Wrap-up Chat

As the formal academic portion of the Unconference winds to a close, I wanted to take a few minutes to have a kind of wrap up chat with the participant who traveled the farthest to attend this conference, Lane Springer.  

Jason: Lane, we’ve talked about a lot over the last two days.  Of all the themes that have been discussed, is there one that has stood out as dominant?  Like a thread weaving its way through the fabric of our discourse?

Lane:  Yes, there has.   I would say one of the themes that Kelsey’s paper touched on, specifically training Phd students for the tasks they will have to do once they get into the workforce…like teaching for instance.  In Toronto, there is very little for training students to teach.  Basically you have a bunch of people fighting for TA opportunities in order to get the training you’ll need for the job, but there is no formal training on how to actually do it.  You’re just thrown in…sink or swim.  There is only one collective training program across the university that teaches you things like building a syllabus, but the program is offered too infrequently.  I’d been on campus for a year before I even heard about it.  You definitely have to take your own initiative.  At least in my experience, that is.  No one in the department has guided me here.  It is a gap in our training as a Phd student.

Jason: So what about Kelsey’s paper really spoke to that lack?

Lane: He offered a good model of how pedagogical training could work in a Phd program.  His was geared to the British system, but I think it could be applied to the North American model as well.  And this is something we need to work on.  Now, let me ask you the same in turn: was there one thread that was shining among the others that you could implement in your Phd experience?

Jason: I think I was most surprised by the overall consensus surrounding the role of objectivity in the humanities in general, and in the field of history specifically.  All the attendees seemed to agree—at least on a basic level—that complete objectivity is something of a myth.

Lane:  Yeah, it’s like one of the participants said in a discussion yesterday: “The closest thing you can get to objectivity is being honest about your own subjectivity.”  I actually liked what you said about  being cautioned not to let your personal life as a person of faith impact your research.

Jason: Yeah, I do understand the need to approach historical subjects and objects with a great deal of care, and hopefully, on their own terms and not mine.  That said, the idea that you can ever totally eliminate the vestiges of your story in the inquiry into the stories of another, seems to me to be a bit optimistic…and unrealistic.  Were you at all surprised, given your experience in the field, that there seemed to be a consensus on this point?

Lane:  I was surprised by that.  I would have assumed the opposite because it seems to be the underlying idea behind how our history departments operate.  I found it refreshing to hear other people in a similar place I’m in advocating for honesty in terms of where they’re coming from.  Bringing that type of honesty is, I think, a great way to approach it.

Jason:  Let’s take a bit of a different tack.  Now that the formal paper discussions have concluded, and we’re done with kind of the fun of our open sessions, are there any obvious things that stand out in terms of gaps to you?  Anything we didn’t cover that maybe we should moving forward?

Lane:  We talked about so much…teaching, collaboration, methodology… You know, I don’t think we really talked about conferences did we?

Jason:  Well, tangentially we did.  More, from what I remember, in terms of the impact they have on the environment… But not really shaping them differently otherwise.

Lane:  Well, one idea we didn’t get to from the open session topics list is the question of why we actually read our papers out loud at conferences.  I went to a conference in Glasgow 3 weeks ago and read straight from my paper and the previous conference before that I did the same thing because that’s what I was told you do at conferences.

Jason: How effective do you think you were on these occasions?

Lane: I don’t think…well, I think they took some good things away…but I could have been much more effective if I had done it a different way.  When I was presenting, I actually thought I could be more more effective if I was doing it in a different way.  I think there needs to be a shift with up and coming researchers.  I don’t connect when people read their papers, so why would I expect them to connect with mine?  I guess I did it because that’s the way I was taught to do it.  I see a few people who just talk, maybe looking down at their notes every once in a while, and it was so effective.  More like a discussion than someone just reading information at you.  It was nice.  What do you think?  Am I alone in this?

Jason:  I think for me, two problems stand out.  First, we put all of this time into coming up with great research, and then we package it in the worst possible way.  It’s like buying a gold ring and giving it to someone in a paper sack.  The second thing is the problem of redundancy.  When we have journals to publish written research, why do we create events where in fact we simply read aloud the exact same content?  Personally, I would be interested to see papers at conferences take on more of an expressive character…  Keep the basic research idea, but put time into connecting with and persuading the audience that what you have to say has the potential to change how they think about a given topic.

