Unconferencing On-/Off-Line

All, Reflections

This past week was filled with unconferences for me. THATCamp describes the “unconference” like this:

An unconference is to a conference what a seminar is to a lecture, what a party is to a wedding, what a pick-up game of Ultimate Frisbee is to an NBA game, what a jam band is to a symphony orchestra: it’s more informal and more participatory

that camp the humanities and technology camp logo

Now that sounds pretty exciting, right? A wonderful opportunity to exchange ideas, debate and discuss, and no one sitting around listening to someone reading from a pre-packaged paper or Powerpoint that drags on so long there is no time for questions let alone discussion.

I found the two online unconferences I participated in (Hybrid Pedagogy’s Virtual Unconference and an Online Conference in connection with Computers and Writing) to be somewhat disappointing in that regard. There were some marvelous discussions and some amazing participants but far too many session presenters were determined to make their sessions synchronous events held in Google+ Hangouts or Twitter. I simply don’t have the time (or inclination) to participate in synchronous events during my normal life and I kind of resent being forced to simply replicate the traditional conference form – even if it is discussion-based rather than presentation-based.

I need more time and space to think and reflect before responding/questioning and that is why I enjoyed the asynchronous discussions so much more. Why do so many people want to force the round unconference into the square conference mold? To my mind the beauty of the online unconference is the simple fact that we can move past the traditional constraints of time and space and we don’t all have to be available (with the right technology) between 1 and 2 p.m. EST. Why can our conversation only live in that time slot? Why must our converation only live in that time slot? I find it surprising (shocking even) that those embracing technology/education/communication should be so hobbled by the idea that conversations can only happen in real time. Why do I need to install an app to participate? I’m disappointed because there were some topics that really interested me but I felt shut out of the conversation simply because I had to work or parent during that time slot. Attending a traditional conference requires sacrifices and extensive negotiations (with both work and family) but I had hoped for more from an online unconference. I want my cake and to eat it too — is that too much to ask?

THAT Camp Kentucky logo

I had the opportunity this weekend to attend my first THATCamp. THATCampKY was organized by my friend Lee Skallerup Bessette (@readywriting) and my new friend Randolph Hollinsworth (@rhollingsworth) as a joint project of Morehead State University and the University of Kentucky. As an experienced National Writing Project affiliate, I like my learning to be messy, conversational, and organic so a THATCamp is a marvelous thing for me. And I did have a lot of fun, met some great new people, and learned-learned-learned. I am so inspired to jump back into my research which I have been neglecting of late so that is another good benefit.

One of the best things about an unconference is that the roles of leader and learner are very fluid and constantly being renegotiated as our conversations evolve and unfold. These conversations are incredible learning experiences as there are so many smart people in the room with a variety of experiences to bring to the table. I was so excited to meet some really interesting people and establish relationships that I hope will continue to inspire me as an educator and a researcher. But there were disappointments here as well. Some were my own fault, missing out on a great conversation by choosing one session over another, but I also could have wished for more people doing digital humanities work and innovative education work using technology. While I learned a lot this weekend, there is so much more I want to learn. Greed has always been one of my greatest failings. As much as I have, I always want more. Is there a 12-step program for the techno-educator-researcher?