On Projects, and THATCamp

by Amanda French Categories: Administrative, Blogging

A couple of weeks ago I gave a talk at what was supposed to be the NEH Project Directors’ meeting, but which because of the shutdown instead turned into a hasty unconference at the Maryland Institute for Technology and the Humanities. Here are the slides and the text (download the text as PDF).

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On Projects, and THATCamp by Amanda French is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

On Projects, and THATCamp
Amanda French
Friday, October 4, 2013
National Endowment for the Humanities Office of Digital Humanities
Project Directors Meeting
Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities Unconference

Not in a silver casket cool with pearls
Or rich with red corundum or with blue,
Locked, and the key withheld, as other girls
Have given their loves, I give my love to you;
Not in a lovers’-knot, not in a ring
Worked in such fashion, and the legend plain
Semper fidelis, where a secret spring
Kennels a drop of mischief for the brain:
Love in the open hand, no thing but that,
Ungemmed, unhidden, wishing not to hurt,
As one should bring you cowslips in a hat
Swung from the hand, or apples in her skirt,
I bring you, calling out as children do,
“Look what I have! And these are all for you.”

Edna St. Vincent Millay, from Fatal Interview (1931)

Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sonnet “Not in a silver casket cool with pearls” was first published in 1931 in her book Fatal Interview. The poem is a pure and faithful Shakespearean sonnet in scheme, with seven perfect rhymes in the classic fourteen-line arrangement ababcdcdefefgg, but its logic is clearly Petrarchan, with a textbook example of a volta or “turning point” tidily dividing the substance of first eight lines, the octave, from that of the last six lines, the sestet.

Of course the poem is a love poem, suitable perhaps for reading at a wedding, but it is also a poem about the difference between things made and things grown. Things made with overly anxious craftsmanship, things carefully “worked” by human hands, are probably either empty or are hiding something unsavory, suggests the poem. Things grown naturally are sufficiently lovely unto themselves and need no special decorative container, just something plain and functional — whatever’s handy. And these cowslips and apples, these offerings, sound as though they haven’t even been deliberately cultivated, just found and picked up, serendipitously. But if that’s the case, as it surely is, what’s remarkable is that there’s so much pride in that finding and gathering.

It’s perfectly audible to me in that last line, the self-satisfaction of the child who has merely happened upon some wildflowers or windfalls and has brought them to someone, certain that her feat will be appreciated and applauded. And of course it is a child. Grownups know that we may not take pride in things that have merely grown without our intervention; we are only permitted a little conceit when we have become master artisans, when we have spent hours and days and weeks encrusting the casket with jewels and etching the motto into the golden band. When a child brings us a handful of rocks or shells or a jar full of ladybugs or fireflies, who among us would be so hard-hearted as to say, “So what? Big deal. You didn’t make those, and in any case these are totally ordinary. Anyone could have found them. Now go and play. Or, better yet, go create an intricate imaginary world like the Brontës or the young C. S. Lewis. Author some notable juvenilia, and then you will have done something worthy of praise.” No. Most (though I’m sad to say not all) of the adults I know will say to such a child, “That’s great, sweetheart! How pretty! Thank you so much!” and will then exchange an amused smile with some other adult in eyeshot. Certainly that’s what I always do. There may be a third way, some manner of telling the child the truth while also being kind, but if so, my own powers of creative imagination are unequal to constructing it. It’s one of many adult conspiracies: let the child have her fun and run away feeling pleased with herself. She’ll learn all too soon how little the real world values such contributions. [SLIDE 3] Consider the lament of Millay’s contemporary, Dorothy Parker, in her 1926 poem “One Perfect Rose”:

A single flow’r he sent me, since we met.
All tenderly his messenger he chose;
Deep-hearted, pure, with scented dew still wet–
One perfect rose.

I knew the language of the floweret;
“My fragile leaves,” it said, “his heart enclose.”
Love long has taken for his amulet
One perfect rose.

Why is it no one ever sent me yet
One perfect limousine, do you suppose?
Ah no, it’s always just my luck to get
One perfect rose.

