The Unconference Strikes Back: Notes on the Research Slam and Academic Experimentation

On Friday, UCSB held its fifth annual Research Slam. When the event originally launched in 2008, we billed it as an "Experimental Research Event." Well, five successful years later and I'm not sure that label is accurate anymore, although at the discussion at the end of the day we did start thinking about new directions we could take it.

I've posted about the Research Slam before, but have never really gone in-depth about the format on HASTAC or any other blog. There is no fixed way to present, though writing a paper to hand out likely won't get the most out of the experience. The physical and temporal structure is similar to a poster session, with participants at different stations standing next to their projects and an audience moving around to talk to them, but that's basically where the similarities end. Participants have brought posters, slideshows, games, software toys, videos, voting booths, and even cookies to show at the Slam, and the activities of the crowd have been similarly diverse. The Slam is usually noisy, with a DJ or research-based sound projects going on in the background and several simultaneous conversations occurring about the projects lining the room. I made this video for the second annual event, but the energy and flow has endured the past several years:

(HASTAC's embed function seems a little off so watch on the sidebar or here's a link:

This year, we had presentations ranging from literary mapping projects to alpha builds of indie computer games. Several projects came from Alan Liu's LIterature+ seminar, in which graduate students experiment with humanities computing methodologies and create collaborative digital humanities prototypes. As a #transformDHer, I was quite pleased to see several projects taking up questions of social justice and literatures outside of the mainstream US context. Alison Reed forged an unconference alliance between Bodies and Space and the Slam with her work on social justice performance pedagogies, while Claire Ihlendorf explored text visualizations of Mexican author José Agustín. Anne Cong-Huyen contributed another #transformDH perspective with her Photoshopping project populating the lavish hotels of Dubai with the service workers who build and staff them. Unfortunately, I can't elaborate on all the presentations here, but I'll link at the bottom of the page to as much of the work as I can, and hopefully some of the other presenters will comment here or blog about their own experiences and work.

For my own presentation, I prepared screenshots and composited images from video games in order to map out some techniques for testing avatar systems, which I've been interested in for quite a while. Here's a shot of my poster:

(To see full size, click on the image and then on the thumbnail of the pbworks page it sends you to.)

As you can see, I've interrupted the visual fetish of the faces with some questions that haunt the project as a whole: it is crucial, when thinking about the face and politics, to be aware of the problematic histories tied to representations of the human face. I've struggled a lot with this as I intentionally warp avatar faces to test the limits of their systems and end up with some faces that invoke racist stereotypes - to what extent should I interrogate these "accidents" as part of the system, and what are my responsibilities as a scholar interested in social justice in reproducing and critiquing them? To what extent do my own methodologies (for example, trying to create feminine faces with a male avatar mesh and vice versa) work against social justice principles?

This poster accompanied some screenshots of image compositing work I've done with the game Fallout 3, which uses an extremely complicated slider bar system for creating faces, but requires the user to choose a gender and race before any customization can be done. Since Fallout 3 also provides 10 preset avatar faces for each category (for a total of 80 faces!), I thought it would be interesting to see how the faces compare against each other in terms of slider bar position and visual appearance. I've made some important observations, but I won't bore you with the details here unless someone wants to strike up a conversation in the comments. :) The long and short of it is, the hours I dumped into this project (as yet unfinished) have thankfully produced productive things to say about gender, race, and avatar creation systems.

The Research Slam is another model for a nonstandard conference event that I hope other people will think about and mimic. The proliferation of events like Black Performance Theory symposia (begun in 1998), THATCamps (also debuted in 2008), and HASTAC's P3 Workshop (2010) has been great for pushing boundaries of academic modes of production - there seem to be more poster sessions, roundtables, performances, and requests for unique presentation styles than ever before at big conferences like MLA, CCCC, and ASA. I'm not terribly interested in debating whether unconferences are more effective than traditional conferences - there is clearly space for many types of platforms in a robust academic ecology. I do wish, however, to continue to promote unconferences in the name of discovery, of diversification, of inclusivity, and of sheer curiosity. It's no coincidence that these types of experiments emerge out of communities that haven't yet gained a foothold (for many reasons) in the structures of power.

