The AAR’s First THATCamp

25 Nov

The moment was overdue, but that didn’t make it any less satisfying. The American Academy of Religion’s first THATCamp, spearheaded by Christopher Cantwell (UM-KC), was a resounding success. Of the 90+ registrants, about 70 made it to the day-long pre-conference camp.

THATCamp stands for The Humanities and Technology Camp. It’s the brainchild of the perennially progressive George Mason University. It is an event for less structured conferencing. There are no papers. Topics are chosen democratically. Leadership consists primarily of facilitation. There are workshops to demonstrate digital techniques, but on the whole THATCamp is built to be an un-conference.

At the AAR in Baltimore, at least the first time around, the ethic, style, and mood of THATCamp may not have been perfectly un-conference-y. The desire to hold on to the structure of performance and leader/audience did not disappear as much as they could have. As folks do with so many things, we were practicing our practice. We played at being dissimilar from conference conventions—and I mean this in all the best ways because it was fun, invigorating, and exciting. Perhaps next year we can do even better and be the even more radical alternative to paper reading that the AAR deserves. Although we did not manifest the ideal, I can say without hesitation that my own experience was first-rate.

I began the day by joining a session on digital collaboration. How do you find the people you need to make your project succeed? At least the conversation started there. After fretting about funding digital projects, finding ways to see technical experts as true collaborators and not contractors, and several other topics, we finally hit a point of true clarity. Sitting next to me, Chris Cantwell had an “a-ha” moment. I was taking notes, which are available publicly as a Google Document, and I had to slow Chris down so I could get it precisely. He said,

“When devising a project, the question is not who do I need to build this project, but what communities do I want this project to connect to? It’s the relationship between the project and its communities that determines who you need to build something.”

The other dozen or so folks appeared to agree. It was a powerful moment because it was a flat rejection of what I had previously believed was the biggest hurdle in advancing my own digital projects—a lack of expertise. If only I could figure out, I thought, what kind of technical challenge I’m wrestling with, then I could finish this project. That was the wrong way of going about things. It is the project’s audience that determines its form. It is the project’s creators that bring their communities with them. If we hire technical contractors, then all of the real problems with a project remain unsolved. We need to work with collaborators that enrich the project and its community—not seek out solutions to technical hurdles.

This assumes, at least in part, that the technical hurdles will still need to be overcome. For me, though, it was a warning that getting stuck on the technical materials had also caused me to get stuck on the conceptual one an fail to use collaboration to advance the project and not just its suite of technical features. That’s a worthwhile takeaway.

In the next sessions I focused on ways that I might be collaborative digitally. First, I went to a session on digital publishing and then to one on blogging and writing online. Nathan Schneider, a former colleague at UCSB and now author of two excellent books, figured prominently in both. I have heard Nathan explain his drift away from the academy before (at an academy session no less). In many ways he was much, much smarter than I was for leaving the program with a master’s degree and heading off into the world. One of the things he learned—and has shared his excellent views on repeatedly—is that scholars reap many different kinds of rewards when they write outside of the academic book culture. More than ever, it is clear that we are no longer beholden to our University Press masters. While they still hold substantial estates—and I’d be the first to hope my book project is welcomed into the inner keep—their livelihoods are endangered by the radical proliferation of publishing alternatives.

These two back-to-back writing sessions convinced me that I had also made an error in setting my own small cottage so far from the other great estates. I don’t mean that A Lively Experiment has been a failure. It has and will continue to serve the purposes I have given it. It is my forum for semi-academic writing for a public audience. I’m doing some of my private thinking in public. I’m not quite an open book, although I’m trying to head more and more in that direction, but I am a book that can be opened. My research is on display before it is “on display.” This alone is a subversion of print culture in the academy. The cynic in me (or the me that tries to think like hiring committees) thinks it has also reduced my professional output. That’s a pitfall to be sure, but it’s a risk I’ve already accepted and which I’m addressing.

The error I think I’ve made is in not building better roads between my private cottage and the towns that support the manors and estates. Why not be more aggressive in joining these communities? I’ve told myself and even others that part of the problem has been a lack of definition in my public voice. I still write much too fully in the scholarly idiom. (See what I did there?) If I can’t turn myself to the vernacular, I’m going to have trouble setting up a place to stay in some of these communities. So the biggest question of my day, one that was unresolved at the end, was how one cultivates that public voice. This is something religious studies does poorly. Our sister/mother field, theology, does this far better. Perhaps there are lessons to be learned there just as there are from standouts like Nathan Schneider, Stephen Prothero, or, and don’t throw stones at me, Reza Aslan.

In the end, my THATCamp experience was thoroughly satisfying. I felt it spoke to my needs and my aspirations and my abilities. It also challenged my ideas about what those needs, aspirations, and abilities should be. That’s an impressive day of work at the academy and I’m so very thankful to have been a part of it. I will certainly have more to say about the experience as I hear from others how their days in the THATCampAAR‘s other sessions. I will share those immediately when I come upon them.


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