Between adults, especially wry and witty adults, the expensively engineered thing is pretty sure to have the higher value. Still, of course, even droll Dorothy would surely see the difference between that one perfect rose, doubtless an unscented long-stemmed cultivar bought at an urban florist’s by some economical gent of respectable income who should at least have sprung for a dozen or two in a nice vase with some baby’s breath, and a spontaneously gathered clutch of free meadow blooms offered by a winsome urchin. Millay’s image has a charm not to be denied.

I bring all this up not only because I like to get in a few licks of poetic commentary where I can (having usually no occasion for it these days), but also because as the THATCamp project winds down, I can see the day coming when I will catch up a hundred and seventy-plus THATCamps in my skirt and offer them up to our chief funder, the Mellon foundation, writing, in the final report due at the end of April 2014, “Look what I have! And these are all for you.” THATCamp, as a project, feels very much like something I’ve stumbled upon rather than something I’ve wrought, and it feels even more like something that has fruited and blossomed across orchard and field in the last four years without my having much at all to do with it. For those of you who don’t know the story, or for those of you who don’t know all the story, I shall now proceed to tell it to you.

The story of THATCamp can begin with the decision of new media publishing mogul Tim O’Reilly to begin holding an event called Foo Camp in the early 2002. “FOO” stood for “Friends Of O’Reilly,” and it was an actual camp: people brought or were given tents to pitch on O’Reilly’s California estate, and in a festival atmosphere they planned and plotted the future of technology. Foo Camp had unconference elements, some of which were probably drawn from a meeting model called “Open Space” that had been popular in Silicon Valley for at least ten years: certainly people weren’t showing each other PowerPoint presentations in those tents, but were instead self-organizing, talking and working together spontaneously. Within a couple of years Foo Camp had become one of the most expensive and exclusive tech events around. [SLIDE 5] Annoyed by the expense and the exclusivity, a group of software developers created a counter-event called “Bar Camp” in 2005. “Foo” and “Bar” were and are standard dummy text variables used by programmers, a bit like “X” and “Y” in algebra — some say there’s an etymological ancestry in the famous military acronym “FUBAR,” which in the clean version stands for “Fouled Up Beyond All Repair.” Bar Camp retained the self-organizing structures of Foo Camp, but it was from the first designed to be cheap and inclusive. And, unlike Foo Camp, it also became self-replicating: the Bar Campers set up a wiki that anyone could edit and encouraged others to organize their own Bar Camps. It’s also worth noting that the invention of Bar Camp was directly implicated in (of all things) the invention of the Twitter hash tag. [SLIDE 6] On the 23rd of August in 2007, Chris Messina, one of the Bar Camp founders who was using the then-fledgling microblogging service, tweeted “how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?” The convention spread — and spread, and spread.

The invention of Bar Camp attracted a good bit of attention in the tech press, and that press was read by several people at the Center for History and New Media, who said to themselves and to one another for a couple of years, “Gee, we should really do something like that.” [SLIDE 8] Among this group were graduate students Dave Lester and Jeremy Boggs as well as postdoc Joshua Greenberg, aided and abetted by managing director Tom Scheinfeldt and director Dan Cohen. The name “The Humanities and Technology Camp” and its accompanying acronym “THATCamp” were invented after midnight at a Denny’s, which is of course the very best time and place to invent anything, and in late May of 2008, the first THATCamp was held.

