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December 28, 2009, 06:00 PM ET

The MLA and the Digital Humanities

Amid all the doom and gloom of the 2009 MLA Convention, one field seems to be alive and well: the digital humanities. More than that: Among all the contending subfields, the digital humanities seem like the first "next big thing" in a long time, because the implications of digital technology affect every field.

I think we are now realizing that resistance is futile. One convention attendee complained that this MLA seems more like a conference on technology than one on literature. I saw the complaint on Twitter.

Monday, there were sessions on "Locating the Literary in Digital Media," "Value Added: The Shape of the E-Journal," "Language Theory and New Communications Technologies," "Media Studies and the Digital Scholarly Present," "Getting Funded in the Humanities: An NEH Workshop," "Old Media and Digital Culture," "Web 2.0: What Every Student Knows That You Might Not," and "Looking for Whitman: A Cross-Campus Experiment in Digital Pedagogy." And even panels ostensibly on other subjects, such as the history of the book, addressed the opportunities and challenges presented by the ongoing proliferation of new technologies. 

I was able to attend several of those sessions (or at least portions of them, because a few were held concurrently). Among other things, I learned how literature can be organized in ways that defamiliarize the traditional notions of genre and canon. I saw how scholars can draw upon the wisdom of crowds -- like Wikipedia -- to chart the vastness of the textual universe over large periods of time. I learned the possibilities of using Juxta, Zotero, and Prezi for my research and teaching. It's almost too much; sometimes I feel like Rip Van Winkle, and I'm only 10 years out of graduate school.

Some other things I noticed: Digital-humanities panels tend to skew younger than most, and the sessions are well attended but not usually packed, like celebrity panels -- perhaps the field is still too emergent and collaborative. No doubt, one of the problems faced by the digital humanists is how their work is valued in the status economies of the profession. Many panelists speak in a tone of urgency with the expectation of skepticism. (I used this tone myself, when explaining the field to administrators.)

Even so, there are about 700 digital-media programs in the United States, including 20 percent of all universities, with 84,000 students involved, though only 54 doctoral students, according to Dene Grigor of Washington State University, Vancouver.  And the Office of Digital Humanities, led by Jason Rhody, has become one of the most popular sources of funding from the NEH. 

Clearly, the merger of literature and technology is no longer the obsession of a few hobbyists, though too many are still working in the academic equivalent of their parents' basements.

Digital literacy is going to be as essential as information literacy and critical thinking. And English departments can have an important role to play in fostering those new skills. Or -- if we overstress traditionalism and resist innovation because it's more comfortable -- we can cede that ground to other departments such as communications and computer science, making ourselves even less relevant and supportable than we presently are. 

There are, of course, many pioneering digital humanists who have been laying the groundwork for the current transformation for decades. But the fact that so many digital humanists are young -- almost "digital natives" -- is not without consequences for a profession that, for the most part, has chosen to exclude them from the tenure-track, or prefer traditional modes of individualistic scholarly production to the collaborative possibilities opened up by the Internet. 

At the very moment when our profession needs revitalization and willingness to embrace chance, we have shut out the generation that is poised to provide it, and most of them will have to take their skills and enthusiasm elsewhere. 

More sessions on the digital humanities are scheduled on Tuesday: "Digital Scholarship," "Making Research: Limits and Barriers in the Age of Digital Reproduction," "Digital Scholarship and African-American Traditions," "Links and Kinks in the Chain: Collaboration in the Digital Humanities." And on Wednesday morning: "Making Research: Collaboration and Change in the Age of Digital Reproduction," "New Models of Authorship," "New Technologies, New Rhetorics."

See you there. 


