Overcoming Session Proposal Anxiety at THATCamp and Beyond

THATCamp Fairfax 2010Summer is a prime season for conferences—and unconferences—and several of us here at ProfHacker are packing up for a THATCamp this summer. Getting ready for an unconference can feel very different from the usual conference, and not just because of the t-shirt and short dress codes. There’s a final obstacle that’s been on my own to-do list all week: writing a session proposal. In a traditional conference, we write our abstracts or even complete papers and posters months to a year in advance, and our very acceptance depends on the strength of that material. In an unconference, on the other hand, ideas are put out into public forums for discussion, recombination, voting and scheduling long after the decisions on campers are made.

Given this unpredictability, unconferences can be intimidating. George Williams made several great pre-THATCamp suggestions, and there are a number of tips for newcomers on preparing a session proposal on the THATCamp site, but ultimately one of the best ways to know what happens at an unconference is to experience it. This can make the session proposal process even harder for newcomers, as veterans comfortable with the style of discourse can more easily navigate

As a sort-of-veteran unconference attendee myself, I’m no stranger to session proposal anxiety and its accompanying paralysis. Here are a few things I keep in mind when writing session proposals to break out of conference abstract mode:

  • Step away from the familiar. When we give conference presentations, the “sage on the stage” cliché is often in full force. Unconferences are a chance to propose a discussion on something we don’t know, and count on a room of people with differing backgrounds to run with it. Posing an unsolved problem as a focus for a traditional conference presentation doesn’t work so well in many fields, but in an unconference it’s perfect.
  • Embrace everything as collaborative. Some great session proposals arise out of pre-planned collaboration and Twitter conversations while others are more emergent, mashed together from apparently similar topics during the voting and scheduling process or as conversations on Twitter overlap and people—or entire sessions—relocate and converge. A session is always much bigger than the original proposal as this evolution occurs.
  • Don’t take anything too seriously—especially rejection. While the public process of session proposal and voting that is experimented with in various forms in unconference models can make suggesting an unremarked topic like being picked last for teams in gym class, “normal” peer review both shelters ego s and potentially encourages nastiness. But in an unconference even if a session proposal doesn’t make the schedule, there’ll still be opportunities to share those ideas.

Have you ever suffered from session proposal anxiety? Do you approach proposals in open forums differently than traditional peer-reviewed anonymous spaces? Share your experiences and advice in the comments!

[ Creative Commons Licensed Image from THATCamp Fairfax 2010 by Karen Dalziel ]

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