Digital Humanities Sessions at MLA 2008

A couple of days after returning from the MLA (Modern Language Association) conference, I ran into a biologist friend who had read about the “conference sex” panel at MLA.  She said,  “Wow, sometimes I doubt the relevance of my research, but that conference sounds ridiculous.” I’ve certainly had my moments of skepticism toward the larger purposes of literary research while sitting through dull conference sessions, but my MLA experience actually made me feel jazzed and hopeful about the humanities.  That’s because the sessions that I attended–mostly panels on the digital humanities–explored topics that seemed both intellectually rich and relevant to the contemporary moment.  For instance, panelists discussed the significance of networked reading, dealing with information abundance, new methods for conducting research such as macroanalysis and visualization, participatory learning, copyright challenges, the shift (?) to digital publishing, digital preservation, and collaborative editing.  Here are my somewhat sketchy notes about the MLA sessions I was able to attend; see great blog posts by Cathy Davidson, Matt Gold, Laura Mandell, Alex Reid, and John Jones for more reflections on MLA 2008.

1)    Seeing patterns in literary texts
At the session “Defoe, James, and Beerbohm: Computer-Assisted Criticism of Three Authors,” David Hoover noted that James scholars typically distinguish between his late and early work.  But what does that difference look like?  What evidence can we find of such a distinction? Hoover used computational/ statistical methods such as Principal Components Analysis and the T-test to examine the word choice in across James’ work and found some striking patterns illustrating that James’ diction during his early period was indeed quite different from his late period.   Hoover introduced the metaphor of computational approaches to literature serving either as a telescope (macroanalysis, discerning patterns across a large body of texts) or a microscope (looking closely at individual works or authors).

2)    New approaches to electronic editing

The ACH Guide to Digital-Humanities Talks at the 2008 MLA Convention lists at least 9 or 10 sessions concerned with editing or digital archives, and the Chronicle of Higher Ed dubbed digital editing as a “hot topic” for MLA 2008.   At the session on Scholarly Editing in the Twenty-First Century: Digital Media and Editing, Peter Robinson (whose paper was delivered by Jerome McGann and included passages referencing Jerome McGann) presented the idea of “Editing without walls,” shifting from a centralized model where a scholar acts as the “guide and guardian” who oversees work on an edition to a distributed, collaborative model.  With “community made editions,” a library would produce high quality images, researchers would transcribe those images, other researchers would collate the transcriptions, others would analyze the collations and add commentaries, etc. Work would be distributed and layered.  This approach opens up a number of questions: what incentives will researchers have to work on the project? How will the work be coordinated? Who will maintain the distributed edition for the long term?  But Robinson claimed that the approach would have significant advantages, including reduced cost and greater community investment in the editions.  Several European initiatives are already working on building tools and platforms similar to what Peter Shillingsburg calls “electronic knowledge sites,” including the Discovery Project, which aims to “explore how Semantic Web technology can help to create a state-of-the-art research and publishing environment for philosophy” and the Virtual Manuscript Room, which “will bring together digital resources related to manuscript materials (digital images, descriptions and other metadata, transcripts) in an environment which will permit libraries to add images, scholars to add and edit metadata and transcripts online, and users to access material.”

Matt Kirschenbaum then posed the provocative question if Shakespeare had a hard drive, what would scholars want to examine: when he began work on King Lear, how long he worked on it, what changes he made, what web sites he consulted while writing?  Of course, Shakespeare didn’t have a hard drive, but almost every writer working now uses a computer, so it’s possible to analyze a wide range of information about the writing process.  Invoking Tom Tanselle, Matt asked, “What are the dust jackets of the information age?” That is, what data do we want to preserve?  Discussing his exciting work with Alan Liu and Doug Reside to make available William Gibson’s Agrippa in emulation and as recorded on video in the early 1990s, Matt demonstrated how emulation can be used to simulate the original experience of this electronic poem.  He emphasized the importance of collaborating with non-academics–hackers, collectors, and even Agrippa’s original publisher–to learn about Agrippa’s history and make the poem available.  Matt then addressed digital preservation.  Even data designed to self-destruct is recoverable, but Matt expressed concern about cloud computing, where data exists on networked servers.  How will scholars get access to a writer’s email, Facebook updates, Google Docs, and other information stored online?  Matt pointed to several projects working on the problem of archiving electronic art and performances by interviewing artists about what’s essential and providing detailed descriptions of how they should be re-created: Forging the Future and Archiving the Avante Garde.
3)    Literary Studies in the Digital Age: A Methodological Primer

