THATCamp, Omeka, and tinkering

While Mark Souther and I lead our two Teaching American History Workshops, the Center’s project leader, Erin Bell, and former CPHDH alum, James Calder (who is a digital humanist at the Ohio Humanities Council), are spending the next several days at THATCamp, an “unconference” at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. CHNM is the producer and home to the tools that we are using in our Teaching American History project, including especially Omeka.

We expect that Erin will learn much from rubbing shoulders with digital humanists of all stripes, but we expect that he will contribute much to that conversation as a “tinkerer” in much the same way that Mark, myself, and our teachers are contributing to the development of Omeka through our intensive “tinkering” this summer.

You see, it turns out that users of technology, especially those tinkerers, are as much a part of producing knowledge as developers or scholars. This has been explored at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Tinkering Conference, as well as some reflections on the conference and tinkering as learning.  Most powerful, though, to us is the argument that tinkering is a mode of knowledge production, as articulated by John Seely Brown at the conference. Or, see Allison Clark, speaking about tinkering and knowledge production in the context of a MacArthur Foundation project.

Finally, as historians we must realize that tinkering is not merely an outgrowth of the digital age, but was critical to the development of other seminal technologies, such as the automobile, as Kevin Borg argues in the journal Technology & Culture. Borg’s work is a starting point, from which this aspect of technological advancement can really be seen and understood as a long-term historical phenomenon.

The point: practitioners are as critical to the production of technology and new knowledge as developers and theorists. We are working with this understanding of tinkering in mind here at the Center for Public History and Digital Humanities. We are not the developers of new tools but those exploring their extension in the real world, and in the process (as part of it) of seeking to reinvent these tools. We are scholar tinkerers, librarian tinkerers, student tinkerers, teacher tinkerers, and community tinkerers.

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Mark Tebeau is a co-founder of the Center for Public History + Digital Humanities at Cleveland State University and currently serves as a Professor of History at Arizona State University.