How to organize a summer academy
In 2015 Hackers & Designers launched the first Hackers & Designers Summer Academy. Having gone trough the collective efforts of investigating the format of a summer academy, coordinating, curating and producing the 10-day long elaborate program, H&D decided to share their learnings with this printed documentation prepped as a collection of How To-manuals, articles and content produced during the H&D Summer Academy 2015. Further information and digital media content can be found on hackersanddesigners.nl,wiki.hackersanddesigners.nl andgithub.com/hackersanddesigners/HDSA2015
10 steps towards HDSA2015
Formulate a clear motivation and goal.
H&D was initiated in 2013 by Anja (designer), James (programmer) and Selby (artist). As H&D we believe designers and artists, should be empowered with the tools of the digital realm including coding and hardware usage and construction. Conversely programmers and makers should be more comfortable and effective in engaging in creative process through familiarity with the vocabulary of designers and artists. All disciplines should become more comfortable in theoretical and social discourse, and thus be asking questions such as “should we” instead of only “can we”. Having organized meet-ups as H&D for 2 years we have tested our approach extensively and could incorporate learnings in our considerations for planning a more elaborate program such as the H&D Summer Academy.
Find a title that coheres every initiators interests.
Finding a title can be a fast and easy or a painful and long process. In our case we had long discussions but eventually kept the initial idea. Coming from different disciplines and different cultures we decided for a "fun" title that triggers imagination no matter what skills or interests, rather than communicating something bold and provocative. Advise: It helps to visualize the title, make an example posters to explore its possibilities. Stirred by the title "About Bugs, Bots and Bytes" we eventually managed to curate an engaging and inclusive program.
Mouth to mouth: Go where your possible participants are. To reach out we joined a group of CWI students to an after seminar drink and pitched our Summer Academy. Be opportunistic and keep on talking about your plans. That way people will start asking questions and remember when they get a newsletter. Furthermore every time you tell your story it gets better. Write newsletter as straight forward as possible. Don't include every detail of your program no matter how much you would like to. We experienced that press releases are overrated and as far as we know didn't turn into any more visitors, participants or publicity. The same counts for online advertisement. We placed 2 advertisements and did not have the feeling that there was a big resonance. However posters and flyers seemed to work better. We prepared packages with each 5 posters and 20 flyers and send them to academies and universities abroad and received most application from people who have seen a poster or a flyer. Furthermore we used a professional poster distribution firm to spread promotion posters in Amsterdam, which saved us a lot time. Regarding social media we experience meet-up.com as a much more reliable platform than Facebook when it comes to RSVP's. By mentioning workshop tutors or participants on Twitter you extend the reach and the possibility for tweets to be picked up becomes bigger. From reddit we learned that bad publicity is better than no publicity. Apparently people felt offended about some terms which were used in a word rotator on our website. The words Bugs, Bots and Bytes were rotating to different words when users hovered over them. Two of the words in the rotator were Boobs and Booze, which reddit readers found sexist and a trivialization of alcohol abuse. After a long debate between us organizers we replaced the words Booze and Boobs for the words Baboons and Bio-butter.
Providing a rich and critical program and at the same time being inclusive can be challenging but it is possible. For H&D it is important to foster an understanding of contemporary digital culture, maximize participation, and discuss ambiguities and misconceptions about topics like privacy, surveillance, open source, user-controlled platforms, role of algorithms, digital-self and identity. Researching these topics in an open environment and in a playful and hands-on manner helped bypassing the risk to expose participants to definite ideas and ideals.
It can be helpful to make a profile of the "perfect" participant in order to formulate a straightforward communication strategy and develop the right visual means. However you should stay open for alternative profiles during the selection process. We started targeting mainly students and eventually half of the participants were working professionals. Sometimes it is a bit scary if you don't hear back from people and you will ask yourself: "Will people actually show up?". Don't be afraid to call the participants to ask if anyone has questions. That way you become more confident and the participants appreciate your care. We advise to not try to convince people to participate. If you are intending to address independently thinking people who are initiators, they should apply based on their own motivation and drive. However it is worthwhile asking for feedback: "Did you understand our Newsletter? Did it give you a clear impression of what is going to happen at the Summer Academy?" and so forth.
Make sure you have one or two 'headliners' in your line-up. Headliners are people/initiatives that are well known and help forming an image in people's heads of what the program will look like. Furthermore try to not shop within your own crowd too much. Use this chance to contact new people who have been recommending to you or that you bump into on the Internet. That way you leave space for new cohesion and an interesting, unique program without to many usual suspects.
(See also: How to research stuff by making.)
For creating a program it is worthwhile to sincerely consider the approach you want to take on. This approach should fit to your initiative and the way your initiative is functioning. Eventually the approach will result into the sphere of the whole program. The approach we wanted to create for the H&D Summer Academy was: hands-on, cross-disciplinary and non-hierarchical.
By investigating through creating, new considerations were triggered. The workshop format allowed thoughts to be immediately materialized, which lead to different discussions and eventually brought the disciplines closer together and introduced the idea of a cross-disciplinary vocabulary.
The horizontal, non-hierarchical atmosphere lead to a friendly togetherness and self-driven and productive work climate.
Finding a suitable location.
Upon arrive the participants and tutors should feel as comfortable as possible. The choice of the location is therefore a crucial decision. The biggest part of the Summer Academy took place in De PUNT, an art & project space in the centre of Amsterdam. H&D has has established a local infrastructure in Amsterdam, which made the organization and coordination feasible. One should consider practical aspects, such as: Where and how to do groceries as well as travel time for contributors and participants. Organizing a program in another, not explored context demands much more investigation and research and therefore has a big influence on workload and budget.
Many funds like to see that your enterprise generates income. Consider well if you would like to charge for your program and make sure the fee is appropriate to the audience you are inviting. Obviously the higher the price you are asking the higher the expectation. The cover charge of the H&D Summer Academy was €350,00 per participant and covered the 10 day program, a welcome dinner, daily lunches and an Arduino kit.
Plan A, B, C.
If you are planning to apply for funding, be aware that it can take up to 4-6 months to hear back. You might not receive funds at all. Always incorporate the worst case scenario in your planning and don't rely to much on one source. This is challenging in terms of planning, communication and finding contributors who are flexible enough. We have experienced a refusal from a fund and requested a revision. Eventually we received some of the funds. The process was very time-consuming and challenged us as we had to constantly change the plans accordingly. However we decided from the beginning that our priority is to guarantee a high quality workshop program without compromise, which could have been always covered by the participation fee. Having received some funds after all we could spend some money on daily catering and materials, promotional material and so forth.
If you would like to organize a similar program or if you are interested in hosting a H&D Summer Academy please don't hesitate to contact us firstname.lastname@example.org