Reflections on THATCamp MLA 2013

The Digital Media Commons at Northeastern University Libraries.
Photo by Tom Urell, © Northeastern University Libraries. Reproduced with permission.

In this post, Amanda Rust (English + Theatre Librarian at Northeastern University Libraries) shares her notes and reflections from THATCamp MLA, and offers advice for those considering THATCamp attendance.

THATCamp MLA, held in Boston on January 2, 2013, just before the annual MLA Convention, had a rich selection of session proposals (the final schedule is here). While I’ll report more deeply on two sessions below, I’d encourage you to see the complete session notes and Twitter stream for more. My notes are (obviously) shaped around personal interests, so I can’t suggest them as a complete recap of any session, but rather as an introduction to the kinds of conversations you might encounter at a THATCamp.

For those unfamiliar with the THATCamp model: THATCamp is a digital humanities “unconference,” as well as a great time. I’ve heard THATCamps described as “the best part of a conference,” the excellent conversations you have with people interested in the same subjects you are. THATCamp discussions are often unstructured and wide-ranging, and I’ve found my attendance most productive when I bring my own set of questions I want to think about during the day, and view it as an opportunity for interdisciplinary discussion rather than a single, in-depth exploration of one particular subject.

Morning Session: Aesthetics and DH

The first session I attended was Aesthetics and DH. I’m interested in interactive design (particularly around interfaces for serendipity and uncertainty in the research process), and ways that a design approach offers a chance to consider formal/aesthetic elements in research and DH projects. Which is a long way of saying: I was totally looking forward to this session. The session organizer, Amanda French, has good notes here, to which I can add some additional personal reflections.

 One of the exciting aspects of DH, for me, is that it brings the art and design disciplines more into discussion with the humanities.

Session attendees were a typically THATCamp interdisciplinary mix: literary, media, and game scholars, librarians from several universities around Boston, education technologists, humanities grad students, and other campus staff interested in DH. Simply during introductions we ranged over poetry and the material, translating into digital; aesthetic analogs to neurological mechanisms; aesthetics of scholarly production; multimodal production; and 10 PRINT and cultural and/or metaphorical aspects of translation (e.g., code as a language in need of translation).

The session facilitator opened with an intriguing question: What do new media folks wish old media folks understood? The broadest and simplest answer seemed to be: understand that it exists as a discipline, with its own history and robust vocabulary and approaches. This theme of interdisciplinarity comes up quite a bit in DH – when working with other disciplines and professions, how do you collaborate in ways that respect the expertise and history of those other areas? There were a few good suggestions for further reading on new media aesthetics (see French’s notes).

The discussion moved into critical code studies, which again seemed to touch on issues of translation and design:

  • Platform port as translation, generation of remarkably different aesthetic objects (e.g., differences in aesthetic experiences with games translated from the NES to PC emulators to iPad touch versions).
  • Understanding code as designed, as a series of choices resulting in constraints. (See A Tower of Languages / Paul Swartz)
  • Being sure not to fetishize code as the objective “real real,” programmers make subjective choices as we all do.

Control was another big theme: as an artist, how can you / can you at all control the aesthetic experience of your viewer? Possibly, in the 19th century, we could assume that a painting hung in a museum with a certain environment, lighting, quietude, but what does an artist assume now?

  • Many digital current artists have no expectation of continuity, and incorporate lack of control into the experience, embracing ephemerality. There is an illusion of control with physical media and some technology, e.g. we once used Flash to control screen presentation, but Flash is now out of date and hard to play.
  • The ability to interact with aesthetics is affective: create your own blog template, feel more connected and in control.
  • Translations can be violent. Apps provide a new arena of control – rather than translation, more of a palimpsest, piling on code without changing the underlying?

As a GLAM professional, I was also fascinated by a mini-discussion of the Smithsonian’s The Art of Video Games:

  • Exhibit focus on nostalgia vs. art. How is the exhibit different if approached from historical vs. aesthetic organizing principles?
  • Disembodied game consoles can be a problem — no chance to consider design process and code, not enough aesthetic experience through play.
  • If including the aesthetic experience and context, how much do GLAMs need to select, preserve, and curate? (See my earlier comments on feeling simultaneously excited and exhausted.)

Interactivity was another sub-theme: do new digital aesthetics lead us to a baseline expectation of interactivity?

