Blog Post

Rocky Mountain MLA

[Cross posted from my academic website,; published on 13 October 2013]

I'm writing this from a lovely little coffee shop in downtown Vancouver, Washington called Torque. The space is large and open, with a number of old dining room tables scattered about and a big, U-shaped bar in the middle. The shop lies at the foot of the I-5 bridge that crosses the Columbia River to Portland, Oregon, in an area that seems to have been mostly railyards or light industry. The building itself was obviously a garage of some kind, and they still have the original doors on. It's great.  They serve the best espresso, roasted in house, that I have ever had. And I live in the Pacific Northwest, so we know coffee.

Torque is right across the street from the Hilton Hotel in Vancouver, location of the just completed Rocky Mountain Modern Languages Association conference. In its 67th year, RMMLA (pronounced 'rim-la,' I have learned) brings together a number of language and literature academics from (theoretically) the western regions of the United States and Canada; in practice, presenters arrived from as far away as South Carolina, Texas, Arkansas, and New York.
This year my supervisor an director of the Electronic Textual Cultures Lab Ray Siemens was invited to keynote the event and discuss digital humanities and digital literary studies. As part of that, I was asked to organize a panel on 'Digital Humanities Microclimates: The Politics/Pragmatics of Place." The keynote seemed well received--or at least the 200 audience members enjoyed listening to Ray's (self-proclaimed) soporific voice after eating a quite delicious buffet lunch. After his talk, we broke into normal sessions, including the panel I put together, featuring Paige Morgan (University of Washington), Roger Whitson (Washington State University - Pullman), and Dene Grigar (Washington State University - Vancouver). Although our discussions with the 20 or so folks who attended were wide ranging, a couple of key themes emerged:
1. Many individual academics (or, importantly, graduate students) were interested in DH but had no institutional support for their interest.
2. Individuals (both faculty and graduate students) can have an outsize effect on institutional and/or organizational culture by building DH interest and activities from the ground up.
3. There is a real anxiety that institutional obstinance or lack of attention to current intellectual developments related to computation is damaging career prospects, ability to follow academic conversations, and (overall) the larger fields of literary and cultural analysis.
4. That despite all of this, there is a widespread acknowledgement, especially prevalent among younger scholars, that the digital turn--in cultural production, preservation, and analysis--*must* be reckoned with.
All of which put me in a mind to think about Vancouver, WA. Although I've been in the northwest coast region for a while (living on it's largest island), Vancouver feels like it's in the midst of a transition like I haven't really seen anywhere else. It's large, larger than any city in neighbouring Oregon except Portland, in whose shadow it struggles. It's obviously an economy rooted in resource extraction and the like, as the bustling Columbia River shipping industry and neverending railcars outside my hotel indicate. It's downtown has struggled, it's easy to see, in the transition to a wider suburban model of population.
That said, it's changing. Torque is one example: large, light industrial buildings make for great coffee shops, galleries, and other 'creative' businesses, as the nearby Pearl district of Portland shows. There are some really great restaurants here, a historical, an award winning town-square like park (Esther Short), cool architecture, families living downtown, events happening, and so on. WSU-Vancouver, where Dene Grigar works in the CMDC program, is increasingly invested in the successes of the local economy. It is, in other words, a place on the verge.
It's much like the Humanities, and the folks doing the heavy lifting of creating businesses, sparking cultural change, and fighting for a town that is more than just Portland's neighbour can't help but resonate with the graduate students fighting for digital dissertations, for practical training in multimedia and multimodal production of scholarship, or at the very least pressing for the recognition that without *something* the humanities are in very real trouble.
I don't want to push the analogy to far, but I think it's fair to say there is some relationship between the transition of small cities like Vancouver from resources extraction and manufacturing to 21st century knowledge economies and the fights within the humanities to hold firm to models developed over the last 500 years (without admitting, of course, that things like close reading as we know it was developed in the 1920s or that Literature Departments sprung into existence in the midst of the Victoria manufacturing revolution) or adapt and change in light of new media, new methods of analysis, and new ways of constructing scholarly relationships. Such things are scary, because we don't know what they look like. But they're also necessary, because just like those city fathers who refuse to admit that the sawmill or the plant isn't coming from Taiwan, change happens whether we want it to or not. We can, however, impact how those changes happen at the local level--and it's our responsibility to do so.

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