Sunday, January 16, 2011

MLA 2011: The Great Untweeted

Does the world need another MLA post-game post? Heck, no, but if blogging were about need (as it pertains to anything but the narcissism of the blogger), there wouldn't be much blogging going on in the world, now would there, my pretties? In any case, my typist has been mulling over a few things while cruising everybody. else's. contextualizing. flattering. provocative. amen-producing post-convention posts, and it would appear that she still has something to say on the subject.

Take it away, Moose. MLA11 is, like, so last week, and this dead dog is dead tired. Knock yourself out.

* * *

If a tree fell in the forest and nobody tweeted it, would it make a noise? Apparently not, judging by the coverage of last week's MLA convention.

I should state up front that I am not a Twitter-hater. I am on Twitter -- or, you know, this blog is on Twitter (as roxieblog, natch -- Why aren't you following us?). I don't love it in the way that I love Facebook, but I use it for blog-whoring and buzz-tracking in a variety of professional and political networks. Further, I've got no cause to complain about the lively Twitter action going on at MLA11, seeing as how the session I organized and on which I participated was, according to something called Twapper Keeper, the most heavily tweeted session at the conference. (Scroll down to the "Top 10 tweeted hashtags." Our session hashtag, "newtools," is second only to the generic "mla11" hashtag that was used for the convention as a whole.) (But, srsly, people: Twapper Keeper? Who comes up with this stuff?)

The buzz about our session, "New Tools, Hard Times: Social Networking and the Academic Crisis," was mostly positive and, for me personally, kinda ego-boosting. (Thanks, Tweeps! Love you, too.)

There was a bit of contention, too, which might have fueled some of the interest in "New Tools," as MLA exec direc Rosemary Feal, who presented on the session about her use of Twitter on behalf of the organization, posted tweets during the session taking issue with how co-panelist Marc Bousquet characterized the MLA's long, complex history on labor and economic issues. (Curious? Why, honey, it even made the Chronicle. Read the comments thread on Frank Donoghue's [wildly off-base] blog post about the convention. Check out the #newtools Twitterstream here [H/T Sample Reality].)

That is all to say that I have no axes to grind with Twitter and, indeed, that I have a healthy appreciation for the role it played at this year's convention, particularly in allowing those who weren't able to attend to follow the action and even, in a few cases, to participate by posting comments and questions as sessions were going on. In returning to the question that opened these ruminations, however, I would like to focus on three related points that have been niggling at me ever since I left LA: 1. what did not make it into the Twitterstream; 2. how that absence shaped public perceptions of the convention; and 3. how I experienced sessions with lots of Twitter action going on around me versus those in which there was little to no such action taking place.

ProfHacker co-editor George Williams gets at some of what has troubled me in his introduction to the marvelous round-up post he did on the role of social media at the convention. In an academic world divided between the few who tweet and the many who do not, Williams recognizes that the public image of the convention, to the extent that it is drawn from the Twitterstream, will be distorted, "reflect[ing] only a thin slice of the entire experience." Mark Sample, in his comments in the round-up, even talks about a rising "Twitter Hegemony," as a way of describing the tendency of Twitter both to dominate any discussion of social media and to skew or narrow perspective. Sample impressively crunches numbers to demonstrate the outsize presence a handful of the convention's 8000 attendees had in the Twitterstream:  "The top ten twitterers produced almost 40 percent of the conference tweets. Ten people accounted for nearly 3,000 of the 7,600 #mla11 tweets." Sample himself is in that top ten, but he acknowledges some ambivalence about his status:
If Twitter is as transformative in creating transparency and collaboration as I like to think it is, then I can’t be anything but disappointed that only a few of us used Twitter. And I can’t help but wonder if the conference experience of those people who did not use Twitter was substantively different from mine. Perhaps it was, but I’ll never know. The silent majority remains inscrutable. The hegemony of Twitter will speak in their place, but it does not speak for them. We must remember that.
Well put. Unfortunately, however, some of the coverage of the convention seems lacking in Williams' and Sample's complex awareness of Twitter Hegemony, their recognition that the bits and pieces marked with the "mla11" hashtag are a far cry from, say, the court reporter's comprehensive record of a legal proceeding. I am reluctant to name names and call people out on their efforts to cover an event as large and multifaceted as an MLA convention, but we have a commitment here in Roxie's World to calling a spade a spade, and so I am compelled to say that The Chronicle of Higher Education fell down in this regard. Jennifer Howard's main story on the convention started off with a focus on the theme of "the Academy in Hard Times," but it quickly shifted to what she described as the "high times" going on in digital humanities, as evidenced by packed sessions, lively debates, and, yes, "dominance of the conference talk on Twitter." Howard included an observation from my friend and colleague Neil Fraistat about "how much more energy one could feel in the digital-humanities sessions than in many of those devoted to traditional subject areas, like his field, Romanticism." A few paragraphs later, Howard acknowledges hearing "a spirited debate" at a session called "The English Bible," but that session gets a scant two sentences before the story makes its way back to Twitter by talking about the free Wi-Fi the MLA arranged in meeting rooms for the first time this year.

