MLA 2008 Recap: Part 1 – The Rise of the Digital MLA

“Untitled,” The Tattered Coat

(With apologies to IHE)

Three days after returning home from the MLA Conference in San Francisco, and I’m still coming down, still thrumming with the newfound sense of energy, purpose, and camaraderie that I found there.

Who would have thought? Certainly, the annual conference of literature and language professors is not renowned for its capacity to spread good cheer. As the Los Angeles Times has pointed out, the MLA conference functions first and foremost as a job market, even if that market is shrinking in scary ways. My own experience interviewing at the MLA in 2006 enabled me to see only the tension and stress of the MLA experience; I was not prepared for what I found there this year.

So, what changed in 2008? Here are some of the highlights and trends I saw:


Twitter Altered the Pre-Convention Experience
Before the conference had even started, a bunch of my contacts on twitter had begun to connect with one another. We arranged a tweetup by setting up an account on twitter. We created a wiki page and encouraged convention-going twits to list their presentations on it. We bemoaned the fact that so many of the panels we wanted to attend were scheduled at the same time. (And by “we,” I mean a loosely connected set of people who identified themselves as being members of both the MLA and Twitter. There was very little structure involved, and the community, such as it was, was very open).

Before we even arrived, then, the conference had begun.


Twitter Enhanced the Experience of the Conference Itself
It wasn’t just the tweetups (we met for the first time when we crashed the cash bar of the Electronic Literature Organization). It was the fact that twitter provided a backchannel for conference. Here, for example, are general tweets about the conference, and here are tweets specifically related to the Microblogging panel.

Such conference-related backchanneling is nothing new, but it seemed new for the MLA.


Digital Panels Reached Critical Mass
Nearly everyone I spoke with remarked upon the breadth and depth of digital panels and workshops at the convention and the ways in which that contrasted with previous years. Established academic communities that had formed around societies such as the Electronic Literature Organization mixed with newer, distributed groups that formed through blogs and/or twitter. All of the digital panels I went to were remarkably well attended, and it was particularly useful to see conversations build across several different panel sessions.

Here, for instance, is a list of sessions that were identified by the MLA search tool under the rubric “General Literature: Electronic Technology (Teaching, Research, and Theory)”:

52. Defoe, James, and Beerbohm: Computer-Assisted Criticism of Three Authors
108. Using Technology to Teach Languages
163. Scholarly Editing in the Twenty-First Century: Digital Media and Editing
174. Microblogging: Producing Discourse in 140 Characters or Less
224. Methodologies for Literary Studies in the Digital Age
271. Genre, Form, and Cultural Practice in Contemporary Electronic Literature
320. Biocultures: Closing the Science-Humanities Gap
369. Promoting the Useful Arts: Copyright, Fair Use, and the Digital Scholar
421. Digital Immigrants Teaching Digital Natives
464. Online Course Management: Friend or Foe?
497. Digital Initiatives in Early Modern English Literature
543. The Library of Google: Researching Scanned Books
617. Editing Manuscripts in Digital and Print Forms
724. E-Criticism: New Critical Methods and Modalities
796. The Audiobook

And that is only a very partial list. [update: Here, via projectjulie, is the full list of Digital Humanities panels as compiled by ACH. Hugely impressive.]

The critical mass of new-media sessions was aided by a new tool rolled out by the MLA, “My Convention Schedule,” which allowed MLA members to search for panels of interest and to compile customized panel listings.

I hope that by MLA 2009, the organization is able to take that tool one step further by making it social, so that members can share their schedules with one another and recommend panels to friends.


A Tired Meme: The Cantankerous Objector
not listening One of the most striking refrains I heard at the digital panels occurred during the Q&A periods, when a curmudgeon would invariably rise and question not just the validity of the panelists’ particular work but also the entire project of engaging digital technology in research or teaching. There was a fascinatingly similar pattern to all of these comments: he (and it was always a ‘he’) would first establish his connection to the literary field (“I’ve been teaching XYZ literature at ABC University for 25 years”), then seek to distance himself from the luddite position (“Don’t get me wrong–I love my iPhone”), before boring in with overly generalized criticism of the new generation of scholars or, more often, students (variations of “students seem more distracted these days,” “students don’t read anymore,” “students won’t stop playing with their iPhones during my overly long and thoroughly boring disquisitions on DEF’s minor ballads”)–precisely the kinds of generalized criticism, we might assume, that he would never countenance in a classroom discussion of those minor ballads.

