Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs
This evening, merely an hour after I landed at the annual MLA convention, where jobseekers with Ph.D.s in literature or foreign languages congregate and which was probably best immortalized by the poet John Berryman, I went in search of digital humanities sessions at what is supposed to be the "worst MLA ever." After all, the Chronicle of Higher Education has apparently identified the field that I actually belong to as one of the few sites of hope at the 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.
Unfortunately, because of family obligations, I already knew that I had missed the session jam-packed with Virtualpolitik friends and fellow bloggers: Kathleen Fitzpatrick (chair), Dave Parry, Chuck Tryon, and Jeremy Douglass. (Luckily, some of their material is posted here.)
Luckily there were still some night owls at the evening session about Looking for Whitman, an ambitious NEH-funded multi-campus pedagogical/archival experiment involving the three cities in which the famed poet lived and worked: New York City, Washington D.C., and Camden, New Jersey. As Matthew Gold explained in his introduction, this project brought together a range of students -- from undergraduate nonmajors in a technical education program to literature graduate students who planned to be professionals in the academy -- at several institutions: Rutgers, CUNY, and University of Mary Washington. Thanks to NYU professor Karen Karbiener, it even ultimately included students across the Atlantic in Novi Sad, who translated Whitman into Serbian.
Gold described a project with many parts. Like Alan Liu, he realized that having students create profile pages would be an important part, which they did under the rubric of "Frotispieces." They also responded to assignments structured around the concept of the "image gloss," the "cinepoem," and the "vault." In keeping with the curatorial metaphor that has become an important part of the digital humanities, students also created text for a "material culture museum" and a physical museum where they created a script for a visitor's center. Using free and open source technologies and a WordPress platform, he described an initiative intended to be "porous," "feed-conscious," "decentered," "networked," "flexible," "mashed," and "open." Fundamental pedagogical principles included connecting "poetry to place," working with existing institutions, encouraging serendipitous exchanges between students, increasing the visibility of local archives, and urging students to write for more public audiences.
During the question and answer period, there were hard questions about copyright, plagiarism, assessment, and the evaluation of student work. In response, some defended Cathy Davidson's controversial call for the "crowd sourcing" of grades.
Update: There's another great piece on MLA gloom from the Chronicle here.