Making Playful Things

To follow up on Mark Sample’s evocative metaphor of carpentry as a way of approaching ideas in the humanities, I’d like to propose we look at the production of playful things (from bots to video games) as a way of transforming our relationship with text.

I’m particularly interested in ideas drawn from electronic literature, procedural narratives, adventure games, metagames, alternate reality games, and other twisting objects that invite play. The digital humanities approach to “critical making” has shown up at several THATCamps through workshops on non-programmer friendly games software and tools such as Twine and Inform 7, sessions on wearable electronics and 3D printers, and everything from scavenger hunts to fake alien invasions. But when we go home from THATCamp, the vast majority of humanities scholarly activity is still business as usual. Why so serious?

I’m currently working on a project exploring Alice in Wonderland through a short platformer, animation, comics and a procedurally generated text. I’d love to talk to other people today who are making playful (if perhaps unpublishable?) things.

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Sustainability outside of the Neoliberal box

Sustainability hangs like an albatross over many DH projects. Funding is short term, projects come and go. Granting foundations have made it abundantly clear that they expect continuity measures beyond the period of a grant to insure greater permanence to their investments. Moreover, many DH practitioners find themselves in conditions of contingent funding, one grant rejection from ejection from their field.


While it seems like a given that sustainability is desirable, we need to better unpack issues around what gets sustained and how. The current framing of “sustainability” centers around organizational and project continuity made possible by clever business models that market some sort of service for fees. (Those of us working on open access or open data efforts need to be especially clever!).


Ideas about what sustainability means and how we should attain it draws very heavily from neoliberalism. Grants are a kind of no-interest venture capital loan. They are there to seed a project, get it going, and then it is up to the project to maintain itself. Success means a project (and its associated institution) has enough continued income to continue or even grow through non-grant sources. The need for sustainability whips us into shape, making us hard nosed, rational cost optimizers and entrepreneurs. Such discipline has a value, but at the same time, many practitioners when into the humanities because their passions and skills happen to align to (sadly difficult to monetize) humanistic interests.


What do we lose if we demand entrepreneuralism in every walk of life, even (digital) scholarship? Is this kind of vision of sustainability always desirable?


One danger may be the encouragement of monopolies or oligarchies where “sustainability” is not just a means to an end (some sort of public service), it becomes an end unto itself. Dominating a market place and crowding out rivals is surely sustainable. But what is the larger community cost of that sustainability? Secondly, the humanities and social sciences themselves are inherently “unsustainable”. They do not turn a profit, but rely on continued philanthropic or public support. Both funding sources are now stretched to the breaking point as politicians, pundits, university administrators, and increasingly debt-burdened students demand tangible, easily monetized returns on investing in these areas of scholarship. Do finance-centric models of sustainability in DH further aggravate these problems?


One runs the risk of sounding naïve and highly entitled to even raise these issues, like spoiled children asking to be spared from the harsh discipline of the marketplace. However, a critical and more expansive perspective on “sustainability” may be very timely, since all areas of the humanities are threatened by the reductionist balance-sheets of neoliberalism.


What other dimensions do we need to consider when we discuss “sustainability”? Do we need to think more in terms of sustaining knowledge and information “ecologies” rather than single efforts that happened to dominate now? How do we sustain our community’s human resources, their expertise, dedication, and passion, when so many of them only have contingent employment?

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Session proposal: A solid definition of “open” – - the Open Knowledge Foundation’s “Open Definition”

Let’s face it: intellectual property is confusing, and the concept of “open” is even more confusing.

I’ve had collection directors assert that if they make low-resolution thumbnail images of their collections available online then they have satisfied the requirements of “open access.”

The Open Knowledge Foundation has published a working definition of what open means, and it ain’t what you might think.

Let’s work through their assertions and see what we can challenge or add.


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Session Proposal – - The way we review grant proposals sucks: what if we used scrum?

A bunch of people locked in a conference room for a weekend is a poor way to decide who gets funded and who goes away empty handed. There has to be a better way.

I’d like to explore how we might use the rapid, iterative, team-based methodologies of “scrum” to create a fairer, more accurate, and more satisfying way of reviewing grants.

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Digital Humanities and Online Education

What connections currently exist between developments in digital humanities and developments in online education (whether the much ballyhooed MOOCs or other varieties of online education; whether in the K-12 context or that of higher education)? What connections might be productively made? In what ways is the public discourse about online education likely to affect–or even set–the agenda for work in the digital humanities? In what ways have projects in the digital humanities been feeding into face-to-face education and what might that suggest about continuities and differences about the ways in which digital humanities projects might feed into online education? Is online education a self-evident “partner” for work in digital humanities or is the relationship between these two enterprises more complicated than that? I’d be interested in hearing about people’s experiences at the intersection of these two trends and their thoughts about future developments along these lines.

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Proposed Session: Build a Inventory of Services and Resources Needed to Support Digital Humanities and/or Curricular Technology

<strong>Let's Build an Inventory of Services and Resources Needed to Support Digital Humanities and/or Curricular Technology</strong>
<p dir="ltr">What are the core services and/or resources that are needed to provide support for digital humanities? What are the core services and/or resources need to provide support for curricular technology? Which of these are common, and which are unique? What needs to be local to a particular campus, and what could be shared amongst campuses or through other creative partnerships and sourcing arrangements?</p>
The results of this work will inform the planning efforts on our campus (Middlebury College). I suspect other schools that are looking to either begin programs in digital humanities and wonder what overlap exists will find this analysis useful. It may also help those who are trying to develop collaborative models wherein multiple campuses each develop specific services or resources and then collectively provide their campuses with these shared services.

