Pannapacker at MLA: The Come-to-DH Moment

By William Pannapacker


Followers of this topic will recall Stanley Fish’s recent piece in The New York Times in which he describes the Digital Humanities as the “new dispensation.”

As I read it, Stanley Fish wants the Digital Humanities to get off his lawn.

But the concerns that made the MLA so (in)famous in the 80s and 90s—race, gender, empire, sexuality, class—have not been displaced by DH.  As Fish observes, those concerns have been “absorbed into the mainstream” of the profession.  They are the water in which we swim.  The “rough beast” of Digital Humanities is the offspring of that generation: It moves forward with their concerns through collaboration and the application of new tools—enabling new questions, of course—but also responding, as they must, to the perennial questions of the humanities.

I suspect for most academics, the “come to DH moment” usually involves attending a conference and seeing some projects.  Reading paper titles just won’t cut it any more today than it did when The New York Times mocked the “Eggheads Naughty Word Games,” using examples such as Eve Sedgwick’s “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl,” which was actually an important scholarly intervention.

For me, the conversion to DH took place when I signed up for a seminar at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute back in 2008 at the prompting of a senior colleague in American literature.  I wrote about it at the time.  The DHSI was a career-changing experience, but there are easier ways to learn about DH from academic conferences that you might be attending for other reasons.

Mark Sample’s blog, “Sample Reality,” lists nearly 60 sessions at this year’s MLA connected with the Digital Humanities. Even events that are not obviously connected with DH, such as MLA president Russell Berman’s keynote address, often include endorsements and references to how DH is revitalizing the humanities.

I probably made myself notorious in the DH community for calling the movement the “Next Big Thing” in 2009 and escalating that claim in 2010.  I meant it as a self-conscious response to Fish’s 2005 assertion that religion would succeed high theory and the triumvirate of race, gender, and class as the center of intellectual energy in the academy.” I regret that my claim about DH as the NBT—which I meant in a serious way—has become a basis for a rhetoric that presents it as some passing fad that most faculty members can dismiss or even block when DH’ers come up for tenure.

One of the leading figures in the field, Kenneth M. Price, co-director of the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, observed that faculty members are likely to become engaged with DH methods that respond to specific problems in their scholarly work.   As a long-time Whitman scholar, Price became co-editor of the NEH-supported Walt Whitman Archive because existing printed editions of the poet’s work could not represent the complexity of the many editions of Leaves of Grass, as well as the constantly growing archive of unpublished materials, such as Whitman’s recently recovered scribal writings, 800 of which are now online—something that might have taken a decade to achieve in the print era, even if a publisher could be found.

The DH community can be grateful for the visionary support of foundations such as the NEH and Mellon, as well as a growing proportion of institutional leaders.  As Neil Fraistat, the director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, noted at one session, “DH’ers are one of the only groups of humanists who get grants, and administrators like that, but a harder sell is to reach the recalcitrant 85 to 90 percent of our colleagues and convince them that they have to invest their time in learning new things that they may not feel comfortable with.”

Last year I complained that a star system seemed to be emerging in the Digital Humanities; some panels reminded me of the era of “Big Theory” that alienated so many people from the MLA.  I expressed concern that the innovations offered by the field would be concentrated at elite research universities and that DH would ultimately exacerbate the digital divide, leaving behind those of us at teaching-oriented institutions.

I now know DH’ers had been working on that issue for some time at events such as THATCamp and through long-established organizations such as NITLE and HASTAC. And this year’s MLA, as I noted in yesterday’s post, is focused on teaching.  Yesterday, I attended two crowded events on digital pedagogy led by Kathi Inman Berens, Brian Croxall, and Katherine D. Harris that showcased projects, such as the Map of Early Modern London that can be adapted for collaborative learning in an undergraduate setting. (Abstracts and links to the projects can be found here and here.)

At a well-attended workshop on the first day of the conference, a group of DH scholars announced the launch of an online resource called DH Commons, which could be described as the for digital humanists. It provides means for scholars at institutions that do not have DH centers or many colleagues in the field to find them and and collaborate on projects.

So the outreach is there—it has been for a long time—but faculty members have to reach back and take some risks. DH has a culture of bricolage, or a hermeneutics of screwing around (“screwmeneutics,” as Stephen Ramsay put it).  You try out new applications to see if they’re useful. Lots of them can be found at the Digital Research Tools (DiRT) wiki compiled by Lisa Spiro, director of NITLE Labs.  For starters, just try running your favorite text (or maybe your own writing) through Wordle; the results might astonish even the most skeptical close reader.

William Pannapacker is an associate professor of English at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. He is a Chronicle columnist, and this is his fourth year live-blogging the MLA convention.Watch in coming days for his further dispatches from the meeting, and for other MLA coverage elsewhere in  The Chronicle.

led by Kathi Inman Behrens and Katherine D. Harris
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