#DHAL Demystified: The Joys of Founding a DH Regulars’ Table

During a long night in April 2018 the idea for a Digital Humanities regulars’ table in Halle was born. Now, 20 meetings later, I personally have learnt a lot. I found new friendships and had a ton of fun. For me, the key elements of its ongoing success were, keeping the regulars’ table informal, avoiding institutional boundaries, a low barrier of entry and not giving up too early.

All started during the digital aftermath of the #DHd2018 in Cologne. At the “Brauhaus Tour” I met someone called “Torsten Roeder” and learnt that he would move to Halle (Saale) in just a few weeks. We did the obvious and soon after he arrived there, we met for a drink, or two. At 9:27 PM on that evening we felt inclined to inform Twitter of our meeting:

Encouraged by 12 likes and a great evening, we decided to act on the joke. With the next meeting (n=6) #DHAL was established. Soon after, a mailing-list was implemented by Mark Hall. Since then, we have met (almost) every three weeks and will soon meet for the 22nd time, with an ever growing number of information scientists, humanists, librarians and many people that do not fit a label easily. Thanks to Torsten’s astonishing networking skills, we have welcomed guests from Berlin, Leipzig, Erfurt, Weimar and even as far as Cologne. Next week (November 5th) we will even move our entire table to Leipzig, to meet other researchers there. As one of the co-founders of this grass-roots DH community, I will share today my own perspectives on the benefits, learnings & joys of establishing such a regulars’ table.

Benefits

Personally, I benefit considerably from these regular meetings. As I began digging into Digital Humanities only after my Master thesis, our regulars’ table played a key role for my own DH education and socialisation. First of all I acquired the language. When we met for the first time, I only had a vague idea what topic modelling, OCR, Named Entitiy Recognition and many other terms meant. Yet in such an informal community, I quickly picked up what is happening and what is interesting for me. With no barriers to ask (potentially humiliating) questions, I quickly adopted and became well prepared for the many minor and major DH events throughout the academic year.

Furthermore, our regulars’ table always provides free DH consulting. Bringing together a wide spectrum of different skills, there is always someone with expertise for anything. More than most demos, tutorials or manuals the regulars’ table often gave me the incentive to follow up on interesting topics or tools.

After many sessions of just drinking and chatting, the possibility to join forces became time and again highly valuable. Often individual participants connect for solving minor issues, setting up small events or project, but we also plan and organise events on a collective scale, channelling the local DH expertise in Halle.

Learnings

While organizing 20 sessions of our round table, we have tried several different approaches. Our first important decision was to move away from completely flexible dates and opt for setting a fixed interval of exactly three weeks. First of all, the interval fitted our own lifestyles (not too often not too rare). Also, it did not stick to a specific day in the month, and therefore avoided regular conflicts with other events. Most importantly, the fixed schedule of three weeks allowed ourselves and the participants to plan ahead. Whenever someone missed a round table, the next date was already set.

Another important learning was to keep the barrier of entry as low as possible. No sign-up or registration is required. Just show up! Most people rarely reply to invitation e-mails, on Twitter or on Telegram. Often, new faces show up out of nowhere, and stay. This, of course, makes it time and again a gamble for us, how many and what people will actually come. However, Torsten and I followed the credo: “If no one shoes up, we will still have a nice evening.” The risk of ending up with a very small group was more than outdone by the advantage that people could join in spontaneously  and it also completely eliminated all paper work.

At the same time, we keep the definition of “DH” as wide as possible. Whoever is interested can come and have a chat with us. Our round tables are not just an exchange of experts, but also (as in my case) a place of learning and getting a first taste of DH. After all, connecting the “digital humanities” and the “traditional” humanities is an important task for the future of the field. While a traditional researcher might never go to a DH conference (being unfamiliar with all what is happening there), going for a beer with the “techies” of once own department might seem a much easier point of entrance.

Joys

Aside from all learnings and benefits, being part of this round table is simply a joy. Maintaining an informal atmosphere, discussions sometimes shift back and forth between DH topics and private life. As nerds will always be nerds, we had great conversations off-track about pen and paper role-play, video games or were just laughing about a barkeeper and his amusing music videos.

As many of us are not born in Halle and often just moved there a few semesters ago, the regulars’ table also became a platform for newly arrived academics in the wider field of DH. Naturally, some friendships emerged crossing over from professional to personal relationships. This informal atmosphere carried our regulars’ table through all scarcer times. For me, it never is just another academic event where I am supposed to go to, but rather going out for a drink and fun with my fellow DH nerds.

You can find all upcoming meetings of #DHAL on  our github page, subscribe to the e-mail newsletter or keep an eye open for #DHAL on Twitter (if you are not scared to meet some Indian dishes in between).


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