On Arrival

The 2014 Modern Language Association annual conference took place on the week when the polar winds descended on the United States. Many students, faculty, librarians and vendors brought their papers and expectations to a frozen downtown Chicago. Several heated debates came to a fever pitch by the time of the conference. The most important of these were the debates on how best to address the condition of contingent labor in North America and the boycott of the Israeli academy. The world of Digital Humanities was not without controversy either, and debates about the role of critical theory and the scope of the field continued to flare up.

I arrived a day late from Beirut, where I was delivering a paper at the CASAR conference and working with the chair of AUB’s English Dept., David Wrisley, to develop strategies to foster digital humanities capacity in the Middle East. I was disappointed that I had missed the MLA Subconference, a pre-conference organized by “an independent and evolving group of graduate students in the humanities who are interested in creating a new kind of conference environment, in order to propose alternative professional, social, and political possibilities for ourselves and our peers.” I arrived instead the night before my first panel, New Ways of Reading: Surface Reading and Digital Methods.

Friday, Jan 10: Surface Reading; Beyond the Digital

The panel on Surface Reading was very well attended. The room was one of the largest in the conference, and seemed full from the stage. The reason was clear, we combined the DH and Surface Reading audiences.1 The goal of the panel was to reconcile as much as we could of the two movements. Sharon Marcus and Heather Love began by recounting their experiences incorporating digital humanities methods into their classroom in the Fall semester. During the semester the students worked with a range of digital approaches to interpret the text of Herman Melville’s including “Benito Cereno.” During their talk Marcus and Love highlighted the effect of defamiliarization produced by encoding the text in TEI markup. Ted Underwood followed their talk by pointing out that computer science has its own versions of surface and deep reading, the latter being akin to latent probabilistic models. When my turn came, I argued that texts are “surfaces all the way down” by invoking Jerome McGann’s topological theory of textuality and using the example of a total library organized by Levenshtein Distances.

The question and answer was very vibrant and provoked a range of questions from both sides of the isle. The question of the political in relationship to reading practices surfaced, not surprisingly, since both surface reading and digital humanities have been accused of depoliticizing scholarship. All panelists addressed this misconception in their own way, leaving it clear that continuing to expand our interpretative arsenal can only lead to a more robust critical enterprise.

Early evening on Friday, another important DH panel took place. Organized by the Association for Computers in the Humanities, “Beyond the Digital” was designed to focus on the research questions, rather than the digital methods. In order to accomplish this, discussion of the methods were pre-circulated online prior to the event. The panel was an attempt by the ACH to reach out to those in the humanities who dismiss the digital humanities assuming research is secondary.

“In discussions of digital humanities we sometimes forget that the output of digital analysis is not the goal; rather, it is a means to an end: the interpretation of a text.”

Panelists included Jeffrey Binder, Ryan Cordell, Cedrick May, James O’Sullivan, Lisa Marie Rhody and Shawna Ross. The panel was well received, and Brian Croxall, the moderator, did a great job of keeping the conversation focused on the research questions. At one point the panelists were asked how did it feel to place research first within a digital humanities context, to which Ryan Cordell answered eloquently by reminding us of the primacy of research questions. The panel also worked well because the projects on display were focusing on computational approaches to “Pattern Recognition and Interpretation,” which are perhaps the easiest to recognize as traditional humanities research of the digital humanities genres.

Saturday, January 11: Evaluating DH

1:45–3:00 p.m Saturday morning was full of meetings for me—very normal for the MLA since the conference is an opportunity to catch up in person with colleagues and collaborators. In the early afternoon I participated in my second event, Evaluating Digital Scholarship: Candidate Success Stories. The goal of the event was to have a group of digital humanists who currently hold rewarding professional positions in the academy address questions of evaluation of work in digital humanities in dissertations and tenure & promotion processes. For the first half of the session the room was set up like an exhibition hall, with each of the panelists showcasing his or her own work at different tables. At my table I was showcasing some of the activities at the Studio@Butler and The Developing Librarian Project.

For the second half of the event, all the panelists regrouped around a table for questions and answers from our organizer, Victoria E. Szabo. On the table with me were Cheryl E. Ball, Matthew K. Gold, Adeline Koh and Kari M. Kraus. The panel was a combination of librarians with faculty, which made the conversation somewhat representative of the digital humanities in the anglophone world, where practitioners can hold positions at either or both. The questions hinged on best practices and experiences.2 How did we arrive where we were? Doing double the work many answered. How do we move forward? Revising guidelines for dissertations and tenure and promotion many answered. At the end of the question session from Szabo, our respondent N. Katherine Hayles offered some brief comments on how far we still have to go because of the lack of understanding of digital methods. All in all, the conversation was rich, and difficult to summarize. The panel itself is linked to attempts by the Modern Language Association to promote the MLA Guidelines for Evaluating Digital Work.

