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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.