Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Unconferences of a non-THATCamp variety

I returned to my desk after teaching this morning to see a brief exchange between Adeline Koh and Marta Rivera Monclova, the upshot being that there should be a cultural studies THATCamp.

I don't disagree, but I wonder if in fact we need ever more proliferating THATCamps, or if we should just have a couple of cultural studies unconferences aimed at the novice, to which DHers might be inclined to go?

Conferences like CESA often circulate around star power (six plenary sessions, y'all?) and expertise. This is largely a good thing: usually the whole point of going to a specialized conference is that you work in the field and want to hear the newest, hardest stuff, because if you wanted to hear the basics rehearsed, you could just listen to your own self teaching the intro survey on Tuesday. The down side is that it can be hard for anyone working outside the field to gain purchase on the conversation.

But an unconference is perfect for novices in a field, because it requires that you get over your insecurities and admit ignorance. An unconference is much more conversational, rather like a seminar, but containing only brainy students who want to be there, and no teacher. The difference between an unconference and a working group is largely affective, although it has partly to do with scheduling (one intense burst rather than a sustained series of meetings across a semester or year). Most of us have had the pleasant experience at a THATCamp of finding out some things we didn't know before, and also finding out that we already knew more than we thought we did.

Obviously, the transformational DH (#transformDH) group has a specific interest in bringing cultural studies concepts into relief in digital humanities projects, so a THATCamp would make sense. And THATCamp is great, first of all because it's the only unconference most of us have been to and thus provides a model, and second and perhaps most importantly, because CHNM has set up such a useful infrastructure for organizing them.

But I wonder if there isn't a need for an unconferencelike structure in different fields as well, not to replace conferences as they now exist (contra those who capital-H Hate regular conferences like MLA) so much as to supplement them, to make them friendlier places for grad students and for people looking to cross over into a field they haven't worked in before but in which they have determined that they need some literacy. Poetry Camp, anyone?


Shockgrubz said...

I'd sign up for poetry camp, but then again I like poetry and I could use some help camping.

I like your part about claiming the ignorance. It takes some good humility to know that one does not know.

Natalia said...

It does take humility, and that's a good thing, I suppose, but I very much want to resist the language of moral superiority that so often goes with these proposals. Humility is necessary for learning (i.e. you have to already persuaded that there is something for you to learn), but too often unconferences are held up as an ethical good because of the humility that they presuppose, as if to suggest that regular conferences are purely populated by arrogant weenies, or that being an arrogant weenie is the only reason you'd want to go to one. The truth is that arrogant weenies are everywhere, and we all inhabit that role from time to time, regardless of the sorts of conferences we frequent.