I am supremely uninterested in determining whether I am or am not a "digital humanist." (I thought I was for awhile, but I think Steve Ramsay might have revoked my credentials with his declaration that "Digital Humanities is about building things" other than blogs.) I've been around long enough to see a number of emerging fields go through similar growth spurts and their attendant internecine squabbles over boundaries, methods, and definitions. You know what I mean: Sure, she's good, but I don't think she's a feminist. Or: Well, that's not really Theory, you know. And: You can't say "LGBT" anymore -- We're all queer now!

Call me what you will, I have a strong investment in digital humanities and new media studies and believe the field deserves the attention it is getting. It isn't just cool. It still holds, as Cathy Davidson passionately argues in her brilliant post-MLA post, the promise of transforming all the fields and professions not just in the modern languages but in the humanities generally. Nonetheless, I am troubled by the way the Twitter Hegemony operated in this instance because I know how much of my own experience of the MLA didn't make it into the stream and, coincidentally or consequently (who knows?), didn't make it into the stories of the convention that I have seen in The Chronicle, Inside Higher Ed, or on blogs, including my own, until now.

Queer studies isn't a "traditional subject area" in the way that Romanticism is, but it is by this point a well-established field that long ago went through the kind of growing pains noted above. It is by no means the new kid on the block anymore, and yet the queer studies sessions I attended at this year's MLA were some of the most exciting and inspiring I have seen in years. I went to the three linked sessions on the legacies of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and one of the sessions in memory of Barbara Johnson. (Both Sedgwick and Johnson died in 2009. Johnson's work in deconstruction influenced many queer theorists, including Sedgwick and Judith Butler.) In every case, the meeting rooms -- often big ballrooms -- were packed, the papers were stunning, and the audiences were spellbound. I won't even try to summarize the papers, because I'm not very good at that sort of thing and because I assume they will eventually be published.

What matters more for my purposes here is to say that the atmosphere in these sessions was electrifying, and the ethos was kind. There were no cat (or dog) fights, no preening divas, no hostile or self-promoting speechifying masquerading as a question, all of which I have seen at queer (and un-queer!) sessions in years past. I realize that the mode of these particular sessions -- which combined intellectual work with deeply felt tributes to departed friends who happened to be towering figures in their fields -- perhaps helped to keep people on their best behavior, but I was still struck by how warm and generous the vibe was, even as scholars reflected in profound ways on the past and future of a field that has had its own transformative effects on the humanities.

And did I mention that (almost) no one was tweeting in these sessions? The spellbound audiences were for the most part in an analog mode, taking notes on paper or just quietly taking in the eloquence of some of the field's heaviest hitters. (When was the last time Judith Butler gave not one but two papers at an MLA?) As an attendee, I have to say it was a relief not to be surrounded by people clattering away on their laptops, which was often the case in the DH sessions. I find that distracting, because I am not especially good at taking information in through my ears and need to be able to concentrate. The result of all that low-tech listening, however, is that these substantive, well-attended sessions caused barely a ripple in the Twitterstream and -- again, coincidentally or consequently? you decide -- received no coverage in the educational press. It's as if they never happened, as if the trees fell without a sound because no digital device was used to record it.

I exaggerate but only slightly. In the long run, these talks likely will be published and will no doubt have a significant impact on shaping post-Sedgwick, post-Johnson queer studies. Their short-term oblivion still makes them a powerful example of the dangers of using tools like Twitter to try to get a handle on large, complex events. The MLA Twitter archive is a fascinating but woefully incomplete record of one such event. It tells us something but not nearly enough about what went on over the course of four splendid days in Los Angeles.

