by • August 6, 2012 • Leading, Leaders and Leadership, Professional DevelopmentComments (6)2681

Structuring the Unstructured – My First #satechBOS Reflection

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?

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6 Responses to Structuring the Unstructured – My First #satechBOS Reflection

  1. Eric Stoller says:

    I think it would be interesting to have an event like #satechBOS that is sans devices. Maybe have a “reporter” or two to share some stuff, but move the focus to having conversations with people in the room. It’s a radical thought…especially for a tech-focused event.

    • What’s that, Eric? Devices left behind… GASP! The terror. OR should I say FANTASTIC idea. I think it’s about time we went back to the old fashioned technology tool = the table. It is one of the best spaces we have gathered around for centuries to share and innovate. Great idea. I’m in!

    • Andy Campbell says:

      I agree – I found myself distracted at times trying to engage in the #satechbos discussion online and the live discussion in the room. There were times I put the devices away to really listen and take everything in. I love Twitter, etc. but maybe we need a little structured time at the UnConference that is free of digital communication.

  2. […] Rutgers University “#satechBOS-Pay It Forward” by Colleen Bunn, Connecticut College “Structuring the Unstructured – My First #satechBOS Reflection” by Lisa Endersby, University of Ontario Insitutue of Technology (UOIT) “#satechBOS & […]

  3. Bryce Hughes says:

    Hi Lisa,

    Let’s chat about this more, but I wanted to post a reaction to your questions on “safe space” that might resonate with you.

    As you imagine, I’ve been deeply involved with LGBTQ programming, so I’m extremely familiar with the concept of a “safe space.” But I’ve been involved with a lot of diversity programming that aims to challenge participants (whether students or faculty/staff) to get outside their comfort zones. Over time, both those I’ve worked with and eventually myself have started questioning what we mean when we say “safe”–wondering if people look to “safe” spaces as a place for comfort. Speakers like Jessica Pettit offer events that specifically state the space is not intended to be “safe” in that it is intended to challenge.

    But the idea you’ll appreciate came from my advisor (Dr. Sylvia Hurtado). Last spring I was in her Intergroup Dialogue class, and we were setting the ground rules for our group. Instead of establishing the class as a “safe space,” she and her co-facilitator Minh Tran called it a “BRAVE space” where we are encouraged to step outside our comfort zones, take a risk, and grow.


    • Eric Stoller says:

      Related to the safe space aspect…One of my favorite quotes from Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope by bell hooks:

      “One of the principles we strive to embody is the value of risk, honoring the fact that we may learn and grow in circumstances where we do not feel safe, that the presence of conflict is not necessarily negative but rather its meaning is determined by how we cope with that conflict.”

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