This can be done in-person at a session or on-line at a wiki page I've set up at;usp=sharing  . If this work has already been done, there is a tab on the wiki page to add links to relevant articles.


– mike



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How to form a THATCamp Coordinating Council

When the grant funding for the THATCamp project runs out at the end of March 2014, my position as THATCamp Coordinator will also end. I personally am not too worried about the future of THATCamp: it’s already sustaining itself very well, and to some extent I think that even if people cease to organize or go to THATCamps, it won’t be a tragedy — the spirit of THATCamp cannot die, and I think THATCamp has already had some highly laudable effects.

So it’s getting near the time when we’ll need to give the THATCamp community an even greater degree of ownership than it has already. I’m proposing a session here to figure out how to set up a THATCamp Coordinating Council to take over the (very few) tasks that I’m currently performing as THATCamp Coordinator. Let me make one thing clear: I don’t want to use this session to actually *appoint* said Council; I want instead to use this session to figure out the best *process* for setting up such a Council. Should I call for volunteers and appoint the people I think would be best, or should we hold some kind of elections? How would we hold such elections? And if that turns out to be an easy decision, then we can also talk about what the demographics and duties of such a Council should be. I want this to be a highly-tweeted session as well, one that involves the virtual #THATCamp community as much as possible.

I did think about pre-scheduling this session at THATCamp Leadership, by the way, but I was actually worried that planning a particular session about the THATCamp Coordinating Council would be, well, un-THATCampy. :) So if you have ideas about how this should go, please comment here, tweet @thatcamp, and/or (if you’re coming to THATCamp Leadership) speak your mind in person during the initial scheduling session tomorrow.

I’ve got a very very drafty set of thoughts about the demographics, duties, and processes of the THATCamp Coordinating Council, which I will create a Notepad for and attach to this post. Anyone with an account on (not just this site) can log in to edit that document. To get a THATCamp account, go to

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Participatory DH

In a recent essay, “Critical Theory and the Mangle of Digital Humanities,” Todd Presner identifies as the core Utopian idea of the Digital Humanities, “participation without condition.” For Presner this concept begins with how DH is making the walls of the academy porous through its “conceiving of scholarship in ways that foundationally involve community partners, cultural institutions, the private sector, non-profits, government agencies, and slices of the general public,” thus expanding “both the notion of scholarship and the public sphere in order to create new sites and nodes of engagement, documentation, and collaboration.” In so doing, DHers “are able to place questions of social justice and civic engagement, for example, front-and-center; they are able to revitalize the cultural record in ways that involve citizens in the academic enterprise and bring the academy into the expanded public sphere.”

Presner’s discussion of what might be called DH’s “Participatory Turn” can be reformulated for humanities scholars and teachers into a more specific and crucial question concerning how we might best reach productively beyond the walls of the literary classroom. Such a question gains added force from three relevant contexts: (1) David Marshall’s observation that the current academy is a 19th century institution in which a 20th century curriculum is taught to 21st century students; (2) The fact that most humanities undergraduates don’t even know that there is such a thing as humanities research; and (3) The assertion made by Donald Brinkman of Microsoft Research that humanists don’t just need “big data,” they need “deep data.” These contexts raise at least three important questions: (1) How can humanists bring our research into the graduate and undergraduate classroom?; (2) How can we best curate and explore our datasets? and (3) How can we fruitfully engage the public, “citizen humanists,” in the work of the humanities, helping to deepen our data and the questions we ask of it?

I think these are key questions both for the future of DH and the future of the Humanities, well worth discussing at a THATCamp devoted to Leadership. They cut across many aspects of DH work, from teaching, to coding, to archives, to editing, to publishing, to licensing, and crowdsourcing.


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Session teaching basic node.js

Since Mark suggested a ‘make’ session about building a node.js bot, I thought I’d throw my hat in the ring and propose a ‘teach’ session on node.js. Any takers? Ideally, this session would lead you through the process of installing node, and explore basic examples to get an understanding of how to run and write small scripts. I would want this to be open to people of any skill level.

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Paralyzing or Parallelizing Workflows for Digital Collections

Much of the work in archival processing, documentary editing, exhibition and digitization involves spending a lot of time doing a series of tasks one after another with the end goal of “the big thing.” At the end there is finding aid and a collection available to researchers, or a volume of edited manuscripts or a large exhibition. I’ve been increasingly thinking that it’s in our best interest to make these into smaller discrete products that would come at varying degrees of polish and finish.


Elsewhere I’ve suggested that it’s in the best interest of cultural heritage organizations to start doing less and doing it more often. That is turn out smaller work products on a regular basis. Short blog posts, description of items as they are done, etc. I still think that is important. With that said, I’ve seen a lot of situations where there are significant bottlenecks in attempting to do this work in serial, when much of it could happen in parallel and help get more of the stuff of digital collections out there and potentially create opportunities for members of the public to help out.

For example, I know of one organization that insists on doing item level description for every item they digitize. The result is that there is a massive bottleneck in cataloging. So why not just digitize things with minimal collection level metadata and let other folks describe.

So I’d be interested in thinking through this with anyone else interested. Specifically I’d imagine

  1. Sharing a few example workflows for digital collection/exhibition projects at different organizations
  2. Picking one or two that the group thinks to be generally interesting and making diagrams of them to identify bottlenecks
  3. Thinking through and sketching out how we could make them turn out more frequent smaller products and get more of the work happening in parallel.
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