Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Underconference Underdogs

Few people snarkily appreciate conference culture more than fellow digital humanist Mark Sample who has posted a new blog entry called "Forget Unconferences, Let's Think about Underconferences."

Sample opens his position statement with a discussion of a forthcoming THATCAMP and of the ideals of the "unconference" experience in general. (See my comments about a recent THATCAMP in Southern California here for more first-person context.)

Then Sample suggests that a more subversive "underconference" may be a preferable venue for changing scholarly practice. To provide a framework for his discussion, he cited two recent examples: his spoof "Mark's Digital Humanities Conference" hosted on Twitter (about which see wrap-up here) and the recent Critical Code Studies virtual conference organized by Virtualpolitik friend Mark Marino, which featured interesting work from Stephen Ramsay, Wendy Chun, Jeremy Douglass, and many others, which was hosted on Ning.

He closes with a manifesto about how the underconference could be imagined more creatively:

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.

Having taken part in at least two ARGs at conferences, I'm not sure that Sample is right that they will transform the behavior of scholars in substantive ways, but as a two-time conference organizer this year (as program coordinator for DAC and as PI for a recent digital humanities conference based on the Rorty born-digital archive), I'm certainly open to new ideas. Of course, I just think that free food is the most important thing and that virtual interaction is considerably less essential.

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