At the panel on Methodologies Literary Studies in the Digital Age, Ken Price discussed a forthcoming book that he is co-editing with Ray Siemens called Literary Studies in a Digital Age: A Methodological Primer.  The book, which is under consideration by MLA Press, will feature essays such as John Unsworth on electronic scholarly publishing, Tanya Clement on critical trends, David Hoover on textual analysis, Susan Schreibman on electronic editing, and Bill Kretzschmer on GIS, etc.   Several authors to be included in the volume—David Hoover, Alan Liu, and Susan Schreibman—spoke.

Hoover began with a provocative question: do we really want to get to 2.0, collaborative scholarship? He then described different models of textual analysis:
i.    the portal (e.g. MONK, TAPOR): typically a suite of simple tools; platform independent; not very customizable
ii.     desktop tools (e.g. TACT)
iii.    standardized software used for text analysis (e.g. Excel)

Next, Alan Liu  discussed his Transliteracies project, which examines the cultural practices of online reading and the ways in which reading changes in a digital environment (e.g. distant reading, sampling, and “networked public discourse,” with links, comments, trackback, etc).  The transformations in reading raise important questions, such as the relationship between expertise and networked public knowledge.  Liu pointed to a number of crucial research and development goals (both my notes and memory get pretty sketchy here):
1)    development of a standardized metadata scheme for annotating social networks
2)    data mining and annotating social computing
3)    reconciling metadata with writing systems
4)    information visualization for the contact zone between macro-analysis and close reading
5)    historical analysis of past paradigms for reading and writing
6)    authority-adjudicating systems to filter content
7)    institutional structures to encourage scholars to share and participate in new public knowledge

Finally, Susan Schreibman discussed electronic editions.  Among the first humanities folks drawn to the digital environment were editors, who recognized that electronic editions would allow them to overcome editorial challenges and present a history of the text over time, pushing beyond the limitations of the textual apparatus and representing each edition.  Initially the scholarly community focused on building single author editions such as the Blake and Whitman Archives.  Now the community is trying to get beyond siloed projects by building grid technologies to edit, search and display texts.  (See, for example, TextGrid, http://www.textgrid.de/en/ueber-textgrid.html).   Schreibman asked how we can use text encoding to “unleash the meanings of text that are not transparent” and encode themes or theories of text, then use tools such as TextArc or ManyEyes to engage in different spatial/temporal views.

A lively discussion of crowdsourcing and expert knowledge followed, hinging on the question of what the humanities have to offer in the digital age.  Some answers: historical perspective on past modes of reading, writing and research; methods for dealing with multiplicity, ambiguity and incomplete knowledge; providing expert knowledge about which text is the best to work with.  Panelists and participants envisioned new technologies and methods to support new literacies, such as the infrastructure that would enable scholars and readers to build their own editions; a “close-reading machine” based upon annotations that would enable someone to study, for example, dialogue in the novel; the ability to zoom out to see larger trends and zoom in to examine the details; the ability to examine “humanities in the age of total recall,” analyzing the text in a network of quotation and remixing; developing methods for dealing with what is unknowable.

