Sunday, October 24, 2010

THATCampPNW 2010 post-mortem

Last year, when I was swamped, and overwhelmed, and exhausted (and right about to get really ill with what I now know is celiac disease), I went to an unconference in Pullman, called THATCamp.

Or, actually, THATCampPNW. It was amazing. I met great people, got new ideas, and felt more energized than I often do at traditional conferences. This year, my colleague Jentery Sayers and I coordinated a second THATCampPNW, and as chaotic as it felt at times, it seems to have been a success. Here's what I learned. Or at least, part of it. I think it would take more than one blogpost to cover it all.

1. Don't miss the opening session: "The opening session is the most interesting one," said Jentery, a few minutes before ours started; and whether or not he was right, what I found is that it's the most important one, in terms of learning about other people's interests. I felt as though the session titles were vague and abstract; if they'd appeared as paper titles, I'd have called them bland. That's part of the point of an unconference, I suppose -- no energy needlessly expended on cute wit -- but I never did feel like I entirely caught up on the conversation.

2. Hire someone to hold down the fort (if you're the coordinator). We didn't think about this in advance, which is a little dim of us, considering that our base was in the Simpson Center for the Humanities; a really nice space -- but one that can't be left unattended. The two sessions I did make it to on the first day were dictated by their location, i.e., where I could be and still be easily accessible/keep an eye on things. And they were good, but it's not really the THATCamp experience I had imagined I'd have.

3. Don't assume that everyone coming is tech- and THATCamp-savvy. Sure, many, perhaps most of them may be using smartphones with map capabilities, and may know how the THATCamp format works. In our case, though, we had a mix; and while I'd thought of the map issue, what we hadn't provided was a half-page "Welcome to THATCamp! This is how things work" sheet. It was telling, then, that at our wrap-up session, one of the comments was "I didn't really realize that if I proposed a session topic, I should be ready to serve as facilitator, and ready to start the conversation." Not that facilitating is always necessary; in fact, being willing to get out of the way and avoid authoritative pontificating is vital. But being aware of both possibilities is the main point.

4. Assume that things will go wrong. In our case, it was a catering snafu, and probably pretty mild, though certainly a pain. But it didn't interfere with THATCampPNW's success in itself, so, on the whole? Win. Refreshments were good, and there were plenty of them.

5. Colleagues are awesome. This would never have happened without Jentery Sayers, who is far more advanced at networking and being social than I am.

There are a few things I'm still thinking about. We had several adds and drops in the final week. (Luckily, we had a waitlist, so there was no danger of attendance being noticeably sparse.) Even so, I'd say that about 20% of our attendees didn't show. Since we'd planned on having 90 people, this wasn't a big deal -- having 70 was plenty; and in fact, I think it was better than having 90.
But I'm struck by the fact that probably half of the people who were determining Sunday's sessions didn't actually attend them. Is there a better way of setting them up? I'd like to think so.

Finally, and I'll end with this for now, having a wrap-up session (as we did) is good, but I wonder whether we could do more for continuing conversations later on. Does the main THATCampPNW site need a Missed Connections post for people to comment on? Maybe, because one of the things I kept hearing was that people wanted to have conversations that were shortened or simply didn't happen due to time constraints. I know that the document created during the wrap-up session will be posted, and I know at least one BootCamp instructor planning to post an online version of her session. We ended this year with an offer to host THATCampPNW 2011 at WSU Vancouver, and I think that's a positive achievement -- a level of certainty that we didn't have last autumn at Pullman. It's good to know that even if conversations were cut off, we have a place where they can be restarted.

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