Participants say MSU THATCamp promoted continual idea exchange

By Professors Angelika Kraemer and Matthew Handelman


In September 2014, MSU hosted THATCamp Languages, an "unconference" dedicated to language learning, research, and pedagogy, and organized by graduate students in the Department of Linguistics and Languages, the Second Language Studies Program, and the Department of Romance and Classical Studies.

THATCamp stands for "The Humanities and Technology Camp," and it is an unconference: an open, inexpensive meeting where humanists and technologists of all skill levels learn and build together in sessions proposed on the spot. The THATCamp concept was founded at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University in 2008.

THATCamp Languages drew participants from East Lansing, the greater Michigan area, and even the broader Midwest, all of whom showed up eager to exchange ideas, experiences, and tools related to technology in and beyond the language classroom.

Noting that the unconference was a rewarding experience for all, Professor Stephen Naumann of Hillsdale College says, "The most interesting thing about the THATCamp experience was the ability to be involved in the process from start to finish, particularly on the day of the event."

In fact, THATCamp Languages comprised two days of "a constant exchange of information and ideas," according to Naumann.

The first day of THATCamp Languages was filled with bootcamps—technology workshops for digital language tools. MSU Libraries faculty, CeLTA staff members, Linguistics and Languages faculty, and graduate students led two rounds of workshops for all skill levels on video production and iMovie, digital annotation, and web tools for language teaching. Participants made their own videos using mobile devices and then imported, edited, and published their videos to the web. They also learned how to use various online tools to support their language teaching and their students' learning.

The first day concluded with a festive visit to Beggars Banquet, where the discussion continued over food and drinks. Day two of THATCamp Languages kicked off with some 40 participants enjoying a wonderful breakfast sponsored by TechSmith, followed by an informal planning session in which participants suggested ideas for break-out sessions.


Planning was, as one participant put it, more rewarding than "presenting and being somewhat more involved in one panel—where even that involvement is limited." Rather, the THATCamp experience involved participants directly in the organization and every session attended. In the end, THATCamp Languages was, as Professor Naumann said, "an educational experience that was both satisfying and enriching."

THATCamp's informative and lively breakout sessions ranged from smaller discussions with about six participants on gaming and language learning to larger discussions among approximately 15 participants on topics such as mobile devices and language learning, music and the language classroom, and Fun in 101. Across the board, breakout sessions benefited from lively, interdisciplinary participation from faculty, staff, and graduate and undergraduate students.

Following lunch and a condensed afternoon breakout session and informal wrap-up, a number of participants visited the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum and enjoyed a tour of the building and current exhibits.

THATCamp Languages was organized by Lauren Wester, Scott Sterling, Anne von Petersdorff-Campen, Kate Schaller, Sarah Mecheneau, Kelsey Fedewa, Matt Sikarskie, and Amanda Sikarsie, with help from Angelika Kraemer and Matthew Handelman.

T-shirts, buttons, posters, breakfast, and lunch were made possible by the generous support of TechSmith, Biggby Coffee, the Center for Language Teaching Advancement (CeLTA), the Department of Linguistics and Germanic, Slavic, Asian, and African Languages, the Department of Romance and Classical Studies, and the Second Language Studies Program.

So...What is THATCamp?

THATCamp stands for "The Humanities and Technology Camp." It is an unconference: an open, inexpensive meeting where humanists and technologists of all skill levels learn and build together in sessions proposed on the spot. An unconference is to a conference what a seminar is to a lecture, what a party at your house is to a church wedding, what a pick-up game of Ultimate Frisbee is to an NBA game, what a jam band is to a symphony orchestra: It's more informal and more participatory. Here are the key characteristics of a THATCamp:

  • It's collaborative: There are no spectators at a THATCamp. Everyone participates, including in the task of setting an agenda or program.
  • It's informal: There are no lengthy proposals, papers, presentations, or product demos. The emphasis is on productive, collegial work or free-form discussion.
  • It's spontaneous and timely, with the agenda/schedule/ program being mostly or entirely created by all the participants during the first session of the first day, rather than weeks or months beforehand by a program committee.
  • It's productive: Participants are encouraged to use session time to create, build, write, hack, and solve problems.
  • It's lightweight and inexpensive to organize: We generally estimate that a THATCamp takes about 100 hours over the course of six months and about $4000.
  • It's not-for-profit and either free or inexpensive (under $30) to attend: It's funded by small sponsorships, donations of space and labor, and by passing the hat around to the participants.
  • It's small, having anywhere from 25 or 50 to about 150 participants: Most THATCamps aim for about 75 participants.
  • It's non-hierarchical and non-disciplinary and inter-professional: THATCamps welcome graduate students, scholars, librarians, archivists, museum professionals, developers and programmers, K-12 teachers, administrators, managers, and funders as well as people from the non-profit sector, people from the for-profit sector, and interested amateurs. The topic "the humanities and technology" contains multitudes.
  • It's open and online: Participants make sure to share their notes, documents, pictures, and other materials from THATCamp discussions before and after the event on the web and via social media.
  • It's fun, intellectually engaging, and a little exhausting.


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