Tona Hangen

Coming Home to THATCamp New England

So I’ve been looking forward to going to a THATCamp since I narrowly missed the first one, by being lame enough to go home after the 2009 Omeka playdate (which was great, by the way, and completely worth the trip). If I’d stayed one more day in my hometown of Fairfax, Virginia, that June, I would have been an inaugural THATCamp participant, and MAN! That would have been major bragging rights at this point, since it has gone from being a small one-time nerd camp for historians and developers, to being an international franchise with its own czarina and replicating itself in different regions faster than H1N1 in a college dormitory (67 meetings in 3 years, and they’re just getting started). I also had to miss the first THATCamp New England in 2010, so I was pretty happy to clear my calendar to attend this one

, held at Brandeis University on October 21-22, 2011.

Even better, I got to be one of the three Friday evening bootcamp instructors and talk about a whole series of classroom projects I’ve developed since taking a tenure-track job and starting to put down roots in a small public university, teaching 6-8 classes a year. At that pace, it’s low-risk to try new things in the classroom and when I actually sat down to make a list, I realized that I use digital humanities in my teaching and research more than I thought.

An “unconference” was new for me. On Saturday morning, over bagels, we voted with colored stickers on session proposals posted on the walls of the Mandel Center‘s gracious second-floor lobby. Then we enjoyed a session of “lightning shorts” (timed 2-minute intros to a project, concept, website, or tool) while @jbj and colleagues madly created a schedule and unveiled it at the end of the hour. I attended three sessions: one on pedagogy/learning/student engagement (where I was one of the main contributors to a Google doc of session notes), one on an initiative of NERCOMP called the Learning Organization Academy — as I understood it, a kind of super-retreat to help academic institutions overcome organizational dysfunction (and who hasn’t seen that?), and one on learning to use an open-source version of ArcGIS called QGIS, which I CANNOT WAIT to try out in all my free time. We also had a lovely lunch on the terrace in the sunshine – a beautiful fall day. There was a 4th session but I confess, I used it to do research in the library. With Zotero. Does that still count? I really miss the Brandeis Library – good grad school times. I took it for granted that all university libraries were like Brandeis’s and now I find, that one is really special.

Best parts of THATCamp New England: networking, support, commiseration, and a built-in common ground among the participants – we all start by agreeing that digital humanities tools are cool and useful, and that we can learn from each other how to use them no matter who we are (faculty, grad students, undergrads, web folks, archivists, people in academia, people not in academia, did I leave anyone out?).

Postscript: I had teased conference organizer Lincoln Mullen about misspelling the word as “lightening” in his initial description of the shorts session on the THATCampNE website. I suggested there was a productive unintentional double meaning, i.e. that the tools of digital humanities that lend themselves to electric flashes of inspiration (lightning) might also be lightening our burden by helping us do things more efficiently. Lincoln proposed that I provide a 2-minute disquisition on the subject. In the end he didn’t make me do it, but he probably didn’t know that I prepared one anyway. Here it is, somewhat belated. In fact, it was in the form of a micro Pecha Kucha, timed to take precisely 2 minutes. If you give each of these slides 20 seconds, you’ll get the flavor.

Lightning: meet Astrape, the late classical Greek goddess of lightning. Also Zeus, the god of thunder and lightning (here in the memorable Disney Fantasia version). Lightning was classically assumed to come down from above, but it actually comes UP from below, or more precisely, it happens in the space between the ground(ed) and the ether. So does collaboration in the digital humanities – it happens in the liminal spaces somewhere between intertextuality and hypertextuality, not in traditional old-school top-down models of hierarchical learning, but in spontaneous, unpredictable, ground-up bursts.

Meet Vulcan, the blacksmith of the Gods and forger of the bolts of lightning (Greek: Hephaestus). He was — and is this not ironic? — the god of technology, craftspeople, artisans, metallurgy and volcanoes. He was lame, considered grotesque in appearance, but had built himself (note: DIY!) a chariot to move around which helped him overcome his lameness while showing off his technical skill. In one interesting & relevant story, Hephaestus was married to Aphrodite but she was cheating on him with Ares, the god of war. When he found out about it, he built a net of links so small and interconnected that he was able to snag them in it and drag them to Olympus to shame them in front of everyone. There’s a parable in there about the internet, somehow, innit?

IT’S ALIVE!! Lightning, of course, regenerated Frankenstein’s monster – it was the elemental animating force but its tremendous and dangerous energy had to be channeled. It was what turned the bricolage of human parts into something living — also applicable to the digital humanities. I didn’t know much about the writing of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (nor did I know that she was only 19 at the time! Cheeky overachiever), but it turns out that it was composed as a kind of gothic lark during a particularly stormy summer in Switzerland. The only time I’ve been to Switzerland in the summer, we went to Interlaken and the weather was so foul and the roads so flooded that we had to flee to Italy. Gorgeous, don’t get me wrong, but I can completely see why the very sky seemed to be a “strange chiaroscuro” calling down life & death that inspired Shelley’s mysterious tale (HT to Victorian Web).

Naturally, I couldn’t talk about lightning as an animating force for science, technology, and the arts without invoking Back to the Future which is, let’s face it…. where we’re all trying to go, aren’t we? And sometimes it takes 1.21 gigawatts plus some last-minute cobbling things together with rope and duct tape, a colleague who shares your passions, and a keen sense of timing.

Thank you to the great Kate Beacon (aka Hark! A Vagrant!), who manages to make history funny and irreverent, for this delicious image of Ben Franklin’s delirium at the fabled lightning experiment, as a reminder of the sheer joy of being playful with technology. In this little American myth, lightning is associated with inspiration, inventiveness, and Franklin is the very model of being a little nutty, a little willing to look foolish for the sake of the novel and the new, and a little bit crazy to go over the edge into the unknown.

As a final image – the great burden we bear by doing things the old way (i.e. alone and analog) can be greatly shrunk by the practice of the digital humanities. LightENing is a growing dawn, a brightening in the sky at the beginning of a clear day, the lifting or sharing of a weight. This is what DH may allow us to do: create community, share a burden, perceive things more clearly, ask new questions, redistribute the work that would have been far too time-and-resource-consuming to do by hand and to illuminate cultural and technological landscapes.

For now… I hear the digital Vuvuzela buzzing the end of my 2 minutes. But I hear, THATCamp New England is back next year – Brown’s hosting. I’m there.

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Header Image: Adapted from Niki Feijens

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