Post WIDE-EMU (#1)

Enough puns about Emus already:  the on-the-fly/on-the-cheap (un)conference of sorts that Derek, Bill HD and I set up, the WIDE-EMU, went off with pretty much no problems on Saturday.  It was all rather amazing to see, frankly, though my pictures and video of the day are all pretty lame, mostly people sitting around and listening.  I’ll have to work on that for next time around.  And I will try to put up the video of keynote session up online later today or so, too.

Where did this thing come from in the first place? My recollection was that germ of the idea emerged during a long car ride back from the CCCCs in Atlanta and a conversation about how so much that we value in conference is the face to face interaction and exchange over the standing and delivering of papers.  And we also wondered about the costs of conferences which has always struck me as too high.  Long story short, we kept talking about this stuff over the spring and summer, and the WIDE-EMU was born.

There’s lots of stuff at the web site— links to “phase 2″ proposals, an agenda of the day, a robust twitter stream represented on Storify, and (eventually) there will be the video of the plenary session with Troy Hicks, Danielle DeVoss, and a distant (via Skype) Elyse Eidman.  We had around 40 people registered, though I am certain there were many who didn’t get around to registering since we didn’t have people do it at all until they were on site and we didn’t really require it.

I’m obviously biased and we’re still waiting for some survey data to return, but I thought it turned out to be fantastic event, and not just because of the localness/”proof of concept” point I’ll get to in a moment.  I thought there were some legitimately great conversations/presentations.  A big part of it is we just so happen to be geographically located within an easy day’s drive of a lot of places where the idea of studying digital writing is being taken seriously.  But I also think our process helped.  Basically, we asked anyone and everyone to start by submitting a title in one of three different types of presentations, “talk,” “make,” “do.”  Lots of people came up with ideas.  But then we asked people in phase 2 to submit something more.  It didn’t have to be a lot or particularly complicated, but it had to be something– a few paragraphs, some slides, a short video, a web site, etc.  So since people had to come up with something before the conference actually began, people came to the conference prepared.  And I think that showed.  The stuff I saw was just as good as what I typically see at overpriced, oversized national conferences.

But again, I go back to the proof of concept issue:  I think what we demonstrated here is that if you have a “free” meeting space, if you use “free” electronic tools, and if you eliminate other elements that cost something (notably food and fancy speakers), you can do these kinds of conferences with only a modest amount of organizational labor and with no charge to participants.  And for me, this begs the question about what is it that we are paying for when we go to Computers and Writing or the CCCCs.

Obviously, size matters.  We had about 30 individuals/groups giving the equivalent of presentations, and these were more or less “self-vetted” in that the people who went through the process of proposing something for phase 2 got on the program.  And again, I think that worked.  If we had a lot more people proposing and we needed to make some real choices about who is in and who is out, then it would have been more complicated and labor intensive, probably.  Still, I’ve reviewed proposals for both C&W and the CCCCs and as far as I can tell, no one gets paid for that service.

And size matters in terms of the number of participants.  I think we could have easily handled twice as many attendees, but if we had become 200 people, then I suspect we would have been forced to contend with some more complex organizational issues– for example, I’m not sure we could have gotten away with telling that size of a group that they were simply “on their own” for food, beverages, nametags, programs, etc.

I also think cost matters in interesting and paradoxical ways.  In the “DIY” spirit of things, we didn’t charge anyone for this, but one of the possible implications of this was that the conference wasn’t seen by some as having “value.”  I talked with folks about this in the last session of the day, and Tammy Conrad-Salvo told a story about a dairy farm that used to offer free tours and had virtually no customers, but then started charging for the tours and they had many more customers.  That’s entirely possible with something like this too:  had we charged a modest fee– say $20 or less a person– we might have had more attendees who saw the conference as a “serious” and “real” thing.  On the other hand, charging money would have meant significantly more labor for the organizers.  We would have had to have done something to actually collect money (not always the easiest thing in the world at a public university), and people would have expected some basic stuff for that fee– a program, nametag, coffee and doughnuts, etc.  In other words, still more labor.

There are a lot of other issues here too that I’m still wrapping my head around.  I guess what I’m left with though is I wondering about the “major conferences” in our field.  Don’t get me wrong; I like the “working vacation” of the CCCCs or C&W or whatever as much as anyone, and I realize that these kind of conferences have to pay for space.  Still, I wonder if there aren’t ways to do these things differently.  Maybe we need a lot more smaller events like this.  Maybe the bigger events need to do a better job of using easily available electronic tools to crowdsource conference organization and planning.  Maybe we need to cut costs a bit by getting rid of some of the doo-dads that aren’t really that necessary.  And maybe if the CCCCs and NCTE (for example) are using their conferences for financing their existence as organizations, maybe they need to rethink that, too.



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4 Responses to Post WIDE-EMU (#1)

  1. I thought the unconference was a great success. I think there’s a place for traditional conferences and unconferences at the table. Traditional conferences function more directly as proof of scholarship in that they are more closely reviewed and look better on CVs. Unconferences tend to be more productive in terms of spurring conversations and scholarly connections because the participants set the agenda to a larger extent and the conversations are more open-ended. I think the sense of missing “value” is not necessarily monetary but professional. Of course, there’s more to professionalization than CV lines and we all know that a large benefit of traditional conferences is networking. The unconference just accentuates one at the expense of the other.

  2. Naomi Silver says:

    I agree with Nathan — it was great! For me the big difference from a traditional conference was the ability to propose what was essentially an information-gathering conversation — a focus group of sorts — and have it on the program, so that interested folks could show up and discuss. This kind of thing could be finagled at a traditional conference, but only in an informal, off-the-program way that would have been a lot more work for me, and far more hit or miss in terms of outcome. For this reason, the ‘networking’ aspects of WIDE-EMU were even more valuable than is typical (at least in my experience) at a traditional conference. So, yes, definitely a place — and a value — for both.

  3. Steve Krause says:

    I wonder if a conference like the CCCCs or C&W (or whatever– those are just the two bigger ones I tend to go to) could sponsor both a “conference” and an “unconference” at the same time. What I can imagine, for example, is something where an unconference runs parallel with the f2f one where maybe you have unconference sessions that are opportunities to respond, reflect, or build upon something that happened at the conference sessions. Or maybe you have both going on literally at the same time: conference sessions on the program are down this hall, while unconference sessions that got thought up on the spot are down this other hall. And so forth.

    I might have been implying that we ought to do away with the “traditional” conference entirely, and I didn’t mean to do that. But I do thing there’s a lot of stuff that we do at conferences that drive up the costs– or rather, there are things that we could decide not to do that might drop the costs. For example, C&W could be made cheaper (perhaps) if there was more of an “ala carte” approach in terms of stuff like paying for meals and such. Of course, that is a conference where they already do some of those kinds of things.

  4. I’m half joking when I say that if an unconference ran parallel to a traditional conference then there might not be an audience for the traditional one. I think, and I’m sure I’m not alone, that most conference presentations are painful. I try to take a cue from unconferences and structure my presentations in a way that is more engaging and open-ended. No one wants to hear a paper read to them.

    I do like the idea of simultaneous conference and unconference and I have seen it done before. Usually they do not run parallel but rather one after the other.

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