The MLA Convention in Translation

December 31, 2009

So what was the big story at this year's Modern Language Association convention, held this week in Philadelphia? Was it translation, the theme chosen by the MLA's president, Catherine Porter? Was it the digital humanities, the pull of which drew overflow crowds to too-small conference rooms and helped create a snappy back-channel conversation on Twitter (hashtag #mla09)? Was it the hardships of contingent faculty members like Brian Croxall (@briancroxall on Twitter), a visiting assistant professor of English at Clemson University. Mr. Croxall's paper on the plight of non-tenure-track professors became a sleeper hit of the conference, although (and in part because) its author couldn't afford to be in Philadelphia to deliver it in person.

The answer to the big-story question depends on which narrative arc you choose to follow and who else is reading—or blogging or Twittering—along with you. Mr. Croxall's paper undeniably hit a nerve. It's old news that the academic job market in the humanities is lousy, but Mr. Croxall assessed the situation with a clear-eyed frankness that caught attention. He also happened to be plugged into a social-media network that spread the word in almost-real time, not just at the convention but with others who weren't there.

The MLA's executive director, Rosemary G. Feal (@mlaconvention), was part of the #mla09 stream, even if a lot of scholars, senior and otherwise, stayed offline and one sometimes felt self-conscious even to be taking notes on a computer at panels. So what if only 3 percent of MLA attendees this year were on Twitter, according to an analysis done by Amanda French (@amandafrench), another nonattendee active in the digital humanities?

Ms. French, who just finished a stint as a visiting research scholar at New York University, used the sharing of Mr. Croxall's paper as evidence of "the amplification of scholarly communication" that the digital media are creating. In a post on her Web site, she wrote, "Let me put it this way: Brian's paper was big news only on Twitter and in the blogosphere. Which, however, means that it was big news. Period."

Ramped-Up Pace of Scholarly Chatter

The story behind this particular MLA narrative, then, is that MLA 2009 put on display how digital media have ramped up the pace of scholarly communication. As Ms. French put it, "The lesson digital humanists learn, especially by using Twitter, is that scholarly conversations move quickly now, because they can, and one had therefore better be as quick as possible to join in that conversation. Monthly or quarterly journals and annual conferences used to be the way that scholars talked [she struck through "wrote" here] among themselves, but now it's e-mail listservs (yes, still) and, better, the much more public blogosphere and twittersphere."

Even if one could not care less about Twitter, blogging made the convention more accessible and sociable, as some panelists posted papers, first-person reports, and feedback on Web sites—a straightforward but useful way to harness social media for scholarly-communication purposes. For instance, Kathleen Fitzpatrick (@kfitz), an associate professor of media studies at Pomona College, recapped her panel "The Legacy of David Foster Wallace" on her Web site, Planned Obsolescence. Having access to such reports eases some of the which-panel-now? pressure that conferencegoers feel.

The Chronicle was grateful for another scholarly-communication boost made possible by social media. A panel on "Links and Kinks in the Chain: Collaboration in the Digital Humanities" was so well attended that a number of people had to stand in the hall. A reporter caught more of the proceedings via Twitter than she could by ear.

The "Links and Kinks" panel was more proof that the digital humanities have become so well established that their practitioners now need to worry about what kind of scholarly culture they have created. One beauty of digital-humanities work is how collaborative it is, and the "Links and Kinks" panel said it was time to kill the myth of the scholar laboring in solitude. But the panel also urged digital humanists to think hard about how their work reflects or departs from the prevailing culture of the university.

Collaboration doesn't create some sort of egalitarian Eden in the digital humanities any more than it does in other kinds of scholarly work. Jason C. Rhody (@jasonrhody), a program officer with the National Endowment for the Humanities, talked about how the NEH's Office of Digital Humanities seeks to model generosity in scholarship through the grants it awards. Bethany Nowviskie (@nowviskie), director of digital research and scholarship at the University of Virginia Library, was brave enough to talk about the "violence in the system" that creates and overlooks status inequalities among collaborators and about some of the vexing intellectual-property issues collaborative work raises. Before the convention was over, Ms. Nowviskie had posted her comments on her personal Web site.

"Consciously ignoring disparities in the institutional status of your collaborators is just as bad as being unthinkingly complicit in the problems these disparities create," she writes. "This is because of the careless way your disregard reads to the people it damages. These people are: your junior colleagues; your graduate students; academics on the 'general,' 'administrative,' or 'research faculty'; the lost souls euphemistically referred to as 'contingent labor'; and the lowest of the low, members of your institution's staff: those of your collaborators who are classified as service personnel. This latter group includes programmers, sysadmins, instructional technologists, and credentialed librarians and cultural-heritage workers."

Old School, New School

It was also interesting to see, during the convention and after, a debate among the Twitter crowd about the label "digital humanities" and whether it was accurate or useful and how to get humanists, digital and otherwise, to talk more (or more usefully) to one another. A catchall phrase comes in handy—it's hard to imagine the NEH's establishing an Office of Cool Scholarship Done With Digital Tools—but it doesn't do justice to the very different kinds of work done under that label. Maybe the term is just a place holder, and the day is not far off when people won't feel the need to make a distinction between the humanities and the digital humanities.

To this observer at least, the 2009 MLA did highlight how social media are being deployed by scholars, even if they are (temporarily) a minority. It will be interesting to see, when the next MLA rolls around, in January of 2011, how many more outside the digital-humanities crowd have added social media to their scholarly-communication arsenal.

Such attention to the digital world obscures the fact that the digital humanities are still a relatively small part of what happens at the MLA, even if they make some of the liveliest and most visible contributions. MLA 2009 had no shortage of old-school panels devoted to authors and genres and literary traditions.

There were other stories to tell, too, besides digital-humanities vitality and job-market gloom: the association's $400,000 estimated deficit of this past year, a decline in conference attendance from about 8,500 last year to about 7,400 this year (the final tally may be a little higher), and the unexpected optimism of some publishers in the exhibit hall about their prospects and their wares. Keith Goldsmith, executive director of academic marketing for Knopf, told The Chronicle that the academic backlist had produced a lot of strong, steady sellers. Ken Wissoker, editorial director of Duke University Press, said it was one of the better MLA conferences he could remember.

One could argue that the real story of MLA 2009 was a quiet but urgent one: how literary scholars can justify what they do nowadays. It was a standing-room-only crowd of senior scholars, midcareer professors, and graduate students at a panel, also held in previous years, called "Why Teach Literature Anyway?" Simple title, tough question—and one that none of the panelists really knew how to answer.