I think social workers and other activists trained in group work regarding issues of identity, race, and privilege could have a lot to offer the digital scholarship community. If this topic is of interest to anyone here in HASTAC, lets talk! I would love to brainstorm with you on this topic.

In the afternoon UW Geography doc student, Joe Eckhart facilitated a workshop on participatory mapping. He took us through the pros and cons of choosing a platform- again focusing on the question of using widely available web-based tools vs. Open Street Map, a program developed by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. Then we collectively created a Google map of the Occupy Oakland site from hand drawn maps (this was of course prior to the camp being dissembled shortly thereafter).

Jentery Sayers and I co-facilitated the following session regarding using Omeka, another platform built by the Center for History and New Media for creating digital archives. Opening with interrogating the ethics of privileging open access above all else in digital scholarship as set forth in the Digital Humanties Manifesto 2.0, I talked about using frameworks coming from community based participatory action research (Minkler, Wallerstein, and Duran, 2008) and Indigenous/Indigenist theories of relationality (Wilson, 2008), using Kim Christen's work in Indigenous communities in Australia and the US as an example of communities with subjugated histories who had very specific needs regarding who has access to their digital archival materials and who does not.  Jentery then walked us through how Omeka works and showcased a project he did with one of his classes this past year featuring an archive of recordings. Conversation ensued about the finer points of collaborative research and power sharing in participatory processes, among other topics.

2 big questions emerged for me out of my time at THATCamp PNW 2011:

First - As Jentery noted at the end of the day, we could easily do a second THATCamp PNW addressing the theme of social justice. If this were indeed to transpire, how might we want to approach a second iteration of this topic in order to articulate a deeper discourse regarding our definitions of that term and its implications in the digital context across disciplines, across professions, and research contexts? Any thoughts on this question are welcome.

Second- and I realize this question has complex political implications- I wonder about the continuing usefulness of the term "digital humanities" in a space in which many other disciplines and professions are increasingly represented. I have come to think of my colleagues engaged in digital scholarship as a "community of practice" that transcends discipline and offers opportunities for exciting new forms of collaboration. As a person attempting to translate these opportunities to a the field of Social Work, I find the term, “digital humanities”to be a tough sell to a field still wary of qualitative research methods let alone visual methods or multimodal publication.  Is there a term that would honor the disciplinary diversity of this burgeoning arena? That said; I know that the very existence of the Humanities, which to my mind are the heart of the academy are under attack right now. If "digital humanities" buys some political capital in this era of budget cuts, so be it. This may not be an “either/or”question.




Much like Carrie, my involvment with the HASTAC blogs has been lacking; with my feet now under me for the term, I'd like to share some of my own reflections on THAT Camp PNW 2011 and respond to a few of Carrie's points (which I thought well put and thought provoking). My initial post will be my summing up of the day; my second will be some responses to Carrie's final questions. 

First, some reflections of THAT Camp PNW. Somewhat amusingly, I attended almost every session that Carrie did not. While she took part in the neo-geo workshops throughout the day, I listened to Wanda Gregory and Mike Mulvihill (both of the Center for Serious Play, a place at which it just seems like heaven to work) discuss the challenges of designing and implementing a digital gamespace for social change--in this case, a game co-sponsored by the UW-Bothell campus meant to increase awareness of wetlands preservation and reclamation. As a workshop, the emphasis was more on introducing the audience to new ways of working with problems as opposed to the looser atmosphere prevailing at the more 'un-conferency' sections. 

One such session was the one on social justice that Carrie mentions (I think the official title was 'Tech & activism on the ground).  I'd echo her sense that the room was in a sense resistant to the 'difficult dialogues' necessary to improve conditions 'on the ground.' I'm not sure where to locate the source of this resistance. I think partially it was the format, especially for those more used to smaller, seminar based groups discussing such topics; having to clear your throat and speak up about contentious issues in front of 30 people (if I recall correctly, and please do jump in if I'm wrong!) is, of course, a difficult sell (but of course, one that is all the more vital to make). Speaking for myself, I found myself at once profoundly out of place (in terms of identity) and right at home (professionally, as far as that goes). As a little background, I am from the country in South Carolina in the US but go to school in Victoria, BC; I didn't have a computer until I bought one for college, with my own money, in 2003 (not counting a Commodore 64 my mother somehow found used in a thrift store in the mid 90s); I have an alcholic father and was essentially raised by a single mother; I'm a first generation college student, much less the first person in my family to be educated anywhere near the doctoral level; etc., and so on. I mention these things only to underscore that I am invested in the types of discussions that should be occuring in and around the digital humanities and social justice. My professional background is somewhat more usual, as I'm a fully funded doctoral student in English, focused on the digital humanities and early modern studies. All of which is to say that I agree with you Carrie, and I'm not sure where that vibe was coming from, or even whether I was a part of it, but I think that the discussions we missed out on are desperately needed. 

