The “Next Big Thing” Ten Years Later: Digital Humanities at MLA 2019

This past December, as the semester was winding down, I got a message from Anna Chang, Head of Communications for the Modern Language Association. She inquired whether I would consider writing 500 words or so that summarized the different digital humanities sessions at the 2019 MLA Convention in Chicago for the MLA Newsletter.

Cat typing at a keyboard, with the phrase "This is relevant to my interests" superimposed on the image.

This was, as the Internet says, relevant. I happily took on the assignment and shortly after the Convention had to figure out how to condense everything I had seen into as few words as possible. I overshot the 500 words by more than 50%, but the MLA were good sports about it.

The piece appeared last week in the Spring 2019 MLA Newsletter, and I’m sharing it here with the permission of the MLA.


Almost a decade has passed since, during the 2009 MLA convention, William Pannapacker wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education that “the digital humanities seem like the first ‘next big thing’ in a long time” (“MLA”). He later wrote that he regretted that claim because it had become “a basis for a rhetoric that presents [digital humanities] as some passing fad” (“Pannapacker”). If the 2019 convention is any indication, it should be clear that digital humanities is neither a fad nor passing. Over the course of this year’s convention, I attended a wide range of sessions—many of them standing room only—that focused on the digital either as methodology or as object of inquiry, and I missed as many again since I could not be in two places at once.

Perhaps the most exciting session that I attended featured a roundtable of early-career scholars focused on “critical computation”: the use of quantitative methods to address issues of race, gender, or other aspects of social difference (MLA session 417). The lightning-talk format of this session meant that each panelist spoke for only five minutes, giving me just enough of a sense of their project to have several questions for each of them. Individual presenters discussed, among other topics, the use of sentiment analysis to analyze feeling in poetry from the Black Arts Movement (Ethan Reed); the declining percentage of women authors over the last 150 years, as represented in 104,000 volumes of the HathiTrust collection (Sabrina Lee); cataloging references to the female body through pronouns in early modern poetry (Whitney Sperrazza); and an examination of how women authors are represented in anthologies of literary journalism (Jonathan Fitzgerald). The final speaker, Kenton Rambsy, reported on his work on a data set of 101 anthologies that contain short fiction by black writers. His paper, which, like many from the session, has been deposited in CORE, demonstrates that “anthology editors shaped the landscape of African American literature by repeatedly publishing approximately 30 stories by a core group of [seven] writers,” Seeing the effect of digital humanities training on the research of young scholars was almost as inspiring as the questions of diversity to which they are turning their attention.

Those who worry that digital humanities research ignores the material could have found much to consider in a session called “Bookish Transactions: Publishing. Media, and Materialism.” which pointed to a particular concern with the codex (session 481), Opening the discussion, Lee Konstantinou observed that more attention has been paid to the effect MFA writing programs have had on literary production than on the consolidation of the publishing industry since the 1960s, Matthew Kirschenbaum suggested that we know more about how books were made in Gutenberg’s time than about how they are made today. He then discussed his visit to a production plant for a major commercial printer in Kendallville, Indiana, tracing the entry point of book manuscripts into the building through fiber-optic cables and their departure on pallets along the building’s rail spur. After N. Katherine Hayles spoke about the production of scholarly monographs, the remaining three panelists gave overviews of large-scale, computational work on the publishing industry. Laura McGrath focused on the role of literary agents, Richard Jean So on race and publishing, and Dan Sinykin on conglomeration and neoliberalism. Thetalks highlighted the shared history of digital humanities and book history scholars and suggested, as Kirschenbaum put it, that all scholars should consider the intersection of social justice and supply chain in the question “Who is making your book?”

Multiple panels at the convention focused on the subject of digital humanities pedagogy. Two panels that I organized with Diane Jakacki (sessions 89 and 639) took as their starting point that one’s answer to the question “What is digital humanities?” is most clearly articulated in decisions in the classroom. Panelists pointed to the emphasis in digital humanities pedagogy on process and connected it to the writing classroom (Grant Glass), addressed the utility of digital humanities training at a regional polytechnic university (Mitchell Ogden), discussed the difficulty of digital humanities training within multilingual programs like East Asian studies (Molly Des Jardin), and considered the perils and imperatives of professionalizing graduate students in digital humanities seminars (Lindsay Thomas).

