Sunday, June 14, 2009

What I felt at geek camp

it's sunday night and i'm already forgetting what the week was like, which i do not want to do, because i felt some things last week at geek camp that i have not felt in a very long time, good things, things i do not want to forget.

excitement: by the end of the week i was seeing possibilities for creativity and partnerships and interactivity and scope for the imagination (thanks anne) that i have never seen before in an academic context. this edmonton course is going to be great, and i can see now how it might turn into something really vital and living, a kind of citizens' treasure trove. a whole new way of thinking collectivities and narratives is starting to take shape, and although i can't yet be cogent about it, i get a thrill when i think about what we might make. but it wasn't like this all week; first, there was --

agony: on monday i felt i belonged. for sure, there was all kinds of technical vocabulary i hadn't mastered, but susan brown is emphatic that tools can't be solely in the hands of the developers: tell them what you need, she insists, and hold their feet to the fire until they make it. ah, bossy. i can do bossy. monday's good feeling lasted into wednesday morning, by which point i was also feeling impatient with a lot of the tools we were looking at: how many ways can there be to build a concordance? something turned on wednesday afternoon, when i started to understand just how enormous this world is, how hard it is to build a single tool for textual analysis, how elusive a good interface can be. i have a notion of what i want, which is better than the inkling i started with, but it's nowhere near an idea. and so while everybody else started beavering away on this project or that, i walked around in a fog, so lost i didn't even know what the questions were, let alone how to answer them. i was trying to have an idea -- anything, please, i'll take a frog in a paper bag, a cheese rind, a cliche -- but nothing doing. i was in the bad place. i know that place is also called "thinking," but it does not seem like it at the time. it's a space of total incoherence and despair. you feel so stupid you figure you must be the stupidest person in the history of stupidity. you are legendarily dumb. cretin doesn't even come close. and then you do something really idiotic (in my case, locking myself out of my dorm room in the middle of the night, so that i had to pad over to housing services in my nightgown and nightguard, barefoot and squinting), which just goes to show.

of course it's not stupidity, but its opposite. maybe not exactly the opposite -- which would presumably be coherent verbal brilliance -- but rather a mysterious process of working things out that go deeper than your words can reach. it's virginia woolf's elusive fish (something about the body?), it's winston churchill's afternoon naps. it's thinking, and it is so agonizing that it makes me wish i worked in a t-shirt factory.

so, what got me over?:

generosity: there are lots of stories to tell about my conversion (so it feels) to digital media, and the most common one is how i bought a mac and it changed my life. true enough. but i have also been blown away by the generousity of online communities. design blogs, for instance, or etsy, or any of the other blogs i follow (see the scroll bar at right) are filled with people who put their stuff out there and then genuinely encourage you to do the same. it was the same in victoria. i met this guy from seattle -- an advanced PhD student, brilliant, named jentery sayers -- who has basically taught the course mo and i are trying to see our way through for the first time. he sat down and walked me through his classes, showed me some of his students' (public) work, confessed to the pitfalls and offered to send material. the whole vibe of the camp is like this. people were genuinely curious and really open-minded, which is what i always hoped to find in an academic community, but so rarely's as though digital humanists, having had to learn their material from the group up, took the opportunity to rethink what "work" might be. and so we actually spent a few days more or less hackfesting, working together in a room on solo projects punctuated by sidebar conversations with whoever might find the topic interesting.

i've come away feeling humbled and excited, grateful and anticipatory. and i learned a lot, even though none of it was actually on the syllabus.

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