Open Buddha

Open Source Buddhism, Technology, and Geekery
Bay Area, California

Unconferences for Buddhist Studies (or Religious Studies)?

Once again, while working out, I did the untoward and started thinking. It’s amazing what quiet time will do for you. (Meditation doesn’t count since you’re purposefully not letting your mind wool-gather and wander.)

What came to mind today was “Unconferences.” The Unconference Blog defines an unconference (as opposed to a conference) as “a facilitated participant-driven face-to-face conference around a theme or purpose.” In the context of BarCamp, it is defined as “open, participatory workshop-events, whose content is provided by participants.” The unconference is pretty well known in tech circles through the various “camps”, such as “Foo Camp” and “BarCamp” and various others that focus on technology. Outside of technology, it doesn’t seem to be as well known.

Basically, they are conferences in which spaces and structure (such as timeslots) are made available but the participants create the sessions themselves, rather than having them proposed ahead of time. Taking the Burning Man ideal of “no spectators” (in a sense), everyone is a participant. Anyone with area expertise or knowledge can create a session in which they will talk or create a panel and recruit other people to be on it. The idea is that rather than being driven by a top down approach where people submit topics (or are solicited for specific topics) by a conference organizer or committee, the topics come up from the participants in a bottom-up approach, often immediately before or during an event.

As far as I know, barring one example of a science unconference hosted by Google, the unconference model hasn’t been applied in academia, certainly not within the Humanities. I started wondering if it would be possible to do a Buddhist Studies unconference or even a Religious Studies one. The difficulty would be in getting people to gather in one place at one time. For a weekend event, space usually isn’t hard to come by if you know roughly how many people to expect. I’ve attended Seattle MindCamp (before I moved here) and a couple of unconferences locally and had an excellent time. I’m trying to imagine if scholars and graduate students (not mutually exclusive) in my fields of interest would actually take to this model or if it would be something entirely too weird.

At the very least, I could see organizing one of these within the Graduate Theological Union, assuming there was interest, amongst the graduate students since there are a lot of people doing research and we are largely in the same geographical area.

I’ll end with a list of resources for running a BarCamp, which applies to most unconference events.