Does DH really need to be transformed? My Reflections on #mla12

Posted by Roger Whitson on January 8th, 2012

I really enjoyed my time at the MLA this year. Apart from the usual meeting of colleagues, the eating of good food, and the enjoyment of the great atmosphere of Seattle (I went on a Twin Peaks walk!), I found that the culture of the MLA has really changed. People introduced themselves, seemed genuinely interested in each other’s projects, and were more willing to collaborate with one another to tackle some of the larger problems we face as a discipline. I ran into Laurie Taylor, a graduate school friend and colleague, who I consider to be a pioneer in alternative  academic careers.

Laurie and I talked about graduate school, how I remembered being completely baffled why anyone who finished a PhD would ever want to work in a library (she graduated in 2006) and how I, interestingly enough, now work in a library. I realize now that my confusion was really an elitism borne from a culture of graduate education that only favored a certain type of discourse that was performed in a very specific way.

I also remember first visiting MLA in 2007. I didn’t have an interview, but I wanted to get to know the atmosphere of the conference. I remember viscerally feeling the anxiety of people with job interviews but (perhaps even more acutely) the anxiety of people presenting their paper to a skeptical MLA crowd of critical thinkers. The dance was typical of many conferences I had attended in the past – but perhaps even more intense since the discourse was combined with job candidates who were simultaneously depressed and anxious about their prospects, and had a need to prove their worth for a seat at the MLA table.

Charlotte Nunes presents her work at the "Building DH" session. Photo by Kathi Inman Berens.

As we walked through the conference on Friday, Laurie and I noted how differently the atmosphere felt in 2012. People were actually having fun together. The two digital pedagogy sessions (Brian Croxall’s and Kathi Inman Berens’s Building Digital Humanities in the Undergraduate Classroom and Kathy Harris’s Digital Pedagogy)  I attended underlined this new atmosphere. It was clear to me that the social nature of the digital humanities, along with the workshop atmosphere of the two sessions, inspired curiosity and a willingness to discuss and work together – rather than critique and tear each other down.

I talked with an enthusiastic crowd about experimenting with GoogleDocs and Twitter in the classroom in my MLA session. You can see my presentation here.  Attendees asked questions, of course, but those questions were always offered as additional suggestions to the experiments I had conducted in class. Jason Mical, for example, asked me about how to change GoogleDocs so that discussions about key ideas in the project were  preserved in a separate document. I know that I’ll try to integrate that feature into my courses in the future, because they will make the GoogleDoc assignment better.

I mention all of these experiences in light of arguments to transform the digital humanities, and blog posts by Stanley Fish and William Pannapacker about the institutional place of DH in our profession. Of course, Fish’s suggestion that the digital humanities is the next postmodernism in its propensity to both overturn and save the profession has been discussed thoroughly and (to my mind) rightly complicated by this response from Ted Underwood. Pannapacker reemphasizes the celebrity-culture/cliquish meme that circulated a year ago about the digital humanities. He says “But the field, as a whole, seems to be developing an in-group, out-group dynamic that threatens to replicate the culture of Big Theory back in the 80s and 90s, which was alienating to so many people. It’s perceptible in the universe of Twitter: We read it, but we do not participate. It’s the cool-kids’ table.”

People couldn't decide whether to sit or walk around in the "Digital Pedagogy session." Photo by Katherine Harris.

 I truly don’t see what Pannapacker is talking about. I know that there are certain famous names in the DH field, but fundamentally, DH is about working with other people and outreach. It’s about thinking with figures in the #alt-ac community to figure out how people outside of traditional T/T positions can earn scholarly recognition for their work. If the Big Theory culture of the 80s and 90s emphasized the cool kids, I see the digital humanities as a movement that searches for commonality and initiates discussions about how to open the field to marginalized or otherwise ignored groups. More fundamentally, I see the digital humanities as pointing out to some faculty members that they aren’t the center of the universe – that maybe there isn’t a center of the universe to begin with. Rather, faculty, graduate students, administration, librarians, academic and non-academic people form an eco-system that produces more interesting work when all aspects of that system solve problems together.

This is also why movements like #transformDH baffle me. The tumblr blog was just posted today, and offers this as a mission statement: “#transformDH is an academic guerrilla movement seeking to (re)define capital-letter Digital Humanities as a force for transformative scholarship by collecting, sharing, and highlighting projects that push at its boundaries and work for social justice, accessibility, and inclusion.” Do we really need guerrilla movements? Are war metaphors, or concepts of overturning and redefining, truly the right kind of metaphors to use when talking about change in the digital humanities? It seems to me that the word “guerilla” reappropriates the collaborative good will of the digital humanities, making it safe for traditional academic consumption and inserting it into the scheme Stanley Fish and William Pannapacker highlight. Yeah, we see the cool kids at the theory table, but we want to be the cool kids, so we’re going to fight them until we can be the cool kids. But if my experience with the MLA is any indication, the digital humanities doesn’t need to be changed. I can already see it changing the atmosphere of the MLA, making it easier for people to connect with each other, enjoy their time together, and conceptualize new and exciting work. It’s not perfect – as the job crisis still lingers, humanities programs are still threatened with cuts, and too many adjunct teachers suffer from job insecurity, a lack of benefits, and too much work for too little pay. But, the MLA I saw this year gave me hope that more people were interested in working together to deal with these issues in a productive way – rather than worry what table they were sitting at.

Correction: My characterization of Pannapacker’s position is from a blog posted last year. In fact, Pannapacker has amended his position this year in such a way that aligns well with the changes occurring in the MLA that I mention in this article.

“So the outreach is there—it has been for a long time—but faculty members have to reach back and take some risks. DH has a culture of bricolage, or a hermeneutics of screwing around (“screwmeneutics,” as Stephen Ramsay put it).  You try out new applications to see if they’re useful. Lots of them can be found at the Digital Research Tools (DiRT) wiki compiled by Lisa Spiro, director of NITLE Labs.  For starters, just try running your favorite text (or maybe your own writing) through Wordle; the results might astonish even the most skeptical close reader.”

My apologies to Pannapacker for the misunderstanding. 

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