The unconference is alive

by Amanda French Categories: Administrative

Barker at the grounds at the Vermont state fair, Rutland (LOC)

Since yesterday, the digital humanities blogotwittersphere has been discussing a post by digital marketer Mitch Joel somewhat misleadingly titled “The Death of the Unconference.” (Reminds me a bit of famed literary critic Harold Bloom, who apparently also likes to pronounce things dead.) Joel writes, “I was a massive proponent of the unconference movement (I still am!), but that word has been used so poorly by so many groups that it seems to have all but disappeared.”

I’ve had a most instructive Google Alert on “unconference” for awhile now, which has taught me that there’s an unconference on Christianity, an unconference on real estate, and an unconference on coworking. I like to tweet these unconferences from the THATCamp account when I find them, just to show support from one unconference to another, and to remind myself that it’s not just coders and librarians and digital humanists engaging in “mob rule learning,” as the title of the recent book has it. But that Google alert has also taught me that Mitch Joel may have a point: the term “unconference” is sometimes used in cases where it’s hard to see what’s so “un” about the conference. I specifically remember deciding not to tweet the otherwise intriguing-sounding “Indigenous Innovation Unconference” when I saw how much they were emphasizing their six eminent speakers and how little they were emphasizing any kind of participant-driven program. Similarly, plenty of events that call themselves unconferences seem to have whole slews of presentations, which strikes me as odd.

Early on in my position as THATCamp Coordinator I was surprised to realize that I would occasionally have to enforce — not just explain — the unconference “rules,” and that’s been even more the case as THATCamp and digital humanities general have grown. Some have wanted to limit THATCamp attendance to members of their own community, some have wanted to charge registration fees, some have wanted to name a facilitator and/or a note-taker for every session, some have wanted to have presentations and keynote speakers, some have wanted to vote on sessions online beforehand rather than in the first session on the first morning, and so on and so forth. Some of these ideas made me uncomfortable — they seemed rather unTHATCampy — but then the idea of saying yes or no to such ideas and determining what is or is not THATCampy also made me uncomfortable. Suffice it to say that when I first began, I would have entirely agreed with Timothy Burke’s impassioned declaration that “‘Do as thou wilt’ and ‘Ur doing it wrong’ don’t add up,” but these days I’m more willing to take the latter position.

That being said, I hope that the rules we (and in some cases I) have set up for THATCamp, the rules I’m willing to be Madame Enforcer about, are rules that allow the kind of fluidity Timothy wants: “Improvisation has signal, it has pattern, it has structure, it has plans, but it also has the freedom to say or play what it seems right to say or play at that moment. Whatever works is what I want to be free to do … ” You bet. And of course improvisation has rules. Always say yes. Give the other guy a turn to solo and don’t step all over him. Put all the leftovers into the pasta except the pudding. The rules of THATCamp, ideally, are like that, or like the rules of copyleft. They are rules that require you to be free. In fact, one of the seminal texts of THATCamp is Tom Scheinfeldt’s “THATCamp Ground Rules”, in which Tom violently demands that THATCamp participants 1) have fun, 2) get some work done, and 3) be nice to each other. (Fascist.)

We also developed some rules for THATCamp organizers, which, similarly, are pretty much rules that require you to be free:

I agree that our THATCamp will be

  • FREE or CHEAP to attend (registration fees of up to $30 USD are fine)
  • OPEN to anyone who wishes to apply or register (no institutional, professional, or rank restrictions)
  • INFORMAL and participatory (no presentations, papers, or demos longer than 5 minutes)
  • PUBLIC on the open web (sessions can be blogged, twittered, photographed, recorded, and posted)
  • SELF-ORGANIZING (no program committee: all participants are given a chance to help set the agenda, either before or during the unconference)

As long as you adhere to those rules (and keep our logo in Whitney), you can pretty much do whatever you want at your THATCamp. I’m full of advice on planning a THATCamp and a little advice on going to a THATCamp, but you’re also free to ignore that. Mitch Joel gives a whole stern list on the topic of “Your conference is not an unconference if…” I’m glad to say that even according to his strict definition, THATCamp is an unconference. Long may it live.

RCHN Mellon Mellon