I attended other sessions that discussed everything from digital scholarly editions (session 245) to the far-reaching impact of NEH-sponsored summer seminars on literature and technology (session 350) and missed sessions that covered critical approaches to augmented and virtual reality (session 155), the rights and responsibilities of collaboration (session 487). and the relation between design and fiction (session 635). Such a wealth of offerings highlights that digital humanities is not, in fact, a fad. At the same time, however, the last ten years have made clear that not all humanities scholarship need be digital. Digital humanities is just one method among many that we can use to understand the products and producers of modern languages. In the end, it’s the opportunity to attend—back-to-back—a session that close-reads Hemingway’s relation to his boyhood environs in Oak Park and another that distant-reads his entire corpus that brings me to the MLA convention every year.

Works Cited

Pannapacker, William. “The MLA and the Digital Humanities.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 28 Dec. 2009. web.archive.org/web/20150908020431/http://chronicle .com/blogPost/The-MLAthe-Digital/19468/.

—. “Pannapacker at MLA: The Come-to-DH Moment.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 1 Jan. 2012, www.chronicle.com/blogs/brainstorm/pannapacker-at-the-mla-2-the-come-to-dh-moment/42811.

Rambsy, Kenton. “African American Short Fiction and Data Driven Humanities.” MLA Annual Convention, 5 Jan. 2019, Chicago. Humanities Commons, hcommons.org/deposits/item/hc:22239/.

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Announcing Debates in DH Pedagogy!

Diane Jakacki and I are thrilled to announce a call for abstracts for a forthcoming edited volume, Debates in Digital Humanities Pedagogy. The book will appear in the Debates in the Digital Humanities series from the University of Minnesota Press, edited by Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein.

Over the last decade, Digital Humanities (DH) has reinvigorated discussions of pedagogy in the academy. Unconferences on DH pedagogy and blogs about teaching with digital methods in the humanities classroom have led to extensive discussions about approaches to teaching at annual disciplinary conferences. At the same time, conversations and debates about teaching digital humanities—whether to undergraduates, graduate students, or to the faculty themselves—have led to more and more people becoming involved in the field, each of them coming from different subjects bringing their own perspectives and praxes with them to the teaching of DH. We have arrived at a moment when institutions are formally integrating DH into the curriculum and granting degrees; we are creating minors, majors, and even graduate certificates in DH; all of this while many of us are still new to the experience of (teaching) DH. This calls for another round of discussion of DH pedagogy or a discussion of pedagogy in a new key.

These students—and the ways in which we teach them—are a very real expression of what each of us as instructors believes digital humanities to be. As our students and our colleagues continue to ask us “What is digital humanities?” we have the opportunity to answer their questions in terms of how we teach digital humanities.

Read more at the full CFP here, including the deadline to submit abstracts.

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CFP for MLA 2019: What Do We Teach When We Teach DH?

A Special Session on Digital Humanities Pedagogy for MLA 2019

Over the last decade as digital humanities research has flourished, the MLA convention—as well as other venues—has witnessed increasingly vigorous discussions about teaching digital humanities. We now find ourselves in a discipline that is not so new (acknowledging, of course, that DH is as old as the computer itself) and simultaneously at a moment when we need to talk formally about teaching and learning. As such, if the unacknowledged debate that sits at the heart of discussions about digital humanities is always, “What is digital humanities?”, it’s important to acknowledge how that question is always already related to the question of how we teach digital humanities.

We are interested in proposals that tackle one or more of the following three broad subjects:

  • The academic integration of digital humanities
    • effective class sizes and the use of lab-like structures in place of / addition to “normal” course sessions
    • tensions between breadth and depth in teaching digital humanities
    • who, exactly, has the bona fides to teach digital humanities
    • how digital humanities pedagogy might differ for undergraduate and graduate students
  • Ethical ramifications of teaching digital humanities
    • the line between students’ experiential learning and student labor
    • the complicated status of so much digital humanities pedagogy being performed by graduate students, staff, and non-tenure-track faculty
    • the invisible labor of teaching in a field that is still developing
    • the privileges inherent in teaching digital humanities (e.g., which schools have the resources to afford a DHer and/or the equipment that might be necessary)
    • student labor, invisible labor, complicated status, accessibility, closed/open pedagogies & software, privilege viz DH
  • DH pedagogy across languages and literatures

Given the nature of the conversation we hope to host, this session will not focus on the following:

  • Expositions of assignments and/or syllabi
  • Institutional models for support (funding, human resources, infrastructure)

Details

The panel will be made up of 3 papers of 10-15 minutes each, followed by a response by the organizers, and then discussion with the audience.

