Imagining a British Literature Unconference

Two years ago, NGSCers met to discuss possible topics for our in-utero blog. The idea of “reimagining the conference” from a graduate student’s point of view was raised by both Jill Heydt-Stevenson, our intrepid faculty advisor, and Scott Hagele, former co-chair. At that time, I had not yet heard of THATcamp (The Humanities and Technology camp), which does precisely this for the digital humanities. My goal in this post is to introduce THATcamp and juggle the idea of a BritLitCamp: a British Literature unconference.

First a major disclaimer: I’ve never been to a THATcamp in person. However, the backchannel (i.e., Twitter stream found by searching for #thatcamp) for the most recent unconference held at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason Univ., June 3-5, was as lively as a Boulder hippie drum circle at dusk. Participants tweeted non-stop about topics under discussion, photos, questions, and links to blog posts and collaborative note-taking in googledocs. I had no trouble following along from my desk and tweeting with participants, which just made me want to be there. Visit Mark Sample’s archive of #thatcamp tweets that he created using TwapperKeeper to read the tweets for yourself! (Make coffee first.)

So, what I know about THATcamp is comprised entirely of what I’ve read online and heard in brief descriptions from Johanna Drucker, Lori Emerson, Laura Mandell, and other DHers. My understanding is that THATcamp is meant to complement traditional academic conference formats and outcomes. It is a small, collaborative gathering of cross-disciplinary and cross-professional attendees (scholars, librarians, students, and non-academics of all stripes including programmers, business professionals, etc.). The agenda for the gathering is established by all the participants not a year in advance, but at the meeting: at CHNM this was done by writing session ideas on blank pages, taping them all to a wall, and voting for sessions by placing colored stickers on them. The sessions with the most stickers go on a schedule made then and there. Also, all attendees are active participants in each session — far more so than the format of paper delivery to an audience of listeners or even a roundtable. has a very helpful About page for more information, as well as a definition of an “unconference.”

Tweeted by @dancohen “How sessions are scheduled at #THATCamp. Done morning of, not a year ahead of time. Optimized for engagement.

In his post on ProfHacker, Brian Croxall says that one of the things he loves most about THATcamp is its call for “more hack and less yak”:

“You’re encouraged to come out of sessions having done or made something concrete. In some cases, what you make might be a list of ways to improve a backchannel or a collaboratively written set of notes about project management. In other cases, you might finish a session having built a WordPress theme from scratch. Whether you believe that digital humanities depends on building things or not, it can be tremendously exciting to feel as though you’ve completed a project (or several) in one day…especially compared to how slow progress can often feel when you are writing.”

What Would a British Literature Unconference Look Like?

Revved up by the exciting tweets, notes, and ideas being shared on the twitter thatcamp backchannel, I began tweeting about the idea of a Romantic unconference (RomantiCamp?) with Roger Whitson, a Romanticist who works at Georgia Tech and studies Blake. Several THATcamp tweeps, ranging from 18th c. to Victorians, and from literature to history scholars, joined the conversation on twitter and together we created a collaborative googledoc of what a British Literature camp (BritLitCamp? BritCamp?) might look like. [Feel free to add to the document — your suggestions are most welcome!]

The googledoc expresses a lot of ways that a THATcamp-like event might create a new kind of forum for discussions of British literature and scholarship in our field: one that is more participatory, informal, and bent on learning skill sets and producing. It also expresses the concern that the academic literary conference model and literary scholarship really do go hand-in-hand. In other words, one of the things that THATcamp does so well (it seems, through my Twitter lens) is hold workshops that enable participants to learn and practice new skills right there–whether they are programming skills, communication skills, like Mark Sample’s session on Building a Better Backchannel, or project management skills. In literature, the “making” is usually research and writing, and as we all know, they are long and slow processes. The slow and often solo process of researching and writing essays leads to the solo presentation of a work-in-progress 20 minute paper to an audience of listeners. If it’s ingrained in our literary academic discipline to write and present this way, will a new kind of gathering that focuses on collaboration and “doing” work for our field? A number of THATcampers thought so.

