The MLA, @briancroxall, and the non-rise of the Digital Humanities

David Parry bio photo By David Parry

Two Things about the MLA conference I want to connect here:

  1. Clearly one of the themes that has developed in the MLA post-mortem has been the rise of social media and the influence of technology at the conference. Both The Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed noticed the prominence of Twitter at the convention, or the apparent prominence of Twitter. It seemed that unlike last year where the majority of conversation about/on Twitter and the MLA was confined to to one session, this year, although noticeably less than other conferences, Social Media was clearly playing a role.

What is more, as The Chronicle noticed this seemed to be a part of a larger trend in the Digital Humanities. Ultimately I agree with Mark Sample (@samplereality), who posted an analysis of the MLA Tweets and Matt Kirschenbaum(@mkirschenbaum) who argued via Twitter that this meme/theme was some what overstated. As Matt observed, the MLA has a history of at least being marginally receptive to “technology and literacy” panels even if they have not been placed in the center of the discourse. (Rosemeary Feal deserves mad props for her outreach here. Tweeters aren’t always the most reverent or polite bunch, self included, but I am nothing compared to @mladeconvention.) Given that Matt won the MLA book award for best first book, it is hard to ignore the fact that digital humanities is becoming more prominent and more mainstream, if still marginal. But I also think there is somewhat of an echo chamber effect here. That is, of course those who write online and are engaged with technology are more likely to notice that technology is being talked about. I think if we polled all of the attendees at the MLA a vast majority of them would have no idea that a conversation (at times academic, at times not) was taking place via Twitter. Indeed I would venture to guess that a majority could not really describe to you what Twitter is/was.

  1. One of the other “much talked about items” at MLA was Brian Croxall’s (@briancroxall’s) paper, or non paper titled, “The Absent Presence: Today’s Faculty.” I say non-paper because Brian, who is currently on the job market and an adjunct faculty, didn’t attend the MLA, instead he published his paper to his own website. (I am told the paper was also read in absentia.) I won’t recap the whole thing here, you should just go read it. But two things stand out in the article: 1.”After all, I’m not a tenure-track faculty member, and the truth of the matter is that I simply cannot afford to come to this year’s MLA.” 2. “And yes, that means I do qualify for food stamps while working a full-time job as a professor!”
    For several reasons Brian’s paper hit a nerve. Indeed The Chronicle picked up the story, a piece which for a few days was listed as the most popular story on The Chronicle’s website. His paper became, arguably, the most talked about paper of the convention.

In part Brian’s story (how the paper became popular, not the content-or at least not yet, more on that in a minute) is in part a story of the rise of social media, and its influence. And this is where I think the real story in the Digital Humanities is, not the rise of the Digital Humanities, but rather the rise or non-rise of social media as a means of knowledge creation and distribution, and the fact that the rise has changed little. Digital Humanities if it is rising is rising as “Humanities 2.0″ allowed in because it is non-threatening.

So if you imagined asking all of the MLA attendees, not just the social media enabled ones, what papers/talks/panels were influential my guess is that Brian’s might not make the list, or if it did it wouldn’t top the list. That is because most of the “chatter” about the paper was taking place online, not in the space of the MLA.

Let’s be honest, at any given session you are lucky if you get over 50 people, assuming the panel at which the paper was read was well attended maybe 100 people actually heard the paper given. But, the real influence of Brian’s paper can’t be measured this way. The real influence should be measured by how many people read his paper, who didn’t attend the MLA. According to Brian, views to his blog jumped 200-300% in the two days following his post; even being conservative one could guess that over 2000 people performed more than a cursory glance at his paper (the numbers here are fuzzy and hard to track but I certainly think this is in the neighborhood). And Brian tells me that in total since the convention he is probably close to 5,000 views. 5000 people, that is half the size of the convention.

And, so if you asked all academics across the US who were following the MLA (reading The Chronicle, following academic websites and blogs) what the most influential story out of MLA was I think Brian’s would have topped the list, easily. Most academics would perform serious acts of defilement to get a readership in the thousands and Brian got it overnight.

Or, not really. . .Brian built that readership over the last three years.

