Monday, January 7, 2013

Digital humanities and African American literary study at MLA

The presence of digital humanities at the annual Modern Language Association (MLA) conference has been on a steady increase over the last few years. As Mark Sample has noted, there were 27 digital humanities-related sessions in 2009, 44 digital sessions in 2011, 58 sessions in 2012, and 66 sessions this year. There have been about two to three digital humanities panels related to race, ethnicity, or black studies in each of these years.

Notably, digital humanities focusing on black studies has not grown at the rate that digital humanities has grown at MLA overall. Furthermore, those black studies digital humanities presentations have rarely focused on African American literature and literary study. Given the robust nature of African American literary scholarship on its own terms as well as the long-term and visible presence of African American literature in the broader field of black studies, the absence of black lit projects focusing on digital humanities at MLA stands out to me.

Generational divides in the field explain some of the absences. In 2009, William Pannapacker noted that "digital humanities panels [at MLA] tend to skew younger than most." Many established scholars of African American literature and those who train developing African Americanists are typically older and less likely affiliated with well-funded projects and processes associated with digital humanities.

Furthermore, the field of African American literary study has, for some time now, faced a problem of "the pipeline," which has usually meant that a relatively small number of graduate students received adequate training. Although relatively small numbers of people are entering the field, the dwindling job opportunities in English in general has created more problems for growth possibilities for digital humanities projects concerning African American literature.

At the moment, leading African American literary scholars and leading digital humanities scholars have not decided that they need each other that much. At least some African Americanists are aware of how prominent DH conversations have become and are aware that we should become part of the conversation. When I was a member of MLA's Black American Literature and Culture division over the last few years, I frequently brought up some of what I was seeing with DH developments. Folks were receptive, and we coordinated a few panels focusing on black studies and DH.

By the way, Maryemma Graham's Project on the History of Black Writing, which celebrates 30 years of existence this year, Alondra Nelson's afrofuturism list, and Anna Everett's AfroGeek conferences served as black studies technoculture projects prior to the current rise of digital humanities. Graham and Everett have been involved in those few black studies-related DH panels at the conferences over the last few years.

We still have considerable work to do before our literary interests become more prominent in the digital humanities sessions at MLA. 

January 6, 2013: From Afrofuturism and AfroGeeks to Digital Humanities
January 5, 2013: Representing Race: Silence in the Digital Humanities
March 25, 2012: Digital Humanities and the Study of African American literature
December 30, 2009: Digital Humanities as "the Next Big Thing" at MLA?

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