Willa Cather wrote beautifully of "the inexplicable presence of the thing not named" and of how such unnamed yet felt presences imbue art with its power to haunt and compel. My experience of MLA11 reminds me to consider as well the significance of -- forgive me, Willa -- the thing not tweeted, of all the experience that isn't captured in the vast but always incomplete data stream in which we now swim. To see and hear such things and take their measure -- That, too, is the work of the humanities, in the analog or the digital mode. As always, friends, we've got our work cut out for us. Peace out.


  1. Great post, thanks! Being sick I wasn't on twitter at all at the conference and missed hearing what the conversation was. I just have to say though that Twapper Keeper sounds like the synthesis of DH and queer studies. That is all.

  2. twittre WUT? Can't read so many words!!! But yoiu kice assseee!

  3. Brilliant and witty, per usual. Thanks, ML.

  4. Anonymous10:33 PM EST

    I was just thinking about this - from a similar position as one who is interested/engaged in DH, even if I don't build stuff - but whose vibrant discipline doesn't get reflected in the stream.

    Than you!

  5. Anonymous10:36 PM EST

    Yo, ML. The best part of the M to the L to the A, was the RU cash bar, with no papers, tweeters, or preeners, no long shadows of the departed. For my part, I found the MLA tweet stream largely self-aggrandizing and smug--why tweet, when your friends, who are almost always virtual, are suddenly there and embodied?

  6. Thanks for this important post. I very much agree with you that the MLA 2011 tweetstream was heavily balanced towards DH panels, and you're probably right that reporters covering the convention have a duty to delve beyond the tweetstream (though, to be fair, I think that Jen Howard did -- I saw her tweeting about multiple non-DH sessions).

    As a card-carrying DHer and tweeter, I will admit to not minding, and even preferring, sessions that include an active twitter backchannel. I find that such backchannels provide an informative secondary level of discourse during the event itself. I will concede that the backchannels can sometimes be distracting, and that it can be disconcerting, as a presenter, to look out at the audience and see heads bowed over laptops and fingers clicking.

    Despite all of that, I come to a very different conclusion about the tweetstream than you do here. In short, I'd say that subjects/panels/disciplines/fields NOT represented on the tweetstream SHOULD be, and that it is the duty of the people in those fields to promote the conversations being shared within them to a larger audience. If the CHE won't come calling, in other words, than maybe it's time to set up shop on twitter and rectify the situation! Instead of bemoaning the lack of a conversation on twitter, start one! (I know that you are already doing this; I'm speaking more to the silent, sad, tweetless masses).

    I see this as an important step not just for fields that are overlooked by the CHE and IHE in convention wrap-ups, but for the entire academy writ large over the long term. If we can't move our conversations from Diamond Salon A in the JW Marriott out into the larger world where they can be shared in a more accessible manner, we risk winding up talking only to ourselves. And while those presentation rooms may have a great deal going for them -- I appreciate 20-foot ceilings and wallpaper inspired by 1975 Chanel handbags as much as the next guy -- I think we have a duty to move our discussions out of them if we want the public to continue to support our work. This, by the way, was the gist of the "Open Professoriate" session that I organized at #MLA11.

    While twitter may not be a perfect platform for promoting academic work, it can help point people to rich discussions such as this one. I hope that as more and more academics become comfortable with digital tools, they will use them to promote their scholarship and to share it in more open, public ways.

  7. that (almost) no one was tweeting in these sessions?

    Well, I am the (almost) here, and tweeted my way through quite a few queer sessions at MLA -- I blogged here about what it was like to try to do so. I did and do wonder whether it would have been more polite to remain silently spellbound, but I retain far more information from typing than I do from either purely listening or from writing, and the MLA's overt friendliness to bloggers and tweeters made me decide to translate my usual note-taking into microblogging.

    The tributes to Sedgwick in particular were far more rich, complex and moving than my tweets could ever do justice to. But the replies I got from followers interested in the speakers, non-MLA and non-DH (some even nonacademic) people who care about queer theory, did convince me that realtime connection to a world outside the conference and the room is worthwhile. I didn't feel so much that I was participating in a backchannel as that I was giving a few outsiders a rough sense of what was going on.

