Taking Notes at #THATCamp
This past weekend was THATCamp Prime 2012 at the George Mason’s Center for History and New Media, and thanks to a few cancellations, I got the chance to join in the fun and rub elbows with 100+ DHers. Like many other attendees, I drove home with a browser full of links and a host new ideas. Although I wasn’t able to attend Amanda French’s proposed meta-session on Sunday (“The One About THATCamp“), reading the session’s description made me think about one aspect of unconferences that I’ve seen many people participate in, but no one write about: note-taking.
Most non-coding THATCamp sessions follow a similar pattern: everyone gathers in a room, some brave soul (usually the person who proposed the session) strikes up a conversation. Near the same time, someone else creates a new Google Doc for the occasion and tweets out the link. (GDocs is still the program of choice for THATCamp notes, though we learned this weekend that @boone and others are working on a non-corporate alternative to go with the THATCamp website’s redesign). Everyone then collaboratively takes notes, and the document they create stands as both a record for the session and a resource for future learners.
As someone who takes notes at almost every session, I’ve seen two general patterns develop once a collaborative GDoc is established. The first (more common) trend is that a large group of people –virtually everyone in the room– will open the doc on their laptop, but that only a few people (one or two) actually type anything. Occasionally, there’s a spike of activity for the first fifteen minutes, but the session usually ends with a few persistent people writing while most other people watch. Of course, this makes a lot of sense. If everyone’s typing, no one is having a conversation.
But there is an alternative. In a few sessions, I’ve seen a better process at work. The best example from this weekend came during Mark Sample‘s “A Better Blogging Assignment.” (The GDoc is here). A few diehards kept the GDoc going throughout the session, but other participants jumped in and out over the course of the conversation. The result was that rare form of THATCamp magic – a document that seemed to write itself. At one point, I gave up note-taking entirely just to go back and organize all the information that was coming in: deleting redundancies, corralling links, and putting in rough headings.
As it stands, I’m not sure how to encourage the latter pattern over the former. I’m guessing there needs to be a critical mass of people in the room, and that the discussion itself needs to be juuust right (not too exciting, not too dull) to give people the impetus/opportunity they need to write down their thoughts. But setting all that aside for the moment, I’d like to highlight some of the benefits of the notes taken at THATCamp:
Notes give non & novice hackers a chance to make something. Anyone who’s been to a THATCamp or followed the twitter-stream knows that one of the unconferences’ founding mantras was “more hack, less yack.” For people who are just beginning to wade into the DH community, this can intimidating. Note-taking is an easy and, for many academics, very familiar way to create something during a session. Perhaps more to the point, I’ve found that the majority of sessions at THATCamp –despite the DH ethos– seem to be geared more towards conversations and discussion than true hacking. For both these reasons, I think a collaborative group of notes is a great outcome for a session.
Notes create a record, one that’s portable beyond THATCamp. While CHNM and others have done a wonderful job spreading THATCamps across the globe and giving fellowships for travel, there’s still way too many people who get left out. Note-taking is one modest way to include people following THATCamp from a distance into the unconference fold. Much as in a classroom, notes pins down information and structures of thought that would otherwise disappear into the ether. And how many traditional conferences have had sessions where scholars said incredible things, but no one bothered to write it down? Long term, notes create a record of what went on at each THATCamp. In some distant future, some fortunate scholar will be able to study how different humanists dealt with the information revolution by looking at these docs. (I can picture the dissertation titles now: ” The evolution of digital identities and the hermeneutics of @alienweedman”).
I think one easily-achievable goal THATCampers should set for the summer is to establish a loose set of best practices for note-taking. Browsing through the docs created over the weekend, I noticed a few practices that I plan to add to my repertoire:
- Include the name and handle of everyone who’s in the room
- Include the names of note-takers, specifically. (I actually struggled with this second point. Although I’m all for everyone sharing credit, “taking notes” is very different from being a stenographer, and notes read more like each person’s interpretation of a conversation that the actual conversation itself. It’s helpful to know who’s opinions are actually reflected on the page).
- Delete documents that never came to fruition. Some GDocs become orphans, with only a line or two of text, and I don’t see the values of saving them. It’s like finding an empty box at an archives; the title may be just what you’re looking for, but you’ll be sorely disappointed when you open it up.
What have I missed? What you think about note-taking at THATCamp, and should we put together some best practices?