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College hosts first digital humanities conference geared toward liberal arts college participants

Come June, intellect and the internet will meet at St. Norbert, with Ryan Cordell (English) coordinating. Cordell, the college’s first digital humanist, is the force behind this summer’s THATCamp LAC, the inaugural digital humanities conference focused on liberal arts colleges.

THAT, in this case, is The Humanities And Technology. Their confluence in academic research loosely defines the digital humanities, or DH for short.

“It’s a field 25 to 30 years old, but that’s still kind of finding its feet,” says Cordell. “Most broadly, it’s anyone working in the humanities who’s using substantive digital tools either for discovery or interpretation.”

Cordell’s own research serves as an illustration. He’s constructing an interactive website to let users easily compare versions of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “The Celestial Railroad,” digitally unearthed from regional and religious newspapers across the country.

Projects like his invariably require support from technology experts. DH first flourished at large research institutions like the University of Virginia, where Cordell earned his Ph.D.

Fortunately, the very digital tools that make new forms of humanities research and analysis possible also facilitate collaboration between major DH centers and digital humanists like Cordell at smaller colleges across the country.

Says Cordell: “When I have a technical question, I send it out on Twitter, and I tend to get lots of feedback and help. ... It becomes sort of my crowdsourcing engine.”

Crowdsourcing is the name of the DH game and the principle behind the innovative format of THATCamp, which first saw light in 2008 at George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media.

THATCamp is an “unconference” modeled on the tech world rather than the academic one. There are no papers read aloud and no observers. Everyone applies as a participant, preparing a few remarks about a question of interest. Then the interactive fun begins.

“Usually the sessions get assembled on the first day. The few people who are featured in a given session will talk about the problem that they’re wrestling with or the idea that they have, and then it becomes a feedback session,” Cordell says.

Those in the thick of a project like Cordell’s sometimes pull back the curtain on the bits and bytes of their virtual construct.

“I’ve seen people do live coding right in the midst of the session,” Cordell says.

That’s only natural given THATCamp participants’ stated goal: to work together for the common good. As THATCamp LAC happens concurrently with THATCamp Prime at George Mason on June 4-5, that goal will manifest in the two sites holding joint virtual sessions.

Says Cordell: “It gives our participants who are probably just coming into the field a peek into one of the hubs of the field, and I think it’s also valuable for the people at the big hubs to get a sense of what DH looks like on the margins as well. I’m hoping it will be mutually beneficial.”

Spring 2011 magazine

Web extraLook here for web-exclusive content that expands on topics presented in the current
St. Norbert College Magazine.

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VideoSisters in learning
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