Forget Unconferences, Let’s Think about Underconferences

In a few days the latest iteration of THATCamp will convene on the campus of George Mason University, hosted by the Center for History and New Media. Except “convene” really isn’t the right word. Most of my readers will already know that The Technology and Humanities Camp is an “unconference,” which as Ethan Watrall explains on ProfHacker, is “a lightly organized conference in which the attendees themselves determine the schedule.” You can’t really convene such a self-emergent event. But 75 or so participants will nonetheless be there on Saturday morning, and we will indeed get started, figuring out the sessions democratically and then sharing ideas and conversation. This format takes the place of “sharing” (by which I mean dully reading) 20-minute papers that through a bizarre rift in the space-time continuum take 30 minutes to read, leaving little time for discussion.

[pullquote align=”left”]If you go into a panel knowing exactly what you’re going to say or what you’ve already said, there’s little room for exploration or discovery.[/pullquote]

The unconference obviously stands in contrast to the top-down, largely monologic model of the traditional conference. Most THATCamp attendees rave about the experience, and they find themselves craving similar open-ended panels at the more staid academic conferences in their respective fields. Change is slow to come, of course. What happens for the most part are slight tweaks to the existing model. Instead of four people reading 20-minute papers during a session, four people might share 20-minute papers beforehand, with the session time dedicated to talking about those 20-minute papers. Yet this model still relies on the sharing of prepared material. If you go into a panel knowing exactly what you’re going to say or what you’ve already said, there’s very little room for actual exploration or discovery. It reminds me of Nietzsche’s line that finding “truth” is like someone hiding an object in a bush and later being astonished to find it there. That’s the shape of disingenuous discovery at academic conferences.

So what’s a poor idealistic professor to do?

Let’s forget about unconferences, even as they gain momentum, and start thinking about underconferences.

What’s an underconference?

Before I answer that, let’s run through some other promising alternative conference models:

The Virtual Conference: This is the conference held entirely online, in which the time and space limitations of the real world can be broken at will. The recent Critical Code Studies Working Group, held over six weeks this spring, was a good example, though the conference was, unfortunately, only open to actual participants. The proceedings will be published on Electronic Book Review, however, and at least one research idea seeded at the virtual conference may see the light of the day in a more traditional publishing venue. HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory) has had success with its virtual conference as well.

The Simulated Conference: Like Baudrillard’s simulacrum, this is the simulation of a conference for which there is no original, the conference for which there is no conference. This sounds impossible, but in fact I hosted an entirely simulated conference one weekend in February 2010. It was a particularly conference-heavy weekend for the digital humanities, and since I couldn’t attend any of them, I created one of my own: MarksDH2010. Spurred on at first by Ian Bogost and Matt Gold, the simulated conference turned into a weekend affair, hosted entirely on Twitter, and catered by Halliburton. Dozens of participants spontaneously joined in the fun, and in the very act of lampooning traditional conferences (e.g. see my notes on the fictional Henri Jenquin’s keynote), I humbly suggest we advanced forward the humanities by at least a few virtual inches. As I later explained, MarksDH2010 “was a folie à deux and then some.” You can read the complete archives, in chronological order, and decide for yourself about that characterization.

The Unconference: Do I need to say more about the unconference? Read about the idea in theory, or see it in practice by following the upcoming THATCamp Prime on Twitter.

The Underconference: The virtual conference and the simulated conference are both made possible by technology. They take place at a distance, mediated by screens. The final model I wish to consider is the opposite, rooted in physical space, requiring actual—not virtual—bodies. This is not the unconference, but the underconference. The prerequisite of the underconference is the conference. There is the official conference—say, the MLA—and at the very same time there is an entirely parallel conference, running alongside—no, under—the official conference. Think of it as the Trystero of academia. Inspired by the Situationists, Happenings, flash mobs, Bakhtin, ARGs, and the absurdist political theater of the Yippies, the underconference is the carnival in the churchyard. Transgressive play at the very doorstep of institutional order. And like most manifestations of the carnivalesque, the underconference is at its heart very serious business.

[pullquote align=”right”]The participants of the underconference are also participants in the conference. They are not enemies, they are co-conspirators.[/pullquote]

Let me be clear, though. The underconference is not a chaotic free-for-all. Just as carnival reinforces many of the ideas it seems to make fun of, the underconference ultimately supports the goals of the conference itself: sharing ideas, discovering new texts and new approaches, contributing to the production of knowledge, and even that tawdry business of networking. The participants of the underconference are also participants in the conference. They are not enemies, they are co-conspirators. The underconference is not mean-spirited; in fact, it seeks to overcome the petty nitpicking that counts as conversation in the conference rooms.

The Underconference is:

  1. Playful, exploring the boundaries of an existing structure;
  2. Collaborative, rather than antagonistic; and
  3. Eruptive, not disruptive.

What might an underconference actually look like?

