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Kirstyn Leuner, a graduate student of English at the University of Colorado at Boulder, gives a presentation during the MLA's annual meeting.

Carl Straumsheim

CHICAGO -- Have the digital humanities gone mainstream?

Sessions on the role of technology in humanities scholarship at the Modern Language Association’s annual meeting last week may have made up less than 10 percent of the conference’s overall schedule (and almost everything seemed overwhelmed by the tumult over the Israel censure vote), but speakers and attendees alike said they felt the contents of those sessions had changed from previous years. While earlier conferences often discussed the potential of the digital humanities, this year’s meeting frequently featured traditional research methods alongside data visualization, gaming and text mining.

In prior years, “We’ve had a lot of sessions asking, ‘What is digital humanities?’ ” said Victoria Szabo, assistant research professor of visual studies and new media at Duke University. “We’re at this point now where a lot of people have been doing a wide range of digital practices in their scholarship.”

The diversity of those practices can be seen in this year’s sessions, scattered across four days and three hotels in downtown Chicago. At one roundtable, panelists debated the benefits and drawbacks of digitizing French Renaissance manuscripts. A panel on social networks across borders included a presentation on pop culture and fan fiction. Even the two-hour workshop on how to apply for grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities was run by Jason Rhody, a senior program officer in the Office of Digital Humanities.

And, in a change from prior years, Thursday’s introductory digital humanities session attracted faculty members hoping to get started with such projects, said Rebecca Frost Davis, who gave a talk on how undergraduate students can engage in digital humanities. Previously, she said, most of those in attendance were scholars who had been doing such work for years without knowing it.

"One of the really hard things about doing that kind of research is that it’s not always called digital humanities," said Frost Davis, director of instructional and emerging technology at St. Edward’s University. "You have to tell people, 'By the way, did you know that’s what it’s called?' As far as they’re concerned, they’re doing their research and their scholarship. 'Sure, I’m doing archaeology. I have a database of all my pottery. I don’t think of that as digital humanities' -- although it is."

Perception gaps

One of the explanations behind the tone shift at the MLA conference may be the reason why so many doctoral students choose to attend the meeting: jobs.

A Saturday afternoon roundtable, titled “Evaluating Digital Scholarship: Candidate Success Stories," featured five recent doctoral students who have turned their digital work into gainful employment. The panelists, most of whom are now tenured faculty members, challenged the notion that digital scholars need to do twice as much work as scholars engaged in more traditional scholarship to gain tenure. In many cases, they said, it depends on the attitudes of individual departments or institutions.

Cheryl E. Ball, associate professor of new media studies at Illinois State University, said she went into her tenure review process with a “devil-may-care attitude.”

“I said actively to my colleagues that if the tenure committee wasn’t going to give me tenure based on my digital work, then I would find work someplace else,” Ball said.

Yet the day before she turned in her portfolio, Ball said, she scrambled to write 10 pages of instructions on everything from right clicking to downloading the software needed to view her work. “They needed them and more,” she said.

N. Katherine Hayles, the Duke University professor of literature who gave the official response to the roundtable, devoted much of her talk to the “perception gaps” between senior faculty members and scholars entering the market. One barrier, she said, “is the mistake of thinking that digital projects are simply text written on a vertical screen instead of on paper,” ignoring the data collection not evident on the page.

“I do think this is a quite serious obstacle, and it’s not the fault of the young people that they should be faced with incomprehension,” said Hayles, suggesting the MLA should give tenure committees more specific benchmarks. “If you look at the MLA guidelines, they say some sensible things, but they have nothing to say about what distinguishes a good digital humanities project from a poor one. I think that’s an issue that the entire community needs to have discussion on.”

To avoid misunderstandings, Ball and other scholars, such as Adeline Koh, assistant professor of literature at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, said they opted for the “monograph plus” model of graduate work, as described by Kari Kraus, assistant professor in the College of Information Studies and department of English at the University of Maryland at College Park.

“I did everything I was traditionally supposed to, and then I did digital stuff as well,” Koh said.

The next generation

In the session preceding the roundtable, groups of undergraduate and graduate students exhibiting their digital projects said they looked to copy that model.

David DeCamp and Kristi Girdharry, graduate students of world history and English, respectively, at Northeastern University, presented  “Around DH in 80 Days,” a crowdsourced effort that highlights a new digital humanities project every day for 80 days. Girdharry said the the project aims to answer the question “What is DH?” by giving followers “easily digestible bits” of information.

“We decide to learn DH by doing it -- and to also learn about DH by learning about other projects,” DeCamp said.

In most cases, however, students said the projects on display in Chicago would not be a part of their dissertations. Amanda Licastro, a graduate student of English at the City University of New York Graduate Center, said she lists digital work separately from awards, grants and publications on her curriculum vitae, and brings printed screenshots to job interviews.

“I think that as digital work becomes more and more a part of our C.V.s... committees will be used to seeing that and knowing what to do with it,” Licastro said.

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