Pannapacker at MLA: Digital Humanities Triumphant?

By William Pannapacker

Last year when I blogged about the MLA, I said that the digital humanities seems like the “next big thing,” and, quite naturally, the digital humanists were indignant because they’ve been doing their thing for more than 20 years (and maybe even longer than that). 

At a standing-room only session I attended yesterday, “The History and Future of the Digital Humanities,” one panelist noted that there has been some defensiveness about the field, partly because it has included so many alt-academics who felt disrespected by the traditional academy: “Harrumph … Playing with electronic toys is not scholarship.  Where are your peer-reviewed articles?” I know from experience that there are plenty of people in the profession who know little about this established field and even regard it with disdain as something disturbingly outré and dangerous to the mission of the humanities. During the discussion at that session, Matthew Kirschenbaum, author of Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination (MIT, 2009), which won the MLA’s First Book Award last year, observed that “If you don’t know what the digital humanities is, you haven’t looked very hard.” 

I mean, c’mon, just start with the Wikipedia entry: The digital humanities are not some flashy new theory that might go out of fashion. At this point, the digital humanities are The Thing.  There’s no Next about it. And it won’t be long until the digital humanities are, quite simply, “the humanities.” 

Consider the quantity, quality, and comprehensiveness of the digital humanities panels at this year’s MLA convention.

The digital humanities have some internal tensions, such as the occasional divide between builders and theorizers, and coders and non-coders. 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.

So, the digital humanities seem more exclusive, more cliquish, than they did even one year ago. There are identifiable stars who know they are stars. And some of the senior figures in the field, like Alan Liu, seem like gods among us.  And maybe most important of all: There’s money, most obviously represented by Brett Bobley from the NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities—looking just a little like Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.

If this keeps up, I might start wearing ironic T-shirts under my black sport coat.  

There’s justice in this turn of events: Well-earned success for a community that has long regarded itself as facing uncomprehending resistance. At the same time, the tendency to become like Big Theory may change the attractive ethics of the field, described by one panelist “as community, collaboration, and goodwill.” The grassroots days seem to be ending. 
As this process develops, how will it affect the majority of the profession: those who teach at community colleges, for-profit schools, and teaching-intensive institutions? The growing tendency of the digital humanities to become an elite community—always pursuing the cutting edge—may leave most of us behind, struggling to catch up with limited support, and humanities education, in general, will be unchanged by the innovation and excitement promised by the digital humanities at this year’s MLA convention.

William Pannapacker is an associate professor of English at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. He is a Chronicle columnist (under the pen name “Thomas H. Benton”), and this is his third year live-blogging the MLA convention.

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