I spent the weekend at THATCamp PNW, an unconference that examines technology and the humanities. It was a gathering of folks that, despite my considering myself a "recovering academic," are very much "my people" -- English PhDs, archivists, librarians, Composition and Rhetoric folks, humanities scholars, historians, geeks.
My favorite session was Dave Lester's bootcamp session on "collaborative street-mapping," where we used a combination of OpenStreetMap and Walking Papers to map the street, buildings, and amenities around the University of Washington campus.
The best part, of course, was finally meeting Julie Meloni, who I've known from the Internets for 6 years and never, until this weekend, actually met in person.
This was the first scholarly conference (ok, unconference, but whatever) I've been to since putting my PhD on indefinite pause, and as such, it was interesting to reflect on the choices I've made and the career path I'm forging myself now.
The folklorist in me is wont to invoke Victor Turner far too often. But I do feel as though I'm in some sort of "betwixt and between" -- not so much a transitional, liminal state of course, but a place in which I exist in between worlds, that of the academy (and more broadly, of the education system) and that of the tech industry. It's completely the wrong model to apply to my situation. A Venn Diagram would probably be better. Maybe.
Or maybe just the simple statement that I see things differently, both in the tech and in the educational worlds, because I stand with one foot in both.
I was struck (yet again) this weekend, listening to scholars talk about funding and managing their digital humanities projects as to how the pace of technology creation and adoption moves much slower in academic circles. I heard people tout Twitter and Prezi, for example, as the "next new things." Twitter is four years old; Prezi two. But far more troubling than the speed with which technologies get implemented in the classroom (because I do recognize that as a tech blogger, I am exposed to new tools far sooner and have far fewer obstacles to weaving these into my work-world) were issues surrounding the building of and the funding of (digital humanities) technologies.
I watch a lot of companies get funded to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars, millions even. And while I'm sure plenty of people will argue that those companies offer a fabulous business model (and an opportunity for a big "exit" for investors), it's disconcerting to see teachers and scholars struggle to obtain grant funding -- for their projects and for their jobs.
I have to wonder if the bureaucracy surrounding grants (and more broadly, around academia) prevents the sort of lean and agile development that tech projects in the private sector benefit from. But at the same time, I also fear that if we only care about throwing our best minds (and best hackers -- seriously, where were the hackers this weekend?!) at the sorts of tech projects that are able to identify and address (and sometimes create) consumer "needs," that we'll miss out on building strong tools and good projects that don't fall into the "consumer" model.
This isn't just the lament of a disgruntled former PhD candidate in literature turned tech blogger either. The stakes continue to increase for humanities programs, many of which are finding their funding or axed altogether (Screw you SUNY Albany) because university administrators do not see their scholarship as "good business." And outside the argument that "culture matters," I think it may be the digital humanities -- supported in part by the work of THATCamp -- that will point not only to the continued relevance and rigor of the field, but to the ways in which preservation and scholarship will operate in the future.