Media X: A Report on the Digital Humanities from MLA 2012

Laura Mandell


The elegance of the previous Media X essay (Issue 1.2), part of an unknown and un-datable manuscript written by time-traveler Jed I. Cleishbotham, is not to be matched. This prescient seer touched on all the major issues in thinking about digital humanities and new media, its impact on literature and literary studies: what will the new digitally born literature, literary criticism and education look like? Given rapid technological change, how are digital works to be sustained? And how will academics be given the proper credit for innovative work so that they may sustain themselves and their families, nutritionally speaking?

These questions are most interrogated in the newly emerging field of digital humanities, best defined by Jerome McGann – a leader in the field – as what the humanities has always done, preserving and interpreting the human record but in digital media. Not coincidentally, Wikipedia also provides an excellent definition of digital humanities, but those who are new to the field should first and foremost consult Lisa Spiro’s excellent blog called “Digital Scholarship in the Humanities: Exploring the Digital Humanities.”

The Modern Language Association (MLA), heretofore seeming only a bastion for maintaining tradition, has taken a lead in responding to the issues raised by Cleishbotham (David Buchanan, presumably), and here follows a report of what one could see of that response at the MLA 2012. First, three years of excellent reportage on the MLA by William Pannapacker in the Chronicle of Higher Education give us a sense of the history of the MLA and digital humanities:

The 2009 Convention: “Amid all the doom and gloom of the 2009 MLA Convention, one field seems to be alive and well: the digital humanities. More than that: Among all the contending subfields, the digital humanities seem like the first ‘next big thing’ in a long time, because the implications of digital technology affect every field.”

The 2011 Convention (we skipped a year only because the MLA shifted its meeting time from the last week of December to the first week of January): “Consider the quantity, quality, and comprehensiveness of the digital humanities panels at this year’s MLA convention. The digital humanities have some internal tensions, such as the occasional divide between builders and theorizers, and coders and non-coders. But the field, as a whole, seems to be developing an in-group, out-group dynamic that threatens to replicate the culture of Big Theory back in the 80s and 90s, which was alienating to so many people. It’s perceptible in the universe of Twitter: We read it, but we do not participate. It’s the cool-kids’ table.”

And finally, this year, 2012: “Alt-ac is the future of the Academy.” For those of you who are wondering, “Alt-ac” is a shortened form of “alternate academic careers,” and the first thing that MLA did in 2012 was to present not one but two panels on “Alt-ac,” organized by Bethany Nowviskie who is chair of the Committee on Information Technology of the MLA, director of the University of Virginia’s Scholar’s Lab and a leader in the field of DH. Dr. Nowviskie edited a major work on Alt-ac – again, not surprisingly, available for free, digitally, via Media Commons Press. This press was instantiated and developed by the Future of the Book organization, but primarily by Kathleen Fitzpatrick, author of a media-press and NYU Press book called Planned Obsolescence.

Not only is Professor Fitzpatrick author of this important book about changes in the Humanities due to the onslaught of digital media, she has been made director of a new office at the MLA, the Scholarly Communications Office, which took over some of the duties, Rosemary Feal told us at this year’s delegate assembly, of the Office of Scholarly Publications, now dissolved. Fitzpatrick opened the Presidential Forum with her excellent talk “Networking the Field,” and comments about her talk are viewable on the twitter stream which is in fact, despite Pannapacker’s earlier worry, not a closed circuit for communications among digital humanists but now as of convention 2012 visible to all and available via the MLA main page.

Another sign of the MLA’s response to the emergence of digital humanities is the issue of Profession 2011 concerning how to evaluate digital scholarship for promotion and tenure, this cluster of essays now being freely available – again, not surprisingly – online.  

There were again a huge number of digital humanities panels at MLA, always tracked by Mark Sample on his blog. Additionally, a delegate spoke up at the MLA delegate assembly about the digital humanities during a discussion about revamping the division structure, another pro-active response by MLA to the coming fluidity of academic fields.

But the absolute best thing about this year’s MLA was a pre-conference workshop instigated and organized primarily by Ryan Cordell and Quinn Dombrowski (its builder and designer), with help from NITLE’s Rebecca Davis and Lisa Spiro, and some financial support from my very own Initiative for Digital Humanities, Media and Culture at Texas A&M University. I say that this was the best thing not just because of partiality, but also because of the amazing turn out – 120 people, who came in early to MLA, mind you – and because it marks an historic moment in several ways.

First, the preconference workshop marked the launch of the dhcommons and its adoption by centerNet, an alliance of digital humanities centers worldwide, which means that dhcommons will be financially supported and sustained. Dhcommons will link scholars who wish to do work in their fields up to digital projects that need collaborators and can help with the technology involved in making things available digitally. These collaborations and connections are crucial to maintaining the high scholarly quality of digital work, and to the health and happiness of traditional scholars who can indeed get academic credit for such work, especially through peer-reviewing agencies for digital scholarship such as NINES and 18thConnect, and the forthcoming, field-specific organizations building upon these models in medieval studies, Renaissance/Early Modern, and Modernist (stay tuned – their release will be announced). 

But second, what was most monumental for me about this pre-conference workshop is the sheer number of attendees, indicating that now more than ever MLA members want to get involved in Digital Humanities. We imagined that 50 people might sign up, if we were lucky, and had to increase the workshop venue to 2 rooms after getting 120 requests. The MLA (Maribeth Kraus) went out of their way to help us expand, incredibly generous given that this was not an MLA event but rather the launch of dhcommons. Nonetheless, despite MLA bending over backwards, Ryan had to turn down at least 50 more requests to join the workshop. This shows more than any number of panels how important the field of digital humanities has become to literary scholars: we need it, and we are embracing it.

I’ll just mention one other feature of MLA 2012: there were a number of institutions that advertised in the MLA joblist who are doing cluster hires in the digital humanities. I heard much talk about the impact of this fact upon how we conduct graduate education. I was thrilled to be approached by a student at one of the best liberal arts colleges who will consider coming to graduate school at TAMU because we offer a digital humanities certificate to MA and PhD students. Among the universities who are or will be offering such a certificate, I hear, are institutions such as Tulane and the University of Nebraska, and an exciting call for revamping graduate education is Dr. Nowviskie’s “modest proposal.”

The digital humanities are indeed revitalizing literary scholarship as well as our educational mission, and apparently Cathy Davidson of Duke University spoke eloquently at an MLA panel about inspiring humanities activism among undergraduates via digital means, a topic dear to the hearts of two organizations, HASTAC and Kathleen Woodward, director of the University of Washington’s Digital Humanities Center, sponsored that panel on “The Future of Higher Education,” and then also gave a talk called “The New Dissertation: Thinking Outside the (Proto-) Book.” 

All in all, it was an energizing, amazing MLA, and that I think is a feat worth celebrating in a cultural milieu in which all indicators are down or languishing. Thanks, DH.


Works Cited


McGann, Jerome, ed. Online Humanities Scholarship: the Shape of Things to Come. Houston: Rice UP, 2010. Web.

Schreibman, Susan, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth. A Companion to Digital Humanities. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004. Web.




Laura Mandell, Professor of English Literature and Director of the Initiative for Digital Humanities, Media and Culture at Texas A&M University, has published Misogynous Economies: The Business of Literature in Eighteenth-Century Britain (1999) and numerous articles, primarily about eighteenth-century women writers. She is director of and General Editor of



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