The Significance of Electronic Poster Sessions
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At December’s meeting of the Modern Language Association, the Committee on Information Technology sponsored two special sessions on electronic scholarship and publication in literary studies. Rather than the familiar panels consisting of three 15-20 minute papers, a pitcher of water, and a brief Q&A (time permitting), these meetings were structured as “electronic poster sessions.” Multiple presenters stationed around the perimeter of the room in front of easel displays and laptop computers demonstrated their projects and spoke to anyone who stopped by with questions.
Conversational and (literally) interactive, these presentations sometimes lasted a few minutes and sometimes more, depending on the size of the group standing at the station and the nature of the questions asked. In the room as a whole, the general hum and the constant movement of people from station to station produced a very different atmosphere from what might be expected in the usual MLA session. It was noisier, more chaotic and informal, more the result of many localized one-to-one encounters. All of this may be new at the MLA, with its culture of paper-readings as public performances, but poster sessions in general have been around for a long time in other disciplines, and sessions like these have long been the norm at science and technology conferences, and even, for example, at the annual meetings of the interdisciplinary Association for Computing in the Humanities. Instead of paper (or foamcore) posters containing labeled graphs, charts, or other visualizations, technology poster sessions usually involve a computer screen. More important, they actually provide for live, hands-on demonstrations of the tools and resources being presented.
This was the second year the MLA has included this kind of technology poster session in its schedule and this year participation was markedly increased. Co-organizer Michael Groden of the University of Western Ontario speculated that simply changing the name in the program from “poster sessions” (which may have puzzled some MLA members) to “digital demonstrations” probably helped. This year’s sessions saw a constant stream of people moving into the room, making their way slowly around the various stations, and then leaving, to be replaced by others. Outside the room a sign containing graphical “thumbnail” images of the posters displayed inside -- a kind of poster of posters -- worked to attract some curious passersby, who wandered in to see what was being demonstrated. Inside, almost every station sustained a rotating cluster of two or three, or six or seven people, sometimes more, watching demonstrations, trying out resources on the computer, or talking to the presenters. Two presenters worked at some stations, in order to be able to divide their attention between two different groups of questioners.
The advent of this new format, along with the increased interest at the sessions, coincides with an increased attention by the MLA to the problem of how to acknowledge new forms of research in general -- and digital projects in particular. The crisis in book and journal publishing has been on the agenda for several years now, but this year a special panel was convened by the MLA to discuss strategies for changing expectations for tenure reviews and to encourage the profession to take account of “’multiple pathways’ to demonstrating research excellence,” other than the traditional letterpress monograph, among them forms of scholarship produced and published online. These new forms include peer-reviewed online journals, which was the focus of the first poster session, featuring my own Web site’s Romantic Circles Praxis Series, as well as The Writing Instructor, and Language and Learning Technology, among other projects.
Though peer reviewed in the traditional way, carefully edited, and indexed by the MLA Bibliography under its unique ISSN, our Praxis Series is also able to take advantage of the flexibilities of scale, inventive genres of scholarship, and more malleable production schedules made possible by online publication. Multimedia essays, illustrated or even using or audio recordings, are among the contributions to its 28 volumes to date. And of course they are searchable, both internally and via Google, and in future may be linked to growing clusters of interoperable digital scholarship.
Besides online electronic journals, which extend traditional forms of scholarship, alternative “pathways” to scholarly research (and publication of the results of that research) will undoubtedly also lead through the kinds of archival, editorial, and analytical work represented in projects at the second poster session: ”New Technologies of Literary Investigation: Digital Demonstrations." These included the William Blake Archive (recently awarded the MLA’s Prize for a Distinguished Scholarly Edition and granted the approval of the MLA’s Committee on Scholarly Editions, both firsts for a digital edition), the Stolen Time Archive, the Mark Twain Digital Project, text-analysis tools such as TAPoR and Tamarind (the latter of which aims to process large collections of XML documents for text-mining and visualization by the larger NORA project), and research interface tools such as the Litgloss Collaboratory for collecting and sharing annotated foreign-language texts, or Turning the Pages (already in use at the British Library and other places as an interface that allows for virtual, animated page-reading, magnification, and other digital manipulations).