Lane:  It’s really such a different way of presenting information…you almost should think of it as presenting your information to a class.  That doesn’t mean it won’t be formal, but it doesn’t need to be as rigid. How about you Jason—is there anything you wish would have been discussed that wasn’t addressed?

Jason: To be honest, I was pretty impressed with the amount of ground we covered.  It was fast and furious for two days straight.  To have added anything to that would have been tricky…

Lane: Well then are there any critical issues that could have been ironed out a little more?

Jason:  Yeah…I think we all agreed that a certain degree of ‘morality’ should be central to the task of an historian…but I don’t get the sense that any of us knew what to do about that.  Or how to instill this?  Along these lines, it seems, looking back, that one of the key ideas of this conference had to do with the historian not as producer, but as person.  So, instead of evaluating an historian based on output or impact to use the REF buzzword, we should think about their effectiveness on a more holistic scale.  I got the sense that everyone agreed with this…but by the end of the conference, we were back to brainstorming more humane ways of measuring production.  I just have to wonder if the idea of the consumer/producer dialectic is simply too ingrained into what we do for a radical reevaluation.  But, I did think it was a good start to imagine a different role.

Maybe one last question, Lane.  What is something you think you might do differently coming away from this Unconference that maybe you hadn’t really considered before?

Lane: Let me think… I really liked Carys’s idea about not forgetting why we got in this field in the first place—because we’re passionate about it.  I want to try to remember that when speaking to people about the things I’m studying and presenting my work in professional contexts.  I think that idea can be the undercurrent of your work; making it interesting…making it something that people will want to engage with.  She’s right in saying that it’s almost hidden when you go into a Phd program.  You get your work done…you do this and that.  I think it’s important to keep in mind where you were coming from in the beginning.  Back at you!

Jason:  Hmmm….I am interested in finding ways to speak out more.  Even if I don’t have a polished, conference-ready talk that is guaranteed to tick all the boxes, I like the idea of putting ideas out there.  If nothing else, engaging unfinished ideas with other trained thinkers is really helpful in clarifying what I think.  I’m even thinking of the value of this kind of discourse on the public level.  I think a lot of people would like to hear quality thinkers working through tricky issues using common language…laughing…teasing, but in the end sticking with the topic until its parameters become a bit less hazy.

Lane:  Yeah, keeping these discussions moving forward is the important thing.  Hopefully we can find ways to do that.

Jason:  Thanks for the chat Lane.  Good stuff!

A rich, full day!

Our inspiring view across the Fife countryside!

So, the first full day of the unconference has now been and gone. Most of the day was spent in intensive discussion, though we did reserve some time after dinner for a visit to Janetta’s in St Andrews and a rather wet wander by the seaside.

Today’s summary of our different sessions is courtesy of Sarah and Bridget. Paper sessions saw the discussion of ideas raised in pre-circulated position papers, whilst open sessions made space for the discussion of wider issues. If you want to read a bit about our participants and the ideas they are putting forward, please see our introductory posts here, here, and here. If you want to read more about the ideas mentioned below, keep your eyes peeled for our forthcoming unconference proceedings!

Innovative Publishing – Paper Session One

Will asked how we could foster more interest in the research we produce, and whether a change in format could help achieve this. Some fields lend themselves easily towards visual or audio formats, while other ideas are best expressed through the written word. Multiple ways of presenting information can help us to disseminate research to a larger audience. Dawn suggested that when it comes to the actual publication of these ideas, it can be difficult, especially for early career scholars, to efficiently take an article from completion to publication in the most appropriate journal. A system of paper- and journal-matching would be an excellent way to help both ends of the publishing spectrum find what they need. It was concluded that as individuals we ought to support pure open access journals – which can lack status and visibility compared to traditional journals – by consciously endeavouring to cite from and submit articles to them.

Activist History, Inclusive History – Paper Session Two

Leonie and Tank addressed questions surrounding the barriers between academic and community history, as well as ideas regarding politicised, activist history, and how we can make scholarship most relevant and valuable to people outside academia. This session instigated a great discussion on the perceptions of objectivity and subjectivity within history and other disciplines. Academic history can be seen as a closed and elite community, due in part to a public narrative that emphasises the special expertise of its practitioners. However, popular history and the study of history are things that should complement each other, not be at odds, and people should be free to approach history on their own terms.

