Because I'm on fellowship leave, and because I'm committed to an extraordinary amount of travel in the semester ahead, I didn't attend the recent MLA conference in Seattle. I followed the event at a distance through friends on FB and the occasional text message or phone chat. I know a few people who are on the job market, and a delegation of GW English faculty were conducting interviews for our Romanticist position. And maybe that says it: the MLA convention is easy shorthand for the US academic hiring process in literature, since in hotel rooms at that conference most of the interviewing is undertaken.
This year, though, I also experienced the unfolding of the meeting via Twitter (hashtag #MLA12). You know already from Eileen how much Twitter can offer the plugged-in scholar; MLA 12, though, seemed crowdsourced. Most of those who tweeted from sessions are Digital Humanities scholars -- a field in which I participate (you're reading this on a blog, after all), but without knowing enough about its contours. So it was illuminating to hear quick takes on panel presentations that outline some of the issues currently being discussed, everything from e-lit to digital editions to the labor conditions hidden by our assumption that technology comes to hand without human expenditure. Digital humanities were so prominent at MLA that they also received the predictable backlash: that DH is the next fad (as if feminism or critical race studies were fads rather than enduring transformations to our scholarly modes), or that DH is parvenu (as if it didn't have a history that goes back decades, and as if it didn't have deep roots in the technologies and study of the distant past). Intriguing, too, to see via Twitter video game theorists alongside those who study Shakespeare's plays, so that arguments about quarto and Folio versions of Lear resonated with the phenomenology of objects in electronic worlds. Some of the accounts I followed: Sarah Werner, Rosemary Feal, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Matt Thomas, Ryan Cordell, Ian Bogost, Stacey Donohue, George Online, New Faculty Majority, Doug Armato, Mark Sample, Dan Cohen, MLA Convention, Erin Templeton. That's a quick sampling.
Tweeting a conference creates a more embodied space for scholarship to transpire within. One scholar reported as her plane was delayed multiple times and she wondered if she'd ever make it to Seattle (and admit I was relieved when she did arrive; it was a nail biter), another noted the preponderance of black while wearing her own orange sweater. Tweets often surveyed the room and told us the gender breakdown at specific sessions. Sometimes speakers were chided for taking too long, squeezing out those who came after them or disallowing conversation. Most focused on the substance of the presentations, offering tantalizing insight into large, exciting projects (and yes, a talented writer can convey revelatory information in 140 characters). Some people, I know, like their knowledge to arrive without such context; I look to journals for such disembodied delivery systems. Scholarship unfolds in a world, and I like to experience what I can of that complicated unfolding. It deepens my understanding of how knowledge works, and increases the likelihood that I'll retain what I've learned.
One of the most provocative tweets came from Elaine Treherne, who was likewise following the conference:
I wonder about this situation as well. Is one required to seek permission before reporting on a speaker's presentation via twitter or a blog? Or is a presentation inherently public, reportable (with proper attribution, etc)? Those tweeting the DH sessions didn't worry. What's happened, I think, is that a conference is no longer considered a closed or private space where you impart an argument in its almost-article form, just before you publish a citable (and non-dialogic) version within the cement of a paper journal. Despite the fact that someone will check your nametag at the door to ensure you've registered if you want to sit at session, conferences in the digital age have become networked, public forums with potentially immediate and wide impact. That is especially true in digital humanities, which embraces that flow of information in subjective and multiple forms. Relatively few of the sessions on more tradition topics were tweeted.Is tweeting all the main points of an unpublished conference paper really ethical? Has permission been sought from the speaker, I wonder?
Delegate assemblies and governance meetings did get some coverage, though. Rosemary Feal did an impressive job of disseminating information about them. As executive director of the MLA, she has rendered the organization's workings transparent via her frequent use of twitter. Her electronic outreach matters, and has often been aimed towards those who are young in the field and those who are not traditional TT faculty. The MLA that Feal conveys is a much more welcoming one than those who know the organization only thorough the conference, and the conference only through the interview process. This year I was happy to witness its diverse and vivacious other side, the reason MLA actually exists -- a witnessing that confirmed for me that those working in DH are leading the field in promising new directions.