Digital Humanities and the MLA

Since 2009 I’ve been compiling an annual list of more or less digitally-oriented sessions at the Modern Language Association convention. This is the list for 2015. These sessions address digital culture, digital tools, and digital methodology, played out across the domains of research, teaching, and scholarly communication. For the purposes of my annual lists I clump these varied approaches and objects of study into a single contested term, the digital humanities (DH).

DH sessions at the 2015 convention make up 7 percent of overall sessions, down from a 9 percent high last year. Here’s what the trend looks like over the past 6 MLA conventions (there was no convention in 2010, the year the conference switched from late December to early January):

DH Sessions at the MLA (2009-2015)

The apparent decline in DH sessions might give critics of DH something to gloat over. But rather than a bubble burst (as if less than 10 percent of the convention counted as a bubble, and a 2 percent drop counted as a burst), I see these numbers as a leveling out. If I changed the right vertical axis of the chart to run from 0% to 100%, the blue line would appear virtually flat. You’d be hard-pressed to find any methodology or content area represented in more than a fraction of the conference sessions.

No, the numbers aren’t troubling (if you count yourself as a DH-er). But I am vaguely troubled by how familiar many of the panel and paper topics seemed. Of course, it’s difficult to gauge based on paper titles and session descriptions alone, but there is little on the 2015 program that I can’t imagine on last year’s program, or even on the 2011 program. This is not to say there aren’t important and interesting DH sessions on the program. There’s meaningful work on pedagogy, race, book history, publishing, and more. But even these recall sessions from years past rather than promise new methodological or research advances. There are exceptions; the Queer OS panel stands out, and I hope Making as Method blows some minds. Media archaeology is another bright spot. But on the whole, expect few surprises during the conference.

Perhaps this is just the conservative nature of enormous annual conferences? They lag behind the field and generate iterations rather than evolutions? Certainly there is startling work happening in the digital humanities, as Matt Kirschenbaum and Sarah Werner observe in their recent “state of the discipline” overview in Book History. That work is visible in journal articles, blogs, unconferences, and smaller specialized conferences. How to surface that work at the MLA is a question I will ask the newly formed Digital Humanities Forum to take up for 2016.[footnote]The MLA has recently restructured its “divisions” and “discussion groups”—the primary means by which interest groups organize sessions at the conference. The Division on Methods of Literary Research (to which I am an elected member) is merging with the Discussion Group on Computer Studies to form this new group, the Digital Humanities Forum. We’ll have three guaranteed sessions at the 2016 MLA in Austin. It’s my goal for at least one of these sessions to surprise—if not shock—audience members with what we might call gonzo DH.[/footnote]

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