THATCamp PNW 2010: Reflection on My First Unconference

Picture of the room where we began the conference with a planning session.
Picture of the room where we began the conference with a planning session.

Wow. That was pretty amazing. My first unconference. THATCamp PNW. If you’ve never attended an unconference… you should. Really. You should. This is how most of the conferences in the Digital Humanities and Rhet/Comp should be conducted.

[Before I get too far into this post… thank you, Jentery Sayers (@jenterysayers), Paige Morgan (@paigecmorgan), and Julie Meloni (@jcmeloni) for putting on a great conference. And a special thanks to Jentery and Brooken for putting me up in their soon-to-be-occupied nursery for the weekend.]

Here’s the premise of an “unconference” as I understand it: instead of speakers presenting papers to an audience of listeners, with limited time for Q&A, unconferences are organized as informal conversations around topics selected by audience members. No discussion leaders. No presentations. It’s really an amazing thing to take part in. Basically, the conference started with a theme (Digital Humanities Scholarship, both nationally and locally to the Pacific Northwest), and anyone interested in the topic can apply for the conference. Not sure how competitive the application process was, but I know there was a waiting list, so there must have been some selection process. For this conference, everyone showed up on Saturday morning to a common room (see pic above). We brainstormed ideas for session topics (i.e. mobile learning, digital storytelling, curating digital collections), then setup a schedule of different sessions in different rooms over the next day and a half. At the same time, there were “boot camps” going on, too. The bootcamp sessions were more presentations, with a certain practical bent, than conversations, but they were still much more informal/conversational than traditional conference presentations. The bootcamp on “multimodal scholarship” was particularly rewarding, I think. (Thanks, Will, John, and Dene).

Not only did I get to meet one of my favorite scholars, Johanna Drucker, but I also found myself invigorated by the sessions I attended. I don’t think I’m alone is suggesting that too often at more traditional conferences, I find myself sitting through a less-than-inspired delivery of a scholarly paper, often read rather than presented, and often written for scholarly reading instead of oral delivery. It’s not that there’s anything inherently wrong with the traditional conference model, it’s just that it’s sometimes executed poorly.

On the other hand, I found unconference conversations to be fluid, lively, and smart. Usually most of the people in the room contributed to the conversation in some fashion. People mentioned their own projects, and contextualized them in terms of the ongoing-immediate conversation. We were able to ask questions about details and background. We just sat around for the past couple of days, talking with each other about the things that move us or the thing about which we’re passionate. People met scholars they’ll work with on other projects. Graduate students met mentors. Senior scholars and graduate student both continually encountered new ideas.

Sure, it’s not a perfect format, but it doesn’t purport to be. It’s a conference form that’s emerging. And it’s the sort of conference format that I hope to encounter much more often.

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