The Humanities and Technology Camp (THATCamp) has announced the program is sunsetting and is hosting a retrospective on the site. I’m crossposting some quick reflections there and here.
I think I’ve been to at least 9 THATCamps. I was at the the first one at CHNM in 2008. I missed 2009. But I was at the CHNM ones in 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013. I also went to THATCamp NCHP in 2012 and then that I went to THATCamp Leadership in 2013, THATCamp DC in 2014, and THATCamp AHA in 2014.
In piecing that together, I’m realizing that I think it’s been six years since I’ve been to a THATCamp. So I went to 9 of them in one six-year period and apparently haven’t gone to any of them in the subsequent six-year period. Time is strange. The first one in 2008 feels like forever ago and the more recent ones feel like things that happened not that long ago. But I realize and recognize that the strangeness of time is also connected to how the camps fit into my career.
My First Camps
In 2008 I was finishing a masters degree and working on Zotero at CHNM. We got a lot of work done and we had a lot of fun. I kept buying shirts on Shirt.woot. I have fond memories of going out to lunch with the group, setting up websites, buying up domain names, going out on the road to push open source software for reference management. The first THATcamp was wild. People came from all over and it was invigorating.
The idea of the unconference felt really powerful. Reserve some space on campus, set up a wordpress instance, buy some coffee and donuts, and let people sign up to propose things they wanted to talk about and then all of a sudden there was a whole conference happening. It was a great conference too. Folks left with a whole bunch of new connections and awareness of a bunch of projects that related to work they were interested in.
That was very much my experience at least. At those first camps I found myself meeting all these new folks and connecting with new work and ideas. There were undergrads there that just figured out how to do some cool thing and they were teaching full professors about it. The ‘un’ ness of it was really strong. It felt like there was buy in that
There was just a lot of inversion of hierarchies. As I wrote about in 2011, it felt like there was this DIY spirit that animated many the work in the space and that was invigorating. It’s also funny looking back on that blog post and seeing that people left comments there. In a lot of ways the early days of blogging feel like part of the THATCamp heyday when we operated in some pretty fundamentally different conversation spaces.
My Later Camps
I have less vivid memories of some of the later camps. That said, when I did that run of them in 2012, 2013 and 2014 it felt like the concept of the camps had become a rather well-functioning system. It also started to feel like a lot of the same conversations were playing out again at some of the camps.
It was fun to take part in that. It felt great to become more of a facilitator of some of that. That said, in some of the later camps there would also be times when someone would pitch “Shouldn’t there be a thing like X, what if we started making it right now!?” and then one of the folks who had been coming for a while would chime in with something like “That sounds a lot like A, B, C, D, or E and four out of five of those letters ended up being unsustainable for somewhat intractable reasons 1, 2, and 3.” In that context, I think I burned out a little from some of the can do attitude of just roll yourselves up and make a thing ideals that I feel like were so central to THATcamp. The hustle of that DIY world and impulse gets exausting. It’s also clear that the big, hard, challenging seemingly intractable things keep coming up and don’t lend themselves well to the format. It also feels like we’ve lost a lot of the optimism that surrounded those events, I think in part as it feels like the community became more aware and engaged with how problematic the values at play in digital technology ideologies are.
THATCamp Temporal Vertigo
Thinking back over the 12 years from the beginning of THATcamp makes me feel something a bit like a professional vertigo. When the first camp happened, I was 23 and half way through a master’s program and about two years into really working my first full-time job. It felt so exciting to be connecting with folks at all levels of their careers and getting positive feedback about ideas I had for projects. It’s hard for me to process through what parts of my feelings and thoughts about the camps are about the events themselves and what parts are really about my growth and development. So take all of my reflections on this with a grain of salt. I don’ t believe I can separate out what parts of this are about me and what parts of them are about the events.
Growing through and and from THATCamp
With that said, it does feel like things have substantively changed in the digital history and digital humanities spaces since those camps. As areas like digital history and the digital humanities went through a range of periods of growth and faced substantive criticism they changed. In many ways I think they changed for the better. It feels like a more critical set of approaches and thinking going on across these spaces these days. As the fields THATCamp helped to energize have grown up it feels OK that we may have outgrown it as a tool.
With that said, I also accept that I can’t extract my history and experience from this perspective. I grew up professionally in dialog with those THATCamp events and I know they were formative in shaping how I think about and approach things and many of the collaborations and relationships that my career is anchored in.
A told, I think I mainly am left with a lot of gratitude for the chance to be in the place and time where THATCamp came together. I owe so much to the people who I was able to learn from in those events and they are going to forever be a foundational part of my career.