4) Publishing and Cyberinfrastructure

At the panel on publishing and cyberinfrastracture moderated by Laura Mandell, Penny Kaiserling from the University of Virginia Press, Linda Bree from Cambridge UP, and Michael Lonegro from Johns Hopkins Press discussed the challenges that university presses are facing as they attempt to shift into the digital.  At Cambridge, print sales are currently subsidizing ebooks.  Change is slower than was envisioned ten years ago, more evolutionary than revolutionary.  All three publishers emphasized that publishers are unlikely to transform their publishing model unless academic institutions embrace electronic publication, accepting e-publishing for tenure and promotion and purchasing electronic works.  Ultimately, they said, it is up to the scholarly community to define what is valued.  Although the shift into electronic publishing of journals is significant, academic publishers’ experience lags in publishing monographs.  One challenge is that journals are typically bundled, but there isn’t such a model for bundling books.  Getting third party rights to illustrations and other copyrighted materials included in a book is another challenge.  Ultimately scholars will need to rethink the monograph, determining what is valuable (e.g. the coherence of an extended argument) and how it exists electronically, along with the benefits offered by social networking and analysis.  Although some in the audience challenged the publishers to take risks in initiating change themselves, the publishers emphasized that it is ultimately up to scholarly community.  The publishers also asked why the evaluation of scholarship depended on a university press constrained by economics rather than scholars themselves–that is, why professional review has been outsourced to the university press.

5) Copyright

The panel on Promoting the Useful Arts: Copyright, Fair Use, and the Digital Scholar, which was moderated by Steve Ramsay, featured Aileen Berg explaining the publishing industry’s view of copyright, Robin G. Schulze describing the nightmare of trying to get rights to publish an electronic edition of Marianne Moore’s notebooks, and Kari Kraus detailing how copyright and contract law make digital preservation difficult.  Schulze asked where the MLA was when copyright was extended through the Sony Bono Act, limiting what scholars can do, and said she is working on pre-1923 works to avoid the copyright nightmare.  Berg, who was a good sport to go before an audience not necessarily sympathetic to the publishing industry’s perspective, advised authors to exercise their own rights and negotiate their agreements rather than simply signing what is put before; often they can retain some rights.  Kraus discussed how licenses (such as click-through agreements) are further limiting how scholars can use intellectual works but noted some encouraging signs, such as the James Joyce estate’s settlement with a scholar allowing her to use copyrighted materials in her scholarship.  Attendees discussed ways that literature professors could become more active in challenging unfair copyright limitations, particularly through advocacy work and supporting groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

6) Humanities 2.0: Participatory Learning in an Age of Technology

The Humanities 2.0 panel featured three very interesting presentations about the projects funded through the MacArthur Digital Learning competition, as well Cathy Davidson’s overview of the competition and of HASTAC.  (For a fuller discussion of the session, see Cathy Davidson’s summary.) Davidson drew a distinction between “digital humanities,” which uses the digital technologies to enhance the mission of the humanities, and humanities 2.0, which “wants us to combine critical thinking about the use of technology in all aspects of social life and learning with creative design of future technologies” (Davidson).    Next Howard Rheingold discussed the “social media classroom,” which is “a free and open-source (Drupal-based) web service that provides teachers and learners with an integrated set of social media that each course can use for its own purposes—integrated forum, blog, comment, wiki, chat, social bookmarking, RSS, microblogging, widgets, and video commenting are the first set of tools.”  Todd Presner showcased the Hypercities project, a geotemporal interface for exploring and augmenting spaces.  Leveraging the Google Maps API and KML, HyperCities enable people to navigate and narrate their own past through space and time, adding their own markers to the map and experiencing different layers of time and space.  The project is working with citizens and students to add their own layers of information—images, narratives—to the maps, making available an otherwise hidden history.  Currently there are maps for Rome, LA, New York, and Berlin.   A key principle behind HyperCities is aggregating and integrating archives, moving away from silos of information. Finally, Greg Niemeyer and Antero Garcia presented BlackCloud.org, which is engaging students and citizens in tracking pollution using whimsically designed sensors that measure pollution.  Students tracked levels of pollution at different sites—including in their own classroom—and began taking action, investigating the causes of pollution and advocating for solutions.  What unified these projects was the belief that students and citizens have much to contribute in understanding and transforming their environments.

