NYCDH Week Reflection: How can software workshops be more productive?

There is a conundrum with workshops that seek to teach new software tools which I’d already noticed last semester in GC workshops, and that is the time required to get the software running on people’s machines. Sometimes the installation requires using the command line and editing sensitive system files, which not every computer user is necessarily savvy enough to do safely. Even savvy computer users can make serious errors.

In one workshop I won’t name (and I love the person who was running it, I wish he’d had more time to actually teach the software) a full 1.5 of the 2 hours was spent trying to install the needed programs on every attendees computers. Another participant at the workshop was helping troubleshoot installation issues and – in a moment of blind and misplaced trust – I let him take over my computer. He wasn’t able to get the program up and running but nothing seemed terribly wrong until I tried to launch Terminal a few hours after the workshop had ended. My Terminal immediately started issuing error messages. 

Long story short, after some digging I discovered that my cavalier “helper” had made some incorrect edits to my bash_profile system file. He hadn’t backed up the file before editing it either. Thankfully, I was able to access a Time Machine backup once I got home to replace the messed up system file with the working previous version. Luckily I’m pretty good with the command line and troubleshooting my own technical issues and I had my own backup handy. Otherwise I would have been left up the creek, as they say, with a crippling system-level computer problem.

I took off work and spent 4 hours on this workshop, including travel time, and I didn’t come out with much to show for it because there just wasn’t time to cover the actual topic. What I got instead were serious computer problems that ate up yet more of my time getting fixed.

What different approaches could be encouraged by DH week organizers to make better use of time and cover more material in the workshops? These is no single answer, but I have some ideas to share.

  1. Perhaps more software workshops should be offered in two parts; an initial session in which knowledgable people help those who need it with installation and a separate session that requires the software already be installed so that it can wholly focus on teaching how to use the software. Those good with computers could install themselves in advance (see #3 below) and only attend the second part of the workshop.
  1. Or perhaps there can be recurring general installation help workshops throughout the week that people who want help could attend for support installing any number of tools that will be the focus of DH week workshops.
  1. Sending out software installation instructions in advance or posting them with the workshop description might save time and prevent on the fly mishaps. I would prefer to install software myself before any workshop in the future.
  1. The person who messed up my computer wasn’t the official workshop presenter, but he did seem endorsed and encouraged to be “fixing” the problems for other attendees. Maybe a refresher on good practices, like backing up important files before editing them, could be circulated to all workshop runners as a helpful reference before the start of DH week. Or maybe this could be sent to attendees. Actually, why not send it to everybody.
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