Putting the "Un" in Understanding | Peer to Peer ReviewUnconferences offer a new model for instruction Barbara Fister, Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN Jun 16, 2011
|Photo by Debora Miller|
I recently attended my first unconference. I know, unconferences and library camps are not new—they've been around long enough there's even a book that explains how they work—but the concept is still so novel in academia that I get a lot of raised eyebrows when I mention them. Because they depart from the standard format of a professional conference, it's not clear whether they actually count as a scholarly activity. Our travel fund for faculty is mostly for attending conferences and giving papers. There are some variations for people in the performing arts, but for the most part attending traditional conferences is what's eligible for funding, even though everyone knows the real benefit of scholarly conferences is what happens in the hallways or over coffee.
I went to conferences outside our discipline this past spring where people literally read papers. It seems silly to get on an airplane and travel to an expensive venue only to be read at—but they were good papers and the way the ideas were work-shopped by the audience was surprisingly effective. I think there are more sustainable ways to accomplish this kind of review and discussion, but it worked, and I got a lot out of the experience. Still, it was obvious from the massive programs and the large percentage of empty seats in most rooms that there was more emphasis on giving papers than on listening to them. I suspect that's because giving a paper is the only way scholars can get funded to attend, and the only way they can get credit for having participated.
Attending THATCamp LAC—a digital humanities unconference with a focus on liberal arts colleges—has given me a lot to think about. For those who haven't experienced an event like this, it takes the really useful part of a scholarly conference and makes it the heart of the experience. And there are other differences, too. It's relatively inexpensive—no registration, no giant convention center, and we even had the option of staying in inexpensive dorms. It's participatory; everybody is both presenter and audience throughout the entire event. It's open: you don't have to have been initiated into a particular discipline or carry a particular rank or title to be involved. Even undergraduates can attend on equal footing. It's interdisciplinary.
In short, an unconference is a lot like a library.
As we know, libraries are not where you go to find answers. They are places where you join a conversation, where you hack your way to enlightenment by engaging with ideas in a participatory and collaborative way. Libraries are free and open to everyone in the community, regardless of status. Though the shelves are organized in an old-fashioned hierarchy that still shelves women after families and treats post-colonial literature in English as an afterthought of literature written by those born in England, the organizational structure itself is designed to be permeable, able to absorb new ideas, intentionally putting ideas that conflict right next to each other. Libraries are a little subversive that way.
I've been thinking about how we can help students discover the subversive, collaborative nature of libraries. Attending lectures and taking tests is a very different experience than carving a question out of a topic and using sources to build new meaning. Students who really get research see themselves as makers, not just consumers. They see research as interactive, not just a process of dutifully following rules, erasing all signs of originality or personal identity before handing in a documented patchwork of other people's ideas. To foster that kind of participation, the work we do to help students learn the ropes of research should be fluid, participatory, and nonhierarchical. I have long had a preference in instruction for doing over telling, for hacking over yacking. But this unconference experience has put this preference in focus.
One of the challenges of teaching a group of students you don't know, who come to the library with different experiences and abilities, is that you bore the pants off the ones who know the library best and often fail to engage the students who need it the most. Though collaboration with faculty is essential, course instructors are not the best informants about students' needs and preferences. We've all had the experience of having a course instructor schedule a library session weeks before a paper is due, when students not only haven't chosen a topic but haven't even read the assignment yet. (It's depressing how often they haven't even been given the assignment and spend the first ten minutes in shock.) They often ask us to teach students how to use the database they used in their dissertation research, one that we know is not the best choice for novices feeling their way into a subject. And they often think in terms of teaching, not learning. The participatory design of an unconference has some ideas to offer us.
My experience at THATCamp LAC started with an invitation to contribute ideas to the conference blog; participants wrote about the things they wanted to tackle in the weeks before the unconference, and those ideas became the material for an ad hoc schedule constructed on the fly in the first hour of our time together. In the context of a course-related library workshop, I'm now inclined to consult with students in advance, not just their instructors, inviting them to invest a few minutes telling me what they already know and what they want to know. Another cool feature of the unconference was sharing notes publicly; this inspires me to have students contribute to a Google document while in the library, sharing what they discover in a collaborative format. I know they won't come with the same passion and engagement as those who attended THATCamp LAC, but it may be a way to demonstrate that this is about learning, not teaching, and show students that learning in a library is about collaboration and conversation, about process as much as it is about product.
I think this model will work even better for an upper-division credit-bearing course I teach each spring. Until now, I've asked students to respond to three prompts on the first day of class: what do you feel confident about when it comes to research? What do you feel you'd like to do better? What do you want to get out of the course? Then I give them a syllabus. What a mixed message!
Of course, I review their responses and try to make sure that their interests get squeezed in somehow, but it would make a lot more sense to ask those questions in advance and spend a part of the first class period creating a syllabus together. After all, I want them to take ownership of their own learning; why not start practicing that on the first day?
Uncovering assumptions, revealing what matters
Though I learned a lot of nifty things by attending THATCamp LAC, my main take-away was an epistemological shift. By unraveling the formal trappings of the scholarly conference, an unconference strips away the peculiar rituals of scholarly events. Why, for example, are tables always dressed in pleated skirts? We use them as barriers to clearly separate the speakers from the listeners, and then try to undo the damage in the hallways.
In the same way, libraries too often seem like scary places full of impenetrable rules and daunting complexity. Explaining the rules helps students cope, but it doesn't alter the power relationship. Libraries aren't about rules, they are about discovery. Maybe adopting the ethos of the unconference in our instruction will make the library less of a lecture hall or shopping mall and more a laboratory where people go to make meaning.
Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her latest mystery, Through the Cracks (see review), was published last year by Minotaur Books.