Following our panel, I had an opportunity to hop over to the panel on The Praxis Network: Rethinking Humanities Education, Together and in Public organized by Katina Rogers. For me this was a reunion of sorts with the Praxis Program that initiated me into software development for the humanities. The original program brought together 6 graduate students from different disciplines in the humanities and the social sciences at the University of Virginia to learn about software development from the Scholars’ Lab team. The program lasted a year and was centered around a common project, in this case Prism, a tool to “crowdsource interpretation.”

The Praxis Network now represents groups from many different universities, most of whom where represented by the panelists, David F. Bell, Duke Univ.; Matthew K. Gold, New York City Coll. of Tech., City Univ. of New York; Kevin Kee, Brock Univ.; Kelli Massa, University Coll. London; Cecilia Márquez, Univ. of Virginia; William Albert Pannapacker, Hope Coll.; Donnie Sackey, Wayne State Univ. The conversation hinged around the different ways in which each of these different teams has adapted the model for graduate training to the needs and peculiarities of their own local environments.

Sunday, January 12: DHPoco; Critical Making

My last panel was the much anticipated panel on Decolonizing DH: Theories and Practices of Postcolonial Digital Humanities, or the #dhpoco panel as we would call it. The panel was assigned to the “dead zone” of Sunday at 8:30am, but we were still able to draw in a crowd. Sharing the panel with me were Adeline Koh, Porter Olsen, Amit Ray, Roopika Risam with the fantastic Anna Everett moderating. Amardeep Singh provided a a brief but fair summary of the proceedings on his blog, which I quote below.3

Adeline Koh outlined in a general way what a postcolonial digital humanities might be — she and Roopika Risam have built a website on this and are working on a book-length project on the subject. Porter Olsen also gave a really interesting presentation about the discourse of imperialism in “civilizational” games like Civilization, Age of Empires, Empire, etc. He also had some provocative examples of hacks and modded versions of these games—what happens if you give the slaves more power to revolt than the game normally would?

Alexander Gil described his work looking at DH projects from outside of the United States and Europe, and mentioned an interesting project called Around DH in 80 Days. Amit Ray talked about the economic and corporate basis of much contemporary computing, and argued that mainstream DH (especially the emergent “maker” culture) has not done enough to acknowledge its complicity in transnational capitalism.

The audience followed the presentations with some questions, but mostly praise. Worthy of notice was the presence of Martha Nell Smith, who praised the scholars in the panel and those associated with #dhpoco for drawing attention to questions of marginality and dominance that she had been advocating for at least two decades. In the last instance, the panel was a vindication of the hard work of Adeline Koh and Roopika Risam, who have brought an enormous amount of social media energy to bear on #dhpoco, and have successfully inspired a large group of young scholars/activists working on these questions to get involved in the digital humanities. At the same time, the audience acknowledged the role their voices have had in helping senior digital humanists working to bring diversity and equality to the digital humanities.

Following on the heels of the #dhpoco panel, the panel on Critical Making in the Digital Humanities certainly showed us that maker culture in the Digital Humanities can provide a powerful mode of critical inquiry. Organized by Roger Whitson, the panel brought together two collaborations: “Theorizing Collaborative Making: Between Writing, Programming, and Development,” by Amaranth Borsuk and Dene M. Grigar; and, “Toward a History of Critical Making in the Humanities,” by Kari M. Kraus and Jentery Sayers. During their bit, Borsuk gave a presentation of her “Between Page and Screen” which creates a virtual space between books and their readers. For those who have not yet done so, I recommend experiencing it. Kari Kraus opened her talk by placing critical making in the humanities in at least three traditions: experimental archeology, physical bibliography and the GLAM profession. By doing so, Kraus shows us an alternative lineage to maker culture in the humanities than Amit Ray’s. Sayers closed the proceedings by highlighting several of the excellent projects at the University of Victoria’s Maker Lab, linking them all to critical practices. I regret not having time to stick around for the question and answer session, since I had to rush to the airport.

Distant reflections

I write these notes one month after the MLA was over, and I’m afraid I have left out much that was important. I invite the reader to explore further the many gaps left by these notes. A great place to start is by following the online traces of Mark Sample’s now canonical list of digital panels at the MLA. Another great place to explore the proceedings further is Ernesto Priego’s “distant reading” of the proceedings.

All in all the conference was an intense rewarding experience on a year full of tensions and troubles in the profession. As Amanda French put it after her MLA experience, it’s also the year when “digital humanities is no longer the next big thing — it’s beginning to be just an ordinary thing.”

  1. For an introduction to surface reading see Best, Stephen and Sharon Marcus. “Surface Reading: An Introduction” Representations. Vol. 108, No. 1 (Fall 2009)(pp. 1-21). ↩︎

  2. You could get a good sense of the Q&A session from the Storify put together by Michelle Kassorla. ↩︎

  3. You can see Roopika Risam’s slides tracing the past and present of #dhpoco, or read Adeline Koh’s paper “From Print to Digital: Reconfiguring Postcolonial Knowledge” online. ↩︎