As Amanda French (@amandafrench) argues, what social media affords us is the opportunity to amplify scholarly communication (actually if your read only one thing today on social media and academia today, read this). As she points out in her analysis (interestingly enough Amanda was not at MLA but still tweeting (conversing) about the MLA during the conference) only 3% of the people at MLA were tweeting about it. Compare that to other conferences, even other academic ones, and this looks rather pathetic. Clearly MLAers have a long way to go in coming to terms with social media as a place for scholarly conversation.

But, what made Brian’s paper so influential/successful is that Brian had already spent a great deal of time building network capital. He was one of the first people I followed on Twitter, was one of the panelists at last years MLA-Twitter panel. He teaches with technology. I know several professors borrow/steal his assignments. (I personally looked at his class wiki when designing my own.) Besides having a substantial traditional CV, Brian has a lot of “street cred” in the digital humanities/social networking/academia world. More than a lot of folks, deservedly so. It isn’t that he just “plays” with all this social media, he actually contributes to the community of scholars who are using it, in ways which are recognized as meaningful and important.

In this regard I couldn’t disagree with BitchPhD more (someone with whom I often agree) in her entry into the MLA, social media, Brian’s paper nexus of forces. Bitch claims that, “Professor Croxall is, if I may, a virtual nobody.”* Totally not true. Unlike Bitch he is not anonymous, or even pseudo-anonymous, his online identity and “real world identity” are the same. He is far from a virtual nobody. Indeed I would say he is one of the more prominent voices on matters digital and academia. He is clearly a “virtual* somebody,” and he has made himself a “virtual somebody” by being an active, productive, important, member of the “virtual academic community.” If he is anything he is a “real nobody,” but a “virtual somebody.” In the digital world network capital is the real “coin of the realm,” and Brian has a good bit of it, which when mustered and amplified through the network capital of others (@kfitz, @dancohen, @amandafrench, @mkgold, @chutry, @academicdave —all of us tweeted about Brian’s piece) brings him more audience members than he could ever really hoped to get in one room at the MLA.

And so Brian isn’t a virtual nobody, he isn’t a “potential somebody” he is a scholar of the the digital humanities, one that ought to be recognized. But here is the disconnect, Brian has a lot of “coin” in the realm of network capital, but this hasn’t yielded any “coin” in the realm of bricks and mortar institutions. If we were really seeing the rise of the digital humanities someone like Brian wouldn’t be without a job, and the fact that he published his paper online wouldn’t be such an oddity, it would be standard practice. **Instead Brian’s move seems all “meta- and performative and shit” when in fact it is what scholars should be doing. **

And so in the “I refute it thus” model of argumentation I offer up two observations: 1. The fact that Brian’s making public of his paper was an oddity worth noticing means that we are far away from the rise of the digital humanities. 2. The fact that a prominent digital scholar like Brian doesn’t even get one interview at the MLA means more than the economy is bad, that tenure track jobs are not being offered, but rather that Universities are still valuing the wrong stuff. They are looking for “real somebodies” instead of “virtual somebodies.” Something which the digital humanities has the potential of changing (although I remain skeptical).

In the panel at which I presented, an audience member noting the “meme” about the rise of the digital humanities asked if all of this “stuff” about digital humanities just reflected our fascination with gadgets, or how we balance our technology with humanities, how does the digital affect the humanities in a non-gadget way? (I paraphrase but that’s the thrust of the question). After a few of the other panelists answered, I suggested that the question was bad (this is often a rhetorical trope I employ). I said instead of thinking of the word digital as an adjective which modifies the humanities, the humanities 2.0 model, I am more interested in how the digital effects not how we do the humanities, but rather how the digital can fundamentally change what it means to do humanities, how the digital might change the very concept of “the humanities.” I don’t want a digital facelift for the humanities, I want the digital to completely change what it means to be a humanities scholar. When this happens then I’ll start arguing that the digital humanities have arrived. Really I couldn’t care less about text visualizations or neat programs which analyze the occurrences of the word “house” in Emily Dickinson’s poetry. If that is your scholarship fine, but it strikes me that that is just doing the same thing with new tools. Give me the “virtual somebodies” who are engaging in a new type of public intellectualism any day. Better yet, if you are a University and want to remain relevant in the next moment, give these people a job.