Interactive and Experiential History – Paper Session Three

Carys and Daniel followed up on session two by discussing ways that museums and historians can interact with the public in meaningful and insightful ways. There are many ways in which we as historians can bring our love of history to the forefront of our work. In the PhD process (and after!), it would be good for both the researcher and the public to have opportunities to connect and share. This also brought forward the idea of the ideal historian, a “passably-informed enthusiast”, happy to share their excitement about their work with other researchers and the public, a facilitator of the past rather than a custodian. Museums bring another element of interaction between history and the public, and interactive, experiential museums that were geared towards reaching a wider audience while maintaining the importance of their holdings would allow for more people to connect with history on a broad scale.

Future Archives, Virtual Legacies – Open Session One

How do we save history for the future in the digital age? From big data record-trawling to digital wasteland, we tackled the possibilities of what it might be like to be a historian in the future. What would we, the people of 2015, leave behind? What would be intentionally saved? What would be accidentally collected? Facebook (and their vast banks of information) was of particular interest, especially with regard to access and use. And what if none of our digital communications survived? Further, we discussed how we might then reconcile the virtual and actual lives of people, given that the internet gives us the opportunity to present ourselves in a way that suits us. And finally, do we as historians need to participate in the interpretation of the present digital data age in order to effectively study history?

Impactful Presence – Open Session Two

We tried to define the current and ideal impacts of history and historians. Impact is often calculated in terms of demonstrable changes in behaviour, but is this something that can be realistically measured? Impact in science, for example, and impact in history can be seen as cures for an acute illness vs. a chronic illness. Scientific research can quickly solve problems that are immediately apparent, but history gets at the longstanding societal problems we often don’t even know are there. Secondly, impact on a personal level is important. Not everyone will change the minds of thousands, but you may very well be the one to positively change the lives of your students in a way that allows them to go on and take on the big changes themselves. Too little emphasis is placed on the importance of being a good public intellectual – impact is a presence, not a product

Introductions: Our Amazing Attendees, Part II

So, by now you’ll have got to know the unconference un-committee, and four of our attendees. Last, but by absolutely no means least, here are three more historians who are busy this week taking the past into the future!

Carys Brown

I’ve come back to academic history having spent some time as a secondary school teacher, and I’m now studying the social basis of interconfessional relations in England from c. 1688-1750. Alongside my everyday research I’m really interested in how academic historians can use a variety of media to present their work in ways that engage with a wider public. Although I think historical research can have some very important social uses, my priority in thinking about public engagement is how researchers can communicate their raw passion for a particular subject. Once a wider public is engaged with a research topic, they can work with academics to show how historical research can be socially, politically, and even economically useful. Lots of people are thinking and working on public engagement within academic institutions, and I’ve been involved with public art and blog projects that present research in interesting and accessible ways. What I would really love, however, is for public engagement to be at the centre of normal academic life – not just an add-on or a chore, but a joy and a responsibility.

We are incredibly lucky as historians to have a discipline which has a huge popular following and great exposure in the media. I also (although perhaps I am a little biased) think that, given the right presentation and approach, history is inherently interesting to most people. I was sometimes taken by surprise by the reluctant curiosity of some of the less historically-inclined members of my classes when I was teaching, who given the right topic could not help but want to find out more. If we can tap into this natural curiosity to make our own research interesting and relevant to a wider audience, then we can really make it matter!

Eduardo Jones Corredera

Hello, I am Ed and my research concerns narratives of rise and decline in eighteenth century political thought. Surprised by the lack of interaction between scholars across national borders, but also by the pressures of modern scholarship on academics, I set out to conceive of an online platform that could both push academics to broaden the Hispanists’ circle of interaction, but also to alleviate the sensitive time restrictions that are imposed on young academics, who must combine teaching and writing.

On a more general level, my paper aims to address the fear that the study of history is being outpaced by technology, as concerns over short-term, sensationalist approaches are said to dominate by some. Having read the other proposals, it is clear that several dimensions of the study of history can change in different directions, but all require a closer interaction with the public at large and must adapt to the technological and social changes brought about by globalisation.

The broad historical scope covered by the sum of all participants should make this particularly enlightening. Covering many different approaches, from modern history to the study of  early modern emotions, I truly believe by assessing how the digital world is affecting each different field in its own ways, we will arrive at common themes and perhaps, ultimately, comprehensive conclusions.

The main themes that seem to stand out when thinking about how history can adapt to modernity, post-modernity and whatever might follow are of course broader social ones, as issues of privacy, speed and the meaning of the past – material or otherwise –  are all sources of contention throughout the world, and manifest themselves in everything from physical conflicts to dinner conversations.