Drafts will be shared internally for comment and review on 1 November 2018. Final papers will be posted publicly on 1 December 2018 for comments and discussion leading up to the Convention in Chicago.

Send 250-word abstracts and CVs to Diane Jakacki (dkj004 [at] bucknell [dot] edu) and Brian Croxall (brian [dot] croxall [at] byu [dot] edu) by 15 March 2018.

Cross-posted at http://dianejakacki.net/cfp-for-mla-2019-what-do-we-teach-when-we-teach-dh/.

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Go West, Young Man

I’m very pleased to share that starting August 1, I will begin a new job as Assistant Research Professor of Digital Humanities at Brigham Young University. I will be part of BYU’s Office of Digital Humanities, which is located in the College of Humanities. I will join colleagues who are experts in computer-assisted language learning, computational linguistics, and, of course, digital humanities.

BYU has an extensive history in mixing computers and humanistic inquiry. When I was a student there in the mid-1990s—how time flies!—I remember courses being offered in a Computers and Humanities (CHum) minor. I’ve kicked myself more than once for not taking some of those courses from Chuck Bush and others. The minor has been renamed as Digital Humanities and Technology in the last five years, and offers tracks in digital humanities, print publishing, and web publishing. I’m pleased that I’ll be teaching courses regularly in the minor, including “Introduction to Digital Humanities,” a course with which I have some history. BYU is intensely focused on undergraduate education, and I’m tremendously excited to return to thinking hard about how to teach digital methods to humanities students and to teach humanities methods to students who come from other parts of the university as part of BYU’s Humanities+ / +Humanities initiative.

In addition to teaching, I will continue to do what I have done for the last six years: partnering with other researchers—undergraduates, grad students, faculty, librarians, and other staff—and imagining, designing, managing, and shipping digital scholarship projects. I was impressed with the range of people I met with at BYU who are well on their way with projects in connection with BYU’s ODH.

N.B. You can’t use the acronym ODH without thinking of the National Endowment for the Humanities‘s Office of Digital Humanities. In this time of disastrous budgetary requests on the part of the person who somehow sits at the desk in the Oval Office, it’s important to advocate as loudly and strongly as possible for the work done by that Office’s Director and Program Officers. I have had the great pleasure to participate in two different NEH-funded workshops as well as acting as an occasional grant reviewer, and you would be hard pressed to find individuals more dedicated to the advancement of humanities education and research than these public servants. If you need advice on how to get started on advocacy for the NEH, please see this post and this one by Jason Rhody, formerly of the NEH’s ODH and now Director of Digital Culture at Social Science Research Council. You can also join the Modern Language Association in calling on the government to come to its senses. And if you want to see the impact that the NEH as a whole has had in your particular state, please see this project and accompanying blog post by Patrick Smyth as well as this series of visualizations and discussion thereof by Hannah Aizenman, Tahir Butt, and Jojo Karlin, all GC Digital Fellows in the GC Digital Initiatives Program at the CUNY Grad Center.

