TPS Unconferences at the LACUNY Institute

For the 2023 LACUNY institute, two of us (Matt Herbison and Jen Hoyer) who have been involved with the TPS Unconference for several years organized a session about unconferences as a space for self-determined professional development.

We began our session with an icebreaker: What do you know about unconferences, or what questions do you have? If you have experiences with unconferences: what has worked well and hasn’t worked well? Attendees were invited to share concrete or abstract ideas and questions.

We wanted to ground this discussion in the reflections of our broader community who have taken part in TPS unconferences, and so we put together a 15-minute video to give a foundation to further discussion. You can watch that here:

Some of the themes that resonated with us from this video is that unconferences are:

  • Community-driven + volunteer-organized 
  • An opportunity to be interdisciplinary and inter-community 
  • Low cost or free 
  • Non-hierarchical + shared-authority 
  • Always experimenting! 
  • Responsive to those participating: vote with your feet (or mouse?!)

Next, we followed an unconference- style process to organize the rest of our session: we shared a prompt to invite attendees to decide what they’d like to learn together; we invited feedback to help prioritize those ideas; and then we organized our time accordingly, to touch on as many of the prioritized ideas as possible.

We used padlet to do all of that in the space of a single conference session. Padlet has a lot of different formats; we chose one that allowed attendees to share comments as posts, and then to add hearts to “vote” for the ideas they were most interested in talking about. Check out a snapshot below, or take a look at the PDF archive of our padlet brainstorm.

A few of the ideas and questions we then discussed as a group were:

  • In an unstructured space, how do you make sure people behave (or don’t talk too much)?
  • If unconferences are about vulnerability, how do people build trust for being vulnerable in a professional space?
  • Do folks who facilitate conversations at unconferences get any credit toward tenure or promotion (as they might at another type conference)?
  • Do folks who attend unconferences get financial support from their institutions and the experience recognized, for instance, reappointment, tenure or promotion?
  • Great to hear about neurodiversity. I was wondering how do you factor in neurodiversity and especially autistic people who need a certain sense of structure and might panic. (But I am autistic and love the openness. I just know there are others who are different. )
  • How do you factor in minority views if you rely on voting?

We’re grateful to the folks who joined us in this session and talked through these and other topics with us. We’d love to hear from others who have experience with unconference or unconference-style programming; what works well for you, and what doesn’t work so well? Why do you unconference?

And, a huge thankyou to everyone who helped us with our video by sharing their thoughts and ideas:

  • John Henry Adams, Research and Instruction Librarian for Special Collections at the University of Missouri in Columbia
  • Lindsay Anderberg, Interdisciplinary Science & Technology Librarian and Poly Archivist, New York University
  • Randi Beem, Instruction Archivist at University of North Carolina at Charlotte
  • Marian Toledo Candelaria, Manager for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, University of Virginia
  • Pam Hopkins, Public Services and Outreach Archivist, Tufts University
  • Danielle Nista, Assistant University Archivist, New York University
  • Blake Spitz, Archivist, Special Collections and University Archives, UMass Amherst Libraries
  • Heather Smedberg, Reference & Instruction Coordinator, Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego Library
  • Jenny Swadosh, Archivist, The New School