October 5 meeting — major questions

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    Patrick Murray-John

    The next meeting of the THATCamp Council will be held Wednesday, October 5 at 8am East Coast USA / 11pm Canberra / 2pm Paris.

    There are major topics on the agenda:

    • Dissolve the THATCamp Council
    • Archive thatcamp.org and close it to new users, sites, and forum content

    Since these are clearly major decisions, we’d like as much feedback here from the THATCamp community as possible.

    Some discussion questions at play are:

    • Does THATCamp Council serve a purpose? Could it serve a new or better purpose? If it continues to exist, what might its role be? If it dissolves, what might be the repercussions?
    • Is thatcamp.org needed to continue new THATCamps? Are new or continuing THATCamps needed in the first place, or is the model well-enough know that it doesn’t need the label/branding of THATCamp?

    Please leave comments and thoughts about these issues to help us think through what THATCamp is now, what it might be in the future, and what the best way to meet the needs of people who have attended THATCamps might be.

    The meeting will be held via Skype, and all are invited to share your thoughts there, too. Just leave your Skype username in the comments.


    Patrick Murray-John

    Initial thoughts. Hopefully, these will pull in more (actually, any) responses. These are strictly my own thoughts as a THATCamp veteran and Council member, and should in no way be read as the direction of the THATCamp Council in general.

    These are fundamental, existential questions on the agenda, both for THATCamp and for DH in general. Much of THATCamp was rooted in a need for a space to train up and introduce new practitioners to Digital Humanities. Many other options have emerged to fit that need with various emphases and approaches, including, among others, different summer institutes from various funding sources.

    That said, I currently lean toward a ‘No’ vote on both the above agenda items.

    On archiving the site
    One of the “flavors” of THATCamps has been the conference-anchored camp. These are typically 1-day (or partial day) events before or after national or regional conferences. Lucky ones get support from the anchor conference. Most do not, but they serve an outsized purpose in mixing up DHers and technologists with content specialists who would not otherwise be a part of the anchor conference. THATCamp.org provides some basic infrastructure to help those get organized. It’s worth facilitating that infrastructure.

    Other flavors of THATCamps often — admittedly not always — do the same. Theme-based and region-based THATCamps have mixed success. However, such events without the boost of the same thatcamp.org infrastructure would introduce a significant hurdle to those events. THATCampPhilly is a strong and significant outlier to that assessment, as they have for years produced quite successful THATCamps without using the thatcamp.org system.

    Beyond that infrastructure, though, thatcamp.org could be more helpful to THATCampers and organizers. I would like to see a new forum category for something like “Reflections on THATCamps” that would emphasize veteran THATCampers’ thoughts on what worked and what didn’t in THATCamps we attend, but would of course give attendees and organizers a space to share their impressions to benefit others. (‘Tales from THATCamp’ has an obvious appeal as the title, but I would end up writing in the voice of the crypt-keeper, so that’s right out).

    Dissolution of the THATCamp Council

    I’m slightly less attached to maintaining the Council than I am to maintaining the site, though I still lean toward keeping it, with possible new emphasis and expectations. We’re not especially active — or, indeed, necessary — in the way that I think Amanda originally envisioned when she did the big work to create it as part of the grant deliverable sustainability plan.

    It could, though, play a significant role in continuing to define what is a _THAT_Camp, as opposed to an unconference by another name. THATCamp has undoubtedly introduced and spread the idea of an unconference to many people and organizations. That appeal is present, but not every unconference associated the DH/GLAM events need be a THATCamp, if there is not a technology component involved. Perhaps part of the forum proposed above could be helping people decide whether what they are creating is a THATCamp as opposed to a different kind of unconference. I have certainly attended THATCamps where the last “T” — technology — is little present.

    I do have to acknowledge strong counterevidence to the positions I lay out above: activity on the site, and the results of the last THATCamp Council elections. While I see great enthusiasm for the idea of THATCamp when I attend them and talk with past participants, I haven’t seen activity on this thread, despite many retweets and quoted tweets appearing in the @THATCamp timeline.

    In the last THATCamp Council elections, the equivalent of voter turnout was almost negligible. Given the hundreds, nay thousands, of known people who have attended a THATCamp — all of whom we want to hear from, interest in the Council elections was…minimal, at best.

    Effective outreach is clearly an issue, but availability of cycles from THATCampers is also real — it’s a hard sell to get deeply involved when we’re all trying so hard to just get our day/paid jobs taken care of.

    Any thoughts, responses, guidance is welcome and important. I know the requirement to be logged in to respond is an unfortunate barrier. Please tweet me at @patrick_mj, or the council/community in general at @thatcamp if you have trouble logging in. Please try to do a password reset before resorting to that option, though. Thanks.

    Patrick Murray-John


    I promised some thoughts on Twitter. But first, a small clarification about THATCamp Philly. It’s true that this year we seem to have bypassed the main THATCamp page in putting together our event. But the success of THATCamp Philly over the years has certainly been based on its association with the home base here. (We seem also to have skipped posting here in 2014, but all other THATCamps in Philly since 2011 are listed here.) I think it is a product of now having all of the materials in hand from the initial structuring, so linking back to the home base becomes an extra box to check off rather than an essential starting point for getting anything done.

