Beyond the Dark: Evaluating Digital Scholarship @ MLA

MLA 2013

Last year at this time I wrote that the MLA seemed to be undergoing a sea change, a shift away from the beleaguered and the drab and the sparsely attended 8:30am session on Walter Pater and the Posthuman Sublime and toward a more fully networked field of true collegiality. And the prime mover behind all of this was the DH community.

And I don’t think I was being naïve. There was a definite whiff of revolution in the air (or maybe Seattle always smells that way?)—a tang of some promised land where humanist lambs and R-programming lions might lie down together and produce immaculate visualizations charting the rise and fall of sublimity throughout the long 19th century.

This year was different…if only by shades. The revolutions of Boston’s convention felt, like the city itself, a little older and a little more careworn. That sounds dispirited, but it isn’t. Revolutions, like the people who begin and beget them, have to get older. And the revolutions of #altac, #dh, and #hashtags in general have grown up…and have lost some of the idealist trappings of their greener days.

This is mostly for the better, I should add. Yes, armbands (or the paperclipped-lapel equivalent) and #occupyMLA are effectively yesteryear’s news. And, yes, the promises that lurk at the edge of digital scholarship’s revolutionary rhetoric seem a little less promising…a little darker. But this is only because the edges have come into clearer focus. And with focus comes the loss of innocence. And with the loss of innocence comes the recession of utopia. Syllogisms ftw, alas.

But what has taken the place of utopian rhetoric is, I think, a richer conversation about what the work of digital scholarship is and should be. We’ve rolled up our sleeves and revealed not armbands, but a plain ol’ dungarees-and-flannel desire to do the incremental labor that comes after the poster paint has dried and cracked. In other words: it’s like the revolution just quietly—discursively—worked…at least a little (and to judge by the overflow crowds at the 66 different DH-themed panels, something has certainly worked). But now we’re left with the much more pressing and difficult task of administering to the immediate, less-than-utopian future.

Here’s one prime example of the good work I saw happening at MLA13:

Early on Thursday morning I attended a pre-conference workshop on Evaluating Digital Scholarship. Kathleen Fitzpatrick opened the session with an introduction to the new networking site MLA Commons—a platform that promises to offer social media warp and weft for humanities scholars looking to combine forces around disciplinary questions and challenges. I’m excited by the prospects of the platform and heartened that there’s now a group of dedicated folk discussin’ and fightin’ the good fight of appointment, promotion, and tenure for all kinds of publishing— digital, print, and otherwise.

The most profound takeaway from this meeting, however, was a point made by co-presider Alison Byerly. What she said was this: left to their own devices, individuals have more capacity for change than the institutions that house them. It seems like an obvious point: institutions are the central site for socio-cultural (and disciplinary) replication. The whole point of institutional (and disciplinary) standards and guidelines is self-preservation; and self-preservation is an inherently conservative process. Which is why the dread phrase “we’ve always done it that way” is so resolutely plural…and so aggressively past tense.

But what’s odd, says Byerly, is that you can strike up a conversation with any appointment, promotion, and tenure (APT) committee member and they’d say, off the record, that, yes, so-and-so candidate’s digital project or blog or multimedia/mulitmodal text should absolutely count as a formal publication. In the same breath, though, the same committee member would say that, no, there’s no way the department would back this claim. And heaven only knows the rampant levels of dismissiveness that would come spitting out of college admin offices.

The point is that if there’s a roadblock to moving beyond conversations about how to reform APT decision-making and toward actually changing policies, it’s a mind-forged one: the presumption of conservatism “out there” reinstates conservative decision-making by individuals. But standards are made and governed and changed by individual actors, at the atomic level, and not by some amorphous institutional body politic. It seems we’re (still) at the beginning of a movement that will (eventually) give rise to changing standards and recommendations. But we’re also at a point in the timeline of change where real bravery is needed, where thinking individually, not institutionally, is paramount.

Or better: we’re at a point where good dossiers are not only those that are chockablock with top tier journal articles and a book contract from one of five university presses; we’re at point where the candidate can, through the hard work of translating her dossier—motivating and contextualizing the (still) strange landscapes of computational methods, or multimodal interfaces, or the creation of social networking platforms—bring round the committee to a place of support.

And this hard work of translation doesn’t have to be borne by the candidate alone.  As Jason Mittell and Roger Whitson speculated, having a “group that could help translate” digital work to the language of the institution would be a powerful step in the right direction.

Brief selfish plug time: Anvil, in conjunction with groups like the MLA (and now MLA Commons) aims to provide just this needed translational pathway from the digital project to the APT committee member, the external reviewer, the dean, the provost. One of our central goals is to help reframe work that is unorthodox, that is strange and new and good, not as a variation on the status quo, but as crucial scholarship; and, more particularly, as scholarship that deserves to call itself a publication not because it simply replicates or analogizes the processes involved in formal publication, but because it reimagines these processes at a time when they desperately need reimagining.

So, yes, engaging in the crafting and vetting of DH work for appointment, promotion, and tenure is still up to brave individuals—candidates and reviewers alike. But such bravery is made easier knowing that extra-institutional organizations (particularly digital publishers) are committed to having the individual’s back…not only in theory but also, as we hope to show, in practice.