As alternative ways of looking at these issues and potential responses arise throughout the conference, I hope that we can set the basis for further study.

Tank Green

I submitted an idea to the unconference for two main reasons. Firstly because it resonated with things I and two fellow PhDers had been talking about – why were we doing our PhDs? where were our politics in respect of our scholarship? of what use is our academics to the wider world? – and also because I have wanted to participate in a conference but am unable to do public speaking, so I was attracted to the alternative format as it seemed inclusive to those of us who struggle with that. The first of the two reasons is more interesting and important, so I’ll speak further on that.

I met two other PhD students through the Raphael Samuel Young Historians’ network who were also struggling with the relationship between their politics and their academics. So we set about organising a conference called ‘what is radical history?’ which we put on last March at Birkbeck. Whilst the conference was a resounding success, it obviously didn’t solve or answer our questions fully, so we carried on thinking and talking about what we see as a necessity in linking our present political commitments to our scholarship as historians.

So the Taking the Past Into the Future unconference offered me an opportunity to develop and flesh out the ideas I/we have in terms of the relationship of present political concerns to our/my historical scholarship. I also felt that the ideas I/we have been developing would benefit from the perspective of people not immediately in my social network and not necessarily on the same page. My two fellow radical history conference organisers are both contemporary historians, so what do medievalists and early modern historians think about our ideas? Do they find them useful? Relevant? What perspectives can they offer us/me? I hope then that these few days in beautiful, but sadly not sunny (!!!) Fife will enrich our idea and offer critiques and avenues for growth in friendly and useful ways.

Also, I wanted to come back to Scotland again for a decent cup of non-limescale tea.

Introductions: Our Amazing Attendees, Part I

Earlier we introduced the people responsible for helping to organise the conference – now it’s time to introduce those without whom it simply wouldn’t exist! We’ve unfortunately suffered a few setbacks in terms of numbers, but the group we do have is perfectly formed. Here are the first four of our innovating historians…

Will Wyeth

Hi! My name is Will Wyeth. I’m a second-year PhD student at Stirling University here in Scotland, and I’m studying Scotland’s early stone castles. In the past year I have spent a long time looking at different archaeological excavation reports, which detail the different relationships between natural and man-made features in the ground. In the process of reading these reports I came to realise that I was spending a great deal of time reading detailed written descriptions of archaeology where a fairly simple illustration or image would have sufficed.

When I saw the ad for the Unconference, I thought it might be worth suggesting an idea for a medium to present research in which image, rather than text, was the focus. I looked around for academic journal articles which relied on videos or animation, and found none in the humanities. I then thought that a video journal, similar to a conventional written journal, would be a good topic for my Unconference suggestion. I have developed some ideas to realise this video journal, but I amvery much looking forward to the ideas and suggestions of my fellow Unconference attendees.

I am interested in hearing and seeing more about the other papers, which (I was relieved to learn) address some of the same challenges I have seen in the world of a PhD student and as a researcher in the arts and humanities. Viva the Unconference!

Bridget Millmore

My name is Bridget and I have just finished my PhD – an experience which has shaped me over the last five years and dominated my everyday. I have just arrived at a beautiful farmhouse called Hayston House in the Fife countryside on a windy grey afternoon with ten other history scholars. We are all sitting round a dining table It is silent apart from the sound of keypads clicking as we begin to write about ourselves.  So what am I doing here? What has drawn me to this part of the world and to an event called an unconference? The term suggests something about why it intrigued me. Just with those two letters ‘un’ there is a sense of something that goes against and does not conform. That was one of the reasons for coming. Another was the fact that we are not following the pattern of an academic conference with presentations and panels and other things beginning with ‘p’. We are in a rural location away from the bustle of institutions and more traditional conference gatherings. We are in a place where we can reflect and discuss things that might not otherwise be addressed.

Leonie Wieser

I’m doing a degree in Heritage studies at Northumbria University, looking at how the past is represented and used in public history and heritage projects in the Newcastle area. I am interested in public participation as a way of engaging with a wider group of people beyond academia. I feel that academic historians often set themselves apart from non-historians, who are not trained in the same rigorous way, and are not neutral and scientific. I am interested not only in the contribution historians can make to public understandings of the past, but also in the insights members of the public can lend in terms of knowledge about the past. I think there can be debates about what the past means to us and our society, and about how it can help us face present political, social and environmental challenges. I want these debates to be dialogues between academics and non-academics to foster multiple perspectives. I hope that we can discuss how we see our roles as historians in society at this unconference, that we will think about the steps forward, about how we can communicate with each other, and about how we can communicate with people outside of academia, to make our research and ideas about what can be done matter beyond the academy.

