AdaCamp’s unconference model

AdaCamp was a two-day unconference dedicated to increasing women’s participation in open technology and culture. This page is part of the AdaCamp Toolkit, which helps you take AdaCamp’s tools and practices and apply them to your own event. You can re-use the text of this page under the Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike license with credit to the AdaCamp Toolkit.

AdaCamp was an unconference and our goals included having productive feminist discussion about women in open technology and culture, and being inclusive. In order to meet these goals, we provided some structure and support in our unconference model.

Why unconference?

Unconferences are events where the conference is not scheduled in advance; attendees propose and lead sessions, and the sessions are scheduled on the day of the event.

Unconferences have several advantages over lecture-style conferences:

  • there is no divide between anointed speaker experts and the passive listening audience: everyone is encouraged to contribute to the content of the unconference in some way
  • unconferences let the event go in direction that the attendees collectively want and the schedule can evolve to accommodate topics that arise during the discussions at the event itself
  • the schedule can include discussion of very recent events or controversies or activism
  • organizers don’t need to try anticipate the needs and interests of the attendees in advance

Avoiding potential pitfalls of unconferences

Unconferences have some disadvantages:

  • they are less familiar to people than lecture-style conferences, and the level of familiarity with them varies between regions
  • the call for leadership and to take responsibility for their experience can trigger impostor syndrome in attendees
  • unconferences are sensitive to the people attending: disruptive or attention-hogging attendees have more opportunity to derail people’s experience in sessions than they do in the audiences for lectures
  • without dedicated/experienced facilitators, sessions can drift off-topic or otherwise become less productive
  • choosing and scheduling sessions uses up valuable conference time
  • unconferences are not necessarily less work for organizers: there is no talk selection or speaker liaison, but there is the need to curate a schedule on the day and facilitate more spontaneous sessions

In designing AdaCamp, we worked to try and lessen some of the disadvantages:

  • we held an invitation-only event and invited attendees who already had demonstrated commitment of feminism and involvement in our field (open technology and culture), avoiding filling the schedule with very introductory feminist content, or disputes about basic feminist principles
  • we made sure to provide structure around the unconference so that it was a satisfying experience for people unfamiliar with unconferences and for people whose ability or confidence in participating didn’t include leading sessions
  • we offered Overcoming Impostor Syndrome training early in the event, so that attendees could recognise when they were feeling it
  • we introduced unconference session role cards to help attendees facilitate productive discussions to which attendees could all contribute
  • we did significant session pre-planning via mailing list/docs before the event to avoid spending too much time scheduling

AdaCamp sessions

Sample schedule

View a sample AdaCamp schedule.

Introduction plenary

The introduction plenary was very important to explaining and establishing the norms of AdaCamp, including our policies and our feminisms.

The AdaCamp introduction covered the following topics:

  1. an introduction to AdaCamp and the Ada Initiative
  2. the schedule
  3. the venue, including showing a map and noting any specific guidelines
  4. the quiet room and its rules
  5. the event policies
  6. how to report harassment
  7. LGBT-inclusiveness and avoiding common false assumptions (“husbands”, “boyfriends”, “XX”, “ovaries”)
  8. other inclusiveness issues such as non-local accents, international differences
  9. the rules for the demarcated access lanes
  10. how to unconference
  11. the use of unconference role cards
  12. how the scheduling session worked
  13. where the online schedule was
  14. where session notes would be taken
  15. the group dinners
  16. the lightning talks
  17. the “introduction to a new area” sessions
  18. the purpose of the impostor syndrome training

Impostor syndrome training

Discussion of Impostor Syndrome — the feeling that you aren’t actually qualified for the work you are doing and will be discovered as a fraud — was so popular that we ramped up our coverage of it over the first three AdaCamps. We ran one unconference session on Impostor Syndrome at AdaCamp Melbourne and five sessions at AdaCamp DC.

We then ran conference-wide impostor syndrome training sessions at AdaCamps in San Francisco, Portland, Berlin, Bangalore and Montreal in a plenary session following the introduction. Typically 80–90% of AdaCampers attended the Impostor Syndrome training.

Feminist events that discuss women’s participation in the workplace or in competitive and publicly visible fields may want to consider incorporating an impostor syndrome training in their program.

Introduction to a new area sessions

Because AdaCamp brought together people who worked in many different subfields, and who might not know how Wikipedia works, what coding is, or how the fanfic community is organized, the first non-plenary session of AdaCamp was usually an “introduction to a new area” session, where people were invited to propose sessions introducing their subfield to outsiders and newcomers. This both encourages people to learn new things and expand their networks and also lowers the barrier to proposing and running a session for those new to unconferences.

Open unconference sessions

At most AdaCamps, we ran four unconference sessions: two in the afternoon of the first day and two in the morning of the second day. These sessions were suggested by attendees on pieces of paper and curated unconference style on the day of the event. AdaCamp sessions tended to be an even mix of explicitly feminist topics, and other topics of interest to attendees.

Generally we would attempt to schedule sessions about identifying and discussion problems on the first day, and about responses, activism and solutions on the second day.

The number of simultaneous sessions we held was usually limited by our venue, but one simultaneous session for every 10–15 attendees worked best.

Workshop and tutorial sessions

On the afternoon of the second day of AdaCamp, we invited participants to suggest workshop and tutorial sessions, each of which would often span the final two sessions. Often workshop topic suggestions would arise from an earlier session in which it emerged that a number of people at the conference were keen to learn the same new skill.

Elsewhere