THATCamp hopefully the Model for Future Conferences

David Parry bio photo By David Parry

I have finally returned from my end of month traveling and am getting back to work on my current project (more on that later). But for now I wanted to join an ongoing conversation, about what was one of the most productive academic conferences I have been to: THATCamp. First, let me say mad props should be given to David Lester and Jeremy Boggs the two who organized it, as well as praise to the Center for New Media and History for hosting it.

I have been thinking a great deal since last weekend (when this conference was) about what made it so different from other academic gatherings. Many of the participants agreed with this sentiment, and many are talking about organizing others with a similar organizational structure. So, I thought it might be useful to offer some reflections as a way to improve THATCamp in the future, and more importantly as a way to encourage other conferences to adopt some of its features.

First a brief introduction for those not familiar with THATCamp or gatherings of its ilk. (For those who are familiar you might want to skip this paragraph as it is sure to bore you, and I am bound to get something wrong which might just confuse the matter.) My guess, although I don’t this for certain is that THATCamp takes its inspiration from BarCamp and FooCamp. The idea behind this type of conference (conference is perhaps the wrong word, indeed organizers often refer to it as an unconference, gathering is probably closer, although that is not very descriptive either). The idea is that rather than have a rigidly designed program at the start, with panels which feature speakers who dominate the break out sessions, participants themselves decide the breakout sessions, with each session being structured as a conversation rather than a presentation. Think of it as a wikiconference. For those who haven’t been to one I realize you might be thinking this sounds chaotic, unorganized, and less than productive. You would be right about only one of those: chaos (but it is a really productive sort of managed chaos).

Let me start by re-itterating something I started with, that this conference was by my evaluation tremendously successful. Indeed, if I was only able to attend one conference/gathering next year, I would probably chose THATCamp. Usually I am very resistant to conferences, I think they are far less productive than our profession makes them out to be, but THATCamp was the antithesis of the typical intellectual masturbation of most conferences. Why? Because you actually learn something, and collaborate on knowledge production. Rather than go to a panel and listen to somebody read a paper for 20 minutes telling you how smart they are, only to suffer through a question and answer period where nearly every person asks a question that is meant more to demonstrate how smart they are (the typical I don’t have a question but a comment where the questioner talks for five minutes) rather than generate conversation. THATCamp works precisely against this logic. If I want to read someone’s long form argument I am better off reading the 20 pages or so on my own time, rather than paying for a plane flight, a hotel for several nights, and having them read it to me in a hotel conference room with bad acoustics. I have for some time thought that the importance, or the real academic purchase of conferences is what happens after the panel (aside from networking which also happens after the panels) most of the better conversations have been had outside of the sessions where dialogue can happen. THATCamp makes those conversations the center of what happens rather than the supplement. Every hour and fifteen minute session is a conversation rather than a series of structured monologues.

Perhaps obviously the thing that made the conference so worthwhile was the people. This is probably a bit of a chicken and egg issue though, as the format of the conference probably attracted good people just as much as the participants made the conference good. There were a number of people whose work I had always respected from a far, or only ever knew through online communication so the conference afforded an opportunity to meet these people in physical space. But aside from the people what made the conference so successful?

Ideas not conclusions: Most conferences seem to be structured around individuals presenting conclusions of their research, or their final statements. Read a 20 minute paper, defend your thesis. THATCamp was markedly different, instead each session was more about generating ideas, testing out thoughts, and sharing perspectives. Thus individual egos were mostly put on hold in favor of trying things out, testing thoughts. Its really hard to overstate the importance of this, or even to fully capture what happened in each session, but by removing the “defend your thesis” from being the center of the conversation, the discussions turned out to be far more productive.

Organized Chaos: When I describe the format of this conference to some more traditional academics, they look at me weird, and usually ask “how could this possibly work?” “Don’t you need a program and strict organization ahead of time?” The answer is really no. Leveraging internet technologies and being comfortable with a flexible schedule allows for a bottom up organization where the participants determine what is important, rather than organizers deciding ahead of time what works for the participants. It probably helps that those who attended were familiar with the ethos of Web 2.0 where this kind of organization works. Simply put the conferences organizers designed a good “platform” and let the participants work and rework the “content.”

Keeping it Brief: Honestly I don’t need to hear you speak for 20 minutes. Lots of people with short ideas can be more productive than a few with really long ones. One of the more fascinating parts of the weekend was “dork shorts” where presenters had three minutes to demo a project they were working on. The organizers kept people to this schedule (think gong show but rather than a gong you were ushered off by keyboard cat if you went over time). So, by the end of lunch I had seen maybe 15-20 projects. Some useful for me, some not, but the ones I was more interested in, I got to follow up on.

Twitter: Seriously, I know some people here think I make too much of twitter, but it really added to the conference experience. Unlike many conferences without internet connections THATCamp had wifi throughout the weekend. (A couple of times it buckled under the strain of 100 overly connected academics, their netbooks, computers, and iPhones, but this only happened briefly.) This meant that participants could leverage the internet to enhance the session experience. Not the least of this was using twitter. So, those who were not at THATCamp could follow along, you could follow concurrent sessions, but perhaps most importantly it served as a sort of live organic note taking process, in addition to being a backchannel. You can see the archive here. Tech savvy participants also took advantage of the network to produce a wiki of the event. The twitter activity and collaborative note taking is definitely something other conferences can learn from.

Doing it on the Cheap: The conference was free. That’s right free. They asked for donations of $25 per participant, but no one charged at registration. Rather than host it at some big swanky hotel it was held at George Mason, thus cheaper. Breakfast on two days and lunch was included. I think I heard that the conference cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $3500 to host. My guess they made most of that back in donations. (Note: If you haven’t donated you should do so now.)

Diversity and Similarity: THATCamp was a good mix of people of diverse backgrounds within the humanities, but with similar interests. This meant that there was a mix of people with coding and technical background and a people more like myself, some technical knowledge but by no means an expert. This really helped in the sessions. My sense from some of the post THATCamp discussion was that some of the coders wanted more “hacking” (or coding time) and a little less discussion, so perhaps the panels were weighted a little in favor of conversation and less in production, but I think future conferences could easily change the percentage here. The key though is the mix of technical abilities and disciplinary approaches. Many academics talk about being interdisciplinary, few ever are. There was also a pretty good spread of students, staff, and faculty. In fact one usually had little idea who was who—and that was a good thing. My conference experience has often been that the conference reproduces the hierarchy of the institution, with faculty dominating conversations and ignoring the voices of the non-tenure track. No such thing here at THATCamp, I met undergrads, librarians, coders, and faculty alike. No one cared.

Size Matters: This is probably the unfortunate part of THATCamp: they capped the enrollment, turned people away. This had the positive effect of keeping the conference small, but the negative effect of limiting participation. I think the small feel really added to the sense of it being a friendly conference rather than an academic performance, and adding to the number of participants I think would really change this dynamic. I am not sure one could have more than 150 participants without seriously changing the dynamics. The up side is that the participants made it part of their participation to communicate to those not at THATCamp what was going on. I think in future iterations it might be nice to capture the video (or at least the audio) and turn it into a podcast. But more importantly nothing prevents there from being a lot more of these, several a year in fact, perhaps in different parts of the country, and with slightly different foci.

Here’s hopping that this serves as the model for more conferences like this. Maybe even outside of the digital humanities (but I won’t hold my breath for that one).