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Humanities scholars ‘Camp’ out

Nearly 200 human­i­ties scholars gath­ered around coffee and com­puters in Snell Library’s new Dig­ital Media Com­mons on Wednesday morning. A large wall dec­o­rated with craft paper offered dozens of topic ideas for the group to choose from as they cre­ated a schedule for their day at THAT­Camp (The Human­i­ties and Tech­nology Camp). So-​​called “campers” hap­pily crowded around the wall casting their votes with col­ored sticky notes.

“It’s a bit chaotic but it helps everyone get into the ‘uncon­fer­ence’ spirit,” said Ryan Cordell, an assis­tant pro­fessor of Eng­lish at Northeastern.

That’s right. THAT­Camp was an uncon­fer­ence. There were no preset agendas or pre­pared papers. Rather, four ses­sion styles—make, teach, talk, and play—allowed par­tic­i­pants to engage in dynamic and timely dis­cus­sions of the issues facing human­ists as they bring their work into the dig­ital age.

Cordell orga­nized Wednesday’s THAT­Camp, the first of sev­eral to be held across the globe in 2013, to coin­cide with the annual meeting of the Modern Lan­guage Asso­ci­a­tion, or MLA. According to Cordell, this allowed campers to “focus on the par­tic­ular chal­lenges and oppor­tu­ni­ties that tech­nology offers for research and teaching around lit­er­a­ture and languages.”

The event rep­re­sents a broader insti­tu­tional effort to pro­mote dig­ital human­i­ties and com­pu­ta­tional social sci­ences at North­eastern. To that end, the NULab for Texts, Maps and Net­works, an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary base for researchers across the uni­ver­sity, is expected to launch later this month.

In opening remarks, Mary Loef­fel­holz, the vice provost for aca­d­emic affairs, reminded par­tic­i­pants that the year MLA last came to Boston, 1952, was also the first time a com­puter pre­dicted the out­come of a polit­ical elec­tion. “It was the very first elec­tion in which big data, as we now say, made an entrance,” she said, noting that the age of dig­ital human­i­ties has been long in the making.

By the end of the first ses­sion, 21 topics had won the vote, giving scholars occa­sion throughout the day to dis­cuss every­thing from the aes­thetics of dig­ital human­i­ties to the var­ious dig­ital tools avail­able for lit­erary analysis. In one ses­sion, par­tic­i­pants learned the ins and outs of a par­tic­ular open-​​source archive-​​building tool called Omeka, while in another, par­tic­i­pants helped the MLA’s director of Schol­arly Com­mu­ni­ca­tions develop the association’s new social media plat­form, MLA Commons.

In keeping with the dig­ital theme, scholars pro­vided live cov­erage of their expe­ri­ences through a run­ning Twitter con­ver­sa­tion, which revealed the many suc­cesses of the day. One par­tic­i­pant, a doc­toral can­di­date from the Uni­ver­sity of North Car­olina, Chapel Hill, tweeted that the “ses­sion on spa­tial human­i­ties just solved prob­lems I’ve been stewing over for months.”

Eliz­a­beth Mad­dock Dillon, pro­fessor of Eng­lish and co-​​founder of NULab, asked rhetor­i­cally what “an old post-​​structuralist” like her­self was doing in a space like the Dig­ital Media Com­mons. “It’s the excite­ment of new ways of reading,” she answered, sum­ming up the sen­ti­ment of many in the room.

– by Angela Herring

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