    I think you're right that the reflections of all the people listening in those crowded rooms will have far more impact than any tweeting could––and that a fast-moving backchannel would have been quite unworkable. For me, processing the ideas enough to synthesize them into tweets certainly left me to time to read the stream, nor did I want to take my attention away from the speaker for a moment. I'm sure that when and if I get the chance to read published versions of the talks, I'll realize that my tweets were not entirely accurate, but writing them was useful for me and interesting to a few others, which was really all I was going for.

  8. One wonders if Twitter is really the way to go if the ultimate goal is to move academic discussions into "the public" (Perhaps we ought to interrogate that term first).

    I'd venture to say that the average MLA attendees' Twitter followers aren't all that more diverse than your average panel audience. While not constrained by geography, the audience of #MLA is still constrained (to varying degrees) by class, by physical ability, by gender, by generation, by language etc etc etc. Point being: It very well may be that we're STILL talking only to ourselves, we're just using different tools to do it while patting ourselves on the back for how open and democratic we're being.

    Don't get me wrong--Twitter's a valuable tool, and the practice of sharing outside of the conference walls is a worthwhile one. But let's not kid ourselves. Good, honest intellectual work needs to celebrate its potentials and possibilities--but it must also constantly remind itself of its limitations. This is just one reason why this post is such a breath of fresh air.

  9. Really nice post, Roxie. It's esp valuable that you describe the difference the atmosphere the unTweeted panels made to your cognitive experience of them, in addition to twitter bias in the press coverage. Ironically I finally started using my dormant Twitter account in the middle of our panel, inspired by champion tweeter Rosemary F, and found it interfered with absorption. I've missed the latter aspect of being an English professor for years. Whatever the limitations of books like "The Shallows" or "Hamlet's Blackberry" they do get at the difficulty accessing depth and slowness and at making folks in the media respect the amount of time it takes to be creative, original, or even insightful. I like Matt's suggestion about Twitter Equality above, because it would help make the cognitive processes of all of the MLA's different kinds of panels more visible. But it would require some kind of division of labor -- thinking / tweeting ?? -- or alternation that isn't easy, because when one jumps out of the flow to tweet one has missed some things that in an oral presentation won't come back. (Tweeting cannot be blamed for chronic conference distraction, however, which is eternal.) One MLA theme I at least wanted more time to think about was declining working conditions in people's departments that I kept hearing during drinks and meals - wealthy schools despoiled by acting out, largely by senior fac, publics stretched to the point where long-time faculty tacitly abandon research, and of course the desperation of self-funded job searches in nearly all fields. DH can help a lot with the reconstruction of the profession that needs to happen but it isn't the reconstruction itself. Thank you for your thoughts here.

  10. OK, managed to read the post after sobering up, and it is an excellent one. I absolutely 100% refuse to write or read on twitter, and for reasons that are partially captured by your blog post.

    First, I believe that it--like Facebook--is deeply destructive of the mental operation of contemplation. The entire intrinsic structure of the medium is 100% oriented towards MORE, FASTER, BRIEFER, SUPERFICIALER communication. It is about collecting: friends, links, retweets, followers, hashtags, etc, and not about describing, explaining, or contemplating. It is about avoiding deep thought, not embracing it.

    Second, it is about DOMINATING discourse, not diversifying it. Yeah, it might be a different set of people who are using it to dominate than who are using traditional modes of scholarly communication, but ten people at your meeting posted 300 fucken tweets each!?!? Jeezus fucke. It is about defining insiders and outsiders. (And no way were those poor compulsive twittering assholes even able to listen to the sessions they were at or genuinely participate in them: see my first concern above.)

    Third, it is grossly destructive of the practice of constructing decent complete grammatical sentences in the English language (and, I'm sure, other languages that poor dumb twittering fuckes in other countries use). Why should I learn to read and write in some bizarre semaphoric bastardized illiterate form of English language just so that a bunch of assholes can whip out hundreds of least-common-denominator atomized communications as fast as possible like it's some kind of massive throbbing cocke to smack other people in the face with? Get your fucken twitdicke out of my face: I'm not interested.

    Fourth, it enables a form of herd behavior with masses of people rushing around like lunatics flogging their fucken hashtags and leaping off rhetorical cliffs that I find extremely distasteful. What's the fucken hurry? Do I really need access to anyone's thoughts but my own in real time?

