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Unconferences: teaching ourselves to fish

fish market

Belgian Fish Market, 1980s

Once upon a time there was a church parishioner who kept complaining to his pastor that he wasn’t being “spiritually fed.” On and on he went at every church meeting. Nothing would help: not new sermon styles, not different music, not a change in the worship order.

Finally another parishioner turned to the unhappy guy and said, “You need to do some of this work yourself.”

Participant-driven unconferences — or even unconference activities built into a traditional conference — can be hard to explain to some higher-ups accustomed to the traditional “sage on a stage” model of conferences. Imagine going to a conference to give a five-minute talk that hadn’t been peer-reviewed… or even spending a day or a half-day sharing with your peers about topics that you bring to the conference without any prior vetting! How in the world can you get tenure by saying you were declared the audience favorite at a Pecha Kucha?

The answer is, of course, is that you probably can’t, unless you are working at a very enlightened institution (and one reason many conferences are “blended” is to ensure everyone’s needs and comfort levels are met — the Evergreen conference will feature a terrific balance of traditional and unconference activities).

I spend a lot of time these days talking about how librarians need to re-engage: with their tools, their ideas, their libraries. We need to become secular “fishers of men,” seeking ideas and pushing ourselves intellectually. Unconference activities help us get there. I still see a vital role for the “sage on a stage” model (and when it comes to unconference sessions, I prefer chairs in a circle, rather than the floor — some of the young’uns will understand this in twenty years).

But if you’ve resisted signing off on an unconference because it didn’t sound “professional,” think again. What better way to learn than to roll up our sleeves and think collectively about the problems of the day?

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