This first THATCamp was shamelessly organized entirely without my knowing anything about it, which seems in retrospect like immense cheek. But I read all about it after the fact on Lisa Spiro’s digital humanities blog, and I knew at once that here was something interesting, and not just interesting, but energetic. When I heard that there would be another THATCamp in 2009, I made sure to go. [SLIDE 10] In 2009 THATCamp was held just after the big annual Digital Humanities conference, which that year was at the University of Maryland in College Park, and the two events were mere counties as well as mere days apart. That coincidence doubtless helped publicize THATCamp to the 300+ scholars who came to the Digital Humanities conference. And anyone who was present at either or both of those meetings will doubtless remember that 2009 was The Year Twitter Became a Big Deal in the Digital Humanities: I think I’m not the only one who’d say that it was those two conferences that put Twitter on my mental map as Something Not Just Fun But Useful. And the rise of Twitter undoubtedly also helped spread the word about THATCamp, what it was, of course, but also a bit about what it was like to go to one. THATCampers had used Twitter to some extent in 2008, but they had also relied heavily on IRC. In 2009, a much larger audience heard all about [SLIDE 11] session signups, [SLIDE 12] Dork Shorts, and [SLIDE 13] about exactly what people were talking about or doing (together!) within sessions. And of course they heard all about the t-shirts. [SLIDES 14-16]

[SLIDE 17] The first non-CHNM THATCamp was THATCamp Austin, speedily organized by a few THATCamp converts in time to coincide with the annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists. THATCamp Austin was followed in quick succession by [SLIDES 18-21] THATCamp Pacific Northwest, THATCamp Columbus, THATCamp SoCal, and THATCamp Great Lakes. And all during this independent proliferation, grant-writing masterminds Tom Scheinfeldt and Dan Cohen were hatching a cunning plan. They asked if I would be interested in working on THATCamp full-time, and I naturally jumped at the chance. In January of 2010 they submitted a proposal to the Mellon foundation for a two-year project to be funded in the amount of $263,683, naming me as “Regional THATCamp Coordinator”; the proposal’s official title was “Digital Methods Training at Scale: Leveraging THATCamp Through a Regional System.”

[SLIDE 22] That title gives me the nudge to move from this bare history of the early days of THATCamp to a discussion of something perhaps more interesting: the inevitable slips ‘twixt cup and lip — the differences between what we originally imagined (and said) we would do and what actually wound up happening. For instance, as we’ve seen, much of the early language assumed that THATCamps would be “regional,” and of course all the THATCamps up until that point had indeed been regional. [SLIDE 23] But themed THATCamps began (I think) with THATCamp Liberal Arts Colleges in 2011, and others soon arose, including [SLIDES 24-34] THATCamp Pedagogy, THATCamp Hybrid Pedagogy, THATCamp Games, THATCamp Publishing, THATCamp Oral History, THATCamp Museums NYC, THATCamp Computational Archeology, THATCamp Theory, THATCamp Feminisms (west, east, and south, all held at roughly the same time), and more. [SLIDES 35-41] Scholarly associations also began to organize THATCamps: the Museum Computer Network, the National Council on Public History, the Association for Studies in Eighteenth-Century Society, the Association for Jewish Studies, the College Art Association, the Association of College and Research Libraries, the American Historical Association, and the Modern Language Association, and more. Many THATCamps were still regional, of course, and I’m leaving out dozens of them like THATCamp Bay Area and THATCamp Kansas. [SLIDES 42-52] But I personally was astonished by the number of THATCamps that began to crop up abroad. Had I been assigned the task of fomenting THATCamps in even a couple of these regions, I’d have failed utterly. Paris, London, Cologne, Florence, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Poland, Canberra, Melbourne, Wellington, Caribbean, and more.

[SLIDE 53]
Our “regional” thinking, however, didn’t affect our grant deliverables at all except to render its language a little narrow in retrospect. We had four deliverables in that first grant, as follows:

  1. To support 25 THATCamps over two years
  2. THATCamp-in-a-Box
  3. BootCamps
  4. To award 100 micro-fellowships of $500 each

We met or exceeded all of these deliverables, as follows:

  1. 49 THATCamps
  2. Built thatcamp.org with WordPress Multisite & THATCamp Registrations plugin
  3. Introduced BootCamps / workshops as a key feature
  4. Awarded 113 micro-fellowships

[SLIDE 54]

We have five deliverables in the current grant, as follows:

  1. 30 THATCamps over two years
  2. Website redesign
  3. More documentation
  4. THATCamp Leadership
  5. THATCamp Coordinating Council

So far, we’ve met or exceeded three of these deliverables:

  1. 94 additional THATCamps (so far)
  2. Website redesign (yep)
  3. More documentation (yep)

