learning · possibility


I’m just back from a week in Barcelona, where I attended the Mozilla Drumbeat Festival. It was, in a word, fuckingawesome. I had more intellectual excitement in the first day of that event than I’ve had in the last ten years of my job. What made it so exciting? Why, I’m glad you asked.

First, no papers. Those of you who are regular readers of this blog will know that I am not a fan of the typical conference format. So I thought it was just dandy to have eight-minute keynotes without tedious Q&A, and I thought it was downright revolutionary to seat plenary sessions in two semi-circles facing each other instead of the typical expert-addressing-the-audience scenario.

Second, intriguing organization. The festival was organized spatially, with different organizations/projects in different tents or rooms. One person from each of these stood up and gave a spiel in the opening session, describing what they are doing and who might find it interesting. For instance, “We are tagging videos in multiple languages. If you know a language, especially a language that isn’t widely spoken here, come work with us.” There was also a temporal organization, but the tempo had more to do with rhythm than with clock-punching. That is, there was a common schedule broken down into sessions (two in the morning, three in the afternoon), but beneath that there was also fluidity to the day. Some sessions – for instance, the video production session – met in the same room for two continuous days; others – for instance, the digital storytelling sessions – met in the morning and reconvened in the afternoon, with “homework” in the middle.

The third thing to love about drumbeat was how much work got done. I could actually feel myself learning. After day one, my brain ached as if I’d been in a mental squat cage all day. I could feel the stretch of thinking past my comfort zone, and I was on an endorphin high – but the metaphor here is also deliberate for suggesting the ways that we were actively engaged in learning, unlike the spectator sport of most conferences. This event was governed by an explicit hacker ethos: we have this time to work together, so let’s do it! In some areas, “working together” meant talking about ideas; in some, it meant actively building things (programs, e.g. – though one project was to draft an open source textbook: imagine a conference where you wrote a book!); in other areas, there was just a loose collection of people working on their own laptops in proximity to each other. Even that gave the event a certain frisson.

Also lovable: the mix of people. The festival theme was “open education for the open web,” so we had academics in conversation with programmers, mozilla developers in groups with web consultants and high school teachers, etc. I loved being around people who shared a basic commitment yet thought so differently from me. Probably matters that the “industry” of “industry people” here was small-scale (lots of two- and three-person outfits), and I wonder how academics play to others in that crowd, but to me the mix felt easy and un-hierarchized.

At the end of the day, there were feedback sessions where three (articulate, pre-chosen) people gave five minute talks on what they saw/felt/learned, and the MC posed three questions that were easy to answer: who had fun? who learned something? and who’s coming back tomorrow?

2 thoughts on “Anti-conference

  1. You preacher, me choir. And running a conference in this mode ain't rocket science.

    What fears and attachments, then, keep us doing the same stultifying things over and over and over?

    (This question transposes easily to our departments and faculties, where tools for energized collaboration aren't far away, but where we default again and again to the same worn and wearing forms. What would our next academic planning exercise look like if it embraced the spirit of the conference you just loved?)


  2. I've been to an academic conference that had a similar feel. It was small. 2 days. First day papers, but instead of in panels, they were 1 paper at a time followed by questions. Multiple streams with timing synced so you could move between.

    2nd day: workshops around themes, with a facilitator, seated in circles. Some of the people in the workshop group had presented the previous day but others hadn't and the discussion was not focused on individual papers, though content from those papers got brought in (and fleshed out if necessary) when relevant.

    Great discussions came out of that. And a couple of journal special issues, though I think more creative thinking about things like “writing a book” could be done. That happened back in 1996, btw.

    Academics make very poor use of their autonomy, it seems. We could just organize conferences differently. And why not “write a book”.


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