Challenging Convention

In Media Res: a source of digital scholarship

About a month ago, scholars in language and literature gathered in Seattle to attend one of academia’s largest conventions, the Modern Language Association annual conference. The conference garnered national attention in the New York Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and elsewhere, and two Middlebury faculty were at the center of this year’s hot topic of debate: the evolving role of digital scholarship in the humanities.

Provost and Professor of English Alison Byerly helped lead a workshop on “Evaluating Digital Scholarship”  that was widely blogged, tweeted, and featured on the Chronicle’s Profhacker blog. Among the four case studies featured in the workshop was the blog written by Jason Mittell, an associate professor of film and media culture.  Mittell, on leave in Germany this year, addressed the issues of the workshop in—appropriately—a blog post, “Blogging for Tenure.”

Even before the convention, a New York Times op-ed by Stanley Fish about this year’s MLA, titled “The Old Order Changeth,” pointed out the proliferation of panels addressing the field known as “digital humanities,” a term that encompasses humanities research presented in digital form, or that employs computer-assisted modes of analysis. Fish noted wryly, “If you see a session on ‘Digital Humanities versus New Media’ and you’re not quite sure what either term means you might think you have wandered into the wrong convention.”

Byerly presented a paper at that session, titled “Everything Old is New Again: The Digital Past and the Humanistic Future,” about the ways in which the struggle for self-definition associated with digital humanities reflects the larger conversation taking place in higher education about the future of the humanities. She argues that the new paradigms for scholarly communication that are now emerging offer the opportunity for humanities scholars to engage students more actively in their research, as scientists and social scientists do, and that this could be profoundly re-energizing for the humanities.

Byerly’s own scholarship involves both Victorian literature, her original area of research, and contemporary media. In a new book,  Are We There Yet? Virtual Travel and Victorian Realism (forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press) she connects the Victorian fascination with “virtual travel” in a variety of forms with both the rise of realism in nineteenth-century fiction, and twenty-first century experiments in virtual reality.

Byerly notes that the College’s recently appointed Task Forces on Curricular Innovation are engaging many of the same kinds of issues as the MLA sessions. “We have some forty colleagues involved in discussion of possible curricular developments or enhancements that reflect the rapid pace of change in many disciplines, the new opportunities represented by evolving technology, and growing student interest in connecting their course work with learning experiences outside the classroom.” She is particularly pleased, she added, that a number of colleagues in humanities disciplines are part of these discussions. “You don’t often get to say this, but: this is an exciting time for the humanities.”

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