THATCamp Reflections: On The Unfinished Business of Unconferences

Web Logo for THATCamp 2013 (in collaboration with MLA Boston)

The call for THATCamp reflections in the wake of the project’s sunsetting has generated a lot of interesting writing, as well as an informal record of some of the networks that intersected with (and, in some cases, emerged from) this “unconference” initiative (if you are unfamiliar with THATCamps and are still reading these words, here is a general overview). While I missed the deadline for official reflections due to a very busy spring semester, I wanted to get some thoughts in writing here on my experiences with THATCamp and the value of the unconference model in public humanities and academic contexts.

My first THATCamp was one officially sponsored by the Modern Language Association in January 2013 (there was also a “Digital Pedagogy Unconference” that year at MLA; that’s a lot of unconferencing tbh). I went because it was hosted by Northeastern, where I was a doctoral student in English. DH was increasingly on our radar in English thanks to Elizabeth Maddock Dillon’s encouragement and to the recent arrival of Ryan Cordell, among other factors. In addition to attending, many graduate students were part of the labor involved in setting tables up and organizing session Post-It Notes and things like that.

I pitched a session on “Archiving the Archivists of the Twenty-First Century” that was inspired by my developing interests in born-digital poetry, the remediation of poetry in digital spaces, and the networks of poets, readers, critics, and scholars materializing on social media and around blogs (I ended up talking a bit about this stuff in my dissertation). I hadn’t worked a lot in physical archives or collaborated with archivists and librarians, which is why I was writing things like “Are we in an Age of The Archivist?” and “Why not allow an archive to interact more with the rest of the web?” like I was the first person to write such things (I still think that second question is a good one; nice to see Smithsonian Open Access launch this week, in related news).

My pitch got accepted and added to the morning schedule, where I was joined by a small crew of folks who had been doing and thinking about this sort of work for a while, including Matthew Battles, author of Library: An Unquiet History (which is sitting here on my personal library shelf in my office). And they were all super nice and encouraging and convivial and extremely patient with a doctoral student extremely new to this world. We talked about the use and over-use of the term “archive,” the roles classrooms and institutions play in shaping archival encounters, and interesting digital projects and tools, among other topics. 

Re-reading my lengthy session notes, I can see how excited I was to be hearing and learning about these sorts of things. I’m not sure what my extremely-knowledgeable peers got from the conversation, but the session no doubt informed my decision to apply for a job on the Our Marathon digital archive project a few months later. And I started writing this post from my office at Brown, a place I never thought I’d be allowed to visit, let along work at, and I’m taking a break from a semester where I’m teaching two courses that work explicitly with archives and digital contexts (here’s the public-facing course site for one of them).

That’s a relatively neat and tidy narrative full of positive vibes up there, isn’t it? While I want to acknowledge the role THATCamp played in my own career trajectory, I also want to trouble the takeaways from a trajectory that too neatly inscribes cause and effect. 

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