Hard Times Sharpen the MLA's Lens on Labor and the Humanities

January 09, 2011

Jobs are scarce. Budgets are down. Language programs are threatened. None of that was news at the Modern Language Association's annual meeting, held here Thursday through Sunday.

The association declared "The Academy in Hard Times" this year's theme. Many sessions took up the topic in one way or another, calling for collective action to convince administrators and legislators of the humanities' value.

The imbalance between tenure-track scholars and the growing numbers of adjunct or contingent faculty members came up repeatedly. At a session devoted to the hard-times theme, Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress, the American Federation of Teachers affiliate that represents faculty members at the City University of New York, observed that only a third of the academic work force has job security. She called for more visible public action—a national teach-in day, for instance—to call attention to such inequalities and the effect of hard times on teaching and learning.

"Change the conversation," Gary Rhoades, president of the American Association of University Professors, told the audience at the same panel. "We do not need to be cannibalizing each other."

More Attention to Digital Work

For scholars in the digital humanities, though, this year's meeting felt more like high times. Digital-humanities work has been around for a long time in various forms. It didn't attract much mainstream notice at the MLA, however, until the association's previous meeting, held in Philadelphia in December 2009.

The rising generation made itself heard in a big way this year. It dominated much of the conference talk on Twitter (hashtag #mla11). It packed sessions on the history and future of the field, critical-code studies (that's code, as in computer code), and "computational methods of literary research," like the large-scale text-mining that has gotten a fair bit of publicity lately in the mainstream media.

Neil Fraistat, a professor of English who directs the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities at the University of Maryland, described what he called "a generational sea change" in the profession. He observed how much more energy one could feel in the digital-humanities sessions than in many of those devoted to traditional subject areas, like his field, Romanticism.

In another sign that digital humanities has arrived, practitioners carried on public debates—in sessions and on Twitter—about how to define the field and who qualifies as a digital humanist. Do you have to know how to code as well as how to run a computer program, for instance?

"If you're not making anything ... you're not a digital humanist," said Stephen Ramsay, an associate professor of English at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, in a provocative and lively talk. But Mr. Ramsay also gestured toward the great variety of work that could be described as digital humanities, and he raised the possibility of creating "a polyglot discipline without schism."

It looked like a better year to be job-hunting if you were a digital humanist, too. Jobs in that area were more plentiful than in many others. A growing number of Ph.D.'s are also finding so-called alternative-academic jobs: e.g., running scholars' labs or other digital-humanities projects in research libraries.

There's still resistance in some quarters to rewarding such work.

Brad Pasanek, an assistant professor of English at the University of Virginia, took part in an "electronic roundtable" on new work in digital literary studies. When he interviewed for jobs a couple of years ago, he encountered hiring-committee members who led off with, "I don't know anything about computers, but. ..." Conversations at this year's conference suggested that it can still be a struggle to get digital work recognized and rewarded.

Progress and Divisions

New ways and old ones mixed this year. Many panels had nothing whatsoever to do with the digital world. A session called "The English Bible," for instance, marked the 400th anniversary of the 1611 English translation of the Bible authorized by King James; participants spent their time in a spirited debate about biblical translation as theorized by Sir Thomas More, William Tyndale, and other early-modern contemporaries. "I've got to get my head back in the 16th century," one audience member told a friend afterward.

The association arranged for free Wi-Fi for the first time, responding to members' lobbying. Rosemary G. Feal, the association's executive director, kept up a lively stream of commentary on Twitter (@mlaconvention), as she has done all year. This also marked the first time the association met in January rather than in December, a schedule shift long in the works. Most participants seemed happy with the change, although some voiced concerns that colleagues couldn't attend because their classes had started. Attendance figures held steady anyway, with more than 8,000 paid registrants and nearly 450 exhibitors and others attending—close to last year's numbers.

Some longstanding divisions remained obvious: over whether the association remains too focused on English and European languages and literatures, for instance. A panel called "China, World Literature, and the Shape of the Humanities," led by Jennifer Crewe of Columbia University Press, wanted to put the focus on how "to define a research and teaching agenda based on world literature."

Another source of tension is whether the association does enough for members who are not full-time scholars at research institutions. Stacey Donohue, a professor of English at Central Oregon Community College in Bend, Ore., made enthusiastic use of the tables set up in meeting rooms for attendees blogging or (more commonly) tweeting about the sessions. But she wondered why two of the handful of community-college-themed panels had been scheduled at the same time, and she said that many of her colleagues still saw no reason to join the association.

Sidonie Smith, just finishing her year as the association's president, managed to pull together many of the association's disparate elements in the presidential theme she chose, "Narrating Lives." That theme ran through panels on life writing, social networking, Victorian subjectivity, spiritual narratives, "Queerness and Disability," eco-criticism, the difficulties of biographical research, even "The Open Professoriate: Public Intellectuals on the Open Web," where some of the digital humanists made another showing.

In her address, Ms. Smith talked about the uses and abuses of life writing—biography and autobiography in their many, multimedia forms. She wondered whether "the Internet memory machine" would lead us to add self-deletion—trying to do away with the online record of ourselves—to the definition of life writing. While scholars might be tempted to dismiss "the digital spectacle of public confession," Ms. Smith said, they would do well to remember that sharing life experiences—theirs and their students'—may be the best way to make the case for keeping alive the study of language and literature.