Why You Should Consider an ‘Unconference’ for Your Next Academic Meeting

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By Lauren Garcia and Tressie McMillan Cottom

The idea for a conference that brought together passionate, informed people to talk about "race, space, and place" began during a tornado watch. One of us (Tressie McMillan Cottom) bumped into a colleague, Chioke I’Anson, in the hallway of the African American studies department at Virginia Commonwealth University as sirens drove us from our offices. It sounds like a metaphor for the benefits of escaping academic silos, but there actually was a storm and an accidental meeting in a hallway.

As we discussed the conference idea, I’Anson said he wasn’t interested in holding "one of those dry joints" that often pass for academic gatherings. The challenge was issued: Could we produce an academic meeting that exploited everything good about intellectual camaraderies without reproducing any of the worst aspects of conference-going?

The bad is so bad that one need not name it so much as close one’s eyes to re-experience it. Bad conferences are expensive. They have byzantine rules for participation. They require you to upload PDFs on one registration screen and Word documents on another. Bad conferences want a full paper three months before you present. They are expensive. (Did we mention that already?) The "more of a comment than a question" guy apparently has an unlimited travel budget and can occupy more than one spot on the time-space continuum. At a bad conference, he is everywhere, or it feels like he is. There is a lot of drinking. There may not be enough drinking. Bad conferences feature incidents of sexism, racism, classism, and ableism, and make it impossible to deal with them.

Why do we even still have these bad conferences? Perhaps because a good conference can be really good.

At their best, meetups with like-minded scholars remind you why you sacrificed your youth for graduate study. You meet interesting and interested people. You meet generous thinkers. You see your work in a different light because of a paper that sparks your creative energies. You are a student again but without any of the stakes. You meet in Hawaii and someone else pays for it. An offhand comment becomes a new idea that becomes a collaboration that reinvigorates you. A really good conference is the equivalent of divergent thinking where focus, sharing, and time are baked into the structure of the event. It is heady stuff.

It is also increasingly the purview of very well-resourced institutions and narrowly defined "scholars." Good conferences require money and staff. The reasons so few of us have either are now well-documented — increasing adjunctification, austerity budgeting, political polarization. All of those trends combine to make it hard to create spaces for scholars who are not affiliated with elite institutions to collaborate in real time.

This is generally where technology is proffered as a solution. It is true that virtual meetings can be collaborative and meaningful. They can mitigate some inequalities — physical accessibility, for instance — but technologies can also compound existing inequities. A working parent does not find five additional hours in a day just because a conference can now be experienced as a webinar.

Regardless, we didn’t want to organize a meeting that only the wealthy could afford to attend. We also believed that academic conferences are not only for academics. Thinkers and practitioners of all stripes engage with research, social problems, and policy. We wanted that energy to be a guiding principle for our first Race, Space, and Place conference. To signal that ethos, we first decided that the event would be an "unconference."

We borrowed the concept, which emerged from the tech world and has been adopted by some disciplines (education and feminist studies were among the first) looking for a less-hierarchical approach to meetings. An unconference is (1) participant-oriented, (2) informal, and (3) democratic.

With a mere five months of planning, our unconference brought together more than 300 participants from 10 states for a two-day event that included traditional scholarly talks, workshops, film, dance, and art. The organizing body is comprised of three professors, one part-time event organizer (Lauren Garcia), and a dozen student volunteers. We did not have a big budget or much administrative support. Technologies like Google forms helped fill in some of the gaps but not all. Despite those limitations, the unconference was a significant success. We kept the costs to participate low. We provided food. We subsidized travel. And we produced an organizational strategy for next year’s convening.

For those of you mulling a similar approach for your next scholarly meeting — and we encourage you to do so — here are the three most critical lessons we learned:

Begin as you intend to finish. Many of the inequalities and accessibility issues of a traditional academic conference emerge at the call for proposals. How you invite people to attend affects who responds, and ultimately who shows up. So we spent a lot of time discussing how to create a more accessible and interesting application process — one that would signal our intent from the get-go. It was not enough to just say that it was an unconference or to make announcements about accessibility and diversity and being a welcoming space.

To open the gathering to broad participation, we wrote statements in concrete language, minimizing academic terms. We strategically used hyperlinks in digital platforms so that participants could learn more about terms that were new to them. We consulted with disability-compliance specialists on our documents and other ephemera. And we invested precious dollars to pay student workers who translated our ideas about access and inclusion into digital and print materials.