I don't have much to say about the Omeka workshop except that it was informative and provoked some great discussion around partnerships, access to information, and the intersections between 'analog' f2f practices and digital manifestations of anthropological-type information. It gave me a lot to think about, and made me guiltily glad I mostly work on 16th century writers. 


I'm going to respond to Carrie's second question first. To put it in somewhat mercenary fashion, I think she's spot on when she says that the term 'digital humanities' buys political capital in today's budgetary environment. Matt Kirschenbaum, writing in the new Debates in the Digital Humanities section "Digital Humanities As/Is a Tactical Term," argues that "digital humanities is a term possessed of enough currency and escape velocity to penetrate layers of administrative strata to get funds allocated, initiatives under way, and plans set in motion." It is also "a populist term, self-identified and self-perpetuating through the algorithmic structures of contemporary social media." So I think we're begining to pick up on the utilitarian nature of digital projects when it comes to funding, but also the tension that comes along with it being a populist, levelling set of phenomena. 

I also can't help but be amused at the idea that digital humanties is a tough sell in the social sciences because of its qualitative methods; for those of us in the humanities, it can be a hard sell (not to those in charge of purse strings, but more academic peers) because of its sometimes quantitative bent. In some ways, I think the nature of digital practice--what Carrie refers to as the 'community of practice,' a wonderful phase that I quite like--is bound to change what we think of as the humanities. In other words, when a core set of practices eventually slices across disciplinary boundaries, the boundaries have to be reimagined. This is nothing earth-shatteringly new, of course, but it does seem that digital practices give the idea some urgency. It's also worth noting, at least to me, that it wasn't so long ago that 'humanities' was considered of fundamental importance to the establishment of civic identity; that's the utilitarian argument. The other is that the humanities is the place where the market has no reach. In other words, the humanities shouldn't make money, because it's the one sphere of modern western life that should, at least to some extent, be separate from and therefore able to critique the modern system of the world. In very real ways, I see fields such as social work and literary studies working on the same set of problems, albeit with vastly different sets of methodologies and tools. Put simply, i don't really care what we call "the humanities," or the digital humanities, as long as there is still a space to formulate critiques of the past and present. Digital-critical practices? Critique with digital tools? I think that even without a concrete term, this change is underway; THAT Camp PNW is an example of that, however flawed. As with so many other arenas related to the academy, those in practice are outpacing those in power. (Here I'm thinking of something like the relationship of Bethany Nowviskie's alt-academy mediacommons project to the Modern Language Association, for example; there's surely many more radical manifestations of collaboration and emerging practice with which I'm unfamiliar). 

Carrie, your first question is, to me, far more difficult. Talking across and between disciplanary boundaries--not to mention barriers such as race, class, etc--is always difficult. I, for instance, work on new modes of scholarly communication, the emergence of printing norms in the 16th century (in othe words, how we came to see things like punctuation, chapters, and the like as 'normal'), and, lately, Jewish presence in medieval and early modern works. I believe my work has a certain exigency. Only by examining how information came to find its form, for example, in the early modern period with the introduction the printing press can we begin to understand how digital technologies are changing our relationship to the printed word today. These are social changes extending to all levels of society, as looking at levels of literacy in the 16th & 17th c. in England can attest. That is a difficult argument to make when a group is brought together to ostensibly discuss yet a third point of common intersection. Put another way, I think social justice means very different things to different disciplines, even though each one is likely acting in good faith and not even seeing where they're talking past each other! Honestly, it seems like getting together and talking about these things is the only way we will eventually understand each other's position and be able to get to the place where we can collectively address larger problems. In a more concrete vein, perhaps it would help to have an end goal in mind for a potential second THAT Camp devoted to social justice, possibly something like a statement of principles for how digital critical methods/the digital humanities could fruifully intersect with furthering social justice, broadly construed? It would certainly be chaotic, but perhaps a shift to (in THAT Camp vein) a 'hacking' our relationship as digital practitioners to the wider world of disciplinary practices and society at large in a productive way could harness much of this unease we seem to feel. 

Apologies for the scattered organization, and for anything that seems combative. I'm not picking an fights, just trying to talk these things through. I'm not even half convinced by my own thought processes, so please feel free to critique!