Forget Unconferences, Let’s Think about Underconferences

In a few days the latest iteration of THATCamp will convene on the campus of George Mason University, hosted by the Center for History and New Media. Except “convene” really isn’t the right word. Most of my readers will already know that The Technology and Humanities Camp is an “unconference,” which as Ethan Watrall explains on ProfHacker, is “a lightly organized conference in which the attendees themselves determine the schedule.” You can’t really convene such a self-emergent event. But 75 or so participants will nonetheless be there on Saturday morning, and we will indeed get started, figuring out the sessions democratically and then sharing ideas and conversation. This format takes the place of “sharing” (by which I mean dully reading) 20-minute papers that through a bizarre rift in the space-time continuum take 30 minutes to read, leaving little time for discussion.

[pullquote align=”left”]If you go into a panel knowing exactly what you’re going to say or what you’ve already said, there’s little room for exploration or discovery.[/pullquote]

The unconference obviously stands in contrast to the top-down, largely monologic model of the traditional conference. Most THATCamp attendees rave about the experience, and they find themselves craving similar open-ended panels at the more staid academic conferences in their respective fields. Change is slow to come, of course. What happens for the most part are slight tweaks to the existing model. Instead of four people reading 20-minute papers during a session, four people might share 20-minute papers beforehand, with the session time dedicated to talking about those 20-minute papers. Yet this model still relies on the sharing of prepared material. If you go into a panel knowing exactly what you’re going to say or what you’ve already said, there’s very little room for actual exploration or discovery. It reminds me of Nietzsche’s line that finding “truth” is like someone hiding an object in a bush and later being astonished to find it there. That’s the shape of disingenuous discovery at academic conferences.

So what’s a poor idealistic professor to do?

Let’s forget about unconferences, even as they gain momentum, and start thinking about underconferences.

What’s an underconference?

Before I answer that, let’s run through some other promising alternative conference models:

The Virtual Conference: This is the conference held entirely online, in which the time and space limitations of the real world can be broken at will. The recent Critical Code Studies Working Group, held over six weeks this spring, was a good example, though the conference was, unfortunately, only open to actual participants. The proceedings will be published on Electronic Book Review, however, and at least one research idea seeded at the virtual conference may see the light of the day in a more traditional publishing venue. HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory) has had success with its virtual conference as well.

The Simulated Conference: Like Baudrillard’s simulacrum, this is the simulation of a conference for which there is no original, the conference for which there is no conference. This sounds impossible, but in fact I hosted an entirely simulated conference one weekend in February 2010. It was a particularly conference-heavy weekend for the digital humanities, and since I couldn’t attend any of them, I created one of my own: MarksDH2010. Spurred on at first by Ian Bogost and Matt Gold, the simulated conference turned into a weekend affair, hosted entirely on Twitter, and catered by Halliburton. Dozens of participants spontaneously joined in the fun, and in the very act of lampooning traditional conferences (e.g. see my notes on the fictional Henri Jenquin’s keynote), I humbly suggest we advanced forward the humanities by at least a few virtual inches. As I later explained, MarksDH2010 “was a folie à deux and then some.” You can read the complete archives, in chronological order, and decide for yourself about that characterization.

The Unconference: Do I need to say more about the unconference? Read about the idea in theory, or see it in practice by following the upcoming THATCamp Prime on Twitter.

The Underconference: The virtual conference and the simulated conference are both made possible by technology. They take place at a distance, mediated by screens. The final model I wish to consider is the opposite, rooted in physical space, requiring actual—not virtual—bodies. This is not the unconference, but the underconference. The prerequisite of the underconference is the conference. There is the official conference—say, the MLA—and at the very same time there is an entirely parallel conference, running alongside—no, under—the official conference. Think of it as the Trystero of academia. Inspired by the Situationists, Happenings, flash mobs, Bakhtin, ARGs, and the absurdist political theater of the Yippies, the underconference is the carnival in the churchyard. Transgressive play at the very doorstep of institutional order. And like most manifestations of the carnivalesque, the underconference is at its heart very serious business.