In his post-convention blog post, my friend Chuck Tryon got to the heart of these kinds of objections:

One of my frustrations in thinking about [the course I’m designing] is the degree to which the existence of digital technologies have been used to reify an entire generation of students, to assume on the one hand that Kids Today have shorter attention spans and on the other that they are fluent in using digital technologies. These assumptions often say more about the people who articulate them and their attitudes toward digital technologies than about actual students[. . . .]

I agree wholeheartedly with Chuck, and I suspect that the kinds of objections being made to digital technologies in the academy today mirror earlier discourses around subjects such as women’s studies, queer studies, and african-american studies, to name only a few fields.

And that leads me to my last point:


Communities Grow in Marginalized Spaces
Between the Crevices Despite continuing objections to the field and to its methodologies, the strength of our union is strong (really, it is, despite that link!). As one friend noted to me, the field has now grown large enough to contain multitudes: various methodological and pedagogical disagreements played out in the panels I saw. But the field, as a whole, still faces fundamental questions about its legitimacy–something that becomes clear as soon as the words “digital publication” and “tenure review” are put together.

Recent developments, such as the emergence of large funding agencies such as the NEH Office of Digital Humanities and the MacArthur Foundation/HASTAC have undoubtedly changed the playing field. But even so, questions of legitimacy linger on.

Then again, legitimacy is overrated.

Cathy Davidson–a scholar I much admire, whose work needs no introduction–skewered the “cantankerous objector” meme in one of the terrific blog posts she wrote following the convention:

Anyone who says that “digital learning” isn’t “real learning” (yes, we had such a comment from an audience member) isn’t paying attention. Or, more accurately, is so busy defending the assumptions of the field into which they were delivered as young graduate students that they do not see, cannot see, do not wish to see, the contours of a changing world in which their field is shrinking, not because it is irrelevant, but because far too few people in the profession represented by the MLA are willing to do the deep, difficult, engaged work of thinking through what it means to be a field (any field) in the twenty-first century.

I do not believe that the dreary decline in English majors that the MLA duly reports on every year is inevitable. But I do believe it is inevitable if we, as a profession, refuse to go through the work that so many of our peers in the arts, social sciences, and natural and biological sciences have gone through of carefully examining our assumptions, our goals, and our decline in light of the Information Age that should be our finest hour, the moment which, as a profession, we are trained to attend to most sensitively, acutely, historically, rhetorically, and critically.

If we are missing the boat of the Information Age as teachers trained in the art of close reading, compelling writing, and critical thinking, then, well, sorry folks, we deserve to sink.

It’s 2009. The MLA has begun to catch up to that boat, but we haven’t reached it yet. And as Bob Dylan tells us, “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.” We can say that the profession is finally moving, but whether or not it will get where it needs to go fast enough remains to be seen.


==> Coming soon: Recaps of my favorite sessions at the conference.

13 thoughts on “MLA 2008 Recap: Part 1 – The Rise of the Digital MLA

  1. Matt K.

    Nice post, Matt. The Twitter energy reminded me a lot of where blogging was at MLA four, five years ago (whatever it was). Grad students and junior scholars could walk up to Michael Berube and talk about comments and pings. I remember Scott J. from IHE whisking a bunch of us off to his room to confess what it what like to be “Bloggers at the MLA.” There was the same sense of new-found community and benign subversion.

    I’ve always thought that MLA was underrated as a venue for digital humanities. A while ago I went back and had look at old conference programs–there were people doing author attribution and stylistics as far back as the 1970s. Hypertext theory was big in the early 1990s; Ted Nelson was even on a panel. For many years, John Lavagnino compiled a list of computer-related sessions at the conference, and these are a valuable historical resource for looking at trends and patterns. This one is representative:

  2. Gardner

    Great post. I very much admired Cathy Davidson’s report as well and it’s good to know it resonates with you, too.

