Sunday, November 13, 2011

Social Justice, Technology & The Humanities: THATCamp Pacific Northwest Style

I had no idea what THATCamp was all about when I signed up to go. The description of what would be going on was a little cryptic:

THATCamp stands for “The Humanities and Technology Camp”, where “camp” implies a participant-driven “unconference.” Check your papers and suits at the door, and just be ready to talk about the work you’re doing, the work you want to do, how you might collaborate with others, and how you can help and be helped by a community dedicated to the intersection of the humanities and technologies. THATCamp was created by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. You might also know CHNM as the institution behind Zotero and Omeka. CHNM supports this and other regional THATCamps.
I figured as someone who primarily teaches in a Digital Filmmaking department, has a higher degrees in Cultural Studies and Film and is dabbling in new media that there might be something of interest to me at this "un-conference" especially since the Pacific Northwest THATCamp was focused on technology and social justice.  Going in my hope was that I would come out of THATCamp with some new technological tools and platforms for getting my students psyched about the possibilities of digital domains in my more history/theory centered classrooms.  I was also hoping that these tools would be relatively easily to implement so that I wouldn't have to devote lots of class time to get students to a relatively basic level of competency (which I feel obligated to do when I have students make video projects).

I wasn't disappointed either - THATCamp delivered. I find out about a whole litany of technological tools that other professors and grad students were using in their classrooms: Jing (screen-capture software), DiRT (standing for Digital Research Tools), and Storify (a way to create stories using social media posts), etc.  I attended workshops on how one professor used Omeka (a digital archiving platform) to chronicle the DIY music movement and how the University of Washington - Bothell is creating a Facebook game to educate the wider community about their wetlands restoration project (a beta version can be accessed here and I am already totally addicted to it).

However, the thing that was most interesting to me was not the sharing of the techie tools, but rather a conversation that erupted around the acceptance of the digital in the teaching of humanities in an "un-conference" session about Curriculum Development. Since I primarily teach at a community college, the push to teach students employable skills is forcible and consistent. But to some of my colleagues in graduate school and those teaching at the university level, there is less of a concern pedagogically regarding the real-world applicability of their classes. This brought up a lot of questions for me, ones that weren't necessarily answered during the day I spent at the PNW THATCamp, but things I will definitely be thinking about for awhile:
  • Can we teach Humanities and not teach it in a digital fashion and expect our students to be employable when they exit the academy?
  • Why is teaching digital "trade skills" in the Humanities frowned upon?  Especially since there are disciplines like engineering and computer science that do teach how to use technology in their curriculum.
  • With newly-graduated college students accounting for some of the highest numbers of unemployed and underemployed in our faltering economy is is prudent for those of us who teach Humanities to turn a blind eye to teaching them to be as technologically proficient as they will be theoretically?
My point is not to dramatically shift the conversation away from the initial purpose of a liberal arts education - to create informed and well-rounded citizens.  I believe this is an important component to the philosophical underpinnings of our higher education system and for society in general.  I would rather like to tweak the Enlightenment principles behind this philosophy slightly. Many students expect to get a job after earning a higher degree. Most of us (including professors like me) are not independently wealthy and we need to work to survive. So why are we continuing to be elitest about what we teach at the collegiate level and how we teach it? Why are we privileging certain types of trade-centered knowledge (like computer programming) over others (graphic design)? Does this help or hurt our students as they attempt to step out into the working world in the worst economy since the Great Depression?  Ultimately, I do not see why being taught to be technologically savvy and acquiring critical thinking skills are considered mutually exclusive in classes and colleges where the focus is more on the historical and theoretical considerations of knowledge. 

The most interesting thing to me is that when you dissect the concept of Digital Humanities there is an obvious privileging of the Humanities side of the phrase over the Digital.  As someone who primarily teaches technical "trade" skills - video production and editing - at a community college I would like to see more discussion at future THATCamps about incorporating the wealth of what Humanities has to offer into the Digital-based classroom not just what those of us who work and create in the Digital trades can do for the Humanities.

For more information about THATCamp check out: