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DH @ MLA: Material Times

DH @ MLA: Material Times

Let’s get this out of the way: I found the 2014 MLA Convention to be a sobering affair. Admittedly, it was my first MLA, and I may need more time to thaw to its formalities. Perhaps its location, post-polar vortex Chicago, also cast chills through convention halls. One thing is certain: The theme of “Vulnerable Times” did not assuage job seekers or those preparing to weather the academic job market. Across the Sheraton lobby and Twittersphere, MLA Executive Director Rosemary Feal’s declaration that “the academic job market has never been as dire” drowned out Marianne Hirsch’s presidential address.

Yet, in contrast to the somber diagnosis for the humanities writ large, Digital Humanities panels were (quite literally) hot—prolific and packed to capacity. Of the dozen or so DH or DH-related panels I attended, about half were at capacity, with onlookers spilling into the hallways. Given the buzz about DH, convention planners could have anticipated interest and granted more capacious rooms, but even those panels situated in the most cavernous spaces, such as “Digital Humanities from the Ground Up,” ran out of seats.

Rather than summarize panels that incubated such feverish attention—a task that would ask great patience from my readers—I will select a handful of talks that highlight something of a theme across Digital Humanities panels: materiality.

Many presenters considered the materiality of ephemeral objects. In his talk on the vulnerability of born-digital literature, John Zuern, Associate Professor of English at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, argued that scholars must embrace curatorial practices when studying such texts. A medium-sensitive version of surface reading could attend not only to meaning but function—how born-digital texts work—to ensure future readability. On the topic of surface reading, Professor of Comparative Literature at Penn State Eric Hayot challenged traditional categories. “Close reading is not always close,” claimed Hayot. “Distant reading is not so distant.” By conceptualizing literature as information, scholars can disrupt categories and understand rhetorical devices as data that requires abstraction. Using her Between Page and Screen project, Amaranth Borsuk, Senior Lecturer in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington Bothel, discussed how texts could be abstracted via augmented reality: As the function of texts change, so, too, do our roles as readers.

Others sought to materialize code. Given that comments in code are textually indeterminate, at the “threshold of performance and script,” Rachael Sullivan, a Doctoral Candidate in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee English Ph.D. program, argued that scholars ought to approach the materiality of writing on several registers: the writing medium, practice, and body. Columbia University Professor of English and Comparative Literature Sharon Marcus discussed her experience with her students using TEI to mark up marginalia on Melville’s Benito Cereno. While her class struggled with markup, they developed a shared vocabulary (for markup) and new ways of interfacing with the text.

Many panelists discussed how material projects enabled them to integrate DH into classrooms. In a special session on “Critical Making,” Dene Grigar, Associate Professor and Director of The Creative Media & Digital Culture Program at Washington State University Vancouver, introduced critical making as “research through design,” or projects on which students and faculty could collaborate outside fixed university structures. Critical making projects ranged from rebuilding automobiles to mapping historical sites. Jentery Sayers, an Assistant Professor of English and Director of the Maker Lab in the Humanities at the University of Victori, discussed Kits of Cultural History, which seeks to reconstruct historical experiments in technology and science to promote materialist approaches to technology and cultural criticism in the humanities. Kim Knight, Assistant Professor of Emerging Media and Communication at University of Texas at Dallas, introduced her project, Fashioning Circuits, through which students used sewing machines and circuitry to create wearable tech. Rather than promoting DIY spirit, students mastered what Knight called a DWO, or Doing It With Others philosophy.

Sociability was a common thread of DH projects. In A Beautiful Social Collaborative, Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Saint Joseph’s University Aimée Knight sought to cultivate tech literacy by sending her students into Philadelphia to help small businesses build social networking presences. Matt Gold, Associate Professor of English and Digital Humanities at City Tech and the CUNY Graduate Center, and Emily Sherwood, a Doctoral Candidate in the Ph.D. program, discussed Just Publics @ 365, which paired CUNY’s Commons in a Box with community engagement in East Harlem. Northeastern University graduate students Benjamin Doyle and Kristi Girdharry presented Around DH in 80s Days, through which graduate students at Northeastern University are collecting DH projects from across the globe.

In a convention organized around vulnerability (thematically but in some ways empirically), the Digital Humanities were material, social, and hopeful. For my next blog post, I will return to the issue of sociability at MLA: The role of academics as (semi)public intellectuals.


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