    I do think there’s a rather large distinction to be made between digital learning/new media and the various identity-based schools of analysis that you’ve listed. I say this knowing full well that issues of identity and performance are central to digital learning and new media studies. But the digital domain keeps the discussion more fluid and less ideological, or at least is has the potential to do so. And though I most certainly do not align myself with the right wing, I do think it’s fair to say that literary studies have backed themselves (as you implicitly note) into a tight corner of irrelevance, whether it’s because of yellowed lecture notes or dessicated neo-1968 radical posing. In particular, the question of art–why does it matter? what good is beauty? where and when should we discuss structure?–has been deferred by many ubertheorists for so long that it’s a wonder there’s any joy left in the profession at all. When you throw in the inevitable self-parody session like the one on “Conference Sex,” the MLA seems not only joyless but insufferably self-regarding.

    I know I’m painting with a fairly broad brush above, but I’ve attended many MLA sessions and interviewed for many jobs (and even got a few offers back in the day), and the conference never sparked a single moment of intellectual euphoria to rival a great EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative or New Media Consortium session. Your report, and Cathy’s report, make me hopeful that the tide may be turning. At last.

  3. Matt Post author

    @Matt: Thanks so much for the visit, the comment, and the ACH link. I love the connection you drew to the early days of blogging. At this conference, it was cool that Twitter seemed to gain credence as the conference went along; the buzz around it, in other words, seemed to happen during (because of?) the conference itself.

    As you point out, there is a rich history of work in this field — people, including you, who were doing the digital humanities before it was the Digital Humanities. One of the questions we now face — and it’s a question that was raised in a panel on Technology and Composition that I’ll blog about soon — is whether, in the newfound drive to harness the power of new media, traditional fields wind up bastardizing/cannibalizing new media. We shall see, but again, more about that soon.

    @Gardner Thanks for visiting and commenting. I appreciate being called on the identity politics/new media analogy, one that is problematic in all sorts of ways. Indeed, I think that criticism can be extended much further: the path that a white male working in new media walks towards “legitimacy” is much different than, say, the path of an af-am scholar working on black nationalism — especially in the era before af-am studies was considered a legitimate discipline.

    And yet, a kernel of similarity does exist, at least in the way that important work by rigorous scholars has been dismissed too easily by established scholars. And that’s all the more reason why the work that you and Matt K. have been doing is so important to those of us just entering the field.

  4. Gardner

    @Matt Thanks for the kind words, and I agree with both of your points in reply. Actually, what I was trying to argue was yet another point, probably closer to your second response. But these are all ideas well worth considering. I do hope that identity politics don’t overrun new media studies. It looks to me like many disciplines are now moving away from ideas of identity solidarity and towards core, common questions about how we can best answer our shared humanity and the challenges we face and forge.

  5. Matt Post author

    @Gardner: Agreed, and the identity discussion is probably material for another post further down the line. What I really meant to highlight here was encapsulated in the final lines of your previous comment: the tide seems to be turning.

  6. Lauren

    Great post.
    I’m sorry I missed you at MLA! But also somewhat bewildered that I also missed all this twitter activity around it. I’m an active blogger and twitterer, and generally count myself among the digitally-savvy, but the whole MLA twitter scene totally passed me by.

  7. Kathy

    Matt, great post. After attending the MLA too much, this one was the most exciting in terms of making connections and catching up with other Digital Humanists. But, I have to disagree that if the MLA has taken up the cause then twittering and the like have “jumped the shark.” MLA hasn’t even remotely caught up to the bleeding edge and will most likely not. Many of the textual critics have crossed over to the digital but still retain that very traditional position as textuists. Others have become technologists while still others are pushing that bleeding edge — some of whom recently achieved tenure.

    Unfortunately, this tenure bid has to come into the discussions about digital-ness. The institution judges us and if we want to keep going, we must please them in some way. I attended the last hour of the Workshop on Evaluating Digital Work for Tenure Review. My dossier was one of the test cases. Now, in my pedagogy, I’m must more digital than in my research. I run an “archive” that’s more textual studies than digital humanities. In other words, I’m still assessing the cool new tools rather than embarking on discussions about using social networking in my classroom. (After all, pedagogy scholarship does not get one hired for a research position.) The discussions, though very helpful, really focused on how to evaluate the scholarship using old standards. In other words, it was the start of a conversation and not necessarily the resolution. Some of the admins in the workshop were perplexed about how to evaluate if there were no departmental standards. Departments are loath to construct these standards for fear of boxing in candidates or worse leaving some out.

