This past weekend (extended weekend, really), I attended the Canadian Writers Research Collaboratory  (or, CWRC) conference  with the theme of “Space/Place/Play.” This is a significant collection of digital humanities projects, all involving Canadian literature, writers, and texts in some form. It was a really fantastic experience, and I am so glad that I took on extra administrative responsibilities  in order to be able to pay to go. In the spirit of the theme of the conference, I’ve modeled my thoughts on the conference according to the themes.
(I invite you, before they disappear into the Twitter-abyss, to check out the #CWRC hashtag  from the weekend; some good stuff there, although incomplete because, ironically, we had trouble with wifi access. If anyone who was at the conference actively archived the tweets, please post a link in the comments.)
There is often a backlash against academics going to face-to-face conferences in the age of immediate, affordable, global communication tools. We’re told it’s a waste of money, a waste of time, a waste of resources, and that we are cheating our students by canceling classes. But, sometimes, you need to be inhabiting the same physical space in order to really get things done, with no other distractions or demands on your time. This was one of the biggest comments from all those working on collaborative digital humanities projects under the umbrella of CWRC: it’s important to meet face-to-face as often as possible (which, admittedly, isn’t really all that often at all). And this can’t always be done in the summer.
In fact, there is something nice about being able to take some time away from teaching to reconnect with the research side of the academic identity coin. We generously give students fall break (where we spend all our time grading and reconnecting with family ) but fault faculty for taking much-needed professional development time. And, for most of us working (teaching, fulfilling administrative roles) in higher education, a conference in October or November needs to happen in order to be able to plan for your research project in the summer (or, if funding is needed, the summer after that). It’s not like in the professional world where a prject is conceived, designed, and carried out within a limited and compact time frame; those working outside of higher education have the luxury of usually only having one or two projects on the go; their focus can be solely on what they are currently tasked with doing. We in higher education teach, have administrative responsibilities, advise, put out fires, etc, all while trying to do a research project that would be difficult and complex without all the distractions. Everything takes just a little bit longer.
Conferences provide a space to slow down, think, learn, interact, and potentially create new connections, ideas, and collaborations.
This conference really put into sharp focus how cut off I have been geographically and (dare I say it) spiritually from my colleagues in Canadian literature. I am isolated from the people and areas of research that I am most interested in, but also from where my talents (bilingualism, connections to similar research being done in Quebec, knowledge of archives) could be of use. Because of funding for these kinds of projects, being present at the institution where the research is taking place (or at least in the country, as much of the research is funded federally) is often paramount. That is beginning to change, but while I enthusiastically offered my assistance in a variety of roles, all involved all wondered how it would work with me living in a difference country from where the research and the work is taking place.
But I am also in a very different place in my career. One of my colleagues who follows my blogging asked me if I have that voice in my head when I write that tells me that what I am writing isn’t good enough. I said no, that voice went away the moment I stopped caring about getting a tenure-track job , stopped caring what the official channels of academic approval thought of my C.V. (but not my writing). Just about everyone else in the room was either a PhD student on the road to a tenure-track job, funded post-docs, or tenure-track/tenured professors. This isn’t to say that the issue of how scholarship and research dissemination in innovative formats used by the digital humanities isn’t absolutely important; it’s just that it’s a topic that interests me in theory, but not in practice. I could afford, perhaps a little more than some of the others in the room, to play.
This was the best part of the conference, and perhaps every conference. It’s the chance to meet people who you wouldn’t otherwise meet, make connections you wouldn’t otherwise make. I had the opportunity to learn and to play with fantastic digital humanities tools like Voyant , a textual analysis tool, or Omeka , an open-source online tool to curate and exhibit digital collections. It’s one thing to read about or hear about these tools, it’s another thing all together to have the chance to sit in a room with experts and novices and learn together about how to use a new and exciting tool. The experience radically changed how I thought about my dissertation research and my desire to publish it as simply a monograph. It also lead me to radically reimagine how I even did my presentation (which was, thankfully, the last time, so I had some time to play).
The playing will continue far beyond this weekend, too. Not only did I reconnect with people in my field in Canada, I also connected with some important people here in the States doing digital humanities. Who would have known that it would have taken flying to Toronto to meet someone originally from eastern Kentucky who is interested in fostering and facilitating digital humanities research and opportunities at smaller colleges in Appalachia? I’m hoping that this is one immediate way that space and place and play can intersect in a meaningful and fruitful way. But more on that another time.
For now, I have to shift gears and get ready to teach tomorrow.