Alice Freeman

Four years ago I embarked upon my doctoral thesis on the transmission of Zen Buddhism from Japan to the USA in the twentieth century. What particularly fascinated and concerned me about Japanese Buddhism was its uncritical support for the Japanese government’s repressive, totalitarian regime during the Pacific War.

Taking a critical view of the past encourages one to question the present. Whilst researching and writing my doctorate I have been led inevitably to question whether the way in which academia functions today is necessarily the best way to advance human knowledge and wisdom. Furthermore, the roles and responsibilities of academics and universities have to be considered in relation to current political, social and environmental issues. As historians, whose role is to bring the past into the future, what relation does our research, and our conduct as academics, have to the major crises of our age such as climate change? I am looking forward to spending a few days with other students who are not only alert to the pitfalls of academic life but creative and bold enough to propose alternatives to current conventions and practices.


Introductions: The (Un)Committee!

So, the unconference is now underway and for our first writing session everyone wrote a few words about themselves, their proposals for the unconference, and what they’re hoping to get out of the coming days. So, to start with, here are our organising committee…

Dawn Hollis

Hello! I’m Dawn, and I’m a second-year PhD student at the School of History in St Andrews. My thesis is on early modern reactions to mountains in the early modern period (a bit of a mouthful!). I’ve been co-organising the unconference with Sarah and Jason. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post the idea for the unconference originally came to me because I felt that postgraduate students sometimes felt disempowered to talk about the policies and structures which shaped the academic world within which they work and, in some cases, hope to build careers.

I’d love it if the unconference produced even one or two ideas that were ultimately taken much, much further – and, seeing what is on offer from my fellow participants, I don’t think this is unrealistic! I’m really interested in having conversations in particular about what the role of history should be and how we as historians ought to be relating to the wider world.

My own proposal for the unconference is focused on how articles get from completion to publication, and how we might streamline the process of supply and demand. Currently, traditional and prestigious journals receive more submissions than they could ever publish, and academics sending work to them may wait up to a year for a response, whilst smaller journals (particularly newly-established open access ones) may struggled to fill issues with work of an equal quality. I’ve proposed an online ‘marketplace of history’ on which available articles could be matched much more quickly with appropriate journals. The marketplace as I envision it would also emphasise the need to see the article as a valuable commodity, and to try to avoid excessively long response times which are often highly problematic for more junior researchers who need to build up their publication record. It’s not the most radical idea by any means, but it’s the way I came up with to fix what I see as a bit of a problem. I’d be delighted to hear if there are any alternative ideas from my fellow unconferencers on solving it!

Jason Varner

My name is Jason Varner, and I am an historian.  Which means I am most comfortable working in the past.  This, of course presents a few problems—primary among them the fact that the past has, well, passed.  And so I am a bit of a vocational stranger in the present, and most certainly so in terms of the future.  I suppose this brings me to what I’m hoping to gain from this Unconference experience: how might we best take that which has passed and make it relevant to both the present and the future?  Perhaps more practically, how might we, as historians, adopt new approaches to doing historical work?  As for my particular interests, I want to ask questions of an ontological nature this week… What does it mean to be an historian? Is a proper historian bound to a certain epistemological framework?  How does an historian navigate an increasingly perspectival cultural environment?  And what about the nature of acceptable sources?  Maybe we won’t answer all of these in three days, but laying a foundation of questions and initiating good dialogue seem like great places to start.

Sarah White

Hey! I’m Sarah and I’m a first-year PhD student at the University of St Andrews. My thesis is on legal argument and the use of legal treatises in the 13th-century Court of Canterbury. I spend a lot of time in archives reading through Latin court rolls and other manuscripts looking for evidence of specific legal norms and references used by litigants and their advocates in all sorts of church court cases. Boring work to some, but I love it! In my spare time a carry on long conversations with my cat, read and go rock climbing and camping whenever I get the chance!
I got involved with the unconference after attending some excellent writing sessions organized by Dawn, where I started talking with her and Kelsey about the need for innovative approaches to the mechanics of studying, teaching, and promoting history. As a grad student, I know that if I’m going to succeed personally in my field and help the field as a whole to succeed, there are some changes that will need to be made in academia. I think that this task mainly falls to students and early career researchers, and if we’re going to motivate any significant change, we need to start working on these ideas now.
I’m so excited about the papers and discussions coming up in the next few days. It’s wonderful to see that so many of us are involved these issues and working on ways to solve problems, present new ideas, and build the kind of community we need to bring around the change we want to see in academia.

