By Jonathan Silverman
I came to the Doing Sport History in the Digital Present workshop last week as an American Studies scholar and may have left a sport historian.
This proclamation only becomes relevant in the context of the aims of the DSH workshop, in which 15 participants from a variety of scholarly approaches and interests came together at Georgia Tech in Atlanta for the workshop, which focused on exploring and explaining the growing practice of digital humanities in sport. My own background is as an English professor, with a degree in American Studies, and who has published a few things on horse racing, but more on popular culture.
I do have a full-length project on horse racing and a planned horse racing digital project, and so I was delighted to be accepted by the organizers. The workshop began months in advance, when we submitted our 5000-word papers to the organizers. A few weeks before the workshop, we were assigned a reading group, and were instructed to read each other’s papers and give comments. We were also supposed to read all of the workshop’s submissions. Then we arrived in Atlanta and some of us met for an informal dinner and a drink afterwards.
I mention this only because the value of this workshop went beyond the academic aspects to informal gatherings, much of it built into the structure, but it worked outside of it as well. This is not uncommon at conferences; often much of their use happens outside of panels both formally at book exhibits and happy hours sponsored by organizations, but also in the conversations outside of the conference. This seemed especially true at DSH—many people knew each other, and discussed work with one another, but even as a newcomer, I was included in these discussions.
The real work began in the morning, when we met in person with the others in our smaller groups, and then we moved back to the room where we heard from three speakers. From then on, the conference mostly consisted of workshop members giving 15-minute presentations in groups of two and three, with a significant amount of discussion following it.
The groups could be categorized in a few ways: people critiquing digital sports culture, people presenting digital sports projects in progress, people reflecting on work they had already finished, and people theorizing digitals sports culture, with some overlap. My own project, a mapped history of New York City horse racing, is ambitiously conceived and modestly began, fit in comfortably with the discussion, though I was on the low end of digital accomplishment. Reading the papers beforehand made me realize the ways in which I need to play catch up but more broadly gave me the state of play in the fields of sports history and digital humanities and their intersections.
The organizers freely conceded that the conference was an experiment, but one that clearly worked. The strength of the conference came from this diversity of presentation and the amount of time the audience, consisting mostly of workshop participants, with some attendees of the North American Society for Sport History conference also there. Workshop attendees offered fair but often tough criticism and asked questions designed to get workshoppers engaged further with their topics. The atmosphere was as a whole supportive and critical at the same time, which is the ideal in these sorts of gatherings.
Some of the subjects we ended up discussing as a group included the nature of fields, disciplines, and methods when doing digital sports works; the theorizing of digital humanities work; the practice of doing digital work and the possibilities available to practioners. While some of these conversations were probably more relevant to some group members more than others, they did not seem to range beyond their interests, if I can use myself as example. Even though I have not worked formally in sport history, by most any measure, my project in horse racing is indeed sport history.
For perhaps this reason but for others as well, I recognized the natural kinship I seemed to have with the participants right from the first night; it comes from seeing at least part of the world in the same way, as well as working on projects of similar interest. And it also comes from being in the intersection of fields in a subfield; I think it makes people less competitive and more supportive. My conversations ranged from the professional (my roommate is an editor of this blog, and I also talked with the organizers of the conference), the topical, as well as sports itself. For example, I talked with Yago Colás of University of Michigan, and while we also talked about professional matters, he was also willing to engage with my curiosity about a certain football coach at his university.
In all, the workshop gave me tools for engaging in digital sport history as well as a sense of potential audiences to share both my digital and scholarly work.
If you’re interested in learning more about doing digital sport history, the papers presented and debated in the DSH workshop are slated to be published in a special issue of the Journal of Sport History in the near future. Stay tuned.
Jonathan Silverman is an Associate Professor of English and Co-Director of American Studies at UMass, Lowell. He is the author of Nine Choices: Johnny Cash and American Culture (University of Massachusetts Press, 2010) and the co-author of The World Is a Text (Pearson, 2012), now in its fourth edition. He recently served as a Fulbright Roving Scholar in American Studies in Norway.