The Results of an Unconference

THATCamp tshirtAs I begin to write, I’m just a few hours removed from the ending of this year’s The Humanities and Technology Camp–or THATCamp. We at ProfHacker are big fans of THATCamp, which is hosted by George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media (CHNM). After all, last year’s THATCamp is where ProfHacker was prof-hatched by George and Jason. But our enthusiasm for THATCamp goes far beyond our own origin story.

One of the reasons we’re so keen on the concept of THATCamp is its format: the unconference. (The Chronicle’s Jennifer Howard published a great piece yesterday on the emergence of the unconference in academia.) As opposed to many academic conferences, which require months of planning and can involve thousands of participants, unconferences tend to be smaller affairs and are organized by the participants rather than the event’s organizers. What this means is that each camper was invited to write a blog post about something that she would like to discuss prior to the event’s beginning. Other campers were invited to read and comment on the posts. And when we arrived on Saturday for the opening of the conference, we were greeted with a whiteboard that had time slots drawn on it and were asked to fill in the slots with discussion topics, the product of which you can see below.

THATCamp schedule

The resulting schedule was eventually posted to the website.*

In my case, I had wanted to discuss how to teach more humanities students transferable skills. In reading through other campers’ posts, I discovered that fellow ProfHacker Jeff McClurken and University of Maryland, College Park’s Tanya Clement wanted to discuss cultivating digital skills and “digital literacy for the dumbest generation.” We decided to mash together our three ideas and “led” a session on this subject and the wider issue of what skills one needs to be a digital humanist.

I placed “led” in the previous sentence in scare quotes because one of the rules of an unconference is that there are no papers and no holding forth. While there might be someone who stands at the front of the room, she will be there primarily to direct traffic as the conversation develops. Jeff and I played that role in our session, and Tanya sat near the front; but I’d say 90% of the time the conversation was in the hands of the audience. You can see video of this session, shot by John M. Jones, in three parts at YouTube: part one, part two, and part three.

If there aren’t papers, you might think that an unconference would devolve into so many argumentative conversations–in other words, just like a regular conference, but with less clearly articulated (because not written out) positions. But this year’s THATCamp was operating under a mantra suggested by Dave Lester, one of THATCamp’s founders: “more hack, less yak.” The result was that every session I attended worked collaboratively to create something that could spur the conversation forward following the event. In a session I attended on “Ethical Hacking in the Humanities,” we discussed the ethics of teaching students why and how to hack devices such as an iPhone or the need to use a software emulator to teach and demonstrate older programs or games. But the deliverable of that sessions was the beginning sketches of a syllabus on the subject. In the session that I helped “lead,” we produced a shared set of notes about teaching digital (humanities) skills in Google Docs, where everyone in the room could simultaneously edit the same document. Similar notes were created for a session I attended on archiving alternate reality games (ARGs), and we brainstormed potential assignments in a conversation about using geolocation in the classroom. ProfHacker Kathleen Fitzpatrick led a discussion on reimagining peer review in a digital age and of the (sometimes digital) process–as opposed to product–of scholarship. My own take-away from that session was the realization that THATCamp demonstrates that a body of people does exist that has the wherewithal to evaluate digital scholarship effectively–which can help give that scholarship more respect [paywall].

If all this sounds like more yak than hack, then you might have enjoyed the session “So you want to be a hacker…” which provided a hands-on overview to reading and writing code for beginners. Another group found some time to updated some code for Zotero. And another group came up with a possible answer to the ever-present lament that “All courseware sucks!” There were groups building game prototypes, campers discussing APIs, and others poking into HTML5. Perhaps one of the most interesting and tangible projects to emerge from this year’s camp is CHNM’s Dan Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt’s proposal to write an edited collection in one week on the subject of Hacking the Academy, which Julie covered on Friday. Contributions have been coming in quickly (65 in 48 hours), and anyone–whether a THATCamp attendee or not–can contribute. (This is the third interesting approach that I’ve seen recently for reconfiguring the edited volume that frequently emerges from conferences. For two other methods, consider (1) the University of Virginia’s recent Shape of Things to Come conference [which was not an unconference], which had a court reporter transcribing everything that was said for its published volume [paywall], and (2) the Pastplay collection from the Playing with Technology in History event, which combined the unconference format with a more conventional–albeit small–academic conference.)

To top it off all this collaboration, Twitter was a significant component of THATCamp. Many people live-tweeted the sessions that they were in using the hashtag #thatcamp. (You can read the entire #thatcamp archive thanks to Twapper Keeper.) This meant that those who were in one session could also peek at what was happening in other rooms. Much more importantly, however, it meant that people outside the conference could follow along and interject with comments or questions about what was taking place. I’ll be the first to admit that managing your attention when tweeting during a session is a learned task and that it’s not for everyone. But I personally find myself more engaged with the conversation in the room when I’m reporting on it. It allows me to summarize and to formulate questions for the discussion.

If all this sounds confusing–no conference program, no papers, no leaders, too much coding and acronyms, ADD Twitter users–I’ll warrant that it can feel a bit intimidating at first. After all, most of us have been trained in the academy, where there are set patterns (even if unspoken) for doing things. The concept of an unconference seems to violate these patterns completely. But I can say that my experience at this year’s THATCamp was the same as last year’s (and the same as Amy Cavender’s this year): I’m leaving feeling completely energized. I’ve got ideas for projects that I want to tackle, skills that I want to learn, and people with whom I want to work. As I told my wife on the phone, attending THATCamp makes me feel like I’ve found my tribe. The people in the room are from many different disciplines–or not even within the academy–but we have a shared interest in thinking about how to use technology to improve our research, teaching, and the academy itself. It’s no wonder it’s where ProfHacker was born.


*It bears noting that even though the participants of the event are responsible for determining the schedule unconferences still require organizing, as Ethan Watrall has previously discussed. Moreover, there were at least two meta-THATCamp session, in which tweaks to future and regional THATCamps were brainstormed and discussed by CHNM staff plus past regional organizers, including Ethan and ProfHacker’s Julie Meloni. As the latter suggested, such sessions suggest that the unconference format is still being tweaked and organized for optimum utility within the academy.

[Image by Flickr user clioweb / Used by permission]

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