Why the 2013 MLA Digital Pedagogy Unconference Isn’t a THATCamp

A few months ago I wrote about the Digital Pedagogy Unconference that Adeline Koh and I had organized. I’m pleased to announce–both here and over at ProfHacker–that the long dark night of the soul has passed and you can now visit our website and register for the unconference, which will take place on the morning of 3 January. It’s worth mentioning that the registration for the event is limited to 50 people and will be done on a first-come, first-served basis. So if you’re interested in playing along, please don’t delay in signing up.

Since this conversation isn’t likely to happen elsewhere, I wanted to explain briefly why Adeline and I decided to host an unconference rather than a THATCamp and why we wanted to do it at the MLA. In doing this, it’s worth saying that I’m trying to capture conversations that we had in the Spring and that any mistakes or bad ideas are surely the product of me and/or my memory and not Adeline’s.

To recap what we wrote in May, we wanted to host an unconference at the MLA to continue to broaden the sort of formats that one sees at the MLA. There has been a lot of change and growth in the conference in just the six years that I’ve been attending. Along with the traditional three- or four-paper panel, you can now regularly expect to see roundtables. These roundtables can be comprised of people giving shorter talks, some of them structured in the Pecha Kucha format. (In all fairness, I attended a roundtable at my first MLA in 2006.) Roundtables these days can also be electronic, with people giving demonstrations of projects, tools, or assignments. Our goal in bringing an unconference format into the MLA is to continue to expand the diversity of offerings at the Convention. And we hope that as goes the MLA, so too will other conferences eventually go. For this reason, it was also really important for us to have the event be an official part of the MLA program. We wanted this to be a change that happened not from the outside but from within. We have been grateful for some cheerful advice from MLA staffers and officers as we’ve worked on different parts of the event.

So if we were going to have an unconference at the MLA, why didn’t we just turn it into a THATCamp? After all, we’re big fans of THATCamp. I’ve been going to the one at CHNM for the last four years and participating in its related networks has led to many fantastic opportunities. We had two compelling reasons, however, for not working within the rubric of a THATCamp. First, because we wanted our event integrated into the official MLA conference program (see above), it would have to be limited a three-hour time period. That’s about as long as one or two sessions at a THATCamp and, to our minds, that short time does not really a THATCamp make. Of course, since a THATCamp is an unconference, one can always adjust as necessary, but it seemed to depart far enough from the model that it made sense to conceptualize it differently.

But our second reason was more important still. As great as THATCamp is, it’s not the only unconference that exists, as Tom Scheinfeldt, Dave Lester, or Jeremy Boggs would quickly tell you. But within academia—or at least in the humanities, where I spend most of my time—unconferences have become synonymous with THATCamp. And I don’t think that’s healthy. After all, since THATCamps privilege the intersection of the humanities and technology, there’s a good chance that some people might think that the unconference model has nothing to offer them if they aren’t interested in combining their research, teaching, or service with technology. (And yes, I’m aware of the irony of Adeline and I offering an unconference on digital pedagogy!) If we’re interested in shifting how the academy works, the last thing we want is to restrict particular methods to a subset of people. I want to be sure that scholars from all corners of the university understand they can use the unconference model for rethinking what it means to interact professionally with colleagues and in connection with their research, no matter what that means to them. The unconference is just one more tool, and I think we do well to realize it can be more than just THATCamp that makes use of it.

Of course, if you think we’ve made a huge mistake in not hosting a THATCamp, you’ll be pleased to know that THATCamp MLA has been organized by Adeline’s and my ProfHacker colleague, Ryan Cordell. If you’ll be in Boston on 2 January, think about dropping by. And then come to the digital pedagogy unconference (unTHATCamp?).

8 thoughts on “Why the 2013 MLA Digital Pedagogy Unconference Isn’t a THATCamp

  1. Great points, Brian. As part of the Teaching Book History workshop I’m organizing at the Folger, we’ve set aside one time slot for some unconferencing. It’s not THATCamp, it’s not a full unconference, but I hope it will harness some of the energy and commitment to exploration within a non-DH and necessarily more formal setting.

  2. You are dead to me.

    Kidding, you are very much alive to me. This makes perfect sense, and I’d like to see similar experimentation at the AHA meeting.

  3. Very good points, Brian. While I am hosting a THATCamp — THATCamp SoCal 2012, this coming weekend — I am already in discussion with colleagues to plan two more unconferences that won’t be THATCamps because 1 of them will only be open to our campus (which we want to promote as interdisciplinary), and 1 of them will only be open to digital humanities-interested colleagues from campuses within our CSU system. THATCamp.org does state that one of the requirements for hosting a THATCamp is that membership not be restrictive….so that leaves my 2 upcoming events just “unconferences”.

  4. @Dan Adeline and my original idea was to have a 3-hour block taking place in the middle of the regular MLA, a little akin to what the AHA did last year with its THATCamp. We hoped to create a situation where regular conference goers could just drop in rather than the workshop, where we will have to have people sign up ahead of time. For a number of reasons that wasn’t going to be feasible for the structure of the MLA at this point in time. We can look to the future though!

    @Colleen I’ll be interested to hear what you have to say about those two intra- and inter-campus unconferences. We’re trying to figure out how to do better cross campus collaboration in Atlanta. Maybe an unconference is what we need more than the beers and wings we’ve been relying on…

    @Tom As I wrote in response to Amanda, one of the things that I love about THATCamp and the people that have made it the amazing thing that it is is that I knew you would all be supportive of my writing this. What a great place for all of us to be in.

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