  11. Wow, that DigHum job candidate post is fucken awesome! The same exact thing could be said for job candidates in the biomedical sciences: plenty of people can sit down at a fucken lab bench or physiology rig and perform the hot new techniques that are percolating in your field. We as faculty hiring committees are looking for people with vision, not for awesome technicians.

  12. Matt, Chanel? Vuitton, seriously.

    Of the many ideas to like in this post (besides the opening remark that #mla11 is SO last week), the one that got me thinking was how the virtual discussions and in-person concentration are presented as opposing modes. As some note here, it doesn't have to be that way. I am a multitasker (someone else used a different term to describe it!); my entire student and prof life I need to have several channels "on" to process what's before me. But here's the thing: Moose's long, discursive blog post (and there are many others)shows that the shorthand of Twitter gets processed into much fuller articulations later. The tweets are sometimes like notes (nothing sanitized, just neutral summaries; sometimes they make an objection ("I disagree w speaker bcs..."), sometimes a connection ("this makes me think of @JenHoward on Open Access [link]"). They create community and conversation, but they aren't limited to the Twitter echo chamber.

    Did people from outside the small circle of MLA11 attendees participate in Twitter? Well, @mlaconvention has over 1,000 followers, only a quarter of whom are MLA members (and only a few dozen of whom were actually at the convention). My own experience tells me that the circle widens to other fields, other nations beyond the USA (though not nearly often enough, and other people not even necessarily into "academic" matters. And I suspect this phenomenon will grow with time.

    Rosemary Feal
    Executive Director

  13. Thanks for these thoughts, Moose. I think your posts and the others on this topic show the importance of combining the frenetic pace of Twitter-powered conversation with the much more reflective and long-form of blogging (and eventually, conference papers of its own. Want to run a #mla12 panel on the #mla11 hashtag?)

    I think that it's worth noting that the panels on Barbara Johnson and Eve Sedgewick were some of the few that I saw being tweeted along with those that were attracting the DH crowd. I'm not sure if it was one or two Twitterers in that crowd, but I appreciated getting snippets of that conversation flowing in real-time. On the other hand, I didn't really see anything from Hemingway-, Marquez-, or Cowper-oriented panels. Why is that? And like Matt Gold said above, how can we change that in the future? In particular, languages other than English seemed especially underrepresented on Twitter, as did composition studies, which you think would have more of a vested interest in Twitter and its writing style.

    I'll take some small exception to one of Comrade PhysioProf's points: Twitter may in fact define insiders and outsiders, but at least it's a medium that is open to all, and followers accrue to those who are providing a service to their fellow Twitterers or those who want to read tweets. In a way, then, the insiders on Twitter become so by making the conversation as open as possible and therefore inviting as much diversity of conversation as possible.

    In my presentation on the #newtools panel (and in plenty of other places), I've argued that using social media in the academy makes us more open to the larger public with whom we should be trying to be engaged if we want them to understand what it is the humanities are for and what humanities scholars do. I think that blogs and Twitter help us tremendously in getting our message out. But how do we get "the public" to start reading these conversations? Perhaps this is why we need the Hemingway people on Twitter. The number of Hemingway fans in the larger populace is such that they might very well be interested in what we have to say about their author. Making the scholars and the public aware of such channels becomes the chokepoint then. But there have to be other ways to get the public involved. Otherwise, we do end up talking only to ourselves.

  14. Matt, Chanel? It was Vuitton, seriously.

    Of the many ideas to like in this post (besides the opening remark that #mla11 is SO last week), the one that got me thinking was how the virtual discussions and in-person concentration are presented as opposing modes. As some note here, it doesn't have to be that way. I am a multitasker (someone else used a different term to describe it!); my entire student and prof life I need to have several channels "on" to process what's before me. But here's the thing: Moose's long, discursive blog post (and there are many others)shows that the shorthand of Twitter gets processed into much fuller articulations later. The tweets are sometimes like notes (nothing sanitized, just neutral summaries; sometimes they make an objection ("I disagree w speaker bcs..."), sometimes a connection ("this makes me think of @JenHoward on Open Access [link]"). They create community and conversation, but they aren't limited to the Twitter echo chamber.

    Did people from outside the small circle of MLA11 attendees participate in Twitter? Well, @mlaconvention has over 1,000 followers, only a quarter of whom are MLA members (and only a few dozen of whom were actually at the convention). My own experience tells me that the circle widens to other fields, other nations beyond the USA (though not nearly often enough, and other people not even necessarily into "academic" matters. And I suspect this phenomenon will grow with time.