7. The Library of Google: Researching Scanned Books

What does Google Books mean for literary research?  Is Google Books more like a library or a research tool?  What kind of research is made possible by Google Books (GB)? What are GB’s limitations?  Such questions were discussed in a panel on Google Books that was moderated by Michael Hancher included Amanda French, Eleanor Shevlin, and me.  Amanda described how Google Books enabled her to find earlier sources on the history of the villanelle than she was able to locate pre-GB, Eleanor provided a book history perspective on GB, and I discussed the advantages and limitations of GB for  digital scholarship (my slides are available here).  A lively discussion among the 35 or so attendees followed; all but one person said that GB was, on balance, good for scholarship, although some people expressed concern that GB would replace interlibrary loan, indicated that they use GB mainly as a reference tool to find information in physical volumes, and emphasized the need to continue to consult physical books for bibliographic details such as illustrations and bindings.

8. Posters/Demonstrations: A Demonstration of Digital Poetry Archives and E-Criticism: New Critical Methods and Modalities

I was pleased to see the MLA feature two poster sessions, one on digital archives, one on digital research methods. Instead of just watching a presentation, attendees could engage in discussion with project developers and see how different archives and tools worked.  That kind of informal exchange allows people to form collaborations and have a more hands-on understanding of the digital humanities. (I didn’t take notes and the sessions occurred in the evening, when my brain begins to shut down, so my summary is pretty unsophisticated: wow, cool.)

Reflections on MLA

This was my first MLA and, despite having to leave home smack in the middle of the holidays, I enjoyed it.   Although many sessions that I attended shifted away from the “read your paper aloud when people are perfectly capable of reading it themselves” model, I noted the MLA’s requirement that authors bring three copies of their paper to provide upon request, which raises the question what if you don’t have a paper (just Powerpoint slides or notes) and why can’t you share electronically? And why doesn’t the MLA  provide fuller descriptions of the sessions besides just title and speakers?  (Or am I just not looking in the right place?)  Sure, in the paper era that would mean the conference issue of PMLA would be several volumes thick, but if the information were online there would be a much richer record of each session.  (Or you could enlist bloggers or twitterers [tweeters?] to summarize each session…) After attending THAT Camp, I’m a fan of the unconference model, which fosters the kind of engagement that conferences should be all about—conversation, brainstorming, and problem-solving rather than passive listening.  But lively discussions often do take place during the Q & A period and in the hallways after the sessions (and who knows what takes place elsewhere…)

7 responses to “Digital Humanities Sessions at MLA 2008

  1. Thank you for the excellent summary of what went on at the convention (and what we can do to be “unconventional” in the future). We are working on making our Web site a center for some of the ideas you suggest.

    Rosemary G. Feal
    Executive Director, MLA

  2. I’m not sure how it would work, but David Parry had an interesting suggestion that MLA make the “My MLA” scheduler social so that we could see what others with similar interests were planning to attend and share our itinerary with others who have similar interests.

    By itself, the my MLA planner was a great tool. But being able to share schedules would allow the possibility of an even more engaged group of scholars.

    • Hey, I’d love to see what sessions other folks were planning to attend–to find folks with common interests, see what the hot sessions are, and figure out who to button hole about sessions I missed.

  3. The possible downside is that it *might* reinforce some panels as “hot” and discourage attendance at others that are worthy of attention, but I like Dave’s idea quite a bit.

  4. Pingback: Amanda L. French, Ph.D. » Blog Archive » Digital MLA 2008: An epistolary meta-narrative

  5. Pingback: Examples of Collaborative Digital Humanities Projects « Digital Scholarship in the Humanities

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