25 January 2013

"So, what's up with MLA?"

Today was 2013's first meeting -- I should say reunion, since I've been out of town for several months now, and the two people I work with, Mary Caton Lingold and Darren Mueller, are not just colleagues but friends, and it's a joy to share work-time with them -- of SoundBox, a project I co-steer at Duke. This is a digital humanities project, in the loosest sense of the term, that explores alternative ways of making scholarship more noisy. We spend a lot of time thinking what digital humanities is and has been as a field, but ultimately we're more invested in a fluid, creative-critical approach than in disciplinary formulations. We're all "who cares, let's get to work" kind of people.

As we were wrapping up the business side of our chat, Darren, who is a PhD candidate in Music at Duke doing interesting research on the history of the LP, asked me something along the lines of, "So what's up with all the DH stuff coming out of MLA?" Being in a music department, he (understandably) has never been to MLA's annual meeting, and didn't "get" why, for the last few years, it seems to leave a tidal wave of blogposts, tweets and Storified narratives on "DH AS A DISCIPLINE" in its wake. And -- again, being in a music department -- he felt excluded.

"We're over here doing digital humanities," he said. "I just don't see what that has to do with MLA. I'm a music scholar."

I didn't have a great answer for his question, since, to be honest, I'm not sure why MLA has become an important venue for DH work.* My introduction to MLA, years ago, was a senior professor at another conference -- a conference scheduled at the same time as MLA (I didn't know this then, since I barely had a notion that MLA existed) -- rolling her eyes while proclaiming, "MLA, who needs it. What a blowhard organization." I was master's student, in media studies (not English). I didn't get the joke (was it a joke? I don't know), but I laughed anyway. Sure, MLA. Who needs it. Haha.

Turns out, if you're trying to do DH these days, you need it. Not a scholar of literature? Too bad. Or so it can seem.

I post this, because Darren's simple question gave me pause. It should give pause to anyone involved in the current round of "who's in, who's out" hand-wringing. MLA -- due in large part to the wonderful work of Kathleen Fitzpatrick, the organization's Director of Scholarly Communications -- has made important steps toward inviting lit folks into a conversation about new forms of scholarship (reviewing, publishing, producing), and MLA Commons has introduced a new dimension to the digital circuits we (I was going to write "we DHers," but will leave it simply "we") track. Other disciplinary institutions may follow suit. But MLA is not where DH gets defined. MLA should not be where DH gets defined. Hell, I don't even know why so many DH panels end up at MLA. "The Dark Side of Digital Humanities" sounds like it belongs at ADHO's Digital Humanities conference, or some other venue addressing DH as a discipline.

Because that's the point, right? Of the hand-wringing? For better or worse, DH is a discipline now -- with universities granting degrees in it, and federal organizations dedicated to funding it -- and that brings boundaries, and how the boundaries get drawn sparks turf wars. It's a boring narrative, really, and I don't have much stake in any of it; but if we're going to agree DH is a discipline, we should start having conversations about its disciplinarity at appropriately disciplinary venues. MLA is not that.

There's a lot of exciting work happening at Duke that I would consider digital humanities, in the broadest sense of the term. As Darren has pointed out to me, Mark Anthony Neal's use of social media -- his twitter stream, blogging and weekly webcast Left of Black -- is one stellar example, showing how humanists can use web technologies to spark relevant, thought-provoking and cross-disciplinary conversation, linking together a variety of audiences and publics. (Similar examples were showcased last year at the conference "Black Thought 2.0: New Media and the Future of Black Studies.") Is Professor Neal "doing digital humanities"? Is he a digital humanist? I never see his work cited in DH communities; he's not "in," so to speak. And -- amazingly; shockingly -- this is of absolutely no consequence. His work will continue to connect people, whether it's tagged as DH or not. Because it has cultivated an audience. And because it is relevant to that audience.

While at MIT, I worked at HyperStudio, a digital humanities lab that began many years ago with Berliner Sehen, a still-innovative multimedia learning environment for exploring what it means to be "ein Berliner." The lab has also worked on projects about US-Iran relations, the Comédie-Française in Paris, and with Pete Donaldson and Alex Huang's Global Shakespeares project, which once looked at Asian performances and film adaptations of Shakespeare but which has since branched out to include other areas of the world. HyperStudio has been extremely international in its focus, from its inception -- in fact, it emerged to address the pedagogical needs of MIT's language departments. HyperStudio should be cited more in current discussions global DH. As a result of working in such an environment, my perspective may be skewed: but I tend to think a field's transformation should not lead to an erasure of its deep, complicated histories.

I don't intend to dismiss the importance of the conversations that have happened at MLA, or in the flood of recent blogposts about DH, transformed or otherwise. But we should keep Darren's question in the back of our minds.

* I'm being a bit facetious. There is, of course, a history here. See Matt Kirschenbaum's justifiably oft-cited "What Is Digital Humanities, and What's It Doing in English Departments?"


Amy Leggette said...

Hi Whitney,

Your energy is refreshing! I expect that your question will provoke far more incisive remarks than mine (I'm outside-looking-in on the doers of dh, which for me, is just about enlivening and reframing my approach to 19th c. lit.), but it seems to me that the MLA monopoly is more about the job market than the community. I wonder if this might qualify what you were saying about needing the MLA. In any case, thanks for saying it straight!

Whitney said...

Because of the job market, I (and many other PhD candidates in English departments) *most definitely* need MLA! :)

I was on a panel about new tools and old books at MLA12. It was great. We who are in some form of literary studies appreciate the organization's willingness in the last few years to help us think through DH's relationship to the language disciplines (I do, at least). I'm just not sure it's the right place to think about what DH is as a whole.

Thanks for reading, and for commenting.

Anonymous said...

Hi Whitney,

Your post has made me think about DH and sound studies, a field that not a lot of folks immediately connect to DH. In fact, I've been thinking through this recently, especially in regard to Sounding Out!. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and helping us all think through these issues.

Anonymous said...

Just a quick note to mention that the American Historical Association also has a lot of DH sessions. I think the issue here is that in the humanities AHA and MLA are the biggest conferences. They are the 800 LB gorillas because of their role as job fairs and their history so they have a kind of gravity that other conference/orgs don't.

Clyde Smith said...

Historically MLA has been a staging ground for the validation of academic land grabs by Departments of English and Literary Studies. Or whatever they're called these days.

Check out the history of Disability Studies for an example of how folks in Literary Studies came into an area with a deep history, mostly disregarded that history and claimed the topic for their own by choosing a name that others weren't using.

In the process they're able to generate funding that goes to people who write about disabilities and maybe do some poetry workshops and whatnot with disabled folks minus the burden of being deeply involved in most of their daily issues.

That's a harsh take and I'm thinking back 15 years but that was my impression.

colloso said...

"I hate citing. Sucks" (Line 1 Me).