Kelsey Jackson Williams

I’m easily distracted when it comes to research topics, but I generally focus on early modern northern Europe – which at various times has meant Scotland, Sweden, England, or elsewhere – and am especially interested in early modern understandings of the past, the use of visual and material sources in intellectual history, and the community known as the Republic of Letters.  I started a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of St Andrews this past September and as a newly-minted member of staff, albeit a very junior one, I’ve been thinking more and more about the ways in which I can improve my teaching and mentoring.  That’s led me to propose a paper to this unconference that argues for treating the doctorate less as the composition of a single, large piece of work and more as a multi-faceted apprenticeship.  I’m keen to hear what others think and to apply that in the not-too-distant future when I first take on doctoral students of my own.

More generally, I’m really excited to hear about and talk over the ideas coming out of the unconference.  Academia has undergone such huge changes over the past decade or two and our way of doing things hasn’t even begun to catch up with the present-day realities of open access, impact, and the digital humanities to name just a few. Now more than ever is the time to start thinking about how we want to change our discipline and how we want it to look (and work) in the future.  For my part, I’m especially concerned with what I can effect now – or at least soon – even if that’s only on a small scale, but I’m also hoping to come away from the unconference mulling over plans for much larger and more dramatic changes in the way we practice our craft.

Practical preparations

So, one of the things that differentiates an unconference from a traditional conference is that, ideally, it should be free to attend. We’ve had to charge our attendees a small registration fee, but hopefully by the end of the unconference they’ll all agree that we made it go a lot further than the usually-painful day registration fees you’ll often find yourselves paying for big conferences (even with a postgraduate discount). The registration fees are helping to top up the very generous funding we’ve received from both CAPOD and the School of History here at St Andrews.

Obviously, there’s a reason why big conferences have high registration fees, and that’s because they cost a lot to run. They often take place in hotels or dedicated conference centres that are set up to deal with very large numbers of attendees, they rely on caterers to make sure the forty thousand (or so!) are properly fed, and they feature keynotes from distinguished professors who need to be flown in and appropriately entertained.

So, I don’t think you could run a huge, multi-day, 1000+ attendees conference on the minimal-cost-to-participants model of an unconference. Our unconference is going to be small (indeed, smaller than intended due to unforseen circumstances winnowing our numbers down a bit) – thirteen people in all. We’ll be self-catering, which means that everyone gets a bed for no extra cost. This also means that we’ll be feeding everyone for three days on less per head than the cost of a very cheap conference dinner. I’m pretty excited about the food, actually – I think we’ve ended up with a pretty tasty menu and because we’ve ‘cut corners’ on not getting in external caterers, that means that conversely we’ve been able to afford good-quality ingredients. My to-do list for Tuesday includes going to both the butcher’s and the baker’s in my village (Crail, about ten miles away from St Andrews) and picking up locally-produced bread and haggis.

The (hopefully inspirational!) Fife landscape. By Chris Combe, CC by 2.0.

The (hopefully inspirational!) Fife landscape. By Chris Combe, CC by 2.0.

The base we’ve found for the unconference looks pretty great too. We’ll be sleeping, cooking, and innovating in a Georgian farmhouse just outside the village of Balmullo, about nine miles away from St Andrews. We did consider staying in university accommodation in town, but we decided we wanted somewhere that was a bit of a retreat from the ‘buzz’ (those who know the place – don’t laugh!) of town. We will hopefully be taking an evening foray into St Andrews, as it seemed a bit unfair on those who’ll be travelling quite some way not to show them the sights, but most of our time will be spent in Hayston House, and I hope it proves to be the kind of comfortable setting in which everyone can focus on getting deep into the nitty-gritty of discussing their ideas. The farmhouse looks like it has some great spaces – a massive kitchen, a couple of big living rooms, a big garden – in which to have those discussions, too.

I should probably stop there for the time being; I have to go print off timetables!

