AHA 2013 Day 1: THATCamp & My Fears about Digital Religious Studies

3 Jan

I should be headed over to the Marriott for the plenary round table, but I’m afraid I’m too tired and jet lagged to process anything else today. I knew it might happen. Better today than tomorrow or Saturday!

Today’s adventure was my first THATCamp. The Humanities And Technology Camp is an chance for impromptu brainstorming, knowledge-sharing, problem-solving, and interdisciplinary thinking about the intersection of work in the humanities and technology. You can read more about the idea here.

I’m still thinking about the experience–and wondering what it may mean for future involvement in THATCamps and other unconference events–but I thought I’d say a few preliminary words about my day.

1. In the days preceding the event, a handful (maybe 10% or less) of participants posted initial proposal suggestions. More than one of us posted more than one proposal (on pretty different topics). There was relatively less chatter on the website than I expected, but this may have been the awkward (perennially so) timing of the AHA and no fault of the campers.

2. On the day we got a chance to give/hear quick pitches on the proposals. A few more ideas emerged from the campers and were either embraced as independent proposals or expansions to other proposals. It was nice to hear this emerge organically, but I might have liked to see even more willingness from the crowd to mix’n’match the ideas to create a more (shudder) synergistic set of sessions.

3. Dan Cohen quickly (and it was faster than he intimated it would be) organized the proposals into a schedule. No one had major or substantial alterations, so his schedule was accepted as-is. (Apparently that’s rare.) In the future I will probably only propose a single session–you can miss too much if you’re leading sessions in two slots out of three.

4. The first proposal I attended was one I proposed on Twitter and public scholarship. There were just 3 of us for the majority of the time, and we *could* have been much more productive had we not experienced significant technical problems getting wireless access. It appears that the 50 or so campers unduly taxed the Sheraton’s 4th floor wireless hub. It was legitimately difficult to discuss Twitter and coding Twitter-based archives without access to the internet. This didn’t mean the session was unproductive–we talked about many different pieces of the hurdles to using and treating Twitter as an archive. But we could have done better with laptops fully accessing the internet. If there’s one thing that surely MUST be at a tech conference (or unconference) it’s good internet access. Not much you can do in the heat of the moment though.

5. Lunch came rapidly. In New Orleans, 1.5 hours was perhaps too little for lunch and dork shorts talks. It can get pretty busy in the French Quarter at noon, and if you’re walking 10 minutes each way to get your food you might still take an hour to get back to the meeting room. The dork shorts were also an odd experience–each person having to set up their laptop and then taking an arbitrary amount of time to talk. Perhaps just a bit more structure here would have helped more people talk and talk effectively about their work. The meeting room itself didn’t exactly help. The projector screen was off in the corner and this made many of the chairs arranged in a circle totally useless. A signup sheet and a timer would have been a boon, as would have been a single laptop for use by all dork shorters.

6. Dan Cohen led a great post-lunch workshop on using Google Earth. I should have known more of this already (so I could have attended something else further afield) but it was an excellent beginner’s tutorial and a fabulous refresher on how to start using mapping as a fledgling step in the digital humanities. This wasn’t very unconference-y, but it was very useful, so I was grateful to have it.

7. Another short break (5-10 minutes) would have been nice between panels, but it wasn’t scheduled. Do all sessions need/want to be 1.5 hours long? Thanks to the casual climate it wasn’t much of an issue, so I hopped quickly into facilitating a talk session on gaming in the classroom. Another small session (4-5 people) meant we could talk extensively about our own goals for using games as learning tools. Each of us had pretty different experiences with using games educationally and this led to a broad-ranging brain-storming session that I felt was quite productive. I came away even more convinced that I’d like to continue to push gaming pedagogy in my classroom exercises and assignments. I also gained a new sense of the range of gaming elements that can be added to existing non-game activities. Adding competition to in-class projects is a baby-step on the way to more gaming, but it can also be immensely satisfying on its own.

On the whole I was pleased by the intimacy of the THATCamp experience, which helped foster more direct connections between knowledge-havers and knowledge-seekers. That distinction, however, is fairly arbitrary and quaint. Part of the point is that even the proposer of a session has a fair bit (if not a lot) to learn about what they’re discussing/making/sharing. The intimacy emerged when more and less experienced participants felt equally comfortable in the process of learning and sharing.

I’m excited to continue to discussions I began here this year, but I’m also eager to participate in more unconference events where the distribution and flow of knowledge is more democratic and seeks a better balance than the presenter/audience model of traditional conferences.

I’m also keen to continue to work on expanding my interaction and experience with the digital humanities. One of the most singular take-away feelings for me is that while historians have begun to effectively grapple with doing their work digitally, my own field, religious studies, lags years and years behind these efforts. I am certain there is digital history–complete with some significant sense of itself as an object that is/has emerging/ed in the broader field. I am not certain there is a digital religious studies to match it. Perhaps this is an unfounded fear, but given the composition of panels at the MLA/AHA and the AAR, I’m fairly certain there is a substantive basis for my concerns.

So for next year’s American Academy of Religion conference the question on my mind will be: what is digital religious studies? Perhaps THATCamp will help us figure that out and begin to erase the latency between religious studies and other more progressive areas of the academy. We have the advantage of leaping past many of the initial discussions and preliminary setbacks experienced by the wide DH community. Can we do this effectively enough to catch up? I’d like to think so. I guess that means that one of the first big hurdles will be identifying what basic DH looks like and helping religious studies see the appeal. You’ve always got to speak to your own audience/market–this surely won’t be any different. Scary, sure, but if none of us newly-minted scholars have jobs that reduces the risks, right? Right?

Leave a comment that allays my fears. Or just express your jealously that in 24 hours in New Orleans I managed to have Oysters, Beignets, Bourbon, Jambalaya, Fried Chicken, Fried Catfish, Pralines, and a Hurricane.


6 Responses to “AHA 2013 Day 1: THATCamp & My Fears about Digital Religious Studies”

  1. elclay November 9, 2013 at 11:43 am #

    Dear David,

    I think that while there has been a lag in discussions on digital humanities in religious studies, this does not mean that scholars of religion or information practitioners associated with the study of religion have not been engaging DH.

    There are a few aspects you mention and associate with the lack of religious studies’ progressiveness within the academy, specifically the latent capacity of the field of religion to engage the digital humanities and the assumed underexposure of religious studies to broader, more robust applications of digital technologies in teaching, learning, and researching. Perhaps you will reconsider this view after the 1st AAR THATCamp.

    Scholars of religion and information practitioners have long been creating and participating in digital humanities projects, they just haven’t been recognized or thought of as such. While there will be hurdles to be addressed, my assessment is that these hurdles will relate more to collaborating and further discussing the myriad of ways in which the study of religion and the digital humanities intersect than to what basic DH looks like!

    Much of the work in digital humanities within religious studies has been previously described under other categories: new media, religion, and digital culture, online teaching and learning, sociology of religion, digital libraries and museums of materials for the study of religion, computer automated textual analysis (text mining), digital scholarly communication, open access, and more!

    I hope that only a faint memory of your fears of digital religious studies will remain after this year’s AAR THATCamp. 😉 e+


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