A THATCamp for environmental historians

Immediately before the start of the American Society for Environmental History conference in Seattle in April 2016, a small group of people gathered for the first environmental history-themed THATCamp. In this post, Ant Spider Bee editor Finn Arne Jørgensen, the Camp’s organizer, reflects on the experience. 

Let us begin with the fundamentals. What is a THATCamp? The acronym stands for The Humanities and Technology Camp and the first one was organized at George Mason University in 2008. Since then, hundreds of THATCamps have been organized across the world. A THATCamp is intended to be an informal and energetic event where humanists and technologists of all skill levels can learn and build together, furthering digital humanities of all kinds. Following the unconference model, a THATCamp encourages and expects active participation and collaboration from all participants (thus, there are no spectators), with a focus on discussion rather than formal presentations. A THATCamp is low-cost, public, open, self-organizing, participatory, and safe. In short, it’s a somewhat improvised and very dynamic event that is highly reliant on the contributions of and interactions between its participants.

As mentioned, the ASEH THATCamp was on the small side, with 11 participants, from grad students to full professors. We met from 9am – 3pm in a standard hotel conference room, and decided to sit in a circle to highlight the conversational character of the event. If the THATCamp had been bigger, we would have had to break into parallel session in order to keep this level of interaction. Like all THATCamps, we started by brainstorming possible sessions. We had thrown around some ideas before the meeting on the website and over email.,  After an initial discussion, we ended up with four sessions, all of them plenaries since we were few enough to make this manageable:

  1. Mapping
  2. Project Management
  3. Collaboration, including pedagogy
  4. Hacking session: Global environmental history sourcebook

In each of the sessions we discussed how digital tools can benefit our work as environmental historians. As may be seen from the Google Doc that has been produced during the event, we brought in plenty of examples from what we ourselves or other people have done and spent a fair amount of time discussing how these things had been done. We shared our own experiences with trying out particular tools or brought up challenges that other people might have some suggestions for. The hacking session at the end deserves special mention, and is certainly a format that should be explored further. Here, we discussed a particular project idea in order to get a collaborative project started – in this case, the idea of Ant Spider Bee co-editor Wilko Hardenberg for a Global Environmental History Sourcebook. While we only scratched the surface of such a project, having such a brainstorm around a shared idea has proven very useful, allowing to reflect jointly on both its possible benefits in teaching and research and the best and more cost-effective ways to set up the necessary technical framework. Ideally, a hacking session like this should, however, be even more hands-on. For instance, one of the activities at the 2014 THATCamp SHOT that I arranged at The Henry Ford in Dearborn was to improve the quality of SHOT’s presence on Wikipedia and Facebook.

Photo of towers of the Seattle Westin, the conference hotel.

No, we didn’t take any photos at the THATCamp itself, but look how cool our conference hotel, The Seattle Westin, looked! Photo: Finn Arne Jørgensen. CC 0.

THATCamps are intended to be low-budget events, open for all at a very low cost for the participants. In this particular case, we ran the ASEH THATCamp as a completely free event, where ASEH sponsored the meeting room. We had no AV equipment, as conference hotels tend to charge a fortune for this. Instead we all brought laptops and tablets, and we used the above-mentioned collaboratively edited Google Doc as our workspace. We also opened this to outside participants so they could watch our discussions from afar. Sometimes Twitter fills this functions at events, but in this case just spreading the word about the collaborative document via our social media channels worked pretty well.

We are hoping more conferences in the environmental humanities will include such events, but also workshops with digital themes using different organizational models. Both ASEH and ESEH conferences have had numerous panels and roundtables on digital methods, GIS workshops have been increasingly popular, the 2014 ASEH meeting hosted a pre-conference workshop on digital environmental history at CESTA, and Finn Arne is looking into the possibility of a digital map-based workshop at the ESEH 2017 conference in Zagreb, most likely setup as an introduction to leaflet.js, a flexible and powerful tool for creating online interactive maps. Stay tuned for more information!

Tips for people who want to organize a THATCamp:

  • It’s fun and easy!
  • Go to another THATCamp to get an idea of the format;
  • Read the thatcamp.org guide to organizing a THATCamp;
  • THATCamps can have themes, such as the 2016 THATCamp SHOT in Singapore, which will focus on pedagogy;
  • Seek local sponsors for access to good conference venues;
  • Invite local people from nearby universities, museums, organizations, and elsewhere;
  • A THATCamp does not have to be run as part of a conference, but if you do, work with the conference organizers to ensure high visibility and possibly include a THATCamp signup option in the conference registration form.

#THATCamp #ASEH2016 – a brief timeline in Tweets

Featured image: Terrible photo showing demonstrating how not to spell THATCamp. Photo: Finn Arne Jørgensen. CC 0.

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