Logging On

Cheryl Ball, Editor

News from the MLA Convention

For the past several years, Kairos readers know that I've been attending the Modern Language Association convention over winter break, taking part in their growing offerings of Digital Humanities sessions, which I've then discussed in this editor's column. This year was no exception—I travelled from Norway, where I am currently on a Fulbright in digital publishing at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design (see their Centre for Design Research!), back to the polar vortex of Chicago for the 2014 MLA—although I am sad to report that I didn't get to attend any sessions except my own: "Evaluating Digital Scholarship: Candidate Success Stories."

Kairos readers will also know that OF COURSE I had to be on this roundtable. ;) A big thanks to Victoria Szabo and the MLA Committee on Information Technology for arranging the session! It was previewed in the Chronicle of Higher Education and reviewed in Inside Higher Ed. Although the roundtable format didn't allow for much depth of conversation (digital rhetoric and composition folks could have recited how the Q&A went in their sleep...), one stand-out note was N. Katherine Hayles' response to the roundtable. I'll repeat three of her important points here (paraphrased by me):

  1. Junior scholars should not approach senior scholars as antagonists in the tenure game. There is a learning gap about digital scholarship, but being pissy about it from the start (or assuming that senior colleagues are going to be pissy about it from the start) doesn't help matters, and certainly doesn't recognize that many senior scholars are interested in learning/reading DH scholarship.
  2. Senior scholars have a responsibility to meet tenure candidates half-way, at least, by learning to read DH scholarship presented in nontraditional formats. Hayles has been a model of this for literature and media studies. In writing studies, we have lots of model-mentors, and we have scholarship about this mentorship, thanks to a lovely 2007 article by Debra Journet in Computers and Composition.
  3. The MLA Guidelines for Evaluating Work in Digital Humanities and Digital Media aren't good enough. Hayles remarked that the reason these guidelines aren't that helpful is because they don't offer exemplars for "good" projects—that is, the guidelines are too vague to be of use to senior scholars who don't already know what they're looking for. Although this is not my particular critique of the MLA guidelines, I was thrilled to hear someone as listened-to as Hayles say that the guidelines were ineffective. Of course, I don't think there should be set criteria for evaluating digital scholarship, because the genres of that scholarship will always be too many and too changing to cover in static criteria, but the spirit of Hayles' remark—that we need MORE discussion of these issues—made me do a private, little fistpump.

So, it was a good session, and the tweet stream seemed pleased with it. I only wish I could have gone to more sessions. I spent most of the conference finishing up my duties as Secretary/Treasurer for the Council of Editors of Learned Journals, a 300+ member, MLA-allied organization for scholarly and belle lettristic journal editors. There is not wide participation from rhetoric and composition journal editors on this council—I think there are five of us :( —and it would be nice to see more, particularly as the MLA Executive Council will be determining in February whether to approve a NEW category in the convention organization for Rhetoric, Composition, and Writing Studies. Being a category puts us on equal footing with "Languages, Literatures, and Cultures" and "Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies" among other disciplinary and transdisciplinary areas. Currently, the Rhetoric, Composition, and Writing Studies category has five proposed fora :

  • Creative Writing
  • History and Theory of Composition
  • History and Theory of Rhetoric
  • Literacy Studies
  • Writing Pedagogies

(Program Administration and Digital Humanities are listed elsewhere, in more transdisciplinary ways, in the proposed structure.)

As I said at one of the open meetings to discuss the reorganization, which hasn't happened since 1974(!), this proposal lays a great foundation for including writing studies as a visible part of the MLA convention. (I won't get into the argument of job market statistics; see Michael Berube's nice, public Facebook post about people incorrectly conflating the market with the convention.) However, there's still room for improvement, particularly (as I and others who've discussed this with me see it) through the need to include digital writing, as a field markably separate from DH, and professional/technical communication, as a discipline on the same scholarly level (according to the above list) as creative writing. Even Marianne Hirsch, the incredibly reasonable President of MLA, admitted the latter is a bit of a chicken/egg conundrum—PW doesn't attend MLA (she says), so why put it on the map? But if MLA puts PW on the map, will they come? I don't believe it's true that PW doesn't already come to MLA. Maybe I'm misremembering, but have I not seen scholars like Alex Reid, Kathie Gossett, Collin Brooke, Liza Potts, Douglas Eyman, Bill Hart-Davidson and other technical communication scholars present at MLA? Perhaps the confusion is that these scholars also often occupy more traditional rhetoric slots and/or their work at MLA isn't the same work they'd present at ATTW or SIGDOC or another more straight-up technical/professional communication conference? I really believe that if we make a space for PW on the map at MLA, there'll be plenty of scholars to fill those slots and it would make some incredibly sweet connections to the literary-infused DH work already happening in strong numbers at MLA.

The same is true for needing a computers-and-writing forum under Writing Studies as separate from the DH forum under Transdisciplinary Connections. Yes, writing is across the curriculum, but let the literary DHers have their session, and we—with our own methodologies and pedagogies and disciplinary histories—have ours. And, again, then we can collaborate across those shared borders. Of course, Hirsch noted that the MLA is concerned about overpopulating these new groups, especially as each one gets a guaranteed session at MLA (I think). Perhaps the PW and computers-and-writing forum can share the same space, under a group called something like Technorhetoric? It doesn't quite make sense to merge those two, but that's my tentative suggestion. There's still time to add your input (until February 1) into the revised draft proposal of the forum structure: http://groupsdiscussion.commons.mla.org/. If you're not an MLA member, you can't comment into the Commons draft directly, but please email me your comments by January 30, and I'll make sure they get submitted!



Journet, Debra. (2007). Inventing myself in multimodality: Encouraging senior faculty to use digital media. Computers and Composition 24, 107-120.