  • Whereas the work of the conference takes place in meeting rooms and exhibit halls, the underconference takes place in “the streets” of the conference: the hallways and stairwells, the lobbies and bars.
  • The underconference begins with a few “seed” shadow sessions, planned and coordinated events that occur in the public spaces of the conference venue: an unannounced poetry reading in a lobby, an impromptu Pecha Kucha projected inside an elevator, a panel discussion in the fitness room.
  • As the underconference builds momentum, bystanders who find themselves in the midst of an unevent are encouraged to recruit others and to hold their own improvised sessions.
  • The underconference has much to learn from alternate reality games (ARGs), and should incorporate scavenger hunts, geolocation, environmental puzzles, and even a reward or badge system that parodies the official system of awards and prizes.
  • I have reason to believe that at least a few of the major academic conferences would look the other way if they were to find themselves paired with an underconference, if not openly sanction a parallel conference. Support might eventually take the form of dedicated space, perhaps the academic equivalent of Harry Potter’s Room of Requirement.

Do you get the idea? It’s a bold and ambitious plan, and I don’t expect many to think it’s doable, let alone worthwhile. Which is exactly why I want to do it. My experiences with virtual conferences, simulated conferences, and unconferences have convinced me that good things come from challenging the conventions of academic discourse. For every institutionalized practice we must develop a counter-practice. For every preordained discussion there should be an infusion of unpredictability and surprise. For every conference there should be an underconference.

The MLA in Tweets

I’ve learned from following several digital humanities conferences from afar the past year (including Digital Humanties 2009 and THATcamp 2009) that the Twitter archive of a conference back-channel can be unreliable. Twitter’s default search stream for any hashtag is extremely ephemeral, and that impermanence poses a problem for conference participants and observers, as well as future scholars, students, and journalists who might want to browse, search, extract, and data-mine what can be a rich, though niche, historical record.

So in anticipation of the Modern Language Association’s 2009 conference in Philadelphia, I set up a TwapperKeeper archive of all posts on Twitter marked with the hashtag #MLA09. I also began archiving the material on my own computer, using a program called The Archivist. (I’m into redundancy, especially when it comes to backing up data.) Anybody can export the collected tweets from Twapperkeeper as a compressed file, but I’m also posting here my own archives.

The first is an XML file of the over 1,600 tweets marked with the #MLA09 hashtag, dating from November 28, 2009 all the way to just about midnight on December 31, 2009: #MLA09 (I’ve zipped the xml file for easier downloading).

Second is an Excel version of the file, which has stripped away some of the XML tags, but is a more reader-friendly document: MLA09.xls

There is also a Google Docs version of the file:

I hope people find these archives useful. You can easily create some superficial data visualizations, such as the word cloud pictured above [larger version], but I imagine some more sophisticated analysis can be done as well. Even a simple pie chart [larger version] can reveal user activity at a glance:

My own high visibility is mostly due to the satirical “tips” about the MLA I posted in the days running up to the conference. And notice that two of the most active Twitterers were only virtually present at the conference: Brian Croxall and Amanda French, who both made substantial contributions to the intellectual discourse of the conference even with — or, more accurately, because — of their absences.

Pairing Brian’s bleak analysis of what the profession is now euphemistically calling “contingent” faculty with Amanda’s vision of a grassroots movement to amplify scholarly communication through social networking suggests that the MLA conference has the potential to be more diffuse, more rhizomatic, more meaning making in the future, something I’ll be proposing a few ideas about soon.

Unthinking Television Screens

Last spring I participated in an interdisciplinary symposium called Unthinking Television: Visual Culture[s] Beyond the Console. I was an invited guest on a roundtable devoted to the vague idea of “Screen Life.” I wasn’t sure what that phrase meant at the time, and I still don’t know. But I thought I’d go ahead and share what I saw then — and still see now — as four trends in what we might call the infrastructure of screens.

Moving from obvious to less obvious, these four emergent structural changes are:

  1. Proliferating screens
  2. Bigger is better and so is smaller
  3. Screens aren’t just to look at it
  4. Our screens are watching us

And a few more details about each development:

1. Proliferating screens

I can watch episodes of The Office on my PDA, my cell phone, my mp3 player, my laptop, and even on occasion, my television.

2. Bigger is better and so is smaller

There is a much greater range in sizes of screens that we encounter on a daily basis. My high definition videocamera has a 2″ screen and I can hook that up directly via HDMI cable to my 36″ flat screen, and there are screen sizes everywhere in between and beyond.

3. Screens aren’t just to look at

We now touch our screens. Tactile response will soon be just as important as video resolution.

4. Our screens are watching us

Distribution networks like Tivo, Dish, and Comcast have long had unobtrusive ways to track what we’re watching, or at least what our televisions were tuned to. But now screens can actually look at us. I’m referring to screens that aware of us, of our movements. The most obvious example is the Wii and its use of IR emitters in its sensor bar to triangulate the position of the Wiimote, and hence, the player. GE’s website has been showcasing an interactive hologram that uses a webcam. In both cases, the screen sees us. I think this is potentially the biggest shift in what it means to have a “screen life.” In this trend and my previous trend concerning the new haptic nature of screens, we are completing a circuit that runs between human and machine, machine and human.

Southern States Web Expo and Exchange

While it seems like Web 2.0 outfits are dying left and right and venture capital for dot coms has all but dried up, I’ve noticed that there is still a market in Web 2.0 events: demos, expos, workshops, summits, conferences and so on, with tickets running $200/head. There may be no money in perpetually beta products, but there’s plenty of money in events about these beta products.