– Dawn

The Origins of an Unconference…

One of the papers we’ll be discussing at the unconference talks about seeing the PhD as an apprenticeship rather than just a thesis to be written. I think I’ve always instinctively leaned towards this way of thinking about it and so when I started the PhD I had a series of things in mind that I wanted to do in addition to writing the thesis. One of these things was to run a conference – to test and, in CV terms, prove my organisational skills. At the start of the PhD I had this fantasy of a landscape studies conference, featuring formal panels and at least one or two big names in the field.

Then I attended a university workshop on the subject of ‘impact’. I left feeling as though many of the examples of ‘impact-ful’ research, inspiring though they were, didn’t really help to explain how a historian, particularly an early-career one, could practically set about to cause impact. This was partly, I felt, the result of external guidelines which didn’t fully appreciate the distinctions between different fields of research, the ways they operated, and the different types of impact they could reasonable be expected to produce. I expressed something along these lines to a fellow humanities PhD student at the workshop, and they shrugged and said that there was no point complaining about it, because we couldn’t change anything – we would just have to deal with it.

By tracyshaun, CC-BY-SA 2.0. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

By tracyshaun, CC-BY-SA 2.0. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

And so, the idea for the unconference was born. I definitely don’t want it to be about complaining about the state of the academic world today – although there are certainly things to be concerned about. Rather, I want it to be a space where postgraduates can say – that aspect of things doesn’t quite work, but here’s my idea for how it could be improved. After all, some people attending the unconference, at least, are going to be the heads of department and academic policy-makers of the future. And even if others aren’t, I think it’s important that the people at the bottom of the ladder don’t just shrug and say “there’s nothing we can do, so there’s no point talking about it”.

Regardless of where we all end up in the future, right now every person attending the unconference is a postgraduate or early career researcher, and they’re in that position because they have good ideas and an ability to work through data and draw out interpretations and conclusions. I can’t wait, for just a few days next week, to see that imagination and energy applied not to the problems of historical sources, but to some of the questions facing the historical profession itself. What should a PhD look like? Can research be communicated in new, different, and better ways? How can we develop the relationship between researchers and the general public? What are the positive steps that can be taken to improve the intellectual and personal experiences of an individual undertaking a PhD?

Essentially, for me, the unconference boils down to a single belief: that we should never think there is ‘no point’ in talking about things that affect us, because if we never voice our ideas for change then change will never happen.

Let’s talk.


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.

Taking the Past Into the Future – Call for Proposals

How do you think historians can achieve greater impact? Do you think Open Access policies work as well as they could? Can communications technology open up new forums of debate and collaboration in academia? If you could improve one thing in the historical profession today – what would it be, and how would you do it?

Taking the Past Into the Future is intended to provide postgraduate researchers with the opportunity to proactively engage with the issues that will shape the academic careers of the future. Participants will be encouraged to experiment with radical ideas that are usually left unvoiced, before considering how positive change may be effected within real-world limitations.

We would like to invite postgraduate historians of any period to propose ‘position papers’ on any area of potential innovation within historical studies. These could include responses to current matters of academic policy, or completely new ideas. You could propose a model for a ‘virtual conference’, discuss the economics of funding historical research, argue for a PhD-by-historical-documentary: the (blue) sky is the limit.

Proposals should be no longer than 500 words and should answer the following questions:

  • What is your proposed idea or innovation?
  • What does it seek to improve (e.g: levels of engagement with history, career progression issues for young researchers, quality of collaboration between different groups of historians)?
  • In an ideal world, how would this innovation be implemented?
  • How might the idea need to be adapted to work in the real world?

As an ‘unconference’, Taking the Past Into the Future will be a participant-driven meeting which emphasizes the importance of peer-to-peer discussion and collaboration in a supportive setting. It will be residential and small-scale. Participants will circulate their full position papers (2,000-3,000 words) in advance of the meeting. During the unconference the papers will be discussed and written up into proceedings which will be made freely available, deposited in institutional repositories, and shared with relevant policy-makers.

There will be a registration fee of £20, with generous sponsorship allowing a considerable subsidy, with accommodation for three nights and food provided. The unconference will take place from 4th-7th August 2015 and will be held in Hayston House, a Georgian farmhouse near St Andrews, and will be self-catered, with participants cooking together to allow further time for informal conversation and community-building.

The deadline for proposals is Friday 29th March. Please send proposals, and any questions, to unconference.past.future@gmail.com.

You can download a copy of this call for proposals here.