Interview with a Digital Humanist, Jim Calder of the Ohio Humanities Council

Over the past several days I have had intermittent conversation with Jim Calder, the director of the Ohio Humanities Council. Based on the work he contributed to Hacking the Academy I really wanted to pick his brain on a few things, namely what he thought the digital humanities were, where it had been and was going form here, and where things like Unconferences fit into the wider scope of academia. His answers were hilarious as well as enlightening.

One of the crowning achievements of his career thus far was he and a few other colleagues helped the unconference THATCamp Columbus 2010 (as he called it) get off the ground and flourish the way it did. He was in a unique position to have such a large hand in the production of the unconference because as he said he “had been too young to have much involvement with more traditional conferences anyways”. The production of the conference for him was somewhat accidental. He just started his job at the Ohio Humanities Council, heard about the percolating ideas from a colleague at Cleveland State, and thought it would be a good idea for him personally, because it was right up his alley, as he said, and would be a good thing for him to take on professionally. From the conversation we’ve had the conference was a huge success, and was the second regional THATCamp that had ever been done. The success and fun he had at the THATCamp is something he considers to be one of the crowning achievements of his career. He was particularly happy with how well it worked because the whole idea of an unconference was such a new idea to so many of the participants, so it was almost in a way really good validation. Based on the work he contributed to Hacking the Academy he claims he is a really big fan of unconferences because they were, as he said “such a natural idea to me”. He also expressed his thoughts on the more “traditional” conference, such as a Phi Alpha Theta regional conference: “…it is kind of pointless to gather a bunch of professionals together and have them read to each other”. It was interesting to get his opinions on unconferences, because he said he saw more or less one of the most basic human interactions, that you give to another human in an interaction what you receive, to be a core piece of an unconference, and perhaps he didn’t see that in a more traditional conference.

As far as where he works in the context of the digital humanities is concerned, he feels that since, say 2008 things “…certainly haven’t improved…”. There is change that is occurring at all levels of the university, he feels, but he really doesn’t think the Digital Humanities (DH as he calls it) has really any sort of part to play in that, both in the change coming, nor in the faults of the university system. One of the most important questions I asked him was whether or not he thought the Digital Humanities was changing the university or academia on the whole in any part, large or small. He expressed he himself is not entirely comfortable with the idea of “hacking” anything, as the title of the book to which he contributed Hacking the Academy alludes to. I think his feelings about DH changing academia harkens back to his original thoughts about the massive changes of technology five to six years ago. At that time, he said, he was a lot more optimistic about technology’s abilities to incur change than nowadays. Now, he feels the change that is expected as a whole is “…completely dependent on how the technology is used o in what structure it is used in….”

All in all, while the idea of Digital Humanities as a whole has not incurred any major change, he says, he has noted the concerted and fervent efforts of some of his colleagues and contemporaries. He said because of those people and their efforts, “…the way humanities are practiced, the scholarship that is produced, what counts as scholarship, and also the culture within that department or other universities….” have come a long way. So perhaps the changing of academia by and large at the hands of Digital Humanists isn’t a mass effort or that the DH is one large scale body, but more concentrated efforts of one person to a few, slowly building things that starts an avalanche of change.