• August 31, 2015

The 'Unconference': Technology Loosens Up the Academic Meeting

The 'Unconference': Technology Loosens Up the Academic Meeting 1

Courtesy Amanda French

Amanda L. French, shown here at home in Rexford, N.Y., is the new regional director of THATCamp, a history and technology "unconference." She describes it as "a stronger degree of intellectual engagement than you get at a traditional academic conference."

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close The 'Unconference': Technology Loosens Up the Academic Meeting 1

Courtesy Amanda French

Amanda L. French, shown here at home in Rexford, N.Y., is the new regional director of THATCamp, a history and technology "unconference." She describes it as "a stronger degree of intellectual engagement than you get at a traditional academic conference."

If you've been to a traditional humanities conference, you know what a soul-crushing experience it can be. First you apply months ahead of time to a program committee, which will take its sweet time deciding whether your paper or panel idea merits a place. Then you shell out money to spend three days in windowless conference rooms listening to other people dutifully read their papers. There might even be a PowerPoint presentation. If you're lucky, you'll manage to have a real conversation about the topic during a coffee break before you're off to the next panel.

Some humanists have concluded that there is a better way: the unconference, a meeting style that became popular in the technology world. It is "a lightly organized conference in which the attendees themselves determine the schedule," wrote Ethan Watrall, an assistant professor at Michigan State University, in a recent ProfHacker blog post at chronicle.com on the history of unconferences and how to organize one. Goodbye, program committees and formal presentations; hello, crowdsourcing and workshopping.

One successful example of a humanities unconference that has taken advantage of new technologies is THATCamp, which stands for the Humanities and Technology Camp. Digital humanists organized the first THATCamp in 2008 at George Mason University's Center for History and New Media. The third THATCamp took place at GMU this past weekend.

Here's how it works: There is no cumbersome application process, no big registration fee. "User-generated" is the guiding principle. The organizers set up a blog where participants can pitch ideas they think would make for interesting group conversations—problems they want to workshop, topics they want to explore. "People float ideas on the blog, and we assign someone to sort them into categories," says Amanda L. French, a literature scholar who was recently hired by the Center for History and New Media as regional THATCamp coordinator. "So, for instance, if two people are interested in new models of scholarly publishing, group them into a session on scholarly publishing."

The next step can be as simple as posting a big sheet of white paper on the first day of the gathering and asking anyone interested in that session to sign up for it. If there's not enough interest, that session doesn't take place.

Meeting Meritocracy

There's an appealing spontaneity and democratic angle to this approach, and you don't have to scour an inch-thick conference program to find a topic that interests you. Ms. French points out that THATCamp also sidesteps some of the hierarchies that shape traditional conferences, where Big Name Scholars and Rising Stars tend to take up a lot of the limelight—and not because they necessarily have the most intriguing ideas.

"The ethos of THATCamp isn't about what you already know or whether you're already good but are you working on interesting problems," Ms. French said. "Are you engaged?"

To make sure participants stay engaged, unconference organizers like to keep the numbers on the small side. THATCamps usually involve no more than 100 people. The application process tends to be ad hoc, Ms. French says, favoring those who are most enthusiastic and propose good topics.

"It's a stronger degree of intellectual engagement than you get at a traditional academic conference," she says. "It means a greater emphasis on discussion, a greater emphasis on production—people actually hack things together or begin to write things. And it means a greater emphasis on play."

Three years in, the THATCamp model has spread quickly. The original THATCamp was meant to draw people from all over, but the model may work especially well on the local or regional level. THATCamps have taken place in or are planned for Austin, Chicago, the Pacific Northwest, New England, and the Jersey Shore as well as London, Paris, and Canberra. Melbourne is a possibility.

"It's really amazing to me how global THATCamp is becoming," Ms. French says. "There are stirrings of a THATCamp in Chile, in Santiago. They said, 'We are really interested, but we have no professional network in this. Do you know anybody in South America who's doing digital humanities?'"

One longer-term benefit of the unconference model, then, is that it may help bring together what Ms. French calls "nascent communities" of digital humanists in various regions, inside the United States as well as abroad. That could be especially useful for scholars who do not have easy access to a digital-humanities center or program where they can find researchers working on problems of mutual interest.