So I think I am going into the event organizing business. And I even see a niche that needs to be filled: the tech industry of the southern states. So many conferences and workshops are either West Coast or East Coast-based, but what about the south? Surely there are entrepreneurs and start-ups in the south, brewing important and innovative Web 2.0 products?

I therefore propose a Southern States Web Expo and Exchange (SSWExEx, pronounced “Swequex”). There’ll be plenty of swag, live blogging, and backchanneling. It will be fun. Techcrunch, Gizmodo, and Xeni Jardin will be there. Your name tags will be wacky colors.

If you can’t tell whether I’m joking or not, that’s okay. I can’t either.

Seriously, is somebody interested in getting this off the ground with me?

CFP: Don DeLillo and Play

Here’s a CFP for conference panel on Don DeLillo and Play that I’m organizing:

CFP: Don DeLillo and Play
Sponsored by the Don DeLillo Society
2009 American Literature Association Conference
Boston, Massachusetts, May 21-24, 2009

The groundbreaking work of Johan Huizinga and Roger Caillois suggests that play and games are a fundamental part of life, yet set apart from the ordinary and the everyday, occupying a special preserve with unique boundaries and rules. How does the work of Don DeLillo reaffirm or challenge these classic notions of play? From the obvious football and baseball themes of End Zone and Underworld to the understated language games of The Names and performative play in Players and Running Dog, Don DeLillo has repeatedly focused on games and play in a way that has attracted little attention from scholars. The Don DeLillo Society seeks to redress this gap and welcomes papers that explore the role of sports, games, and play in DeLillo’s novels and stories.

Please send 300-500 word abstracts and a 1-page C.V. to Mark Sample at msample1 at gmu dot edu by January 9, 2009.

D.C. Area Humanities Forum on Video Games

Taking Games Seriously: The Impact of Gaming Technology in the Humanities
Monday, May 15th from 4-6pm
Location: Car Barn 316, 3520 Prospect St. NW, near Georgetown University

Overview and Participants:
Please join Michelle Lucey-Roper (Federation for American Scientists) and Jason Rhody (National Endowment for the Humanities) for a discussion moderated by Mark Sample (George Mason University) on gaming and the humanities. Discussion will center on gaming and its implications for education; thinking about ways to exploit aspects of video game technology to create innovative learning spaces; and games as a possible conduit to online archives or museum collections.

Panelist: Michelle Lucey-Roper is the Learning Technologies Project Manager for the Discover Babylon Project and the Digital Promise Project at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) in Washington, DC. She has created and managed several technology projects and research initiatives that helped to improve public access to primary source materials. While working towards her doctorate on the interaction of word and image, Lucey-Roper researched and designed curricula for a wide range of subject areas and created new information resources. Before joining FAS, she worked as a librarian, teacher and most recently at the Library of Congress as a research associate. She earned her B.A. at Trinity College, Hartford, CT; her M.A at King’s College, London; and received a doctorate from Oxford University.

Panelist: Jason Rhody, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English at the University of Maryland, is currently writing his dissertation, entitled Game Fiction. He has taught courses and given conference presentations on new media, electronic literature, and narrative. He currently works on a web-based education initiative, EDSITEment, for the National Endowment for the Humanities. He previously worked for the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, an institute dedicated to using technology to enable humanities research and teaching. Jason writes about games and literature on his blog, Miscellany is the Largest Category.

Moderator: Mark Sample teaches and researches both contemporary American literature and New Media/Digital Culture, and he is always exploring how literary texts interact with, critique, and rework visual and media texts. His current research projects include a book manuscript on the early fiction of Don DeLillo and Toni Morrison, exploring their engagement with consumer culture, particularly how they use what Walter Benjamin calls “dialectical images” to reveal the latent violence of everyday things. Another project concerns the interplay between video games, the War on Terror, and the production of knowledge. Professor Sample received an M.A. in Communication, Culture, and Technology from Georgetown University (1998) and his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania (2004).

RSVP for dinner:
There will be an informal dinner after the forum, at a cost of $10 per person.
You must RSVP for dinner by May 8th.


  1. Directions to campus
  2. Parking options adjacent to the Car Barn: Parking options Street parking around campus is severely limited and strictly enforced by the DC police (MPD) and the DC Department of Public Works (DPW). Most streets require a Zone 2 residential permit issued by the District of Columbia for parking for longer than two hours. A limited number of metered spaces are available on Reservoir Road, 37th Street and Prospect Street. For those up for a short walk, the Southwest Garage is accessible from Canal Road or Prospect St.
  3. Map to the Car Barn.
  4. The nearest metro station is Rosslyn, across Key Bridge.

About the Forum:
Co-sponsored by the Center for New Designs in Learning & Scholarship (CNDLS– at Georgetown University and George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media, the DC Area Technology & Humanities Forum explores important issues in humanities computing and provides an opportunity for DC area scholars interested in the uses of new technology in the humanities to meet and get acquainted.

For more information, contact Susannah McGowan, CNDLS,