Ian T. Thomas

My THATCamp Prime 2011

Image of Session Voting by Flickr user ghbrett

I attended THATCamp Prime at George Mason University last weekend and my mind is still a little tired. If you’re unfamiliar, please visit the main THATCamp site for more information. In brief, THATCamps are digital humanities unconferences that give all the good of traditional conferences and nix the endless PowerPoint presentations, sage on stage moments, and insane costs. In the weeks preceding our gathering, participants wrote proposal posts on the blog and the first hour of the unconference was spent voting on sessions and cramming as much as possible into a schedule.

After some time to reflect on the weekend, I’m here to report on what happened and what I learned.

The unconference began on Friday with a Bootcamp that functioned as group workshops to improve technical skills. There were three tracks for Bootcampers: Brass Tacks Track, Hack Track, and Map Track. Having experienced much of what was being taught in the Brass Tacks Track at THATCamp SE, I elected to attend the Hack Track. Though much of it was slightly over my head, I still gleaned plenty of skills and information to keep me busy learning and practicing new things for months on end.

The first session I attended was Intro to HTML5 and CSS3 facilitated by Jeremy Boggs. The gist of this session is that HTML5 (or just HTML) and CSS3 are the new web standards and they simplify some of the previous standards. For example, instead of the long and (for me) unmemorizable beginning HTML code, the new standards require a simple <!DOCTYPE html>. This session was incredibly informative and quite helpful as I continue my journey to better understand coding and web design. Check out Amanda Visconti’s excellent write-up of the session for more details.

Soon after finishing up with the first session, we were back at it in Amanda French’s session on Finding and Modifying WordPress Themes. I use a WordPress build for all my course websites and blogs so knowing better how to customize that experience will be valuable going forward. We learned the relatively simple process of taking the necessary code of a previously constructed theme and making a child theme that won’t be changed when the developer updates the theme.

Before lunch we were treated to a live recording of Digital Campus where they discussed, among other things, the ongoing lawsuit against Georgia State University.

The last BootCamp session I attended covered uses of the Zotero API and was led by Faolan Cheslack-Postava who is a member of the Zotero team. Having not read the descriptions well, I didn’t see that the skill level for this session was advanced and that knowledge of PHP was necessary to get the most out of it. Because of that, much of the information given was well over my head but I still found it fascinating. We learned that Zotero “eats its own dog food” so everything that can be done with its website and Firefox extension can be done through the API. The introduction to APIs piqued my interest and before fall classes begin, I hope to piece together a tool that will possibly connect Zotero with Ifttt.

At the unconference proper, there were far too many good sessions offered at the same time that I couldn’t get all the goodness I wanted to take in, but there was plenty to be had. The first sessions I attended was called Intro to Hacking and facilitated by Patrick Murray-John. There, we dug into Greasemonkey scripts and hacked into the code a bit. Patrick gave us enough of an introduction to get started then we set off playing. We initially toyed with a script that puts the hover caption of XKCD comics beneath the comic strip then moved on to a script that manipulates the Camper’s page of our THATCamp blog. Here one of the results:

Don't Care

Perhaps the honey badger played too big a role in my THATCamp experience.

As you can see, we didn’t make any monumental changes but I feel equipped with the skills to dig in further and learn what I need to build my own scripts, or at least manipulate the scripts of others to do what I need to do.

After lunch and some fantastic Dork Shorts I attended a session on Hacking Grad School with the creators of the Gradhacker blog followed by a session on greater diversity and accessibility in the digital humanities. In the latter session, we discussed what it would take to include more underrepresented groups into THATCamps and DH in general. For me, one of the most exciting takeaways from this session was the creation of a DH Diversity Working Group that has and will come up with creative ways to advertise what we’re doing to groups that have not participated in similar experiences (community college faculty, historically black colleges, etc.). If you are interested in participating, please sign up here to play along.

During the last session of the day, Jeremy Boggs led a session on building a WordPress theme from the ground up. It was a wildly helpful session that introduced the surprisingly intuitive PHP library for WordPress. This was a late addition to the schedule, but Jeremy said that he so detests the poor coding behind many WordPress themes that he wanted us to start making our own.

On Sunday, the first session covered documentation and what goes into good instructions. There was a nice dialogue between coders and typical users and we were able to hash out some of the difference that keep us from speaking the same language. The biggest problem seems to be that developers often do not see much advantage to well-written documentation. For small projects, good documentation can take just as long as the actual coding so there is little incentive on the front end. Instead, we reached the conclusion that a good solution is to provide bare-bones documentation and make it clear that the developer welcomes questions and problems. That way, he/she can write documentation on an as-needed basis instead of spending hours and hours on problems that may not arise. Another excellent solution–especially good for academics–is to view documentation as an aspect of teaching.

The final session was on Building a Better Backchannel and it, of course, had a robust backchannel. Mark Sample proposed the session and has recently written a Profhacker post about the session. Though we reached few conclusions, most of us agreed that conferences in general can do a better job of promoting a healthy backchannel. Whether because they fear tweckling or are simply unaware of its potential, too many major academic conferences do not have a robust backchannel where attendees can become participants. The value of the backchannel was demonstrated during our session as THATCampers in other sessions were able to tweet-in questions to our session while still participating in their session.

On the whole, this THATCamp experience was much more hack-based than the last one I attended. More than anything, the skills I learned/dabbled in during this THATCamp piquéd my interest to learn more and grow in my DH abilities. I have already begun reading through HTML5: Up and Running based on Jeremy Boggs’ recommendation.

Lastly, I must say thank you to CHNM, The Mellon Foundation, and The Kress Foundation for awarding me a travel fellowship to attend THATCamp Prime this year. I look forward to taking the knowledge and skills gained during the BootCamp back my colleagues in and around Little Rock, AR and, I hope, connecting with a group of DH-minded people to improve my scholarship and teaching.


Image of new CHNM logo by Flickr user ghwpix

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