Of course, changes in employment means leaving behind work and colleagues. For the last two years, I have been working in the Brown Library and its Center for Digital Scholarship. Recently, I have been managing one of the two flagship projects for Brown’s grant for digital scholarship from the Mellon Foundation. The Alchemy in Code team is working with Tara Nummedal (Brown) and Donna Bilak (Columbia) to create a digital edition of Michael Maier’s 1617 emblem book, Atalanta Fugiens, along with an edited collection of essays. We are designing an experience for this 400-year old multimedia work that will allow readers to view a facsimile of the rare book as well as consult the text in a modern edition, both in the original languages (Latin and German) as well as English. I’ve had the chance to get deeply involved in the management of the encoding of the text into TEI, the music into MEI, and discussions about the UI / UX of the site as well as the custom platform that will support our remediation. Alchemy ins’t the only thing I’ve been up to at Brown, however. This year, I’ve had the fantastic opportunity to work with Linford Fisher in the History Department to begin development of the Database of Indigenous Slavery in the Americas. Inspired by the TransAtlantic Slave Trade Database at Emory, we are hoping to reveal the other side of slavery in the history of the Americas: that of native peoples. Working with our talented undergraduate developer, Cole Hansen (’19), on the data models for a group of people who have all but been erased from history has been deeply rewarding and educational. I can’t wait to see how this project evolves as it begins adding data and (fingers crossed) secures funding for further development. I have also had the chance to partner with James Green in Brown’s Departments of Portuguese and Brazilian Studies and History on a number of different projects, including Opening the Archives, which is making public tens of thousands of recently declassified documents related to US-Brazil relations from the 1960s-1980s. In another context, I’ve again worked with the Brown Digital Repository and then Susan Smulyan and Jim McGrath at the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Jeff Drouin at the University of Tulsa to shore up the foundations of the Modernist Journals Project, a 20-plus year project started by Robert Scholes. I helped develop two visualizations for the Decameron with Nicole Gercke (GS ’15) and Cissy Yu (’17) that draw on data collected by students in Massimo Riva’s course on the same subject. And in the most recent semester, I got to work with Steve Lubar from American Studies and Emily Esten (GS ’18), along with data science student Steffani Gomez (’17), to visualize the catalog of the 1853 New York Crystal Palace exhibition. Steve has written about the research project extensively on Medium.

In these projects, as well as the day-to-day work of the library, I have had the fantastic fortune to work closely with some of the best and most humane colleagues anyone could hope for. Bruce Boucek, Crystal Brusch, Ben Cail, Ann Caldwell, Andrew Creamer, Birkin Diana, Kerri Hicks, Ned Quist, Patrick Rashleigh, Joseph Rhoads, and many others here at the Brown Library have been generous in sharing their thoughts and expertise with me. I’ve perhaps learned the most from Elli Mylonas, senior digital humanities librarian extraordinaire. I will miss them all sorely.

I will also miss being part of a library. Libraries are where I’ve worked for the last seven years and are, as I wrote when coming to Brown, a logical and important part of digital scholarship. I hope to help cultivate strong connections between BYU’s ODH and the campus’s libraries (which have one of the best YouTube presences imaginable). Libraries are both where scholarship starts and where it ends up, so it’s critical to partner with them every step of the way. 

Finally, I find myself surprised to be starting a job that may ultimately lead to tenure. That said, this is a 12-month faculty position on a professional, rather than professorial, track. Add that to my starting this job at age 40, maybe I still qualify as a little bit alt.

I can’t wait to tell y’all about what I get up to at BYU!

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Printable Pedagogy and 3D Theses: ACH’s CfP for MLA 2018

Over the last decade, at roughly the same time that digital humanities methods and tools have appeared in language and literature classrooms and research, universities have made investments in 3D printing and makerspaces. And in a similar way to digital humanities, those working in modern languages might not immediately see how they could use fabrication technologies in their teaching and research.

For its session at the 2018 MLA Convention, ACH invites proposals that highlight how 3D printing, soft circuits, or other methods of physical fabrication are used to teach languages or literature or to conduct linguistic or literary research. Speakers will give brief talks (4-6 minutes, depending on number of participants) that address the praxis of printing and the metaphysics of physicalization. While a discussion of what you made and how you made it will naturally feature in these talks, it is more important to discuss how the act of making contributed to the understanding of languages and/or literatures. In this way, this session is cousin to the ACH’s 2014 session at the MLA.

Please send abstracts of 250 words (not including references) to brian [dot] croxall [at] brown [dot] edu. Abstracts should be received by 5pm EST / GMT-5 on 15 March 2017. N.B. All accepted panelists will need to be current MLA members—or have their membership waived—by 7 April 2017.

Since the ACH is an allied organization of the MLA, this session is guaranteed to be accepted for the 2018 MLA.

Cross-posted from ach.org.

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