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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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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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Screwing Up DH101: My Talk at MLA 2017

Title slide. Two screws pointing up through a piece of wood with the text, 'Screwing Up DH101 | #mla17 #s376 | @briancroxall | Brown University'

tl;dr: I gave another talk about digital pedagogy. Here it is.

About two weeks ago, I spoke at the MLA Convention in Philadelphia. I was part of a panel titled, “DH 101: Revisiting the ‘Introduction to Digital Humanities’ Course.” The panel was organized by Matt Gold and Lauren Klein on behalf of the MLA Forum TC Digital Humanities. My co-panelists included:

I was particularly excited to present with Kathi, as we co-organized a panel on digital humanities pedagogy for the 2012 MLA. But it was great to get to know the work of these colleagues, and the exciting and different ways they are leading development of digital humanities pedagogy at their different schools, ranging from Ivy Leagues to community colleges.

There’s a part of me that hesitates to put this talk up because I talk (at least in part) about an assignment that I have discussed in a previous talk that I’ve published here on my blog. But this presentation gave me a chance to talk through the changes that I had made over the years to the course, and to do a little bit of theorizing—a very little—about what it is that I think matters in digital humanities pedagogy. Spoiler: it’s the last sentence. There’s an essay or blog post to be written about my resistance to “doing things twice,” as that has been an animating tension for me in the development of this and other courses. But I’ll have to save that for another day.

As always, my work is Creative Commons-licensed. Let me know what you think!

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Assignments and Architecture: Pedagogy in the Digital Age

Title slide that reads 'Assignments and Architecture' with a hand-corrected print-out on one side of the screen and a upward-facing shot of a building on the right half. The link on this image is for the assignment as the photograph of the building is one that I took.

tl;dr: I gave a talk about digital pedagogy.

Today I want to share a talk. That’s not all that unusual, as I’ve been in the habit of posting such presentations since I began blogging here in 2009. What’s unusual about this one—at least for me—is that it’s a talk that evolved as I gave it as a keynote at three different universities.

Although it’s taken me longer to post this talk than I would have liked, I want to share my framework for theorizing digital pedagogy. This is the rubric I use when working with faculty here at Brown to design new classroom research projects. We can create new and exciting, team-based research projects for our students. Once you’ve tried this, it’s really hard to go back.

I first spoke about “pedagogy in the digital age” at Fordham University in November 2013. I was invited by Glenn Hendler, who is chair of the English Department, to give this talk as well as a more practical workshop on teaching with technology in the classroom. It was one of the first times I had been given the opportunity to tackle either subject in such a broad way, and the setting of Fordham in NYC definitely inspired the direction that the talk took—that, and an episode of 99% Invisible that I had just listened to. I very much enjoyed the conversations at Fordham and was glad of the chance to put together my thoughts about digital pedagogy into a more coherent argument.

When I was asked a few months later to give the keynote at the September 2014 Liberal Arts Scholarship and Technology Summit (LASTS) at Penn State, I took the chance to further refine the talk and its argument. I was invited by Christopher P. Long, who was at the time Associate Dean for Graduate and Undergraduate Education at Penn State and who has since moved to Michigan State as Dean of the College of Arts & Letters. I’ve always admired Chris for the genuine excitement and positive energy he brings to conversations, so I was flattered and happy to spend the time with him and the Penn State community. (Also, land-grant schools tend to have the best ice cream.) My visit for LASTS was combined with a talk at the Center for American Literary Studies’s Symposium on #Alt-Ac, which I wrote about previously. My keynote was recorded, if you want to see the high kick at the end.

Shortly after the presentation at Penn State, I was thrilled to be invited to speak at both St. Olaf and Carleton Colleges in Northfield, Minnesota (home of Malt-o-Meal; the whole town smelled like Marshmallow Mateys!). The two colleges have received a Mellon Foundation grant for collaboration between the two schools, which sit opposite one another across the Cannon River. One of the outcomes for the grant was the Bridge Crossings Events, which focus on integrating and supporting digital technologies into teaching, learning, and research. I made some more changes to the presentation, as well as did some research on the architecture on both campuses, and joined faculty, librarians, and IT staff at both schools in February 2015 for a discussion of Digital Humanities on the Hill. I really enjoyed my visit, thanks to the great library and IT staff at both schools, although I was shocked at how little winter gear people in Minnesota needed compared to a guy from Georgia. If you’re into comparative media experiences, you can also watch the video of this version of the talk. No high kick, I’m afraid.

Again, my thanks to Fordham, Penn State, and St. Olaf and Carleton Colleges for inviting me and giving me the chance to pull together years of praxis into three performances.

N.B. It’s worth saying that there are two images in this slide deck that are potentially NSFW: artistic photographs of nude sex workers, circa 1912.

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