Making Things and MLA 2014

I recently returned from an intense week at the Modern Language Association Conference. I’ve been attending MLA for a few years now and every trip feels like a very different conference, thanks to MLA’s scale and the endless supply of options. For someone early-career like me, that means that I try to find a thread in the giant tent of MLA that is most immediately useful to my work. This year, I found myself compensating for several months spent on very traditional writing by attending a number of sessions that were about making things. Here are a few highlights and resources from conversations at this year’s MLA that left me inspired.

Critical Making in Digital Humanities. As Roger Whitson’s session proposal describes, “makers are passionately involved in critically assessing and intervening in culture”–but that type of action doesn’t traditionally get much attention in the humanities. The archive of critical making projects, curated by Roger Whitson and Dene Grigar, chronicles everything from robotics and wearables to mobile history. These are the types of digital projects that we at ProfHacker often talk about bringing into the classroom, but of course we cannot expect to engage our students in work that we are not ourselves engaged with and moving forward. It’s exciting and unexpected to hear 3D printing come up in the context of MLA. Roger Whitson collected tweets from the panel in a Storify that includes links to other cool project models. Also, Amanda French has a list of links to digital poetry projects from MLA that are beautiful examples of critical making.

Evaluating Digital Scholarship. While most conversations about tenure (and of course, the lack of tenure-track jobs) are fairly grim, as a recent Chronicle article on tenure and digital humanists featured, this year’s Evaluating Digital Scholarship panel showcased a number of successful scholars who’ve worked outside the traditional boundaries of the humanities: among them, Adeline Koh shared how she got tenured while pursuing postcolonial digital humanities, and Cheryl Ball showcased her digital tenure portfolio. Details from the panel are up on MLA Commons. However, the panel also stands as a reminder of how far we still have to go in new models for tenure and promotion: as Kari Kraus described, many scholars still use the “additive model,” writing a monograph “plus” making or doing digital work rather than substituting one for another. Session respondent N. Katherine Hayles pointed out that this is likely to remain the norm until the perception gap on digital work is bridged: right now, much of the work that goes into making digital projects is invisible to scholars unfamiliar with the code, structures and analysis behind them.

Electronic Literature Exhibits. As a scholar of electronic literature, or literature that plays with technologies and mediation as a fundamental part of its structures and poetics, I’ve been very excited to see an increased presence of electronic literature at MLA through recent years. Aside from several panels this year, there was an exhibition that highlighted an important history of digital making. Organized by Dene Grigar and Stuart Moulthrop, the Pathfinders exhibit offered a living history of 25 years of electronic literature, pointing out the importance of preservation while highlighting just how difficult it is to truly keep anything digital alive. The exhibit highlighted this painfully thanks to the destruction of several archival computers during transport. (This further dovetails with important work on Preserving Virtual Worlds Kari Kraus shared during the Evaluating Digital Scholarship panel.)

The excitement (and challenge) of making things as a way of exploring and “doing” scholarship is definitely gaining a place, and this was an inspiring year at MLA. These conversations take on a different light when considered alongside the larger discourse of this year’s conference, as existing models for hierarchy, tenure, and the treatment of adjunct faculty are coming under greater scrutiny. These experiments can similarly be a way to challenge and rethink our own methods, outputs, and audiences.

Have you seen any interesting examples of critical making or unusual forms? Share your links in the comments!

[Photo taken by the author.]

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