Tag Archives: THATCamp

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.


The Desolation of Data Entry

4 Oct

Desolated (Photo credit: Moyan_Brenn)

I’m still plodding away on my data compilation for spiritual warfare manuals. It’s slow business, partly because there is little way for me to automate or outsource the work. Expertise is required to identify relevant data, and my coding chops aren’t quite up to the task of automating data entry yet.

On Twitter I saw an interesting DH link that led me to UCLA’s Center for Digital Humanities’ excellent online DH 101 course. As I prepare for the American Academy of Religion’s first THATCamp, I was meditating on the disconnect between my interest in digital humanities for religious studies and the expectations of appropriate and career-building CV-level production.

It’s a natural challenge for digital humanists. The academic context remains a print world. Even if I were tempted to say the humanities is well on its way to a text world (both virtual and physical), this isn’t necessarily true for tenure portfolios. Nor is it necessarily true for job applications.

Part of the challenge is that partial data can be not just confusing but misleading. I’ve shared some of the architectural or structural details of my data before. And while I’m committed to conducting as much of my research openly as I can, there are hurdles that I continue to trip over.

As an academic working outside of the academy for the moment, I worry especially about access and copyright. Thankfully I purchased many of my primary sources. This doesn’t mean, however, that I can treat them callously. How much data is too much data to extract from a text? If I collect all the bible verses cited in a spiritual warfare manual, have I exceeded fair use for the material? What about collecting printed transcriptions of ritual actions from these items for my database? (Many of these items contain testimonial examples. I’d like to be able to compare them side-by-side and tag their elements.) There are no hard and fast rules. And outside of the academy, I am personally responsible for any errors I may make.

To make fewer errors, I encourage folks to look at UCLA’s course, which covers many of the essential elements of DH. I encourage enthusiasts of every level to check it out. If you’re already familiar with DH and coding, then you’ll breeze through it in no time at all. If you’re unfamiliar with DH, then this is an excellent resource.

Where the site doesn’t do a great job is explaining the daily tasks of DH production to its audience. In part this is because DH are makers. If you’re a maker you implicitly understand that the daily task is to work on the thing you’re making. It can feel like a very long time until all the brushstrokes finally appear as a portrait though. The only way to really go from data through architecture to visualization or presentation is item by item.

It all reminds me of a Vulcan logic game featured in Star Trek: Voyager called Kal-toh. Players take turn placing pieces into a nest of rods to bring increasing order to the system. One move can win the game, bringing clarity, symmetry, precision, order, and structure to the chaos. Here’s a spoof video showing  what the game looks like:

I fear my DH hopes rest on some magical piece I was play somewhere down the line. I know I shouldn’t lay hope on such a piece. It’s probably a fiction. In fact, it is most assuredly a fiction. The process of compiling and organizing my data is an intellectual venture. It’s just one that is hard to represent or even write about well. And that’s the point, right? If the data made sense in some other way, then you wouldn’t need it to be visualized or placed into a database. The act of categorization is the intellectual heavy-lifting.

Just as I said in my response to Altman on Eliade yesterday, Eliade was brimming with interpretation. Categories are interpretation. Is this religious or not? What kind of ritual is this? It’s not for nothing that creationists bristle against a much wider range of science than simply human evolution. The very categories that evolution erects to describe its data fundamentally structure the interpretation of vast worlds of other information. Eliade may have focused on the thing itself for the value it had for itself, but in practice he selected the terms of valuation.

This may seem like a small distinction, but DH architecture says it is everything. Thus I move slowly and carefully along with my work. I plod because it keeps me honest about my motivations and decisions, which help me justify the way my structures will later produce interpretations worth the effort.

Mapping Spiritual Mapping

16 Jan

Short post today on works-in-progress. 

One of the questions about spiritual mapping that has emerged in my studies is whether it has a geographical component. Is spiritual mapping in the United States primarily confined to urban areas? Is it mostly a Sun Belt phenomena? Etc.

Thanks to some quick THATCamp training at the American Historical Assocation, I feel a little more comfortable with my Google Earth skills. Eventually I hope to map the full database I’ve been collecting of churches that have clear involvement in spiritual mapping. I trace “involvement” mostly by looking at testimonies in my primary sources. It’s limited in its scope but it’s all I have until I start sending surveys and doing some fieldwork. (My dissertation is mostly textual, so this kind of fieldwork has been put on the back burner.)

I’ve inputted one or two that you can see in this map, but mostly it’s been cataloguing so far. Since Google Earth outputs what is basically an XML document, I can add details later with a better editing platform than Google Earth itself. XML will also make it easy to use the data in another platform, like my SIMILE authorship project.

Spiritual Mapping in Google Earth

Google Earth is just a platform for the development and organization of this geographic information. Thankfully the information isn’t tied to the platform! It’s the visualization of the information itself for me that’s the payoff–a better grasp of the range of places where spiritual mapping happened.

The related project, a more difficult one, will be to map the routes that were used by prayerwalkers. Thankfully these are often the same churches. What’s challenging isn’t mapping the paths, it’s knowing what paths to map. This is another area where future research will be helpful to continue developing this project. Gotta plan for the long-term, right?