    Rosemary Feal
    Executive Director

  15. Thanks, everybody, for these rich, wonderful comments.

    I share the interest in communicating what we do to the broader public as part of an effort to rebuild support for the humanities and higher education generally. (See, for example, the post below this one, which reproduces the remarks I made on the "New Tools" session.) I share Michael's skepticism, though, about how effective Twitter can be for this particular purpose, because I, too, see Twitter mostly as a world of lateral communication among the like-minded. Such communication is important, but I'm not sure it's the best way to reach the non-academic public.

    As for the issue of Twitter and press coverage, Matt and Brian are obviously right that one solution is for folks in under-covered fields to stop whining and start tweeting (and there was some minimal tweeting going on in the queer studies sessions I discuss here). Still, I admit to thinking that some of what is untweeted is really untweetable -- Certain kinds of presentations, certain modes of argument simply don't lend themselves to that kind of quick and dirty distillation, and I don't think that's bad. I think reporters who cover events like the MLA need to be mindful of that fact and step outside the Twitterstream as they make their news judgments. (In my opinion, IHE did a better job of this than CHE did on this year's MLA.)

    Oh, and re. this comment from Chris: "DH can help a lot with the reconstruction of the profession that needs to happen but it isn't the reconstruction itself." Yes, in thunder.

  16. Hey Roxie. Really like this post. I tweeted Lee Edelman and Lauren Berlant's "What Survives?" (I also tweeted "Pleasure in Comp Classes": these are the only two non-DH sessions I attended.)

    I was the only person in the SRO room tweeting Lee and Lauren. Their perf was intensely moving. Lee is my undergrad mentor. I had intended the tweets to record their perf. But it was impossible to provide anything other than snippets: the ideas were too complex and allusive. My brain was retrieving all the Sedgwick I could muster (her first 2 books deeply influential to me) and then there was the overlay of Lee and Lauren, and then there was the performative quality itself: the dialog, the elegy. It was a blissful overload. Which produced tweets that read like mood poems. OK. But hardly a "record" that anybody could use to report the sesh to the broader world.

    I found that tweeting it caused me to listen in two ways: for the snippet, the telling anecdote, the emblem: and for the gestalt. The telescoping effect of shuttling between these two modes was exhilarating. But also exhausting. I knew I'd done justice to neither mode. But tweeting that talk collapsed the distance between how I used to attend conferences (listening with pen and paper in hand, or just listening) and how I do it now. I prefer the tweeting. I'm more engaged, and I love to hear others' thoughts IRT. Plus, as Rosemary, Brian, Matt all note: the outreach beyond the Louis Vuitton'd walls? Invaluable.

  17. I posted a longer version of this comment yesterday, but it seems to have disappeared.

    Anyway, I felt oddly interpellated by this post as I (@alothian) was one of the main people responsible for the queer studies sessions going "almost" rather than entirely untweeted. I wrote a bit about trying to follow the different kinds of presentations that happen at MLA in this blog post. I worried about being impolite or inappropriate by tweeting in sessions that didn't have lively backchannels, but I always take intense notes on my laptop anyway as it's the best way I have of retaining what is said in a conference paper; the hospitality of MLA to social media users made me decide to turn those notes into live microblogging.

    It turned out that several of my tweets and my blog post above were about the necessary difficulty of engaging with complicated ideas and paper styles in 140-character bursts. The Sedgwick memorial sessions in particular were far more rich, complex and moving than my tweets could suggest; in fact, I am sure that the speakers would find some misrepresentations in my twitter stream. It's a record of what I thought and experienced as I listened, and that's something I do consider valuable, because I love to follow such momentary records for conferences and events I'm not able to attend. Broadcasting one's notes for talks like these is very different than taking part in a lively backchannel session, in my experience; for one thing, it's very difficult for me to keep up with the twitterstream while listening to the talks. I find it intense and totally absorbing in a way that leaves me feeling quite tired afterwards.

    I agree with Rosemary Feal's comment above that twitter, though it's certainly no democratizing utopia, does reach beyond those who totally resemble those in conference panels. My own list of followers is probably quite idiosyncratic since my participation in Twitter has never been a wholly academic endeavour (though I'm not sure that is particularly unusual), but many of the responses I received to my tweets of queer panels were from people who not only weren't attending MLA but didn't even know what it was. But they'd heard of some of the speakers and were interested in what was being said, though they might not have the time to read a full-length academic article by them. It was really that experience that kept me resolutely tweeting in panels that were comparatively devoid of in-conference online exchange.

