The 'Unconference': Technology Loosens Up the Academic Meeting

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."
May 23, 2010

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 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."