In this post, Robin Davis (Emerging Technologies & Distance Services Librarian at John Jay College of Criminal Justice) reports on 2014 MLA Convention sessions of interest to librarians who work in the digital humanities.
As the Chicago River thawed and refroze outside the Modern Language Association Convention (Jan. 9-12, 2014), the array of digitally-themed sessions warmed this librarian’s heart. Following a larger trend, DH has blown up at MLA more each year. This time around, it was less “what is?” and more “but how?”
I’ll highlight two of my favorite relevant MLA sessions here. Quotes from speakers should be read as paraphrases.
Mara Mills, New York Univ.; Heather K. Love, Univ. of Pennsylvania; Sharon Marcus, Columbia Univ.; Ted Underwood, Univ. of Illinois, Urbana; Alexander Gil, Columbia Univ.
Held in a large and very full ballroom, this session focused on computer-assisted approaches to text. In the mid-2000s, Franco Moretti drew the well-known distinction between close reading and distant reading. What are the “new ways of reading” that DH explores?
Total reading: computers “read” all the words at once, a capability that escapes humans. To enable total reading, Love and Marcus’s class dove into the TEI, close-reading along the way. Encoding text disrupts students’ automatic reading habits and generates “weird and local questions.”
Computational reading: algorithms make us question traditional literary concepts. “Computer science is a hermetic of suspicion,” Underwood noted; objects of form that literary scholars care about, like theme and character, are implied and inferred — but might not be able to be measured directly. His resulting prediction: interpretative theory is going to get very interesting.
Surface reading: “Everything is surfaces!” Gil pronounced. He noted that text is an auto-generation system: text produces text, both within one research activity (e.g., metadata creation) and within the ecology of scholarly publishing (writing about writing about…).
Libraries are wonderful at providing resources for traditional reading. I walked out of this session wondering how my library can better support these new kinds of reading, too — perhaps by providing access to text corpora and licensing or linking to useful software.
Daniel Powell, Univ. of Victoria; Melissa A. Dalgleish, York Univ.; James O’Sullivan, University Coll. Cork; Nick Sousanis, Columbia Univ.; Danielle Spinosa, York Univ.; Nicholas van Orden, Univ. of Alberta
This panel of PhD students was a well-chosen group, as their academic activities ranged from surveying scholarly software (van Orden) to writing a dissertation in comic form (Sousanis) to incorporating YouTube videos into an online dissertation (Spinosa).
The discussion among the audience and panelists brought up the anxieties of knowing that new models of dissertations were cool and necessary, but weighing if they were cool and necessary enough to risk being passed over for a job. At this, the panelists looked at each other and said, “What jobs?!” In a field where tenure-track jobs are extraordinarily dear, should PhD candidates play it safe and tread a well-worn path that has worked before, or should they take a risk and try to stand out, knowing it would be twice the work?
The panelists noted that they were each lucky to have forward-thinking advisors (including one anarchist, who presumably could be counted on to shake things up). But some students in the audience reported that their advisors warned against gambling with dissertation projects. One audience member on a relevant MLA task force brought up “anticipatory remorse”: advisors may pooh-pooh non-traditional dissertations not because they or the committee are misunderstanding how new media work, but because they might be looking out for PhDs approaching a tough job market where others might not “get it.”
The consensus of the room was that we need more examples of successful non-traditional dissertations. This may require fudging with university policies that mandate that dissertations must be printed and bound at the library and/or submitted as a PDF. But at a time when writing a proto-monograph might not be a transferable skill in alt-ac or post-ac careers, perhaps it is worth the risk and the additional workload.
Lightning summaries of other sessions I attended
Open Access: Editing Online Scholarly Journals
Editors, activists, and critics came together to agree that OA journals suffer from a reputation of being low-quality and/or risky to publish in. The focus should be on building OA journals’ credibility through high-caliber peer review.
The Twenty-First-Century Library: Discovery Services versus/and Subject Specialists
Everyone agreed that “and” was better than “versus.” Obviously. We also agreed that there was no “ideal” (i.e., neutral) discovery service, and that in any system, librarians should be questioning what’s not in the index.
Early Modern Media Ecologies
Needlework, music notation, and broadside ballads are all intertwined with the (after)lives of texts — and not always in the ways that we might think. Remediation, the transformation of material from one medium to another, is often considered a phenomenon of the digital age, but has been around as long as media. The study of remediation is so hot right now.
Online Courses: Challenges and Opportunities
William Pannapacker responds to the “embrace tech, not tenure” argument: in adopting online courses, higher education institutions must not unbundle the teaching function from the faculty role — and they must not deprofessionalize the teaching workforce. But online courses can support the traditional academic mission.
What is Data in Literary Studies?
The room was so packed, the Marriott had to bounce dismayed attendees once the floor space maxed out! Asking the session title’s question is essentially asking, What is literature? In addition: What do prediction, probability, and reproducibility look like in literary studies?
Next year’s MLA Convention will be in Vancouver, BC, a veritable hotbed of DH activity! See you there.