I had the pleasure last week of attending the #satech Boston unconference in Boston, MA. Shifting from a more traditional conference format, #satechBOS challenged participants to not just learn, but to teach and to not only discuss but to create. The participant-driven focus of the conference demanded many of us being comfortable with what can make us uncomfortable – a lack of structure and the almost total absence of a plan.
With an emphasis on stepping outside of one’s comfort zone and taking risks, an unstructured unconference can be a confronting experience. Extending the notion to our work in student affairs, and my own philosophy on leadership (taking people from where they are to where they have not been), the unconference model has become another example of creating spaces and places for pushing boundaries for the purposes of learning and development, both in our work and in ourselves.
Despite, or perhaps because of, our desire to stretch outside of our comfort zones, there remains at the very least an anecdotal resistance to the lack of structure originally declared as one of the key reasons many of my colleagues attend these types of conferences. While structure is seen as limiting or confining, the opposite is also met with frustration or fear.
Many times in my student affairs career, I have spoken of ‘creating a safe space’. Whether as part of a workshop or simply in conversation with a student, these safe spaces are often meant to be an anchor or secure foundation from which students (and colleagues) can (safely) branch out beyond their own personal and professional comfort zones.
Is there an inherent contradiction in creating a safe space to take risks? What do we gain by exploring the new or novel by seeking the familiar within it?
As I continue to explore the unconference model, I often wonder about the need for structuring the unstructured. What level of uncertainty are we comfortable with? What amount of structure can we take away before the process interferes with our progress?
What attracts us to an unconference? Is it the idea or ideal of a lack of structure? Does it look or feel different when we are actually put to task to share, to learn and to create without a formula or plan? When we look for structure in the unstructure, are we helping or hindering our desire to innovate?