  18. Kathi and Alexis -- Kudos to both of you for tweeting the queer studies sessions, and thanks for your very eloquent comments here, which make me think that rather than describing such sessions as "untweetable," I should say they require a different kind of tweet and challenge myself to be as creative as the two of you were. I did manage one tweet apropos of those sessions. I let the world know that in the Q&A after the Barbara Johnson session, Butler declared, with wit and conviction, that she still believed in primary texts. That was the best I could do!

    Oh, and Alexis, sorry your comment didn't post last night. The same thing happened with Rosemary's first attempt. Not sure what's going on with Blogger, but I am glad you came back! I'm not surprised you felt interpellated by the post -- I think I stumbled across your piece as I was finishing this up but neglected to link to it. Too many tabs open in the browser, I think.

  19. Maybe I'm just too old for this shitte, but I find Alexis's and Kathi's descriptions of their twittering during substantive sessions of this scholarly meeting to be extremely disturbing. What ever happened to *concentrating* one's attention on what someone is talking about? What ever happened to *reflecting* on what one has heard or read before publishing interpretations? What ever happened to developing interpretations into a coherent narrative, constructed out of *sentences* and *paragraphs*?

    These are supposed to be fucken scholars at a scholarly meeting, not hyperkinetic teenagers at a high-school dance.

  20. Down, boy. Tricky enough to be critiquing a tool you don't use, but it's really not fair to attack particular users. Kathi and Alexis' comments make it clear that for them tweeting is a way of concentrating on and taking in complex material, not a distraction from it. Their quick, real-time reactions are a prelude to more substantive, reflective forms of engagement that will come later. It may not be your cup of tea, and it isn't a method that works well for me, but their comments helped me to see possibilities in the medium that I hadn't seen before. For that I am grateful, so you play nice, CPP.

  21. Yeah, I didn't mean to come across as harshing on them personally. Sorry about that, Kathi and Alexis!

  22. Jaime Harker2:41 PM EST

    Thank you--both for the thoughtful post and the comments that follow. I have always had trouble enjoying MLA, which I have always attributed to my long job search. Your post makes me realize another reason, however. The MLA conference seems like it is organized around fame and trendiness; at least since the rise of theory, many scholars dismiss the old guard as irrelevant and worthless. I don't think the digital humanities must be opposed to more traditional scholarship, but many of its champions contrast their relevanance with the moribund inconsequence of established disciplines. I am afraid that in our quest for the next big thing, we are our own worst enemies. Let's make the case for the value of all scholarship in the humanities, not just the cool, new stuff.

  23. ML: Had a long post which I just lost. Gist was that some of us wanted to tweet (I think) at #mla11 but still have the notion that what we write must be consequential... as opposed to simply capuring a though for exchange or provocation. (NOT captcha-ring). I'll be less of a lurker (hawker--for tweeting?) at #mla12, but I suspect that many people were alert to to the tweetosphere. That has a lot to do with the success of the conference (extending the real feel of intellectual exchange). I think we're all feeling a bit humbled/confused about new directions in all aspects of the profession, and thus more eager to talk with each other (or communicate on blogs & tweets). I'd like to think the new dates helped (self-serving) in adding a new dimension of humaneness to the MLA.

  24. I really hope we don't fall into the rut of "DH lends itself to Twitter because the ideas are straight (wink) forward, uncomplicated, empiricist, whatever, whereas other discourses are much too complex and ineffable to submit themselves to the rigorous constraints of the bandwidth."

    I mean, really, pups.

  25. Point taken, Matt (er, Big Dog) -- which is why I was careful in my previous comment to emphasize different modes of presentation or argument (rather than fields) as more readily tweetable. I've got no problem saying that my remarks on the "New Tools" roundtable were, yes, easier to take in and respond to quickly than were the very formal, dense papers I heard on the queer studies sessions. Different modes and styles work differently, and audiences respond differently -- in all fields.

