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Opinion & Commentary, Reports from the Field

Ah, MLA. Your reputation for pre-interview angst, post-interview binging, self-important Q&A sessions, obtuseness and obscurantism has put you on many scholars’ non-grata list (at least those not professionally obligated to attend). This year, however, avoiders missed what felt like the stirrings of a sea change: the MLA’s heart (like a post-holiday Grinch) grew at least three sizes over the four days of the 2012 conference. (Luckily, anyone who missed the convention could follow sessions on Twitter, where, according to George Mason University’s Mark Sample, the hashtag #mla12 reached 5,700 tweets by mid-conference.)

What was different?
Much of this growth can be attributed to the energy and goodwill of the digital humanists down in DH-ville. Digital humanities sessions abounded at the conference. With Sample’s help, The University of Minnesota Press put together a pamphlet listing all sessions related to DH (in support of their just-released collection Debates in the Digital Humanities)—the final tally: 58 sessions (up from 44 in 2011 and 28 in 2010).  The numbers reveal an interest not only in new forms of digital scholarship (and new ways of publishing it), but also new ways to network thinking and research. This, I think, is the most profound contribution that DH and the community surrounding it stand to offer the MLA. However we want to define the new(ish) field—whether as methodology, object of study, or medium for distributing knowledge—one thing the digital in digital humanities represents is better connectivity inside and outside disciplinary and professional boundaries.

Better Networks = Better Scholarship
Building such virtual and IRL connections was the task of the pre-conference mixer put on by DHCommons. Described by founding board member Lisa Spiro as a kind of “match.com for digital humanities practitioners,” DHCommons seeks to become a clearinghouse that puts innovative research and researchers in conversation with technologists and digital scholarship centers around the world. The mixer was hugely popular, overflowing into two large convention center rooms and giving attendees the opportunity to learn about everything from Omeka and TEI to effective project management and applications of DH methods in the classroom. The session ended with poster demonstrations from several participants, including an exemplary demo by Fordham’s Glenn Hendler of a course-based wiki designed around the recent Keywords for American Cultural Studies. All in all, DHCommons promises to become a significant hub in the development of these kinds of inter-institutional digital projects.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s presidential forum talk, “Networking the Field,” was equally about the kinds of collaborations possible when humanities scholars occupy networked online environments. Always eloquent, Fitzpatrick reasoned that teachers and researchers in modern language studies need to move beyond technophobia and the rhetoric of “the Twitterz r reckin r langwij” and begin thinking (quite rationally) of online reading as reading and online writing as writing. Media like Twitter, blogs, and open Web-based publishing platforms, she declared, “enable scholarly work to reach a broader reading public… [and] they also allow that broader public to respond.” In other words, digital means more vital networks for scholars and their work: a deeper and wider community of writers and a deeper and wider readership. The expansion of closed-market scholarship into the open reaches of the Web is anxiety-producing for a lot of (good and bad) reasons, but anxiety shouldn’t be a roadblock to relevance.

Beyond the Pale: Alternative Academics
If there was any doubt that DH has gained a toehold in markets beyond the usual MLA scope, that doubt was laid to rest by Donald Brinkman of Microsoft Research. Brinkman, who spoke on the panel “#alt-ac: The Future of Alternative Academic Careers,” was vocal about the need for humanities researchers to begin equipping themselves—culturally and technologically—for work in big data and for ways to visualize and exhibit this work. He was also candid about his company’s interest in consulting with and hiring scholars to help create smart tech products. As one tweeter paraphrased, “He’s hiring PhDs to design the next HALO.” A true tech-industry hiring spree will, of course, depend on whether scholars can equip themselves for fields where collaboration and application trump solitary genius and “readings” unmoored from readers.

Others on the panel included Neil Fraistat of MITH, Charles Henry and Elliott Shore of CLIR, Bethany Nowviskie of UVA’s Scholars Lab, and Jason C. Rhody of the NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities. They were equally candid in their remarks, addressing how and why the tenure track market might just actually, really, truly be in its final throes and what academic positions are emerging as viable alternatives for PhDs willing to bend institutional and constitutional expectations. In a similar vein, our own Shana Kimball spoke on the panel “#alt-ac: Alternative Paths, Pitfalls, and Jobs in the Digital Humanities.” Discussing her own career path, Kimball held up MPublishing as a model for the kind of organization that’s possible when the academy makes room for IT, information science, and humanities scholars to co-produce knowledge and distribute it through alternative digital and print channels.

E-Lit Makes Its Mark
The focus on DH and new scholarly networks found a complement in increased attention to alternative forms of publishing. One nod to the changing shape of scholarly texts was the “Electronic Literature Exhibit,” curated by Dene Grigar, Lori Emerson, and Kathi Inman Berens. “E-lit” ran on all three nights of the convention and featured “160 works by artists who create literary works involving…video, animation, sound, virtual environments, and multimedia installations.” See a full description of the exhibit here and a Storify collection of relevant pics ‘n’ tweets here. The exhibit’s curators have also made available a bibliography of mobile-device-specific works—be sure to take a look!

All in all…
This year’s MLA offered quite a few breaths of fresh air. I came home from the convention feeling not just a lack of post-conference ennui, but positively buoyed up by the conversations started there. The energy and fellow feeling that came out of this year’s meeting spell good things for humanities scholarship, both inside and outside the academy. Of course, this kind of professional self-adulation skates awfully close to complacency—but #MLA12 is one instance where members of the profession, especially those mentioned above, deserve a little congratulating.