I’m sorry to say that I’m fairly sure that there is no lesson at all for you as project directors in the preceding story I’ve inflicted upon you: I don’t know of any scholarly project besides THATCamp that pushes the needle so far into the cowslips end of the “made or grown” gauge. A great deal of academic writing, it seems to me (absolutely including my own) is carefully gemmed over with fine phrases and ideas and authorities, and although there’s probably some kind of spirit locked up in it somewhere it’s not always possible for a reader to find the key. There’s pleasure and edification in the crafting of such work, of course, and the result looks impressive when displayed upon a side table, but that just can’t be all there is, that endless solitary striving for mastery in metallurgy.

Ah, but so many digital humanities projects are collaborative, I hear you thinking. Not for us the solitary genius working alone. Yes, but I think that digital humanities projects, especially software development projects, often fall somewhere around the limousine band of the “made or grown” spectrum. No one person makes a limousine. The pride of having helped build even a really lovely Gatsby-era Duesenberg limousine is surely more muted than the pride of having written The Great Gatsby or an excellent piece of literary criticism on The Great Gatsby — especially since it’s likely that very few people will know about your contribution to the carburetor. Hence the laudable work of Tanya Clement and Doug Reside (among others) in insisting that collaborative digital humanities projects pay extra attention to giving credit where credit is due: see their white paper from the NEH-funded Off the Tracks workshop. Depending on how you look at it, THATCamp has either been one of the biggest DH collaborations to date with 6000+ participants and 150+ THATCamp organizers or else one of the least collaborative DH projects around, with only a single full-time person working on it: me. In the last three and a half years I’ve certainly had collaborative periods, such as during the major website overhaul, but, just like the THATCamps themselves (and like apples and cowslips) they don’t last long. I think when we talk about “collaboration” in the context of projects we usually mean long-term collaboration over a period of a year or more, and THATCamp isn’t necessarily the project to look to for a model of that.

There is, however, a certain philosophy behind THATCamp, and it is one that suffuses many other projects (though not all of them) at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, as well as many of the most famous technology companies and products: WordPress, Twitter, Google, Wikipedia. That philosophy is a willingness to provide an infrastructure that others can easily use, and then to let the cowslips and cow chips fall where they may. You could call it the Wiki Way, or crowdsourcing, or third-party extensibility, or the open source bazaar, or an API, or the Cluetrain, or simply trust. Although it isn’t trust, exactly, because it isn’t a belief that these other people we’re letting in will always do well. We know that they’ll do bad work sometimes. There have been bad THATCamps, oh yes, there have, and there have been bad sessions at good THATCamps. But we expect that, and we allow it, though we do our best to code automatic defaults into our systems and processes that will prevent it from happening in the first place. Departures from this lackadaisical philosophy have never turned out well. I’ve learned that when something is causing me trouble, it probably means that it’s not worth the trouble. For instance, during the most recent round of web development, I thoughtlessly decided to specify that only those who had an existing THATCamp.org account should be able to register a new THATCamp. My thinking was that only those who have been to a THATCamp should be able to organize one themselves; within a week of its implementation, I realized my mistake.

It’s unlikely that your project is much like the THATCamp project, although if you’re organizing an Advanced Institute for next summer, I can at least give you some one-off event-planning advice (don’t try to collect precise information about individual dietary requirements; just make sure that at one-third to one-half of the food at every meal consists of vegetables or fruits presented in such a way that people will actually want to eat them). But even if your NEH ODH project is to make a silver casket cool with pearls, or if it’s to build a really lovely replica of a Gatsby-era Duesenberg, or if it’s to hybridize one perfect red American Beauty rose with one perfect green Granny Smith apple in the very latest high-tech solarium and then eat it and plant the core, good for you. Decide for yourself whether one or none of those images accords with your vision. My only advice is to do the best you can, and to do it in a spirit of generosity as well as of pride. And, of course, please do remember, as if you could forget, to be grateful to the NEH. Now, especially now.

RCHN Mellon Mellon