To Chew On

Here are some of the suggestions from the collaborative googledoc that seem as though they might work for a BritLitCamp. They are quoted verbatim from the collaborative doc, so there are a number of authors voicing ideas and questions here:

“include more than 1 or 2 literary or historical periods at one conference to encourage maximum ability to move between periods and learn about a wider range of topics.”

“Hack British History and Literature. What does that mean? Less discussion, more doing.

– maybe a collaborative zotero site with great teaching resources

– or a centralized repository of 18c student projects/videos/etc–as a student-centered way of avoiding/complementing the research paper”

“Research discussions should be in the form of “dork shorts” (limited to 2 minute introduction of topic). These are read during lunch on the second day.”

“Question the privilege of the thesis statement or argument. Privilege the question.

– these are all great ideas–I like the dork shorts/lightning talk idea, which would naturally privilege something other than thesis–the question, the data. Putting ideas on the web, too, would be a great way to seek out collaborators. Use to house them?”

“create a collaborative document of the session, make public–true collaborative authorship. venue for this, after the fact?”

“collaborative sessions would be possible if there were readings in common that participants had a chance to do ahead of time. This would require session preliminary planning before attendees arrived — at least selection of works, but perhaps focus could be decided by attendees at the event.”

“Lit conferences rarely teach practical skills for how to do stuff. This seems to be one of the things that THATcamp does well. What then does a Lit-camp session do?

  • Close Reading
  • exchange project ideas
  • Distant Reading/Cultural Analytics
  • Data Visualization
  • Archival Research
  • Digital Apps for Literary/Historical Study
    • see earlier question about porting results info to chartable formats (from 17c-18c newspapers online, etc; if content itself is behind a paywall, what about just the numbers of hits? a browser plugin? @howet)
  • great visual, audio, video texts for use with X (see earlier notes re: themed/selected readings–integrate?)
  • Introduce text encoding
  • Forms of social tagging w/sources.
  • pair works across literary periods
  • pair unexpected works for classroom exploration of general topics”

Where to Now?

Do you have more ideas for imagining a British Literature unconference? What further concerns or issues can we raise? Contribute to the discussion with comments or just add anonymously to the googledoc.

4 thoughts on “Imagining a British Literature Unconference”

  1. Kirstyn, this sounds amazing.

    I’d totally be game to be a part of any unconference, in pretty much any capacity.

    I’m wondering if there would there be enough interest for it to be successful (however success should be defined in such a venture) if it were to be transnational/transdisciplinary long-nineteenth century? Or would there necessarily have to be a mini “trial run” at a NASSR, as you suggest on the collab google doc?

    I have to think there’d be a huge amount interest among grad students in this. A self-identified (un)conference as a camp? What could be better..

    1. I think so, too. And I think this kind of format could be easily appended to traditional conferences already scheduled — a pre-conference, perhaps? It may even be possible to make unconferences entirely virtual experiences, eschewing the costs of travel (for which we receive limited funding) as well as the wear and tear on the environment that Romanticist jet fuel causes.

      My primary focus is to plan the BWWC 2012 right now, and that’s a huge effort. But I think the THATcamp spirit and model is something that we (Romanticists in general) can add to conference experiences and outcomes in our field — it doesn’t have to belong solely to new media and technology studies. I do so hope to be a part of a British literature unconference in the near future.

  2. What a fantastic idea! I’d love to attend something like this. Are plans coming together? I’ve only recently found out about THATCamp and am incredibly interested.

    1. Hi Ginny — thanks for your enthusiasm! Right now, there’s no unconference planning happening; on my end, chiefly because I’m co-chair of this year’s BWWC (held in Boulder! you should apply! and I don’t have time. I would be very excited if you wanted to plan something like this, though 🙂 I think there is room for it at our professional gatherings and I think it would be a fun and useful addition to traditional conference presentations and events. Just my two cents.

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