What is an “unconference”?

For me, the best way to explain an “unconference” is to say that, to some extent, it does what it says on the tin: it takes a traditional conference as its “anti-model” and tries to look for alternatives to various potentially off-putting aspects of the way such events are usually organised. That isn’t to say that traditional, large-scale conferences don’t have their benefits – in terms of sheer volume they are great for getting your work out their among your academic colleagues (both peers and seniors), and there are few spaces in which you can actually get to know, face-to-face, so many fellow historians working on the same field as you. But, in terms of promoting discussion and the mutual development of ideas, the impetus behind an unconference is that a formal conference just isn’t the best approach. An unconference also seeks to avoid some elements of a normal conference that might be off-putting (or actively excluding) to some members of the academic community. We decided to plan Taking the Past Into the Future because it seemed like a good way of putting our money where our mouth was, in that the event itself would then be one possible example of innovation in how people could ‘do’ academic discourse.

For example, cost. Who hasn’t proudly received their acceptance letter for a big-name conference, only to wince when registration opens and the cost of attendance – let alone accommodation – is revealed? Many academics have research budgets; some institutions (the School of History at St Andrews included) even offer postgraduate students a small pot that they can dip into for things like conference expenses. But the latter pot, where it does exist, is often small, and if you aren’t lucky enough to have a permanent post complete with expenses paid, or funding for your doctorate, younger academics and postgraduates are likely to be pretty poor. They can also be unemployed, whilst also trying to remain active within the research community. Unconferences try to remove such costs as far as possible to enable as wide a range of people to attend as possible. This is why Taking the Past Into the Future only has a nominal registration fee, with everything else – 3 nights accommodation in a beautiful corner of Scotland, food – paid for. It’s also why in planning the unconference we’ve taken some cost-cutting measures such as having self-catered food, although we also think that cooking together will help promote the ‘unconferencey-ness’ in other ways. Perhaps some of the best conversations will take place over chopping vegetables!

Hayston House, where the unconference will be taking place. Source: http://haystonhouse.com/gallery/

Hayston House, where the unconference will be taking place. Source: http://haystonhouse.com/gallery/

Unconferences are also innovative in their use of time and space. Above all else unconferences should be participant-driven. So, unlike a standard conference, where your slot for speaking is given to you by the organisers, at an unconference participants should set the agenda. There will be a ‘timetable’ at our unconference – including writing time for developing the unconference proceedings, and set times for coffee, lunch, and dinner! – but the topics being discussed in different time-slots will be set by the attendees, not by the organisers. Within discussion sessions, you can speak up when it suits you and dip in and out of different discussions. A key ‘rule’ of unconferences is “the law of two-feet”: if a discussion in one room isn’t suiting you, you can get up and go to another room, or collar someone in the hallway, or whatever works for you. I’m really excited by the possibilities offered by Hayston House, where we’re hosting Taking the Past Into the Future – with a drawing room, a dining room, a massive kitchen, and multiple gardens I think we’ll have just about enough space for there to be a lot of different conversations going on at once. In that sense it will be a bit like a traditional conference – there’ll be parallel sessions, but you can dip in and out as is most productive to you.

Finally, a fun bit of history: the term “unconference” was first applied to an XML-developers meeting in 1998. I think it’s definitely in the spirit of unconferences to be taking the idea far from its origins and seeing what a group of historians in a farmhouse in the middle of Fife do with it. I’m really looking forward to seeing what happens!

If you’re interested in taking part in our unconference, please consider responding to our call for proposals – deadline 29th March.

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