Logging On

Cheryl Ball, Editor

On Attending MLA

The session prospects for rhetoric and composition scholars, particularly those who teach with and study technology, were higher than in most recent years. As Mark Sample's blog post outlining nearly 60 digital humanities sessions indicated, the number of sessions on things digital has more than doubled in the last two years. Although MLA had its ups and downs for me, overall the sessions I attended and conversations I had were rewarding and productive.

As others around me also noted, the feel of MLA has changed significantly in the last two years, in part because of the convention's desire to shake things up with more non-traditional panels types, free wifi, and more attention in the schedule to digital humanities. Of course, last year the LA locale didn't hurt either -- overall, there was a noticeable shift in the attitude of the conference, from stuffy to jaunty. This year, that trend continued (is Seattle even better than LA?). Although MLA hasn't released final attendance figures (as of this writing), rumor put it at around the same as last year, with a remarkable lowering of the number of stuffy suits decreasing annually. And attitudes seemed to be more excited than excruciating. Yes, the job market is still a hot issue, and the tone in most sessions was rather staid. (Kathey Yancey sweetly reprimanded the audience in her session, suggesting that "although I know it's MLA, you can still laugh." That was my experience as well.). But, overall, people seemed to be nicer, kinder, more willing to engage in discussion, and there seemed to be much less anxiety hovering in the atmosphere. Except, perhaps, for traditional print journal editors and traditional literary scholars, who had to contend with "poster" sessions such as "MoMLA: From Panel to Gallery" (#s231) and "Reconfiguring Publishing" (#s301) as well as more traditional panel sessions such as "Learned Journals and Libraries: Knowledge Economies and Economics of Knowledge" (#s330) or "The New Dissertation: Thinking outside the (Proto-)Book" (#s315) or "Giving It Away: Sharing and the Future of Scholarly Communication" (#s674). The number of interesting sessions outnumbered my available time slots, so the Twitter stream (with session numbers) was crucial this year.

Besides the session I presented at ("The Future of Peer Review," #s34), which was delightfully written up by Scott Jaschik and not too obnoxiously commented on in Inside Higher Ed, I'll highlight two of the panels I attended that may be of interest to Kairos readers.

"MoMLA: From Panel to Gallery" (#s231) was a reprisal, in some ways, of the 2006 CCCC panel, "From Panel to Gallery," then and now coordinated by Victor Vitanza. (A version of the 2006 session was later published in the 2008 manifesto issue of Kairos). About half of the original panel members presented--Virginia Kuhn, Geof Carter, Robert Leston, and Sarah Arroyo, plus bonnie kyburz, whose filming of the original session appeared as an introduction in the 2008 publication. In addition, Anthony Collamati, Jason Helms, Justin Hodgson, and Bahareh Alaei joined the panel. The 2006 session required presenters to show their works on their own laptops, likely without any wireless connection. This time, the "posters" were presented on large, flat-screen monitors provided by MLA. (The exception was kyburz's piece, which was projected onto 3 walls inside a small, white cube.) This session was requested by the MLA organizers as one of the many nontraditional (poster or roundtable) panels that MLA has started to consider and promote. The double irony is that while MLA has more money to promote and present digital scholarship now, they are still late to the game compared to the underfunded CCCC, which still can't provide wireless access to its attendees. Being "late to the game," however, is all relative given that several presenters in this session mentioned to me that another attendee kept asking them "So how is this writing?" in a tone of disbelief. I'm pretty sure it was the same guy who kept monkeying with kyburz's projector so it would only display on one wall of the cube -- a readerly move that I'm sure she'll address when the group publishes their gallery in an upcoming issue of Kairos.

"Preservation Is (Not) Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose" (#s444). This roundtable featured quick takes on how each of the following groups handles digital preservation of their texts, in order of presentations: Laura Mandell on 18thConnect.org, John Kiplinger from Ithaka talking about JSTOR and Portico, John Wilkin from HathiTrust Digital Library, and Rod Gauvin from ProQuest. Respondent Joan Lippincott represented the Coalition of Networked Information. The goals of digital preservation were the primary focus here, with a focus on community needs. Kiplinger spoke of the four goals Ithaka has for digital preservation: usability, authenticity, discoverability, accessibility. Wilkin evoked a 3-legged stool of similar goals: fidelity, open format, viability of medium. Many of the speakers (and audience members) reminded us that if the original digitization (yes, we're talking linguistic-based works here... but wait for it) isn't up to par, we're going to need those original print copies back. So, storing print copies ad infinitum has become a pressing issue in digital preservation. Go figure. In the end, preservation is a huge metadata issue and, thus, a huge labor (economic) issue that libraries, not publishers, will bare the brunt of. For those working on preservation issues, none of the above will be a big shocker. So it was shocking (to me, at least) that Lippincott directly asked all four panelists to answer how they handle or plan to handle the preservation of "born-digital" scholarship "like Vectors." ("Wha? Hold the boat," I thought. Somebody's asking about scholarly multimedia?!) Not surprisingly, none had an answer, or rather, they dodged the question by answering it in relation to what they can't do with digital media but what they are doing with digitized print-based or "born-digital," linguistic-based texts. (And, if you followed the Twitter feed, you know that's when I stood up to make my peace, invoking the amazingly detailed and involved work that 15 undergraduate students in my digital publishing class performed last spring to mine metadata from the 25,000 media elements Kairos had published up until that point.) I am pleased that the panel seemed interested in this work and even asked me to follow up with them after the conference. I'm doing that (as soon as I finish this column!). I hope we can have some productive conversations about digital media metadata and scholarly preservation.

Making these connections is the reason I attend MLA. It's paying off (slowly), and I'm glad the MLA had so many sponsored sessions that included librarians, journal editors, and preservation and access organizations. Makes me want to keep attending.