Unconferences have their drawbacks. "The format can create some anxiety, because it is loose," Ms. French says. "When you tell people, Oh, we create the agenda when we get there, unsurprisingly they want to know a lot more about that, and what they're supposed to do, and how they're supposed to prepare." Workshopping an idea or pet project at an unconference also lacks the résumé-enhancing certainty of, say, presenting a paper at the Modern Language Association's annual get-together. That might put off some traditionalists who want to know what to expect out of a professional gathering.

So far, the user-generated unconference model has been most appealing to humanities groups that already have a foothold in technology, digital humanists being a prime example. Ms. French cites several other examples of recent or forthcoming humanities-and-tech unconferences: Nitle Camp, organized by the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education; Playing With Technology in History, which had a catchy Twitter hashtag, #pastplay; and Digital JumpStart, which was scheduled to take place this past weekend in Los Angeles in conjunction with the annual meeting of the American Association of Museums.

Loosening Up

It will be interesting to see how far the unconference model reshapes the humanities' approach to professional meetings. There has been a collective loosening of protocol at such gatherings lately, thanks to Twitter and other informal means by which participants and observers share their impressions and reactions.

Some don't welcome the change. Bethany Nowviskie, director of digital research and scholarship at the University of Virginia Library, wrote a much-discussed (and much-tweeted) post on her own blog recently on the subject of "Uninvited Guests: Regarding Twitter at Invitation-Only Academic Events." In the post, Ms. Nowviskie laid out some of the fear and dismay she's heard from scholars who are not comfortable with having remarks they make at conferences bruited about the social-media sphere. Those folks are probably not signing up for unconferences yet.

Ms. French says she has not seen evidence that the unconference has spread beyond the digital humanities but says she is seeing more traditional scholars attending THATCamps. To encourage them, the organizers have been given a grant by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to develop educational tools—THATCamps-in-a-box, Ms. French calls them—and fellowships to entice traditional scholars to try out the format and pick up digital skills.

"I've been to many traditional scholarly conferences, and there's much that I like about them, but it's hard to imagine people wouldn't welcome the chance to get out of that deadly three-paper format," Ms. French says. "People who have been to a THATCamp, it really is a revelation. You walk about excited and interested, mind clicking on all eight cylinders."


1. mbelvadi - May 24, 2010 at 07:12 pm

You know, there's something in between listening to people read their papers, and unconferences. Librarian conferences don't always have the most dynamic speakers in the world, and many do lean rather heavily on their PowerPoint to get them through, but they are certainly far more engaged with their audiences on average than someone standing there reading a paper. Why do you humanities folks put up with that, anyway? How on earth did you ever allow it to become an acceptable presentation style? Don't your conferences have Likert-scale feedback forms on the sessions where you can rate the quality of the presenters? You can be sure that after we librarians spent all that money to go to a conference, if someone stood there and read word for word from a piece of paper, they would see a slew of 1's on their feedback forms!
Someone else, please tell me, is it really that bad, or is the author just referring to one particular major conference (MLA?)?

2. sbarnett - May 25, 2010 at 08:04 am

Step back from your own professional group procedures and ask a simple question: Aside from the ftf stuff (working the room, schmoozing, sneaking out to do something else), what would you miss with an unconference? OK, it doesn't let you run away from your usual daily place. But it sure does require engagement, something lacking at most of the conferences in my experience. How many people really need to travel to hear someone read something to them; all of the travel and listening time can be better spent pondering, examining, and engaging a text or presentation. Cybercommunication won't replace a good face-to-face, but it certainly offers possibilities to extend our ability to "engage." And isn't that the essence of academic pursuits?

3. nuenglish - May 25, 2010 at 08:54 am

Sounds great. But I could never go to such a thing on my university's dime. They don't fund me to go to any conference where I'm not a formal presenter, or at least a panel organizer or have some official, locked-in role. Sigh.

4. spotsalots - May 25, 2010 at 10:20 am

I'm always baffled by the view expressed here by mbelvadi, namely that somehow unscripted talks are better than reading a paper. Now I grant that there are good and bad unscripted talks, and good and bad papers. But it's been my experience that whereas in the classroom it's best to be unscripted, at a humanities conference the worst presentations are usually those that are unscripted or that depart from the written paper. When you have 15-20 minutes to get across research and complex ideas, you'd better have a polished product that is well-phrased, well organized, and well-rehearsed. There's no time for ums and vagueness. All my professors stressed that and it has paid off--their students generally shine at conferences.

