Giving Thanks and Other Reflections on #mla12

The Modern Language Association (MLA) Convention of 2012 is now over. MLA 2012 greatly exceeded my expectations.

In this post, I’d like to note my appreciation to the MLA and all attendees for making MLA 2012 such a vibrant and wonderful experience.  As Roger Whitson noted, he and I had a number of discussions on how and why this MLA was a great conference. We both attributed a great deal of the energy and dynamism to the digital humanities (DH). In his blog post, Roger goes on to consider calls for transformation to DH, finding DH useful and supportive as it is without transformation. I strongly agree and I’d like to add a minor additional note on terminology, and to add notes on a few things that really stood out to me from MLA 2012.

I strongly agree with Roger on DH’s positive value because of my experiences doing DH work with scholars from many institutions (mainly in Florida and the Caribbean) and departments (including, but not limited to, English, Spanish, French, joint languages, History, etc). While I’ve been doing DH work in these collaborations, I’ve only recently started calling it DH. This is primarily because I felt that I needed to be (perhaps overly) careful to both be and seem inclusive. I was concerned about the potential that calling something DH could be understood as defining a limit. I was acutely concerned about any potential for misunderstandings where some could feel un-included or un-invited.

More recently, I’ve started regular conversations with my DH collaborators to name the work as DH and to follow it with a definition of DH as “the humanities in and for the digital age” (thanks to Sophia Acord for pointing me to this wording from the Scholarly Communication Institute). I think some people would rightly take issue with this definition as being too general and even meaningless. I somewhat agree with that on a thing-level. But to me, DH is more verb than noun and in this current moment I think that DH should continue to define itself inclusively and actively to ensure that all of the humanities benefits from and informs DH.  From my experiences during MLA 2012, DH was being enacted inclusively and actively for the benefit of all.

I’m grateful to have been able to attend this MLA to have experienced how positive and inclusive our scholarly community is and to have had the opportunity to discuss possible reasons for this with a great colleague like Roger, and with others. I’m grateful to DH for being what I see as a positive and powerful voice within our scholarly community. I’m most grateful that MLA is the type of community that embraces new voices like DH for the benefit of all. Of course, being inclusive does not mean there’s a lack of rigor or critical analysis; instead, the inclusion affords the space and supports the interactions needed for rigorous critical analysis.

Given my experiences with MLA 2012, I agree with Roger that DH does not need transformation. That said, I’m looking forward to new conversations with my DH collaborators who I identify as DH folks and who aren’t sure or who disagree with me (these conversations are really interesting and fun) to see what they think of possible DH transformation. I really don’t know what they might say, but I know that the local and larger conversations about DH are productive for the field as a whole and so I’m looking forward to more of them.

In addition to Roger’s and my perceived positive impact of DH on MLA 2012, the first event I attended established an ideal frame for the entire conference for me. The first event I attended was the DHCommons preconference workshop (which was fabulous;  check out The event was wonderful because it was a space to hear from and informally discuss projects, interests, and ideas with colleagues. Even before the event really got started, during her prefatory remarks Lisa Spiro mentioned that all attendees could thank Laura Mandell, her administration at Texas A&M, and TAMU’s IDHMC (Initiative for Digital Humanities, Media, and Culture) because they provided the internet access and technical support the workshop. I’d like to note my appreciation here for that support and for Lisa Spiro in setting up this frame. I cannot think of a better way to open a conference because this immediately made me focus on the work we all do for and through our scholarly community.  It framed my entire perspective on the conference in terms of our scholarly community.

Given the frame of our scholarly community, the most exciting events of MLA 2012 to me were attending the Delegate Assembly orientation for new delegates and the meeting, This was my first time attending in service to the Delegate Assembly (as a Special Interest Delegate representing Independent Scholars and Alternative Careers). The orientation and supporting materials sent before MLA 2012 were very clear (not easy to do given how much needed to be covered) and useful. I have a great deal that I’m still digesting from the Delegate Assembly orientation and meeting, so I just have some preliminary notes at this time, but it was great.

In the orientation, I learned that the MLA has an official Parliamentarian. This makes perfect sense, but I simply had never spent enough time thinking about how large groups handle governance and what the full extend of the needs and requirements might be. My experiences before had never gone beyond the level of needing a professional facilitator.  I’ve already ordered a copy of the full Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised and plan to read it before MLA 2013 to remedy a bit of my ignorance so that I can feel informed enough to ask questions to the MLA Parliamentarian on parliamentary procedure, the role of parliamentarians, how she became one, activity in the field, and so on. I don’t know enough to know if becoming a parliamentarian could be a type of alternative academic career. Parliamentarians clearly have to know their own field and a good deal of depth for each of the fields they work with, so it very well could be.

In thinking about the Delegate Assembly and alternative academic careers, I had the opportunity to speak with Carol Zuses who is in what I would certainly see as an alternative academic career in her position within the MLA. And, she’s been doing it since the 198o’s. Carol was extremely gracious in answering, explaining, and discussing her alternative academic career. It shows my ignorance because before speaking with her I hadn’t been thinking about roles in professional societies as alternative academic careers. I hadn’t been attempting to limit what alternative academic careers could be, but I simply hadn’t and still haven’t thought enough about it, which I will do. Previously, I’d created an incomplete framework for alternative academic careers that included any role in an academic institution or close affiliate (university press, consortium or entity like CLIR) where the work combined a mix of research, service, and core job duties (often teaching for traditional academic careers and alternative careers this can mean administration, management, librarianship, archival work, technological work, student advising, mentoring, grants management, and much more). Even with Kathleen Fitzpatrick joining MLA as the Director of the Office of Scholarly Communication, I simply hadn’t thought on the possibilities to realize that, of course,  professional societies like MLA would be ideal places for alternative academic careers. I’m sure there’s a great deal more that I don’t know that I don’t know but that I can learn directly and indirectly from the Delegate Assembly. I’m excited to learn more directly about the Delegate Assembly and its work as well as to learn from the experience around the Delegate Assembly.

I’ve got lots and lots more to share about the wonderful experience of MLA 2012 (E-Lit Exhibit and Performance, great panels, great talks in the hallway, great colleagues, and so much more!) but I’m too tired (from an exhilarating and exhausting time) to do so coherently now. I hope to post again soon (and probably to make corrections on this post from being already a bit too tired). For now, I’d just like to note how glad I am to have been able to attend such a wonderful conference, to see old friends and colleagues, and to meet new friends and colleagues.