Hacking our Conferences

Coming off another successful THATCamp, I keep thinking there is so much more we can do with the unconference model in academia. The ideas generated from THATCamp, the collegiality and openess lends itself to an intellectual playfulness and exchange that is almost wholly lacking in traditional academic conferences. It’s time we start hacking our conferences.

**So, let’s do it already. **

Where should we start? Let’s try this first: If you’re going to an annual conference, try to organize an unconference yourself, either with support of the organization, or on your own off-site. Just do it. Tweet it. Blog it. Find a spot that has some rooms, whiteboards, and wifi. Check the local library or university and see if you can reserve some space. Or find a bar or restaurant with wifi that can reserve some space. Add your unconference to the Barcamp site, or make your own site, and post about the event on Twitter. Unconferences don’t have to be expensive; In fact, they should be as cheap as possible. The  most important thing is providing space for attendees to collaborate, discuss ideas, and turn those ideas into future projects. (Wifi would be nice, too!) If you can do that, you’re most of the way there. If this isn’t a conference hack, I don’t know what is.  Get the word out, see if there are interested people, and give it a try! If you can get support from conference organizers, even better! It doesn’t have to be associated with the conference itself (which may preclude you from using the conference venue as space), but it can involve folks attending the conference.

In fact, I’ll go so far as to say this: If it is within my power, I will make sure to host or help with some kind of unconference event at every academic conference I attend. I don’t know how often I’ll be successful, but I’m going to try it. The worst that can happen, it seems to me, is that the event doesn’t occur. The best that can happen is that we get an opportunity to share and discuss our work in ways ill-afforded by the reading-a-paper-at-you format. We’ll get to open our laptops, share our notes, and scribble on a whiteboard/chalkboard/napkin and come up with things to take with us and do after the conference.

We can also begin proposing unconference-like sessions or workshops during conferences themselves. This has already begun with much success; We held a session at the 2010 American Historical Association annual meeting on “Humanities in the Digital Age”, which incorporated aspects of the unconference format that was well-attended. Much broader in scope, the Digital Jumpstart project has been widely attended at several academic conferences, with more meetings in the works. With Digital Jumpstart, the goal is to bring humanists together to give their digital projects a boost, to hear about others’ issues or solutions, and even to find collaborators.

After some success with a few unconference-like sessions, we could then begin petitioning organizations to give even further support. The conference could devote an entire day to an unconference, limit it to the first 100 people that sign up, and have a coordinator to oversee the unconference. But it should mainly be user-generated as much as possible. Like THATCamp, conference attendees could propose session ideas ahead of time for the unconference day. The organization could set up a voting system, similar to Code4Lib and SXSW, where attendees voted for sessions to be included in the program. The ones with the most votes would get on the unconference program.

With the latter scenario, two of the most common arguments against academic unconferences—lack of funding for such events and lack of prestige or credit for the event—can be addressed. You would be proposing to lead a session, and it would be accepted through a potentially more competitive process that tradition academic papers. The session’s acceptance, number of votes, and eventual number of attendees could certainly contribute to academic credit in some form. And, since it would be an official part of the academic organization’s program, you should be able to receive travel funding for it as much as if you were doing a workshop or reading a paper.

A third argument against academic unconferences usually involves some form of the question: “What is actually produced because of an unconference?” And the hard thing about answering this is, all the productive, useful stuff that is produced isn’t always tangible until a while after the conference. Participants at THATCamp have forumlated projects (and have found collaborators) during the event, including web-based resources, research articles, other conference sessions or events, and course ideas. Some sessions themselves either try to produce something during their allotted time, or make plans to continue working to produce something after the event. With that in mind, and to address the skeptics’ question, here are few things actually produced from THATCamp:

  • ProfHacker - The awesome blog about how academics can improve their workflow and talk about teaching and research techniques, now hosted at the Chronicle of Higher Education.

  • Zoterofest - A one-day unconference/workshop at the University of Mary Washington, conceived by Jeff McClurken.

  • Digital Jumpstart - Unconference-like workshop run by Sharon Leon and Sheila Brennan, whose goals are to help digital humanities project get off the ground.

  • Ethical Hacking in the Humanities a group-edited syllabus on ethics in hacking for digital humanities, a session proposed by John M. Jones at THATCamp.

The broader thing to keep in mind is that sometimes things are actually produced during the sessions, sometimes afterwards, sometimes not at all. And in my experience, these results depend less on the unconference format itself, and depend more on the actual people leading and contributing to the session, and the unconference as a whole. With most academic conferences, you’re expect to come with fully baked soufflés, and if you don’t (or its a flop) then you face criticism. There isn’t a lot of space for intellectual playfullness and experimentation in most academic conferences, but unconferences provide those kind of outlets; In fact, they thrive on them. And that to me is what conferences should be all about.

Many have loathed the rigidity, formality, and expense of traditional academic conferences. In contrast, unconferences thrive on flexibility, collegiality, and thrift. More to the point, they rely heavily on the attendees themselves—their attitudes, motivations, and work ethics—for success or failure. At unconferences, it generally doesn’t matter who says something first; What matters more is who says something thoughtful, and what that thoughtful thing is. Discovery happens through group cooperation. Insight and knowledge are not guarded for the next publication; They’re shared openly, with hopes that others can contribute to ongoing conversations that make our work better.

And this really gets to the heart of the issue: Why do we attend conferences, and why do we contribute to them? Ideally, we give conference papers in hopes of sharing our research, getting recognition for such research, and getting critical feedback to take that research conference paper’s mere presence on the conference program grants it weight on CVs and tenure reviews, even if only half a dozen people actually came to the session to hear it read. What if instead we start fostering systems that reward you if your unconference session spawns half a dozen projects from attendees. The focus in this case is not on what you produce yourself, but what you help others produce.

Academic conferences as they are now are increasingly expensive, poorly attended (not necessarily in terms of registrations, but it terms of people actually attending sessions), and rarely seem to generate the kind of innovative work needed to meet the challenges of education and scholarship today. If we want to start hacking the academy, lets start hacking this cornerstone of academic culture by incorporating unconferences.  We should start small, test some things out, makes changes when necessary. But we should start, if for no other reason than to make the work we and our colleagues do better, and to make our experiences at conferences richer and more productive.