    I think it's very important in these conversations to avoid pitting fields against one another, just as, to go back to Jaime's comment, it's important to avoid pitting new (=cool) against established (=boring) against one another. That's why I was so disappointed by that comment attributed to Neil but not quoted directly in Howard's article, which seemed to suggest that DH sessions were full of energy, while others were not. I just don't find it useful to make those kinds of distinctions, which are highly subjective, to say the least. One of the things I particularly loved about this MLA is that I experienced incredible energy in all of the -- very different -- sessions I attended, despite the convention's emphasis on "hard times." I came away feeling professionally quite rejuvenated, which doesn't always happen for me at MLA.

  26. Jennifer Howard12:28 PM EST

    Hi: It's useful, if not always pleasant, to hear feedback from readers. I'm sorry my MLA roundup didn't give you what you were looking for. I'll make a few points in response.

    First, my wrap-up story covered a lot of ground, including: what happened at one of the main "Hard Times" panels; Sid Smith's speech about narrating lives; the ongoing tension over the divide between TT and contingent labor; the persistent feeling that English and European languages dominate too much of the agenda and that community-college faculty members also feel left out.

    I gave one sentence to the free wifi. It cost the association a fair bit of change to provide it, according to Rosemary Feal, and from where I sit it marks a shift in how a big scholarly association thinks about how its members communicate and what they want.

    As someone pointed out above, I reported via Twitter on a number of non-DH panels, including the English Bible session you mention; two sessions organized by German departments about how they're fighting program cuts; the annual "Why Teach Literature?" session; Smith's speech; and a panel on the future of publications. Most of those were not digitally driven, and in several of them I was the only person tweeting, which I hope gave people not in the room a sense of what was going on they would otherwise not have gotten.

    From those panels and from others I sat in on and from a lot of conversations in between, I came away with a number of story ideas, as I always do. At some point I will get together some thoughts about what Twitter adds to coverage of an event like the MLA--what its risks and rewards are--from a journo's POV, although where I will share those I don't know yet.

    On a less personal note (I think you're getting at this above): If you're a scholar, it's worth thinking about whether a conference is the best vehicle for spreading the word about fabulous work being done in queer studies or ecocriticism or whatever your field happens to be. A conference like the MLA may be a good place to catch the attention of your peers. And if a reporter comes to your session or spots it in the program and asks to see your paper, you may get some nice publicity. But it's not realistic to expect that the best work in Subdiscipline X will find the spotlight you think it deserves when there are hundreds of other panels and papers competing for attention. Twitter and blogs and listservs are a good addition to the channels scholars used to have for sharing their ideas. You don't have to be a tech evangelist or a digital humanist to make use of the new tools.


    Jennifer Howard

  27. Jennifer -- Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to respond. I really do appreciate how difficult it is to cover something as large and diverse as an MLA convention and found much to admire in your roundup piece, as I do in all of your work. It did seem to me that Twitter played an outsize role in shaping coverage of the convention, which is something I think all of us -- those attending and those covering such events -- need to think about. Your article offered a couple of telling examples that I felt were worth examining in that context. I tried hard to be fair to it and to you, and I am truly gratified by the conversation that has unfolded in this comment thread and very pleased, as noted above, that you decided to join it. We all have a lot to learn from one another in the course of doing our various jobs, and dialogs like this can help us to perform them a little more reflectively. Or so I hope.

    Best wishes,

    PS: And the free WiFi? Totally wonderful and totally newsworthy. I'm glad you put it in the story.

  28. Jennifer Howard said: "If you're a scholar, it's worth thinking about whether a conference is the best vehicle for spreading the word about fabulous work being done in queer studies or ecocriticism or whatever your field happens to be."

    Great points, these. As someone who's co-organized two conferences in the last two years (for ASLE and ALECC), I'm thinking really hard right now about what exactly was accomplished at them, and what could have been accomplished by other means.

    Twitter just isn't on the radar for people working in my field (ecocriticism or literature & environment), though I persist with the #EH hashtag for the environmental humanities, but it's been so exciting to see the benefits for the #DH world of tweeting events, ideas, rethinkings, and so on. As I've said elsewhere, I'm a DH fan rather than a DH doer; on Twitter I do feel left out of the academic conversation, but that's because my conversation (so to speak) isn't happening there in the same way. Worse, there really isn't an EH conversation at all. DH is benefitting enormously from the Twitter-enabled speed of connections and refinements. The environmental humanities are moving too slowly!

    (And great thread, Roxie -- congrats on such a usefully worded original post.)



Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.