I’ve already written a couple of posts about the future of the American Historical Association and my experiences at THATCamp this past weekend have caused me to add an addendum to what I’ve already proposed.
If you read those earlier posts you’ll see that I have suggested radical surgery for the AHA annual meeting to make it more appealing to a broader constituency, but also to liven it up a bit. THATCamp was my first experience with an “unconference” and I have to say I prefer that model to the standard scholarly conference where three or four presenters sit in the front of the room and read papers at the audience.
For those unfamiliar with unconferences–as I was until this past weekend–the short version of how they work is the organizers ask attendees to indicate in advance what it is they want to discuss/work on during the conference and then, somewhere near the last minute, the organizers create a schedule of sessions from the interests of the attendees. So, for instance, I might indicate that I want to spend some time thinking about and discussing new developments in digital pedagogy, assessment of student learning in history, and the latest developments in East European studies.
Rooms are assigned according to the number of people interested in a particular topic or issue and when the attendees arrive, they decide where to go. Once they arrive in a room, they find others who are there because they want to discuss the same topic. A designated facilitator starts off the discussion and then a real honest to goodness discussion ensues. In other words, something a lot more interesting than having to sit and listen while three or four people read to you.
I’m not suggesting that the entire AHA annual meeting turn into an unconference overnight. That would be a logistical disaster. Instead, I’m suggesting that the AHA designate some percentage of its meeting rooms, say five percent at the 2010 annual meeting, for a historical unconference and see what happens.
The major objections to this approach–other than logistical–will fall into two categories. First, how can young scholars present themselves to potential employers in such a venue? By taking part in an intellectual conversation around a topic they are passionate about. But there should (for now) still be a lot of space reserved at the meeting for them to give those papers (please don’t read them!) that present their best ideas to potential employers.
The second objection would be that deans and provosts around the country wouldn’t pay for anyone to attend such a conference because no one would be “giving a paper” nor would they be “in the program.” This is a very valid objection. Like all such objections, it can be dealt with, but will require more thinking.
But if five percent of the 2010 AHA annual meeting turns into a very lively unconference, I’ll bet one of the sessions at the 2011 meeting could be devoted to making the case for travel funding to deans and provosts.