But even THATCamps and revolutionary DH work can easily slip into modes that, while not quite canonical, quit trying to poke at the status quo or slip into the same tired hierarchies as other academic venues (the basis for much #transformDH critique). Despite the presence of projects interrogating race, for example, the Slam has yet to attract a consistent number of non-white presenters. We've had similar struggles with incoporating non-students into the event; though there have been senior scholars on hand to engage the presenters every year (and I have to thank Alan Liu for being a huge vocal supporter of the Slam since its inception), scheduling and other difficulties have limited the majority of the participation to graduate students. Our new challenge as Slammers is to keep pushing the experiment, to draw an ever more diverse crowd. And don't mistake me for an aca-hipster always looking for that thing you haven't heard of yet - destabilizing academic experiments can be useful, if done right, in checking a variety of privileges. We've considered a production component, like the recent Bodies in Space conference that took place on campus and tasked scholars with creating a collaborative performance over 24 hours. Another interesting addition would be to issue a game or challenge that must be undertaken during the sessions. I'd love to hear about any experiments that other people have been involved in.

In closing, I'd like to refer to Natalia Cecire's blog on non-THATCamp unconference models in order to support her call for more unconferences that follow different models from THATCamp and also to acknowledge the problem she points out (in the comments) about the language of moral superiority that accompanies these events. Like any experiment, it is important to interrogate the parameters and assumptions that form the foundations of the experiment. While the Research Slam started as a place to challenge academic hierarchy and traditional scholarly presentation, I'm quite interested in where the future will take us in the next several years, and what problems it will seek to tackle next.



The Research Slam participants included (links to project info/blogs, where possible) **UPDATED 5/31**:

Nissa Cannon (UCSB English) – “The Map of the Locust: Visualizing Nathanael West’s Hollywood”

Anne Cong-Huyen (UCSB English) – “Burj Refracted: Reimagining Labor and Consumption in Dubai” (slideshow); Research Slam blog post

Mary Jane Davis (UCSB English) – “Deform[ing]: Animation and the Poetics of Process in “Wordsworth’s Old Man Traveling”

Thomas Doran (UCSB English) – “The Interspecies Arcade”

Michael Hetrick (UCSB Media Arts & Technology) – "Rotational Symmetry" and "DrawJong”

Zach Horton (UCSB English) – “Diagramming the Diagram: Virtuality, Finance, and Scalar Subjectivity”

Claire Ihlendorf (UCSB Spanish & Portuguese) – “Visualizing Character Relations in Agustín’s La tumba” (Research Slam blog), Lit+ Project page

Amanda Phillips (UCSB English) – “Making a Face: Gender, Race, and Avatar Technologies” (Lit+ Project page)

Steve Pokornowski (UCSB English) – “An N-Gramological Exploration of Contagion and the Undead OR How we learned to start worrying and fear the bug, the bite, the body”

Alison Reed (UCSB English) – “The Race-Conscious Queer: Social Justice Performance Pedagogy”

Meaghan Skahan (UCSB Comparative Literature) – “Excel Deformances of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King” (Research Slam blog), Lit+ Project page

Dana Solomon and Lindsay Thomas (UCSB English) – Demonstration of Research-oriented Social Environment project with data generated from Research Slam participants (RoSE site)

Adam Sulzdorf Liszkiewicz (USC IMAP; RUST LTD) – PC Games: “The Hold” and “Bullet Hell” and Android touch screen game “Stax”

Lisa Swanstrom (Florida Atlantic University English) – “Greening the Game: Conservation, Community, Online Play" (project blog)


Avatar creation systems demonstrate the limits of tech & gender

Your work on avatar creation systems is awesome. Can't wait to read more. I want to know more about making a male mesh into a female face. And I dont think you using a tool to show its limits, with regards to race and gender, shows your bias, it shows the acceptable limits that the programmers and the company have looked at and released in their software.

Have you read fox Harrell's work on race and gender and avatar creation systems? It's also really awesome. He's at MIT now. You have to read it!


an excellent slam

As a (first-time) research slam participant, I would just like to emphasize what a great event it was!  There was such a wonderful variety of projects and interesting discussions to acompany them.  I had been unfamiliar with this type of (un)conference format, but I look forward to participating in events like this in the future.