MLA 2015 Day One: Intimidation, luck, professionalism.

I am happy to be back on the West Coast, at least temporarily, for a few different projects. The most immediate of which is attending the Modern Language Association Convention 2015, which this year is being held in Vancouver, BC. Coming from Seattle, I have a deep love for Vancouver. My family and I took trips here once a month for years when I was growing up. (That was before you had to show your passport to get across the border if you lived in Washington State).  Before driving up from Seattle today with my formidable colleague Daniel Powell, I hadn’t been here in years. Which is great, because every street is a rediscovery of a long-lost love.

So Daniel: A DiXiT colleague who can’t walk into a conference without being smiled at, waved at, or getting the stop-and-chat from at least fifteen people. It’s somewhat intimidating that he basically knows ALL of the people at MLA, and here I am standing awkwardly nearby as he reminisces with colleagues from basically every institution of note. He is an excellent scholar and a really nice person who always has something interesting and provocative to say. I thoroughly enjoy his company and am so glad that I am attending MLA with him. He has already been gracious enough to introduce me to several new and interesting folks here.

Luck is perhaps the best word to describe the situation that occurred this morning after we dropped our bags at our AirBnB. Daniel received an email from a colleague who was in a bind: one of his panel’s presenters had to cancel last minute due to a medical emergency, and he needed someone to fill in. Of course, he checked with Daniel, who then kindly extended the invitation to me as well. A chance to talk DH in Undergraduate Education? Yes, please! My experience is certainly more with high school students, but I’m very happy to be included, and looking forward to the opportunity. Luck described the rest of the evening as well. After leaving the convention center, which basically looks like one giant game of jenga that miraculously stayed intact long enough to become a building, we headed to Steamtown Pub. And who sits down next to us? Elika Ortega and Ernesto Priego: two scholars who I’ve always admired from afar via Twitter, and who I had a thought-provoking discussion with about the recent Charlie Hebdo tragedy.

Next it was drinks with a group from the Folger Shakespeare Library (need I mention that I was with Daniel, and thus the invitations for drinks abounded?), one of whom I was lucky enough to work with this past summer at the DHOXSS. We reminisced about life in Scotland (she took a Master’s degree at St. Andrews, I at Edinburgh University), and made plans for future collaboration.

At one point during the evening, I walked up to the bar for a drink and a gentleman there struck up a conversation with myself and a colleague about being on a hiring committee for DH. He seemed, to put it mildly, less than enthused at the prospect. He discussed specific reasons for this, some of them the well-worn quips that DH is a flash in the pan and seems gimmicky. He made fair points in that he underlined a concern that is felt in all parts of the humanities: a slip away from substance and critical analysis in favor of methodology.

My only real problem with our conversation was his talk about a specific interviewee’s project (without mentioning names), which is where I felt he probably crossed the line. But it got me thinking: Is it a good thing that we have people who are critical of DH sitting on DH hiring committees? Is that an obstacle, or a way for members of the DH community to develop a sense of professionalism under specific pressure?  Or, at least from the interviewee’s perspective, does it smack of the sort of badmin abuse that traditional humanities academics are facing throughout Higher Ed (in America, my only point of reference)? I actually don’t know the answer to these questions. I’ve never been interviewed for a position at a large conference before, and I don’t know if it is normal to include someone on the committee who has no interest, or clearly negative feelings, toward the subject area.

It’s clear that this gentleman was just blowing off steam after a long day. No big deal. But it raises a further question: at what point during the course of a major convention like MLA, which, as Daniel puts it, is “a marathon, not a sprint,” do we stop being professional? Is it acceptable to blow off steam in this way? Or is such an act never acceptable in this environment? I have had my share of professional gaffes, and some pretty embarrassing ones at that, but I always feel slightly tenuous around DH folks. The community is still small, and the thought of upsetting or alienating anyone feels unnecessary and self-defeating. There’s a lot of self-editing going on. Which I guess, if nothing else, is it’s own lesson in professionalism.


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