    I ran into Lev Manovich at one of the Digital Poster Sessions. And, without knowing who he was, we struck up a conversation about the MLA’s lack of real New Media panels — this is where the MLA has not yet broached its full digital potential. We discussed the deep mark-up that Laura Mandell is committing to some of our poems in the Poetess Archive. In his booming, Russian accent, Lev offered some help (tentatively) to automate some of this work — or at the very least, automate marking up the images. He also made very clear that as Digital Humanists we are 10 years behind the technology industry.

    So, all of this is to say that there is much, much more to mine in the MLA. Their recognition of digital-ness means that they are taking notice of its institutionalization, e.g., Brett Bobley’s magnificent initiatives and the DH office. Perhaps this means that we will gain further resources and REALLY begin to collaborate on projects in the way that the Humanities is going to have to embrace (or suffer some awful death).

    I’m astounded at how many people from my alma mater (The Graduate Center) are on this bleeding edge, and I’m excited to be dragged into it. Now, if only I had the resources to drag my “hypertextual archive” into this era — yes, it’s still in frames and hand-coded HTML; someone save me from this fate. I’d like to scrap it for a better architecture but still retain the contextual relationships among the textual objects. (Then, can I have 2 courses releases every semester to effect it?)

    BTW, can we come up with a better phrase/word than “scholarly edition” or “archive?” Ken Price mentioned that he’s written an article about this for DHQ but it’s not yet out. Our critical language still has to catch up as well!

    So, Matt rock on. I’m looking forward to seeing more of your work. You might also solicit publication of your panel’s papers for the new journal, Journal of E-Media Studies, run by Mark Williams (Darthmouth).

  8. Matt K.

    >MLA’s lack of real New Media panels

    MLA is definitely more “digital humanities” than “new media” but to the extent the latter is lacking it’s largely because people aren’t submitting the special session proposals or otherwise leveraging the conference structure. I ran a session on virtual worlds for the Media and Literature discussion group, for example. It was well attended. Discussion groups and allied organizations give you almost complete freedom to shape panels around any topic you like.

    I’m not so sure I agree with Lev’s assessment that DH is ten years behind industry. I think that’s an apples and oranges comparison. The contexts are entirely different. A bunch of us went to Google Books a couple of years back and they were genuinely impressed with some of the text analysis work this community has produced. It’s not that they don’t have smart people capable (in theory) of doing the same things there of course, they just didn’t anticipate the audience for (say) TAPoR.

  9. Pingback: MLA Conference Goes Digital « Books and Keyboards

  10. Cathy Davidson

    Hi, Matt and everyone–Thanks for the nice shout-outs. I really like your post (of course!) and also this thread of comments. What I find most fascinating is how little we–a profession of readers and writers who prize critical thinking and historical perspective–have taken our place in this astonishing age of new forms of reading and writing TO HEART. By that I mean, digital humanities, new media, twitter, blogging, all that are fabulous . . . and then there is a ‘but.’ The ‘but’ is that they are fabulous add-ons UNLESS our profession sees them not as distinct-in-themselves but as profoundly challenging of the deepest assumptions of our profession. I am not saying we have to abandon those assumptions but something is seriously wrong if we are not taking this moment of crisis (yet another; please, please no more depressing pie charts on how few of us have tenure track jobs!) as an opportunity to really think carefully about the students we are teaching, the learning we are doing, the scholarship we are publishing, and our place in the world around us. The recent “Humanities Indicators” report by the American Academic of Arts and Sciences suggests we have a “polarized” adult literacy–US ranking near the top percentage among industrialized nations of “highly literate” and also near the top for “illiterate”–about 21% at either extreme. The same report showed that, despite all the handwringing over poorly trained science and math teachers, history teachers are the least qualified secondary school teachers. ( Humanists unite! All we have to give up is our marginalization.

  11. Pingback: Digital Humanities Sessions at MLA 2008 « Digital Scholarship in the Humanities

  12. Pingback: Amanda L. French, Ph.D. » Blog Archive » Digital MLA 2008: An epistolary meta-narrative

  13. Pingback: Screwing Around with DH, BWWC 2012 « triproftri

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *