THATCamp: An Academic 'Unconference' Utopia

A conference without proposals, presentations or papers? Must be THATCamp. Short for 'The Humanities and Technology Camp,' THATCamp events allow attendees to discuss important ideas and collaborate on problems. Infused with a DIY spirit, the 'unconference' avoids many conventions of typical academic meetings.

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A New Kind of Academic Meeting

Have you been to an academic conference and felt more like a passive observer than an active participant? Perhaps you enjoyed the experience but couldn't help wishing it were possible to have a more substantive role in the discussion. THATCamp events allow just this kind of interaction. Rather than having their thoughts go unheard, individuals actively engage with ideas in small groups. Attendees' discussions drive programming at the informal, collaborative meeting (or 'unconference').

People who attend THATCamp happenings immediately realize the events defy many modes of a traditional academic conference. There are no sessions with a single person or small panel speaking to an audience. Rather, each individual is able to actively participate in sessions. Further, every person to attend a THATCamp event has the opportunity to propose a session, an honor often reserved for 'top-flight' academics or organizers at other conferences.

Other differences distinguish THATCamp from traditional academic meetings. THATCamp conferences are intensely interdisciplinary and lack all pretense of hierarchy, two characteristics that often don't apply to traditional academic conferences. At THATCamp events, one might find students, professors, Web developers, librarians, computer programmers, archivists and others with a wide range of interests within the humanities, technology or both. Individuals, regardless of experience or discipline, enjoy equal respect among conference attendees.

Engineering Innovation

THATCamp is not a single event. Rather, it is a conceptual framework under which multiple unconferences are held each year. In 2010, for example, there were 17 events held around the world. This year, about two dozen meetings are set to take place, including events in New York, Canberra and Saigon. Further underlying the democratic nature of THATCamp, anyone can propose to organize a meeting.

There really is no 'typical' THATCamp event because gatherings are organic and unplanned until the first session of the first meeting. At that time, attendees collaborate to determine the program schedule. As might be expected within such a free-flowing environment, sessions take many forms. Some groups engage in writeathons to create written documents that address humanities and technology topics in innovative ways. Helpathons allow participants to solve problems together. For coders and other tech types, hackathons offer a chance to work on programming projects.

THATCamp events are limited in size by design. Organizers seek to assemble around 75 participants. The objective is to create an environment that allows for a great deal of interaction between attendees so that they can increase their own understanding while addressing legitimate problems that face our world. Check out the website of THATCamp for notes on past events and how you can get involved in future meetings.

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