Rethink submissions. To avoid the usual "badge checking" that goes on at most scholarly conferences, we started by rethinking how presenters would submit their work for consideration. We purposely set up an application process to not really be an application process. We wanted to maximize the potential pool by minimizing how much writing had to be done at the front end of the process, so we did not require papers or even abstracts.

Instead, we asked people to respond to broad questions that were very deliberately crafted to encourage critical reflection on a set of topics that should guide the unconference discussion. We limited responses to just 300 words in most cases. That encouraged participants to think less about what they could do than about what they wanted to do with others. Our goal was to draw people who were interested in a set of questions as opposed to a narrow line of inquiry.

The result: a significant yield in the rigor, quality, and diversity of thought and participants. As expected, we heard from dozens of students and faculty members. But we also received more than three dozen submissions from government workers, state educators, grass-roots activists, political organizers, nonprofit professionals, even medical doctors. The wide array of experience among our participants created rich, deep discussions about social problems, and those conversations continued after the meeting.

Design for democracy. A "dry" academic conference is often one that shoehorns human needs into whatever space is provided. We get it. Rarely do academics have the power or the know-how to shape the physical space where we do our work. But a critical step to success in planning an unconference is to at least discuss how a space will serve (or not) your meeting’s priorities and your participants’ needs.

In addition to ensuring that our facility and materials were ADA-compliant, we choose a venue in Richmond, Va., that was relaxed and inviting. There were no stages. Instead, sessions were mostly held in spaces set up like living rooms. Chairs could be easily configured. Spaces could be quickly appropriated for discussion, collaborative note-taking, or even meditation. There was no dress code for participants. Every event was free and open to the public. We provided meals and took dietary restrictions into consideration.

We took steps to signal that we welcomed collaboration outside of the official program. For instance, we opened a cash bar at noon to make it clear that we were keeping things casual. We encouraged people to use quiet spaces throughout the venue to collect themselves. And all of the session hosts were empowered to change the structure of their session, as needed. One session — initially intended to be about the history of neighborhood gentrification — became a hands-on session on how to share zoning data once the hosts realized that most of the attendees had years of community-organizing experience.

In ways large and small, we made decisions guided by our "participant-focused" ethos. For example:

  • We hired minority- and women-owned catering services.
  • A local indie bookstore sold books related to the theme of our unconference.
  • We provided travel scholarships to students and to professionals outside of academe, who are usually unable to participate in programs like ours due to a lack of funding.
  • Instead of printing people’s employers on their name tags, we listed their preferred pronouns (after collecting them in the original call for proposals).
  • We assembled a team of undergraduate volunteers who were interested in the theme and willing to help with all sorts of tasks, including archiving and live-tweeting the sessions.
  • Well in advance of the meeting, we created email threads for each group of presenters to plan their session.
  • We solicited what we called "common house speakers" — similar to keynote speakers but from outside the academy and chosen for what they could bring to the main conference theme. All of the speakers and evening performances were selected to blend popular culture and grass-roots activism with traditional research.

The aesthetics, the venue, the language used — with all of that, we tried to signal that this was a place where the ivory tower would welcome you.

Did we succeed? To paraphrase that famous Field of Dreams line, you can build it and they might come. So did we change the participants’ expectations of what an academic meeting could be? Many of the participants thought so.

"From people I met at this conference, I am pursuing new research collaborations with folks that I may not have met or been able to work with otherwise," said Ben Teresa, an assistant professor of public affairs at VCU. Deb Scott traveled the farthest, from Ohio State University, to attend. "The venue and format were interesting, the food was great, and this helped make casual but essential engagements outside of presentations easier and real," Scott said. "The dynamics in grouping the presenters … was out of the norm and encouraged me to engage content and methods for communicating that in a different way." That is more than can often be said for academic meetings, and we were pleased.

Still, you cannot please everyone. In the spirit of transparency, readers should note that two local community organizers chafed on Twitter because they attended but were not directly invited. We took to heart the implied point that we clearly did not achieve total market saturation with our call for proposals.

By now, it’s probably clear that an unconference requires much more deliberation and collaboration than a top-down approach. Is it worth all the effort? Absolutely.

In our post-planning, we scrutinized the hundreds of photos taken during the event and could not find a single instance of badge-checking. By that measure alone, the unconference was a great success.

Lauren Garcia is a master’s student in sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University and unconference event planner. Tressie McMillan Cottom is an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and founder of the Race, Space, and Place Initiative.

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