5. 11159995 - May 25, 2010 at 11:19 am

#3 points out a major problem with this approach: funding would be more difficult to get for participation at a conference where an accepted paper isn't on the program for a department to see. Another problem is that book acquiring editors for presses would have no easy way to find out about new projects at such a conference. But there is another way of running a conference that does not have these disadvantages but is far more engaging than the typical conference lampooned above. Instead of having speakers read or deliver entire papers, the papers get posted at least a month in advance on the conference website and speakers are limited to giving a five-minute summary of their talks; the rest of the time is devoted to dialogue with the audience. This model has been successdfully followed by the Association for Political Theory, whose annual meeting is far and away the best run and most stimulating academic conference I have ever attended.---Sandy Thatcher

6. phikaw - May 25, 2010 at 12:07 pm

Scholars reading their papers can be pretty mind numbing and soul crushing, but in partial defense of the practice -- some of the work being presented is pretty complicated and might not present well without a pretty full text to read from. On the other hand, one problem is that many scholars are extremely unengaging presenters, often not looking up from their papers, making eye contact or extemporizing. If their continues to be a place for the traditional conference, wouldn't be a bad idea for many of us to work on presentation skills! On the other hand, the "unconference" idea sounds intriguing and stimulating for trying more nascent things out, collaborating, and for giving newer scholars more venues to develop their own ideas and skills.

7. phikaw - May 25, 2010 at 12:08 pm

Oops, sorry for the 'their' rather than 'there' typo

8. jamesdcalder - May 25, 2010 at 03:03 pm

Don't forget THATCamp Columbus and Great Lakes THATCamp! Send Canada and the Midwest some love!

9. jenhoward - May 25, 2010 at 03:05 pm

Sorry, jamescalder. No insult to Canada or the Midwest intended. I just couldn't list them all. :)

10. kkfungc - May 26, 2010 at 11:01 am

How can a technology column design such an awkward comment format that does not have discussion threads? Why would any one even bother to join the discussion?

11. robpollard - May 26, 2010 at 06:15 pm

In response to spotsalots, I have to say I agree with mbelvadi. If the person is literally reading their paper, that is something I can easily do myself. Maybe reading from a paper is necessary for someone who is not good at presenting/teaching, but it seems like it sets a pretty low ceiling for how good a conference presentation could be.

To me, there are plenty of people (after all, aren't most of these people teachers? Maybe not, I guess.) who should be able to give an engaging presentation that literally goes off the printed page. I can understand for highly technical fields, e.g., medicine, where it is necessary to read from a script, as you need to make sure you get every fact & figure correct. But if you're presenting on a topic that is based on your interpretation/work/research and it is largely non-number driven, I would certainly expect to be more engaged then someone just reading from a lectern.

12. alexsoojungkimpang - May 27, 2010 at 01:33 am

I've been involved in unconferences that brought together academics, entrepreneurs, and corporate researchers (one experience is described in http://www.future2.org/2009/07/reflections-on-scibarcamp.html), and I find that the quality of the interactions and intellectual tone is at least as high as in more traditional conferences.

Unfortunately, the fact is that lots of us use conference talks as a way to move along written works-- to force us to start an article or chapter, to get feedback on a piece in progress, etc.-- and it's not yet clear to me how the unconference model can satisfy that need. And the funding issue for participants is non-trivial. Definitely.

13. emmadw - June 01, 2010 at 02:14 am

robpollard said:
"If the person is literally reading their paper, that is something I can easily do myself. Maybe reading from a paper is necessary for someone who is not good at presenting/teaching, but it seems like it sets a pretty low ceiling for how good a conference presentation could be."

I agree that someone reading can be pretty tedious; though there's a huge difference between someone reading something that's just what they're going to read (having distributed a paper that's not the same as whatever they're reading) - because English isn't their first language, they want to elaborate on some complex bit of their paper etc., & someone reading what's in the audience's hand.

However, this has drifted away somewhat from 'unconferences' - perhaps as they become more popular it will be possible to start to base funding on the promise of future written work (e.g. joint research between you & a.n. other that you either know is going to be there - or the new dynamic researcher you meet there)

14. bjmathis - June 02, 2010 at 04:51 pm

Perhaps the traditional conferences should hire a Humanities Troupe of theatrical performers to read the paper. I imagine it might be much more exciting!

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