Constrained Thought and the Unexpected Merits of the Un-Conference

Wednesday, October 10, 2018
John Stadler
Image of Ruler

“What does it mean to write an informed opinion that does not include quotations or references?” This was the prompt, and the complaint, that I was posting about on my social media late on August 16, a day after my position paper was due for the conference Flow. Or rather, I should say, the un-conference Flow. Somehow it had not fully registered to me that the film and media conference I applied to was actually an un-conference.

I had heard of the “un-conference” before, but I wasn’t quite sure what it entailed. Un-conferences had the bad reputation of being a gimmick: belabored attempts to reimagine the typical university conference format (you know, the one where you frantically write a paper the night before your presentation—maybe on the flight—and deliver it the next day with the hope of avoiding any hard ball questions). Even if I didn’t like the traditional conference format, I was familiar with it. The requirement that I “try something new” was unnerving.

Writing an informed opinion without reference seemed like a riddle without an answer. How, I wondered, could I write about my topic—methodological practices for media archeology of early online pornography—without referencing any other scholars who were also working on this topic? My research doesn’t live in a vacuum; other scholars are inevitably the springboard from which I… well, spring. Ever the proper student, though, I was determined to follow this rule. I would cite no one, but I was left pondering what that would leave me with. Would my position paper be philosophical ramblings? Pure abstraction? Drivel?

Flow un-conference organizers capped the position papers to two pages, and posted them online a month in advance. Attendees and panelists were invited  to read one another’s writing prior to attending, and at the panels themselves, presenters gave five-minute summaries of their positions. Not unlike speed-dating, this time constraint also discombobulated me. If the typical conference were 80% talking and 20% Q&A, the Flow un-conference was the reverse: 20% talking and 80% Q&A.

Sharing my anxiety with a fellow Flow frequenter, I was reassured that, “It’s the chillest conference you’ll ever go to. It’s like the ‘happy hour’ of conferences.” For all of my skepticism, he was right. Flow was invigorating, precisely because it short-circuited the typical conference structure and expectations. Not everyone “obeyed the rules,” so to speak. Some people still cited scholars. Others read their position papers, but the best panels I attended largely followed the rules. Rather than glazing over while presenters slogged through 20-minute papers, I found myself engaged.

Somehow, I pondered to myself, the un-conference’s many prohibitions had made us better thinkers, our ideas more distilled, and communication clearer. For those who wanted more, audience members could turn to the position papers online, if they had not already done so. For those who did the work of preparing in advance, the panels themselves felt more like a “spit ball” or a conversation than a high stakes intellectual performance.

Constraint can be a generative force. The many constraints of Flow ultimately assuaged my anxieties by building in time to digest content well in advance. In other words, Flow was low-key in person because it had been more demanding upfront, and the requirements to avoid citation and reference helped to cultivate that tone. Flow staged an intellectual conversation around a pressing problem (the theme for this year was precarity) and our audience was an integral part of that conversation.

While I cannot know if all un-conferences are as generative as Flow was, my first foray has left a lasting impression. My initial resistance to change was, in hindsight, a resistance to unfamiliarity. Un-conferences demand that we not only present our research in novel (and sometimes, challenging) ways, but that we reexamine the un-un-conference’s traditional format, and the limitations thereof. I’ll be looking forward to the next Flow conference when it takes place in 2020—in the year of perfect hindsight—and pondering ways to incorporate the merits of Flow into my future presentations.