[pullquote align=”right”]The participants of the underconference are also participants in the conference. They are not enemies, they are co-conspirators.[/pullquote]

Let me be clear, though. The underconference is not a chaotic free-for-all. Just as carnival reinforces many of the ideas it seems to make fun of, the underconference ultimately supports the goals of the conference itself: sharing ideas, discovering new texts and new approaches, contributing to the production of knowledge, and even that tawdry business of networking. The participants of the underconference are also participants in the conference. They are not enemies, they are co-conspirators. The underconference is not mean-spirited; in fact, it seeks to overcome the petty nitpicking that counts as conversation in the conference rooms.

The Underconference is:

  1. Playful, exploring the boundaries of an existing structure;
  2. Collaborative, rather than antagonistic; and
  3. Eruptive, not disruptive.

What might an underconference actually look like?

  • Whereas the work of the conference takes place in meeting rooms and exhibit halls, the underconference takes place in “the streets” of the conference: the hallways and stairwells, the lobbies and bars.
  • The underconference begins with a few “seed” shadow sessions, planned and coordinated events that occur in the public spaces of the conference venue: an unannounced poetry reading in a lobby, an impromptu Pecha Kucha projected inside an elevator, a panel discussion in the fitness room.
  • As the underconference builds momentum, bystanders who find themselves in the midst of an unevent are encouraged to recruit others and to hold their own improvised sessions.
  • The underconference has much to learn from alternate reality games (ARGs), and should incorporate scavenger hunts, geolocation, environmental puzzles, and even a reward or badge system that parodies the official system of awards and prizes.
  • I have reason to believe that at least a few of the major academic conferences would look the other way if they were to find themselves paired with an underconference, if not openly sanction a parallel conference. Support might eventually take the form of dedicated space, perhaps the academic equivalent of Harry Potter’s Room of Requirement.

Do you get the idea? It’s a bold and ambitious plan, and I don’t expect many to think it’s doable, let alone worthwhile. Which is exactly why I want to do it. My experiences with virtual conferences, simulated conferences, and unconferences have convinced me that good things come from challenging the conventions of academic discourse. For every institutionalized practice we must develop a counter-practice. For every preordained discussion there should be an infusion of unpredictability and surprise. For every conference there should be an underconference.

9 thoughts on “Forget Unconferences, Let’s Think about Underconferences”

  1. It’s not only Tristero you’re invoking, but also the Counterforce from Gravity’s Rainbow. I’ll volunteer to be the Pirate Prentice to your Slothrop.

  2. I’ve participated in a couple events that begin to approximate your idea of underconferences:
    1) “A New World From Below: An Anarchist & Anti-authoritarian convergence at the US Social Forum” (June 2010, Detroit) – — Held at a church nearby the convention center, with workshops, strategizing sessions, music, dance parties, and free Food Not Bombs food. Also, thousands of copies of a broadsheet printed with a selected schedule of anarchist workshops within the US Social Forum.
    2) A workshop during the Association of American Geographers conference (April 2010, DC), organized independently of the conference, held at a community center near the hotel, with free food cooked and shared collectively, and discussions around integrating activism with academic work. We’re going to try to organize something like this again for next year’s conference, perhaps making it more ambitious along the lines of your underconferences. Thanks for the inspiration!

    Also, you might be interested in the idea of “undercommons.” I helped organize a conference around this — “Beneath the University, the Commons” It was in a more traditional format, but we at least tried out some alternative forms, such as holding it at a social center.

  3. […] For me it is the regular conference type that remains the most attractive. Maybe presenting papers allows my artistic, performative side to emerge, just like in Itir’s case. Maybe I am able to capture the vibes of a flesh and blood audience more directly, and to get more energy and inspiration from their almost imperceptible reactions. Maybe it is the possibility of looking at the members of the public in the eye and expecting, hoping, that they will stay afterwards for an informal chat and exchange of views. So is it so that I am more of the underconference type? Am I at the conference not because of the actual moment of presenting or discussing a paper, but because of its parallel universe, this “carnival in the churchyard” to quote Mark Sample? […]

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