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.