The “Next Big Thing” Ten Years Later: Digital Humanities at MLA 2019

This past December, as the semester was winding down, I got a message from Anna Chang, Head of Communications for the Modern Language Association. She inquired whether I would consider writing 500 words or so that summarized the different digital humanities sessions at the 2019 MLA Convention in Chicago for the MLA Newsletter.

Cat typing at a keyboard, with the phrase "This is relevant to my interests" superimposed on the image.

This was, as the Internet says, relevant. I happily took on the assignment and shortly after the Convention had to figure out how to condense everything I had seen into as few words as possible. I overshot the 500 words by more than 50%, but the MLA were good sports about it.

The piece appeared last week in the Spring 2019 MLA Newsletter, and I’m sharing it here with the permission of the MLA.

Almost a decade has passed since, during the 2009 MLA convention, William Pannapacker wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education that “the digital humanities seem like the first ‘next big thing’ in a long time” (“MLA”). He later wrote that he regretted that claim because it had become “a basis for a rhetoric that presents [digital humanities] as some passing fad” (“Pannapacker”). If the 2019 convention is any indication, it should be clear that digital humanities is neither a fad nor passing. Over the course of this year’s convention, I attended a wide range of sessions—many of them standing room only—that focused on the digital either as methodology or as object of inquiry, and I missed as many again since I could not be in two places at once.

Perhaps the most exciting session that I attended featured a roundtable of early-career scholars focused on “critical computation”: the use of quantitative methods to address issues of race, gender, or other aspects of social difference (MLA session 417). The lightning-talk format of this session meant that each panelist spoke for only five minutes, giving me just enough of a sense of their project to have several questions for each of them. Individual presenters discussed, among other topics, the use of sentiment analysis to analyze feeling in poetry from the Black Arts Movement (Ethan Reed); the declining percentage of women authors over the last 150 years, as represented in 104,000 volumes of the HathiTrust collection (Sabrina Lee); cataloging references to the female body through pronouns in early modern poetry (Whitney Sperrazza); and an examination of how women authors are represented in anthologies of literary journalism (Jonathan Fitzgerald). The final speaker, Kenton Rambsy, reported on his work on a data set of 101 anthologies that contain short fiction by black writers. His paper, which, like many from the session, has been deposited in CORE, demonstrates that “anthology editors shaped the landscape of African American literature by repeatedly publishing approximately 30 stories by a core group of [seven] writers,” Seeing the effect of digital humanities training on the research of young scholars was almost as inspiring as the questions of diversity to which they are turning their attention.

Those who worry that digital humanities research ignores the material could have found much to consider in a session called “Bookish Transactions: Publishing. Media, and Materialism.” which pointed to a particular concern with the codex (session 481), Opening the discussion, Lee Konstantinou observed that more attention has been paid to the effect MFA writing programs have had on literary production than on the consolidation of the publishing industry since the 1960s, Matthew Kirschenbaum suggested that we know more about how books were made in Gutenberg’s time than about how they are made today. He then discussed his visit to a production plant for a major commercial printer in Kendallville, Indiana, tracing the entry point of book manuscripts into the building through fiber-optic cables and their departure on pallets along the building’s rail spur. After N. Katherine Hayles spoke about the production of scholarly monographs, the remaining three panelists gave overviews of large-scale, computational work on the publishing industry. Laura McGrath focused on the role of literary agents, Richard Jean So on race and publishing, and Dan Sinykin on conglomeration and neoliberalism. Thetalks highlighted the shared history of digital humanities and book history scholars and suggested, as Kirschenbaum put it, that all scholars should consider the intersection of social justice and supply chain in the question “Who is making your book?”

Multiple panels at the convention focused on the subject of digital humanities pedagogy. Two panels that I organized with Diane Jakacki (sessions 89 and 639) took as their starting point that one’s answer to the question “What is digital humanities?” is most clearly articulated in decisions in the classroom. Panelists pointed to the emphasis in digital humanities pedagogy on process and connected it to the writing classroom (Grant Glass), addressed the utility of digital humanities training at a regional polytechnic university (Mitchell Ogden), discussed the difficulty of digital humanities training within multilingual programs like East Asian studies (Molly Des Jardin), and considered the perils and imperatives of professionalizing graduate students in digital humanities seminars (Lindsay Thomas).

I attended other sessions that discussed everything from digital scholarly editions (session 245) to the far-reaching impact of NEH-sponsored summer seminars on literature and technology (session 350) and missed sessions that covered critical approaches to augmented and virtual reality (session 155), the rights and responsibilities of collaboration (session 487). and the relation between design and fiction (session 635). Such a wealth of offerings highlights that digital humanities is not, in fact, a fad. At the same time, however, the last ten years have made clear that not all humanities scholarship need be digital. Digital humanities is just one method among many that we can use to understand the products and producers of modern languages. In the end, it’s the opportunity to attend—back-to-back—a session that close-reads Hemingway’s relation to his boyhood environs in Oak Park and another that distant-reads his entire corpus that brings me to the MLA convention every year.

Works Cited

Pannapacker, William. “The MLA and the Digital Humanities.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 28 Dec. 2009. .com/blogPost/The-MLAthe-Digital/19468/.

—. “Pannapacker at MLA: The Come-to-DH Moment.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 1 Jan. 2012,

Rambsy, Kenton. “African American Short Fiction and Data Driven Humanities.” MLA Annual Convention, 5 Jan. 2019, Chicago. Humanities Commons,