Telling Untold Histories: An Unconference for Public Historians

Much of the history I write involves absences, erasures, and silences in the historical record and I am a huge proponent of unconferences, so I was doubly excited to learn about an upcoming event that combines both!

Telling Untold Histories: An Unconference for Public Historians, organized by archivists, librarians, public historians, and scholars from across the state of New Jersey and from Philadelphia, will take place April 10, 2015 from 8:30 am-4:00 pm at Rutgers-Camden. Highlighting historical topics that until recently public history sites, museums, and archives have not tackled, Telling Untold Stories will foster discussion and collaboration about ways to incorporate these stories into public history.

The format, an unconference, offers an ideal venue for creating a larger conversation about the challenges and benefits of telling untold stories. An unconference differs from traditional academic or professional meetings in that participants determine the sessions that will occur by picking from proposals made by other participants. The process for proposing a session is much like submitting to a regular academic conference, with two key differences. After writing up a brief description of a potential session that a participant is willing to facilitate, the participant posts it to the conference website for other attendees to peruse. (Most session proposals come in about a week before the conference, so make sure to check the website or follow on Twitter or Facebook) This process often generates online feedback that continues to shape the session proposal. However, not everyone manages to get all their good ideas written down prior to the conference, and thus on the morning off, there will be individuals or small groups furiously scribbling session descriptions on the handy “propose a session” slip distributed at conference check-in. Finally, at the start of the conference, during discussion of the proposed sessions, the floor will be open for people to verbally pitch an idea. Then all the participants vote on which sessions they would like to attend and the conference schedule is generated on the spot (which is why you do not want to arrive late to an unconference). Often times, as the schedule develops, it becomes clear that some sessions could be combined or tweaked to meet participant preferences. This all sounds more complicated than it actually is, and trust me, the energy alone in the room is worth showing up for.

What sorts of sessions are appropriate for an unconference? Definitely not the usual show up and read your powerpoint or paper for 20 minutes. In fact, the only sort of presentations that generally occur at unconferences are “how to” based, either a workshop that teaches specific skills, or something along the lines of how a past example of telling untold stories offers specific lessons about what worked or didn’t work. However, some of the best unconference sessions I have attended have been “I have a problem” based! In this case the proposer is responsible only for getting the conversation going and generally facilitating group participation during discussion. The only limiting factor on session proposals is that they need to engage the theme of the conference, Telling Untold Histories.

What happens during the sessions is also a little bit different than at other professional conferences. In order to capture the sessions, a note taker is appointed to post resources and ideas that come out of the discussion or presentation in a live Google document.  Each room will have WiFi and a digital projector to facilitate note taking and web research. Even though each session has a “formal” proposer, all participants are responsible for ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to participate, and for actively participating themselves. In the unconference setting, expertise, titles, and degrees are downplayed in the spirit of a collaborative learning environment (At my first unconference I was amazed to see that in the place of titles, degrees, and institutions on name badges, people wrote their Twitter handles!) However, should you find a session is not meeting your needs, by far my favorite part of the unconference format kicks in, the “law of two feet.” Participants are encouraged to move between sessions!

In addition to the unconference sessions, a lunchtime panel of regional public historians with experience in Telling Untold Histories will discuss the opportunities and challenges in this work. During the afternoon, a series of pre-determined skill-based workshops on topics ranging from archaeology to using the Internet Archive will give attendees a chance to learn about and try a tool or method that has been proven to be helpful to Telling Untold Histories. In addition, participants are invited to attend the 2015 Miller Lecture, delivered by is Katherine Ott of the National Museum of American History, an expert on disability and public history, and the following reception.  Telling Untold Stories is occurring the day after the Oral History in the Mid-Atlantic Region (OHMAR) association holds its annual conference at Rutgers-Camden. OHMAR will offer an oral history workshop, which unconference attendees are invited to attend, and cross registration for the full conference will be available as well.