We are at the tail end of July, and as usual, I haven’t completed nearly enough work over the summer break. The fact that I and so many other academics constantly worry about their productivity over what is ostensibly vacation is a topic for another day. Instead, I’d like to talk about the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute in Digital Technologies and Performance Studies, which I attended back in June. It was two weeks of heat and humidity, but also filled with interesting ideas and new colleagues. I feel quite fortunate to have been able to attend.
Despite the intense heat, I really enjoyed my time at the University of Georgia campus, which is in Athens, GA. I got out to run nearly every morning, and one time I saw an armadillo. UGA also has its own lake and set of wooded trails that were outstanding for running – what a marvelous feature! Vegan food was also easy to come by, which made my life quite a bit easier than I’d expected. But what did I learn at the Institute, you might ask?
I learned a lot about how to approach a project or idea in the Digital Humanities (DH), and really, what DH means. In its most basic conception, DH is applying humanities scholarship/research processes to digital texts and creations, or using digital tools/processes to study humanities texts. These aren’t necessarily opposing approaches, but more like two closely related approaches under the larger umbrella of DH. We got to hear from a variety of scholars and practitioners who work under this umbrella, and the breadth of work is inspiring and fascinating. We learned about digital editions of texts, how to create databases of historical research for an online platform, how to find data sets and what to do with them, and even how to create interactive media performances (more on that last one in a moment).
The Institute offered plenty of both theory and praxis – some guest speakers and workshops covered both practical elements and examples of DH projects, while others posed fascinating questions about what DH means or looks like for scholars. We had hands on training in programs such as Gephi, Google Sheets, and Isadora, and learned how the World Theatre Map works. While I may not recall every component of these programs/tools, even just tinkering with their capabilities was enlightening – now I know what to use if/when I plan certain projects, which in itself can be a big time saver.
Speaking of Isadora, one of the most interesting parts of the Institute were the lectures and workshops we had with Dawn Stoppiello and Mark Coniglio of Troika Ranch. We practiced using their software, Isadora (free version available at Troikatronix.com,) to create interactive art pieces and installation-style videos. Honestly, I will probably not use this software or need to coach actors and dancers through interactive performances, but I still enjoyed learning these processes. I came away with a deeper understanding of what interactivity means within art, and how there needs to be a strong connection between the art piece/performance and the interaction itself. Dawn and Mark state very clearly: “No technology before need.” meaning you aren’t just including “stuff” for no reason. What is the function/value/purpose of the tech you are incorporating? It needs to compliment and enhance your idea, not be the idea itself. They were also generous with their time and very easy to talk to, which was a real treat for everyone at the Institute, I think.
We the participants also had several opportunities to break out into smaller groups and discuss our project ideas and our teaching plans, which were fantastic conversations. I came away with concrete plans for my American Drama syllabus and my Free Southern Theatre project* (always ongoing). I was so grateful to the other participants at the Institute for their candor, assistance, and good humor. I was happy to be part of a group which was made up of scholars from a wide variety of academic backgrounds and foci. This meant I didn’t feel on the outside simply because I was an English professor, as I sometimes can at theatre and performances studies events. I was one of several English studies scholars, alongside theatre scholars, dance practitioners, graduate students, and institutional design coordinators.
Despite some logistical challenges of staying in the rather remotely located dorm (Building 1516), I will fondly remember these 2 summer weeks in Georgia, learning about what it means to work and live in the digital space as a humanities person. Everyone at the UGA campus was truly nice and helpful, and they have a marvelous taco truck there. I highly recommend both the NEH Summer Institute program and UGA’s campus to anyone thinking of applying to either!
*It also turned out that UGA’s microfilm collection includes the FST papers! I had such a short time with the Harvard collection when I visited there during my dissertation research, so I spent about 3 or 4 evenings madly downloading anything I could. It was somewhat frantic, and I haven’t even gone through and organized that material yet, but I didn’t want to let such a perfect opportunity go by without taking advantage of it. (And a shoutout to the woman who loaned me a flash drive when I realized the microfilm machine’s email tool was not working, and thus had no way of transferring any documents to my laptop.)