I’m more than psyched–why, I’d rate my anticipation as just short of stoked–for THATCamp, the user-generated “unconference” on digital humanities happening at the Center for History and New Media this weekend. But it’s also triggering a big old wave of imposter syndrome. The other campers all appear to actually, you know, do stuff with technology and the humanities. While I, um, have this blog where I occasionally talk about robots.*

My first visit to CHNM was about a year and a half ago. I’d met Josh Greenberg (now of the NYPL) at a conference, and Jeremy Boggs at another conference, and they urged me to come visit the Center next time I was in DC. So I did. I really wanted to see the place: I figured it would be a cross between Willy Wonka’s factory and the “real world” of The Matrix.** But I may have misconstrued the invitation. I went wearing a t-shirt and with my brain in vacation mode; I thought they’d point out the Oompa Loompas and we’d grab some lunch. Five minutes after I get there, I’m sitting across a big conference table from Dan Cohen, Tom Scheinfeldt, and the one and only Roy Rosenzweig, and Roy is asking me questions like, “so, what digital history projects are you currently working on?” Which is sort of like Albert Einstein asking you how you are currently advancing humanity’s understanding of the cosmos, and you thought you were just meeting Josh and Jeremy for burritos. I felt a bit the fraud.***

The proprietor of a youth hostel in San Francisco once told me a gay, Portuguese slang term for straight people who nevertheless “get it.” That is, for people who are not gay and Portuguese but who support and sympathize and understand the challenges facing gay Portuguese as well as can possibly be expected. I’ve forgotten the term but the concept appealed to me. How could it not? It’s a way of being, or at least feeling, perfectually righteous without expending any actual effort. Like Canadian foreign policy. And that’s what I fear my relationship to the new digital humanities is like.

I’m down with digital humanities, don’t get me wrong. I get it. (As in, I haven’t “been to Prague” been to Prague, but I know the whole “do a podcast, code an Omeka plug-in, now I know how bad Endnote is” thing.) I absolutely believe that it’s the future. And I love the people who do this work, people who don’t just have one foot in each of C.P. Snow’s two cultures, but are up to their waist in both. They are my tribe. But when I look at all the things my fellow campers are doing I can’t help wondering, what have I done for digital humanities lately? I haven’t typed a line of code since adolescence, when my attempt to create a dozen interacting artificial intelligences in BASIC crashed our old PineApple IIe (true story). Where’s my collaborative transcription tool, my open source mapping project, my well-timed intervention in the ludology vs. narrativology debate? I could say my analog job and book and family don’t leave a lot of time for the electronic frontier. But that’s not a real answer. Everybody has responsibilities.

Ah well. Some excellent conversations are shaping up for THATCamp around gaming and playful learning (topics I’ve at least talked about before) as well as visualization, data mining, you name it. And I know I will meet some cool and accomplished people, and I expect I will come home energized and ready to begin. I just hope they don’t throw me in the chocolate river.*****


*That’s technology, right?

**And it totally IS.

***I did what anybody would do in my shoes: I pretended a bunch of Bill Turkel‘s ideas were my own.

****I do know what all these words mean.

*****Your reward for actually reading all five footnotes: a lost chapter of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory featuring the sixth golden ticket winner and her untimely demise.


  1. I especially enjoyed the dig about Canadian foreign policy. and though I’m not really caught up on this whole ‘technological humanities’ stuff, the lost chapter of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was worth it. so, what digitial history projects are you currently working on?

  2. Flattery will get you everywhere, Rob.

    I compare tech sophistication to tennis prowess: there’s always someone who can beat you 6-0, 6-0, and someone you can beat 6-0, 6-0. THATCamp is less about tech chops than about ideas and the pragmatic advance of the field by a community–hackers and “regular” folks included.

  3. And here I was worrying that I didn’t have the humanities chops for THATCamp!

    Perhaps we should all wear nametags with a variant of personals-ad shorthand: D4H or H4D.

    Ben “D4H” Brumfield

  4. I just wanted to thank you for the clever little “Kicking and Screaming” reference– it’s one of my favorite movies…

  5. I have the same feelings about this — nibbling at the edges of some larger production. But the larger production is almost as good — no maybe its just as much fun–as chocolate. And I like your concept course idea a lot.

  6. Bwah! I remember that afternoon, and thought you acquitted yourself quite well. And the Mexican food was tasty, as well.

    Looking forward to catching up this weekend…

  7. Your post hit how I feel about digital humanities on the dot. It will totally be the future and do great things and revolutionize history and rock. But like our neighbors to the north, I can speak basically the same language, it just sounds funny.

    When you say create a data mining program to search all historic newspapers using XML tags… I know what you mean. But I can’t seem to break that barrier of actually using digital techniques in my own work. Maybe in time.

  8. I think you should spend your limited spare time making a robot. A computer with feet is a good place to start. It’s a new millienium, so go ahead and make your own collaborative transcription tool, in your garage. If it were me, I’d give it a singing Johnny Cash voice, though you’d prolly go with the King.

  9. Pingback: All That Camp

  10. I wish I could have attended THATCamp, since I’m teaching a Digital History course in the fall (see my preliminary outline – — you will see I’ve also passed off Bill Turkel’s, and Dan Cohen’s, ideas as my own!)
    However, I don’t know a lick of code. Talk about being an imposter.

  11. Pingback: Playful Historical Thinking

  12. Pingback: Tecumseh’s Curse (Chapter 1) | Play The Past

Comments are closed.