    That said, I guess I am in a way a symptom of what has brought up these major questions. I have, in fact, visited the THATCamp page for research purposes in the past couple of years, but haven’t really paid attention to the discussions in forums. Now that I’ve had a quick look, I wonder if the proposed changes aren’t a bit precipitous. At the very least, I get the impression that there must be major issues (technology? funding? time commitments?) that haven’t been brought to the surface that make closing the site seem like an attractive option, so that I can’t judge the tradeoffs reasonably. On the surface, everything seems to be going along slowly but without major problems. Questions on the help forums are few, but they get answered. There are 17 forthcoming THATCamps mentioned at the site, though, as always, some are mere glints in someone’s eyes that may not happen. (has anyone undertaken a survey of how often proposed THATCamps don’t happen? and has anyone estimated whether the rate of new THATCamps is in decline or not?) You mention that there are now a variety of unconference-like events outside the THATCamp umbrella and wonder if some of the unconferences being held under the umbrella are actually concerned with technology at all, but in both cases I’d argue that there’s still a level of “brand awareness” of THATCamp as a painless introduction to DH that can be preserved until people no longer feel they need painless introductions to DH. From the forums, I gather that RRCHNM is no longer very invested in THATCamp, which is a shame but doesn’t reduce its value for other groups.

    I’ll confess to having no memory of the 2016 council elections and it’s not easy to find out what happened here at the site. Again, viewed from the outside, it’s hard to see a crisis. All of the council members look like the kind of people I would have recommended for the role, even if they were chosen by a minuscule proportion of the potential electorate.

    Even if there is a perception that the era of THATCamp is passing (like the recent tweets on the closing of NYPL Labs that noted that there is often a 3-5 year effective lifespan of such organizations) it seems to me that a maintain and monitor stance seems more appropriate than a let’s shake everything up and move on stance.

    Just my thoughts, from the perspective of someone who hasn’t been engaged in the internal discussions at all. Hope they help.

    Patrick Murray-John

    Thanks, John, for the helpful thoughts and reflection.

    My sense regarding the site itself is that the question arises more as an aftereffect of the question of dissolving the Council. The technology is much more stable, thanks to our move to Reclaim, and funding for that remains in place from RRCHNM. Time commitments, I think, are in play — like so many others, it’s hard to dedicate time and energy to something outside our institutions that might or might not be a part of T&P or other advancement considerations.

    I don’t think we have real data on the rates of THATCamps, or how many remain mere glints in people’s eyes. Those are good questions. My non-quantitative impression is that the rate has dropped off a bit lately. I don’t have an inkling about about how often sites are created but don’t actually happen. I know the number isn’t zero, though.

    Sheila Brennan

    Thanks for opening up these questions for discussion.

    1. THATCamp Council: this is a decision that the Council should decide. If reasoning and justification for its initial constitution has passed and most things are running on their own, perhaps there isn’t a need for a council. If there is concern that not all THATCamps include the T, then that could be a role for the Council to review and advise organizations who organize something that isn’t a THATCamp as a TC.

    2. THATCamp.org: Keep it! I represent a voice from RRCHNM, and we maintain digital projects. I just don’t see any reason to not keep it up and running. It remains a fantastic resource, and the site itself is a great archive of past and current THATCamps. It’s important to have a site generator, like this one, for small organizations and groups who don’t have a server to quickly and easily launch their own TC site.

    Even if the “THATCamp moment” is passing, I still see no reason for the site, its resources, and its child sites to go away.


    Thanks Patrick,

    It makes sense that the issue of archiving the website would follow from the question of disbanding the council. And I can certainly appreciate that even though the obligations of the council aren’t all that onerous, they do take up time that isn’t well recognized/compensated by the profession at large. I did note that a couple of initiatives suggested by the council (like Reflections on Thatcamps) didn’t reach fruition, presumably partly because of those time/reward constraints. I think a “maintain and monitor” approach to the thatcamp.org site (to see if it is being used or not used in new ways) would justify the continuing existence of the council, though perhaps in reduced numbers.


    I feel a bit guilty about my role in the THATCamp Council, as I’ve not been the most active counselor and promised some blogposts I’ve still not written yet, about THATCamps, the French DH community and the creation of the French speaking DH association Humanistica.

    I tend to believe that we should not dissolve the council yet. I agree with Patrick when he says that the council have a role in defining what is a THATCamp in comparison to other camps. This is what is at stake. That’s why I would prefer that we think about a redesign of the Council’s missions, composition and elections.

    William Patrick

    I agree with a lot of what John and Frederic are saying about this issue. For me, the THATCamp branding is very important because it establishes for me a certain set of parameters for the unconference model. Others have embraced the unconference model and primarily for good and positive reasons, but I am concerned that could change at some point. The THATCamp branding/model is proven to be something I am proud to be associated with: It is democratic, useful, and focused on what I think is important in academia, archives, etc.

    I would be greatly saddened by its loss. Our THATCamp here is beginning to really grow and I have been proud of it being a part of the THATCamp family. I have met and collaborated with an extraordinary amount of amazing people via various THATCamps, reconnected with old friends, improved my own pedagogy, and used it as a platform to bring brighter light to the digital humanities on my campus.

    I have anxiety issues that make the standard, way too large, academic conference very uncomfortable for me. I began going to THATCamps in 2010 and literally cried tears of joy at the experience. I have seen no reason to go out of my way to go to conferences that are undemocratic, hierarchal, and costly. Frankly, I have never felt comfortable in academic circles or like I “fit in” until I attended my first THATCamp. I do not think I would be the educator I am without THATCamp and would be unsure what to do next without it.

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