ThatCampPenn 2012


I spent Wednesday on campus at Penn’s inaugural ThatCamp. It was set up by the Penn Library and the Penn Humanities Forum, and showed the promise and possibility of the “unconference” format, particularly when applied to something as tentative and collaborative as the digital humanities.

Amanda French, who came up from house THATCamp at George Mason and the Center for History and New Media. She set precisely the right open, collaborative, free-wheeling tone at the opening session, and it carried through. The thing that struck me most forcefully is that the open formatting creates environments that are extraordinarily friendly to non-specialists. Everyone seemed to feel comfortable sitting in and chiming up. And because no one had prepared remarks or papers, the sessions were much more fluid and interactive than in a traditional paper seminar. I also loved the round of two-minute lightning talks at the close — a great way to allow people to share what they are working on and what we should be clued in to. As an example, I got to see the new Open Scholar framework out of Harvard that Penn is adopting for Drupal hosting of individual websites. REALLY wish it had been around a year ago when we drew up the Integrated Studies Blog.

The first session I attended, on the possibility of a certificate in DH for graduate study at Penn (expertly shepherded by Rachel Guberman, a grad student in Penn’s History department) showcased the power of the format. We started with a discussion of the possibilities and features that a certificate might provide, and by the close of the session we had a game plan, with some volunteered support from Peter Decherney and Jim English to help shepherd it through. What made it so effective, I think was (1) the focused problem, (2) the range of expertise and perspective it brought together, and (3) the fortuitous presence of generous stakeholders who could see this through and were willing to commit time to it.

It also left me convinced that DH initiatives, in order to gain coherence and draw together interested scholars, both at the curriculum and research level, work effectively within existing institutional structures. A certificate provides a kind of formal coherence and offers justifications that have broad value. And we agreed that to be effective, such a program should have the flexibility to both reach out to students in other regional institutions, and tap the expertise of area scholars in teaching the seminars, workshops, and bootcamps that could help fill out a certificate curriculum. A certificate program can help to constitute a community. Finally, we discussed the importance of not trying to continually re-invent the wheel in-house. Requiring a certificate applicant to attend external workshops like DHSI in Victoria (or soon at UMD), especially if coupled with the requirement that they lead a workshop for other candidates and scholars afterward, seemed like a particularly promising idea.

I attended several other sessions. A discussion of “toolboxes” for DH researchers, led by Corey Jaiyo and Laurie Allen at Haverford College, highlighted the value of having plug-and-play implementations of things like WordPress and Omeka, while also emphasizing the degree to which effective support requires thinking creatively about how to promote these technologies to researchers. And a session on teaching Intro to DH classes brought me back to the question of what DH constituted from an undergraduate’s perspective. I still can’t figure out what the motivation for taking an intro to DH class would be, if it is presented as an introduction to a coherently constituted field.

I helped organize the last session, on Omeka development (about which I know almost nothing), and digital presentation of research with Dan Royles, a grad student in History at Temple. I showed some of the work that my students have put up on our Peries Project site and talked about what we had to do to make all of the content work together and get it up on an Amazon EC2 account (we ssh’ed in so that other participants could demonstrate how to change things on the demo version of the site). Amanda French demonstrated how to change specific features on Omeka sites by looking for the code that appears in the webpage within the associated php and css files. And Mike Tedeschi of Interactive Mechanics basically gave a clinic on Omeka theme development. He share a bunch of new insight into Omeka. For instance, you can customize the look of any specific set of pages, right down to the individual item, by creating a nested set of directories that map onto that page’s url structure within the theme that you are using, and copying/editing custom show.php files for that item/page. Very cool. He also showed how to find information about specific php classes within the Omeka documentation. And Amanda F. suggested that those who are working in Omeka join the Omeka development Google Group (which I hadn’t heard about).

Perhaps the most important takeaway, in addition to Mike T.’s insights about how to nest specific styles within the theme, was the insight that Omeka’s mySQL handling code is based on Zend. He suggested I check out the tutorials at It sounds like adding new rows to the db, and associated administrative handling for Omeka, is relatively straightforward. I wish I’d been on top of this at the beginning of the semester; I played around with adding additional text fields to items in the db but couldn’t pull it together. (Right now, we are using the “caption” field to fill out the transcript text, in addition to storing html-formatted critical edition text in the standard “text” field for each item).

So, after a jovial happy hour over at City Tap House, I came home mind-a-buzzing with new ideas and perspectives on my dh work, on Omeka’s potential, and on the value of ThatCamps. I’m a fan.