Organizing a THATCamp for Liberal Arts Colleges

that_campersLast week George rounded up many responses to the recent THATCamps at George Mason University and at St. Norbert College. The latter, which I helped organize, focused on digital teaching and research at Liberal Arts Colleges (or other schools that face similar challenges). We’ve written about THATCamps frequently at ProfHacker. Last year Ethan wrote specifically about organizing an unconference, and I don’t want to repeat his points here. Instead I want to focus on a few unique challenges we faced organizing LAC, and make a few points about the lessons we learned.

The two main challenges we faced were:

  • Outreach. We organized THATCamp LAC in part to help combat the isolation of digital scholars at small schools, an isolation described well by Quinn Dombrowski and Rebecca Davis in this whitepaper published by NITLE. We were looking, then, for faculty, librarians, technical staff, and students from smaller schools around the country, not just from the region around St. Norbert College. Finding potential participants was not as simple as sending an announcement out on Twitter. It’s sometimes easy to forget how many academics—even those with an interest in things digital—aren’t on Twitter. In the end, we reached out in a variety of ways. We tweeted (and retweeted) announcements. We talked to participants in NITLE’s Digital Scholarship Seminars. We connected with representatives of larger organizations, such as the Associated Colleges of the Midwest, and asked them to pass our announcement on to members. We posted announcements on bulletin boards for various academic groups. Perhaps most successfully, we did a lot of searching on colleges’ homepages, looking for profiles that hinted at an interest in digital research and/or pedagogy. I think we could have done more work with (non-digital) disciplinary organizations, and I hope to pursue this kind of outreach more vigorously if we reprise THATCamp LAC. As Ethan pointed out in his post, even an unconference is a lot of work to put together, and for us outreach took the most time.
  • Keeping costs down. Again, we were not a local THATCamp. We wanted to bring scholars from all over the country to De Pere, Wisconsin, but that means that our campers had to cover airfare and other travel expenses. THATCamps are supposed to be affordable, and so we tried to find ways to mitigate those costs. St. Norbert College owns The Kress Inn, a hotel on campus. Through the Kress we were able to offer campers very affordable hotel rooms. Working through St. Norbert’s Conference and Event Services, we were also able to offer dorm room accommodations for participants that were cheaper still. We tried to provide a few key meals as well, so that campers didn’t have to buy all of their food while in De Pere.

And what did we learn while facing these challenges (and after)?

  • Local relationships are key. We were able to organize an exciting event cheaply in part because of the willing cooperation of many local constituencies, both on campus and off. We invited several members of our campus IT staff to attend THATCamp LAC, for instance, and those attendees also provided some much-needed assistance getting the tech running and troubleshooting problems along the way. One of our local organizers has been part of the St. Norbert College and greater Green Bay communities for awhile, and so was able to find gathering places for campers, including a free beeer tasting at Titletown Brewing. This actually leads to my next insight, which is…
  • Some programming goes a long way. THATCamps are unconferences, and so you don’t want to go too far by scheduling every minute of every day. With that said, we included a number of informal social events that I think gave THATCamp LAC a unique character, even compared to other THATCamps I’ve attended. The night before our official start, we hosted an informal gathering at a bar across from campus. About half of the campers showed up, introduced themselves, and started conversations that would continue for the next two days. The next night we rented a yellow schoolbus to take campers to Titletown. The bus ride itself was tons of fun—I think campers were reliving school field trip memories—and so was the beer tasting and dinner. Finally, we sponsored the final, closing lunch of the camp, and encouraged campers to share some of their work as we ate. These three events brough our group together, and gave the camp a fun atmosphere that certainly contributed to our sessions.
  • Administrators can get the unconference model. In many conversations I read about THATCamps, there’s often a sense that administrators don’t—or even can’t—”get” the movement. That wasn’t true for us. Perhaps because St. Norbert is such a small school, we were able to talk about the upcoming camp to both the dean and the president of the college. Both of them saw THATCamp LAC as a unique chance for our small school to enter into a national conversation, and they were immensely supportive: philosophically, practically, and even financially. In fact, both Dean Frick and President Kunkel visited sessions and events during THATCamp LAC. I write this not simply to thank Dean Frick and President Kunkel—though I am deeply appreciative—but to to make a larger point. THATCamps can offer schools—especially those schools that don’t regularly host academic conferences—a low-risk way to bring innovative scholars to their campuses. At this small school, THATCamp was a pretty easy sell, and I suspect that would hold true at many other campuses. Judging from the good press THATCamp LAC received, both locally and nationally, the administrative support we received has borne fruit for the institution.

There were many other takeaways from THATCamp LAC, and honestly I’m still processing much of the experience. Perhaps I will write a followup post later this month to expand on a few of those points. Hopefully this post can help those thinking of organizing a THATCamp—especially those at smaller schools—think about the challenges and opportunities that come from organizing an unconference.

[Creative Commons licensed photo by Flickr user quinn.anya.]

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