1. jkruark - December 29, 2009 at 10:32 am

For a closer look at some projects in the digital humanities, see this article by Jennifer Howard from last year's Chronicle Review:

2. jcrhody - December 29, 2009 at 12:37 pm

Just a point of clarification to your otherwise wonderful post: the Office of Digital Humanities is led by Brett Bobley. You can find information about ODH at

Jason Rhody
Senior Program Officer
Office of Digital Humanities, NEH

3. graemeharper - December 29, 2009 at 01:41 pm

Well reported, William! Many thanks!
It's so pleasing to celebrate the digital pedagogy interests; and pleasing indeed to see the senses in which the digital now informs increasing elements of Humanities research. It's fabulous also to see so many entering this field of investigation. Not least, because digital scholarship has yet to produce an adequate raft of engagements with what lies *beneath* our critical *and* creative knowledge and understanding as it relates to the digital. There's so much more to be done, as we know. It's thus great to see folks engaging with it so vibrantly at the 2009 MLA Convention. Onward!
Professor Graeme Harper
Director, NIECI
United Kingdom

4. bitnetted - December 29, 2009 at 10:55 pm

Don't forget the pre-conference workshop on 'Evaluating Digital Work for Tenure and Promotion: A Workshop for Evaluators and Candidates,' which was about the very important question of how this kind of work should count, and be represented for review by the scholars involved. Also to be noted was the electronic poster session Monday on 'Virtual Worlds and Pedagogy,' which included a wide range of projects-- and practitioners from various institutional locations and age-groups. The fact that it wasn't a conventional paper-reading event was also notable as a relatively new MLA practice.

These two events, taken together, suggest that there's at least some hope for institutional legitimacy for this kind of work on the horizon.

And - the session on collaboration was packed!

5. brown_113 - December 30, 2009 at 10:51 pm

Two comments:

1. "At the very moment when our profession needs revitalization and willingness to embrace chance, we have shut out the generation that is poised to provide it, and most of them will have to take their skills and enthusiasm elsewhere."

The knife cuts both ways on this one. While I am sure that there are folks who are unwilling to learn about new technologies, those who tout them have an obligation to frame what they do in ways that are understandable by the uninitiated. This is a general problem in interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary work, even when we are not dealing with technological tools. I think of myself as open to using new technologies -- those associated with Geographical Information Systems (GIS), in particular -- but in reading the list of session titles, I found a number of them either uninteligible or irrelevant. Why? Because many of them lead with the technological tool, rather than identifying a problem (for example), broadly recognizable, that the tool addresses. "Web 2.0: What Every Student Knows That You Might Not," doesn't really give an indication of why anyone should give a hoot. To the degree that technofiles fail to reach out to technologically illiterate collagues, they cut themselves off from serious consideration despite the potential value of their efforts.

2. The need for humanities to re-consider the "lonely scholar" model of research is long-standing and also extends well beyond the issue of collaboration in technologically-assisted approaches to humanistic study and teaching; it has been an issue assciated with inter/cross-disciplinary study for decades. I think the case for positively evaluating collaborative endeavors will be strengthened by consciously embracing their broader importance beyond just adapting new technologies to the humanistic enterprise. In my own field of history, colleagues are increasingly studying environmental problems that call for combining specialists with skills in reading Japanese manuscripts, climatology, agronomy, geography, folklore and other fields into teams that address a common problem.

These kinds of inter/cross-disciplinary efforts, both technological and non-technological, are where I find the most excitement in doing research and even in teaching, but long experience repeatedly drives home the lesson that the primary burden for communicating beyond the cognicenti lies with the advocate, not the audience.

6. watermarkup - December 31, 2009 at 08:17 pm

But I also saw a digital teaching session where the focus on digital methods totally overwhelmed any consideration of content, so that students in an exemplary digital course were using a free, online, and totally unreliable edition of a key work of literature, rather than one of those old-fashioned paper books edited by someone who actually had training and experience in preparing an edition.

7. bitnetted - January 02, 2010 at 11:14 am

@watermark: You are right -- using unreliable, unedited editions is huge problem. We should not have to choose between using new methods to study texts and using quality texts. As to the content of the session (which I didn't see), did it seem like the digital methods were used to the exclusion of other types of analysis in the class itself? Or was that what was highlighted because it was the focus of the session? It is true that "digital humanities" won't become an integrated part of humanities practice without breaking down the artificial divide between "analog" and "digital" modes.

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