These new forms of scholarship call for new forms of presentation beyond the traditional paper-reading panel. Though C.P. Snow surely exaggerated the divide between the two cultures (literary intellectuals are no longer, if they ever were, “natural Luddites”), these unfamiliar forms of presentation, associated for many with the sciences, may require a slight adjustment in expectations and conventional roles on the part of some MLA conventioneers. As the morning poster session was preparing to get underway and many of us were still booting laptops, arranging our tables, or setting out handouts, a group of several participants entered the hall carrying book bags and sat down in the handful of chairs left at the back of the room still arranged in rows. Facing the “front” of the room, they waited patiently for the panel to begin -- until it gradually dawned on them that there was no panel and no real front to the room, and that they were supposed to stand and circulate around the exhibits on their own.
Those attendees serve to remind us that the inertia of “conventional” culture must be overcome if these new forms of presentation are really to become accepted at MLA meetings. They also stand as a reminder of all the potential users out there who may be waiting passively for online scholarship to begin to speak to them where they “sit,” who may not yet know how to seek out and actively engage digital resources. A change in the culture of the discipline is needed if the new tools and resources are to have their desired impact among scholars. And some of those potential users still require basic education about digital scholarship, how to use it -- and how it might change what they do and how they think about their subject matter.
Kari Kraus of the William Blake Archive told me that “about 70 percent of the people were asking very basic questions about the material,” and that she found herself introducing the archive more often than she had expected. “But that’s fine,” she added, “I love talking about it.” At that point in our conversation we were interrupted by someone approaching the station: “Hi,” said Kraus, “Are you familiar with the William Blake Archive?” She was eventually able to demonstrate the visually striking (paper) print standing on her easel -- a pair of landscape-format plates from Blake’s "The Song of Los," digitally reconstructed by Blake scholar (and one of the archive’s editors) Joseph Viscomi from digital facsimiles downloaded from the archive. Using materials freely available at the archive and opening them in Photoshop on his own desktop, Viscomi was able to make and print out a new facsimile of Blake’s etched plates, reunified in order to demonstrate Blake’s own “virtual designs” according to his original intentions. This is only one example (though a particularly vivid one) of the kinds of individual acts of do-it-yourself scholarship now possible as a result of the many years of collaborative editorial work done to build and edit the massive image and text archive.
Despite the lack of live Internet connections (the hotel’s rates were exorbitant), and despite the newness of the format for some MLA members, most participants -- presenters and questioners -- I spoke with responded very positively to the sessions. In fact I learned that the line between presenter and questioner was not always perfectly clear. There was no dais, no microphone, no chairs in rows -- except for those few left in the morning session that confused the early attendees. Sometimes a passerby turned out to be working in a similar field, or was trying to get support for a new digital project at his or her own institution, or was a would-be contributor to an electronic journal on display, or even a long-distance collaborator at several removes -- such is the nature of the networked world of digital scholarship. Some people making their way around the poster-session rooms were conducting business, exchanging cards or URLs, offering informal proposals to journal editors, and others were engaged in detailed technical discussions about problems of textual encoding or user interface.
During the second session it suddenly dawned on me where I had seen this general kind of activity before: not just at humanities computing conferences, but (of course!) at the MLA’s own legendary and massive “poster session” -- the publishers’ book exhibit hall. At the moment the MLA was meeting to discuss ways to encourage “multiple pathways” to demonstrating excellence in research, including a “commitment to treating electronic work with the same respect accorded to work published in print” -- when many in the profession are seeking alternatives to the monographs produced in increasingly diminishing numbers by university presses, the center of gravity in this regard may have shifted ever so slightly away from the cavernous exhibit hall, with its familiar displays, and toward these buzzing, teeming poster sessions, with their multiple demonstrations of a variety of new digital research projects.