  • As always, don’t want to draw too sharp a distinction with the “old”: readers were interactive just perhaps more slowly. See Pamela/Shamela as fan fiction before the era of broadcast.
  • Linked data leads to new possibilities for mashup, see Small Demons. Mashups can be both invitation and form of pedagogy.

We wrapped up the discussion with consideration of market forces on design/aesthetic choices:

  • Market forces – cheap manufacture – were impulse behind now famous Leaves of Grass first edition design.
  • Incidental aesthetics: we associate emotions with designs made for market reasons (e.g.,  recall with fondness our intimacy with cheap paperbacks).
  • Through monetization of ebooks, remove aesthetics from print books to create electronic versions as quickly and cheaply as possible.

I’m often struck by how much work on aesthetics and form requires the creation of cultural and material data that just doesn’t exist yet. One discipline mentioned in the session introductions, fashion history, could be helped by a database of hemlines, textiles used, color, etc. for clothing over the centuries. How will we create this? As a librarian, I am simultaneously excited and exhausted just thinking about it.

I enjoyed this session as a good start to the day, spurring thoughts about some of the more theoretical aspects of DH, as well as how different disciplines approach the same theoretical problems. One of the exciting aspects of DH, for me, is that it brings the art and design disciplines more into discussion with the humanities. While the analysis of art and design have often been a part of the humanities – art and design held apart as objects to be considered – the actual processes and methods of art and design can serve as working models to be emulated rather than simply analyzed. User centered design, for example, is a deeply humanistic approach to the world.  

Afternoon Session: Teaching Digital Archives

The afternoon session I attended, Teaching Digital Archives, was an excellent and practical discussion on working with primary sources. Our facilitator, Paul Jaussen, started with some general food for thought: in literature, how do you use the digital archive not just in one’s own work but as a teaching tool?

  • Process of creating literary history encourages close reading as well as historicization – how to make those two aspects coherent in one class? The literary text and contextual primary sources make each other more valuable as they are connected.
  • Specific example: students annotated historical maps in David Ramsey collection to give historical context to early American republic. 120 annotations by the end of class, resulting in a visualized transatlantic.

We discussed what features a digital archive needs in order to facilitate teaching and research. (For librarians, these sessions provide quick and easy user research.) To start, platforms need easy annotation tools, portable annotations, levels of openness and privacy, and easy ways to publish.

We shared some specific project examples like Neatline and Omeka (Omeka bonus: in the background libraries can easily archive what’s produced) and Historypin’s integration with mobile technology. Increasing connections between scholars and archivists was a theme, one model is outreach via making faculty members curators of archival collections, and thereby encouraging building classes around those collections.

Digital archives also carry questions of access. With all the great online archives focused around single authors, using manuscripts and primary sources should be part of teaching canonical figures. However, if archival work becomes a new standard in education, unless archival resources are open access, it will only further increase the digital divide: some schools will be able to afford the necessary archives, some won’t.

Individual teachers also have to choose between output: should students to create an online exhibit or write a long-form paper?

  • Rather than an either/or, address both: making a good web argument is an additional skill, not a replacement for the long-form paper. Grade analytic and synthetic skills in the online medium, too.
  • Can a department design curriculum to embrace online arguments in one class and the five thousand word essay in another?
  • Anthologize can help switch between formats.
  • Archive Fever can serve as an inspirational intro for undergrads.

We ended with a brief discussion of online tools for browsing, to enhance the serendipity of the research process; see Harvard Shelf Life, with book size based on circulation. (My own later research reminded me of CommonsExplorer, additional work done with browsing large archival sets.)

Again, these are just a few notes from two sessions, to give a sense of both the theoretical and practical conversations you can have at a THATCamp. THATCamp offers the chance to see how your research project might be viewed by an instructional designer, an historian, an IT professional. You may be just starting out and in a learning mode, or you may be deeply involved in a particular project and want detailed feedback — I’ve found that there’s room for both, but you should be ready to introduce yourself and drive some conversations. THATCamp challenges attendees to be active in their participation, and learn the art of asking good questions and sharing good ideas. If this sounds appealing, THATCamp ACRL happens soon!

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Amanda Rust

An English & Theatre librarian working both with very traditional information formats and experiences as well as translating those to new spaces in (hopefully!) fruitful ways. Interested in preservation of cultural artifacts, interactive design, new media, public & digital humanities, and higher ed.