American Historical Association 2013 Roundup

11 Jan

In his plenary address, outgoing AHA President William Cronon argued that unless historians can continue to tell great stories we’ll find ourselves without a place in the public sphere and without a home in the academy. It was a clarion call for historians to balance the limitations of their document-based work with the pressures of the market for our work’s reception. We’ll thrive if we can find ways to move within those limitations and adapt to the pressures–whether that’s the advent of digital history, great flexibility to tell stories, reducing jargon, and so on.

In that vein, I was struck by a conversation today with my father. He said he found my recaps pretty interesting but didn’t know how to respond effectively to them. In other words, I hadn’t succeeded in creating an accessible narrative for those stories. There could be several reasons for this: I was summarizing for academic peers, I was preserving academic notes in a public setting, or maybe I was failing to capture the conversations in a way that connected them beyond the academic-to-academic conversation.

So here’s another casual effort to tell some of those stories better:

After spending a weekend in New Orleans with several thousand committed teachers and researchers who specialize in the study of the past, I came away convinced that translation remains essential to the profession of history. In shorthand we often say “the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” This positions historians as guides, interpreters, insiders. We are the experts you want to hire to show you the “real” past. Here’s the thing though, the best guides are those who know their audience and can speak in ways they’ll appreciate. It’s the historian’s challenge historian to effectively translate the past and recognize the needs of the audience they are translating for.

On Friday I attended a conference-within-a-conference that focused on technology. As a graduate student just older than the current generation of students that have never been without the culture created by the internet and computers, I feel intensely awkward holding onto teaching and research methods created before the advent of the printing press. I’m looking for ways to meet my technologically-saturated students half-way. Some of my elder colleagues have called this pandering to the younger generation. They shake their fists at students that see little incentive in reading novels, nevermind textbooks or academic articles. How can I avoid this fate for my own work? How can I find ways to bridge that gap with my students? How can I help my students use the technology effectively for their education? It’s translation of and with technology. Don’t mistake the availability of iPads and mobile phones for technical proficiency. If anything, the rapid pace of technological change has made our students less able–perhaps far less able–to cope with the new landscape they find themselves inhabiting.

The mini-conference, called THATCamp, was full of other educators who want to balance the past, present, and future of teaching and research. Few of us are ready to pack up our texts or stop trying to publish print articles, but we are trying to expand the ways we do scholarship. Why? So we can be more effective educators. So we can reach wider audiences. So we can be better researchers. Because we are hopeless optimists that are not deterred by the problems we see in our students, our classrooms, our universities, or ourselves. We are problem solvers and technology is both the problem we’re solving and its answer. At least, we hope so.

In my own field, religious studies, there is pretty intense resistance to this culture of DIY problem solving. We seem more wedded than other allied fields to texts, older non-digital methods, and instruction that privileges older models where teachers are experts disseminating important facts to be learned. Sure, we’ve made progress–more dynamic lectures with pop culture references, AV materials, or seminars where we focus on exploring questions and not delivering sermons, sorry, lectures.

If I’ve made a part of my bed with the historians and with the technologists of THATCamp it’s because religious studies is especially vulnerable to attacks against the humanities that question its merit in training future employees. This is the danger with a relatively young field that the public often fails to distinguish from our older, more visible sister the Seminary. If you ever want to start a ruckus among religious studies professionals, ask them what happens when they get asked what they do by folks at parties or on airplanes. Many of us–sadly and horribly–save ourselves the inevitable headache of explaining the difference between the seminary’s MDiv and the academy’s PhD. Some progress is being made, as exemplified in Stephen Prothero’s call for greater religious literacy.

More generally, the distinction between religious professional and academic professional who studies religion is the failure of my own field to provide a satisfying translation of our work to the public. If you doubt this, head to your local bookstore (if you’ve still got one) or to Amazon and try to figure our why certain books fall under the category of “study of religion” and others under “religious books.” The blurry lines between academic and religious treatments of religion mean we have poorly differentiated our work.

I attended THATCamp with the hope that I could find some ways to use technology to create clearer boundaries. Part of that is accessibility–techniques that are at home on the web and free for the public to find and use–but another significant part is using the biggest bullhorn that’s available to explain what religious studies is about. [I hope this blog helps and doesn’t hurt that cause!] It seems imperative to many of us in the “digital humanities” camp that promotes new technological solutions that scholars alone can’t inhabit this space. We must also bring along our students to educate them (and be educated by them) about what it means to participate/live/experience/innovate/survive with technology.

When I spent the rest of the conference listening to carefully crafted papers on specific areas of America’s religious history, the lesson that kept coming back to me was that lesson about translation and technology: our methodological (research) and pedagogical (teaching) challenges are about identifying and speaking to our audiences. We must persevere even as the foreign country changes, even as the tourists to the foreign country change, even as we change as guides.

It is in this respect, that I said of my first day at the conference:  why isn’t there a prominent digital religious studies movement?

It is with focus this that I said of day two: How do we add complexity and still say “big” things about history?

It with this in mind that I said of day three: Is biography the perfect genre for empathetically telling stories about religious subjects?

It is with all this that I found on day four: When we discover our work has biases borne of the lenses through which we see our subjects, what should we do to correct it?

These are the big stories for me after a long weekend at the AHA. They aren’t really what I expected, but they are driven, at least to me, by a logic that William Cronon captured quite well. Spend the time, if you’ve got an hour, and listen to his address courtesy of the History News Network:

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.