An "Unconference" as Your Next Academic Conference?

James Harker
May 24, 2010
Clipart image of a computer.

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jennifer Howard has recently reported on the growth of the "unconference" among humanists--an alternative to the traditional format of the academic conference that involves proposal submission well ahead of time, flying to a destination, listening to a large number of formal papers, and perhaps having just a few occasions for less formal discussion of each others' work.

This past weekend, THATCamp held its annual unconference at George Mason University.  Replacing a formal review structure, the conference makes use of blogs to generate discussion ideas for participants. As Howard explains, "The next step can be as simple as posting a big sheet of white paper on the first day of the gathering and asking anyone interested in that session to sign up for it. If there's not enough interest, that session doesn't take place." The conference also develops collaborative documents such as syllabi that can become widely used resources for scholars.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this format has been of particular interest among scholars of the digital humanities who already have some familiarity with the technologies that are used for organization. Will this more spontaneous form of "user-generated" discussion gain traction among a wider range of humanists?  Perhaps as digital tools become more widely used, the format of the humanities conference will take on more of the features of the "unconference."