Matthew Lincoln, PhD Art History and Digital Research

Play space vs. work place

You should be able to tell from my posts on day 1 and day 2 of THATCamp Prime 2013 that I really enjoyed my time there. I came away with new contacts, fresh ideas, and some clearer signposts as to which skill paths I should pursue. That said, I also came away with tempered expectations for my next THATCamp experience a more critical outlook on the ebullient rhetoric surrounding the un-conference model. Take a look at #THATCamp on Twitter to get a taste of the bubbly enthusiasm.

A play space does not replace a work place

THATCamp prides itself as being a play space, a zone whose deliberate lack of structure enables creativity. The un-conference model THATCamp adopts is a powerful one: the session schedule is decided during breakfast, people are encouraged to walk in and out of sessions as they please, the participants are responsible for shaping their own experience and that of all the other attendees. The un-conference model addresses the well-rehearsed issues endemic to “traditional” conferences like CAA, RSA, or MLA.

This isn’t a magical formula for productivity, however. At my well-attended session, we had a very lively discussion of visualizing geographic and temporal information. Yet it was wide-ranging and unstructured almost to a fault, from my perspective. We touched briefly on many relevant issues, but I came away without any concrete tools to use for my project. Many people chorused their interest in the problem, but we were often at cross-purposes in hashing out guidelines for such visualizations:

  • We agreed on the truism that a good visualization cannot show everything at once, and so must be designed with different facets or discovery layers.
  • We could not agree if granular data access could be married to large-scale data visualization. I firmly believe it should be, in the interest of both transparency and utility, but I and others who advocated this encountered strong pushback.
  • We also could not agree how to classify different levels of uncertainty, particularly when it comes to data drawn from secondary sources (this disagreement may have been born of disciplinary differences, which I address below.)

This debate is in part due to the intractability of the question I posed, so I probably shouldn’t be overly surprised at the outcome. And simply coming to understand that there are difficult choices to be made in these kinds of visualizations is itself a productive result, of a kind. However the experience also clarified for me how important it is to complement the freeform play space of THATCamp with a more strictly-focused group to hash out the difficult, specific labor demanded by an individual project.

Multi-disciplinarity won’t necessarily offer answers to intra-disciplinary questions

The strength of this particular THATCamp’s multi-disciplinarity was, for me, its weakness as well. As I suggested above, there were some big methodological differences between the participants in our panel. It’s good to challenge the basic assumptions of your research, but it does take up a lot of time. I found myself having to explain why dates and locations derived from works of art are as legitimate as those found from text resources, an argument that would never have to be articulated among art historians. Similarly, I had to explain the basic art historical questions of the history and transmission of visual forms as I was trying to explain why anyone would be interested in establishing a large-scale visualization of when artists were in what cities. This is not a waste of time; an academic must always be able to explain their work to any audience. But disciplinary borders have their value in certain settings, and if anything, I came away from THATCamp better appreciating how multi-disciplinary work can complement, but not replace, deep immersion in a focused field.

How would my next session go differently?

I’d emphasize again that I don’t think either of these are problems THATCamp ought to solve. But I am glad to draw lessons from this first experience, and I will be keeping these limitations in mind when preparing for future un-conferences. I’m eager to see if a discipline-specific version of THATCamp, like THATCamp CAA would resolve the disciplinary problems I met this weekend. (I’m sure it would come with its own drawbacks, as well.)

If I propose another session in the future, I will also be more thoughtful in enumerating a smaller or narrower challenge. Far from stifling creativity, I think a little more specificity on my part may have allowed participants to bring their varied and valuable perspectives to bear more quickly and productively, perhaps producing something as actionable as Jeffery McClurken’s outline for a SWAT Team for abandoned DH websites.

Which is all to say, then, that I am now equally energized both for the hard work to be done on my specific projects, as well as for the possibilities of future THATCamps.

Cite this post:

Lincoln, Matthew D. "Play space vs. work place." Matthew Lincoln, PhD (blog), 10 Jun 2013,

Tagged in: THATCampAcademiaDigital Humanities