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A Virtual Meeting Ground for Language and Literature Scholars

Members of the Modern Language Association don’t have to wait for their annual meeting to share scholarship and compare notes on the state of their profession. Now they can meet and greet virtually via a new social-media platform, MLA Commons.

The service, open to anyone who belongs to the association, made its official debut early this month. The site uses the open-source Commons in a Box WordPress plugin/toolkit, created at the City University of New York.

Users can upload information and links about themselves and their work, add fellow members to their list of contacts, create blog entries, and trade public or private messages. They can join or create groups devoted to different topics, including the digital humanities, so-called alternative-academic (or alt-ac) careers, “interdisciplinary approaches to culture and society,” media and literature, and community-focused “service learning.”

Before the Commons opened, the association created groups for each current MLA division, discussion group, or committee, but members are welcome to establish their own as well. All told, more than 200 groups have sprung up.

So far, about 600 people have signed up. To promote the new service, the association offered demonstrations and gave away free T-shirts at its annual meeting, held in Boston at the beginning of January. By the time the meeting was over, some 500 people had joined. Since then, 100 more have enrolled.

“It’s not just the lure of T-shirts that seems to be drawing people in,” said Kathleen Fitzpatrick, who directs the association’s office of scholarly communication and has been leading the MLA Commons project.

It’s too early to say how quickly and widely the service will catch on. Six hundred users is a good start, Ms. Fitzpatrick said, but the association has nearly 30,000 members. Much of the activity on the site so far has been of the getting-started variety, with members establishing connections with one another and with groups that interest them. “We definitely want to reach out to the rest of the membership and let them know more about what’s going on in the network,” she said.

One scholar who’s already been quite active on MLA Commons is Thomas Lawrence Long, who established a group devoted to humanities and medicine. Mr. Long is an associate professor in residence at the School of Nursing at the University of Connecticut, where he also has an appointment in the English department. He also founded the Web site Nursingwriting, which he describes as a clearinghouse for nurse writers.

Mr. Long served as a beta tester for MLA Commons and has been posting blog entries on the site. Much of his work online involves “experimenting, trying to create an opportunity for sympathetic scholars” to talk to one another, share calls for papers, and use multimedia, he said. MLA Commons is “a real bottom-up kind of thing,” he said. “It allows people with certain interests to create their own interest groups.”

In Boston, he said, he heard a lot of positive reaction to the Commons idea. “A number of people, especially younger people, commented how they were pleasantly surprised how the old MLA was open to reinventing itself, particularly with digital technologies,” he said.

He sees the Commons as part of a larger, broader evolution of scholarly communication. “It’s what the World Wide Web has done for scholars in universities all around the world,” Mr. Long said. “It’s opened up new avenues for collaboration. It can break open the silos of organizations too.”

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