Literary Studies in the Digital Age: An Interview

Victoria, BC-March 28/06-Professor Ray Siemens with a projection of historical writing and computer analysis of the writing (better confirm my explaination. -Photograph by Diana Nethercott
Photograph by Diana Nethercott

In April, we interviewed Ray Siemens, who, with Kenneth M. Price, Dene M. Grigar, and Elizabeth Lorang, is an editor of Literary Studies in the Digital Age (LSDA). This month, two new essays were added to the MLA’s first born-digital collection: Matthias Bauer and Angelika Zirker’s “Whipping Boys Explained: Literary Annotation and Digital Humanities” and Gabriel Hankins’s “Correspondence: Theory, Practice, and Horizons.” Below, we talk to Siemens about the process of developing an open-access, openly peer-reviewed book on MLA Commons.

Tell us a little about LSDA’s inception.

LSDA was really a proactive initiative to let people know what DH [the digital humanities] could offer literary study, a place for us to provide reflection on digital-research practice and a coming together of the research and language communities. It came from a supergood place, and the MLA administration was extremely supportive. It was the start of a partnership with the DH community rather than a subservient relationship between the MLA and that community.

Initially, it was going to be a traditional print volume in the MLA’s primer series, and it was just a happy circumstance that with Kathleen Fitzpatrick coming on board, someone said, “Why are we going to print at all?” And so we created what I think remains the first digital, open-access MLA publication.

How did that move change the volume?

Well, it made it more immediate and readily available to its audience, which was great since the work is cutting-edge. It also meant that the academic audience it is meant to serve could pick it up more quickly, use it in the classroom, comment on it—and a lot of that comment is happening behind the scenes too, by e-mail.

Yes, we were a bit disappointed by that, since we’d envisaged the comments happening out in the open, which is what CommentPress is built for.

Well, we’re naturally a nuanced, annotated culture. We read and take notes; we record facts; we make notes; we work in that way. But the performative element of being on display can get in the way of that base, of that impulse to annotate.

Culture is still measured in terms of product, and scholars aren’t given credit for something that is evolving, that is harder to measure. The MLA’s Guidelines for Evaluating Work in Digital Humanities and Digital Media helps with some of that, and it is changing. In the sciences, the emphasis is on the process rather than the product—you can augment and build on a data set. We are more ready to make assertions when we think something is complete. We think of annotation as a definitive statement rather than something that can evolve.

But to return to the question of how the volume changed when we went digital: well, the field is a fast-moving one, and publishing it this way allowed us to come up with the notion of an evolving anthology, allowed us to consider having it evolve in terms of the areas traditionally represented, and to be more fluid and more open to new possibilities as changes happened in the field. It also allowed us to gain additional breadth and coverage, and having it open-access on the Commons has really helped with engagement. We’re now imagining an iterative evolution, but we could also change the scope, broaden out. Imagine David [Hoover]’s piece about text analysis; he has a colleague doing something similar but with different technology. Maybe someone will talk about Google map overlays. . . . It has also been suggested that we broaden the scope and include language study. We’re not there yet, but what we have done is invite two more people to join the editorial team, members of the library studies community, which is very active in digital creation.

Given that the humanities at large still values product over process, do you think a project like this is still only something that a scholar of advanced rank could undertake?

Well, yes, tenure certainly encourages a professionally driven type of rewards system. My personal belief in doing what you love aside, my professional side would have been naturally hesitant to invest time while I was being [considered for tenure]. I would have probably felt obliged to focus on approved professional products. Here again the MLA guidelines have been supportive in trying to argue that it’s not the medium that’s important but the assurance of quality. The guidelines have not only created value for digital work, but they have encouraged dialogue, education, understanding. Scholars should take the guidelines and talk to their colleagues, the dean. Some people have been able to make great strides by following those guidelines, having a conversation—and they’ve created amazing work.

Back to Ken and me: we were able to do this, I think, because we were cochairing the committee, and we were already midcareer.

Can you talk a little about the open review process?

The open review process is two-stage. Submissions go first to the editorial group, who look at them for scope before posting them for open review. Readers can comment directly, contact editors, and feed into standard review—all of which supports an assurance of quality. Quality assessment is vital and allows us to live up to our social contract. Open review is especially pertinent in the environment of MLA Commons, one of consensual engagement. I think it allows us to do more [and do it] better, but people are kind of hesitant. . . . I think when Shakespeare Quarterly had that issue up for open review, it garnered far fewer comments than they had hoped. On the plus side, though, [open review] opens up ideas and allows for a broader, more engaged, more diverse form of knowledge construction around evolving objects—think of Wikipedia, where there is evidence of the changes that have been made, an open and dynamic engagement with knowledge objects. We are still analogically inclined to what feels finished even though it’s not: there are multiple editions of books.

How has LSDA been received?

People are reading it, engaging with it, quoting it, using it in classrooms—and far more of them than would have done [so] if it had been a print volume. I’m sure of that. We continue getting comments and suggestions about what we could do next, ways to expand and add to the collection. Some have suggested concentrated anthologies around specific topics, where an essay in the original collection would serve as a springboard for a cluster. And people are submitting! The structure of LSDA allows for its growth and integration beyond its current iteration. It will be readily available to people when they become interested and used to annotating and linking. . . .

We’re just not there yet?

 The thing about the future is that you know where it’s going, and you get kinda impatient waiting for it to get there, . . . but we can see it! We know it’s going to happen!



The CORE Ten: Top Downloads in 2015

The MLA launched CORE, its library-quality repository that allows members to share their research and pedagogical materials with the world, in beta in late May. Seven months later, it is home to almost two hundred items—that’s a deposit rate of about one item a day (not bad for a newcomer)! And as this list of the ten most downloaded items shows, people are downloading not only published scholarly articles but also conference proceedings, journalism, syllabi, and curricular materials.

One of the unique features of CORE is its connection to MLA forums on the Commons. A member can choose to associate a deposit with up to five forums, triggering its inclusion in the forum’s CORE collection and the sending of e-mail notifications to the members of those forums. The results speak for themselves: items shared with at least one forum upon deposit had, on average, a download rate that was 257% higher than those shared with none.

We have high hopes and big plans for CORE in 2016, including a new home page that showcases recent and popular deposits and new Commons profiles that highlight a member’s CORE contributions. We’re also working toward increased interoperability with other repositories, multifile upload, and implementing functionality that allows Commons users to discuss items deposited with CORE.

We thank all those members who have made their work openly available so far and encourage others to join them and deposit something of their own.

The CORE Ten: Top Downloads in 2015

(As of 18 December.)

1. Conference proceeding
Lina Insana and Emily Todd. “Recruiting Majors in English and World Languages.” (327 downloads)

2. Article
Lisa Zunshine. “The Secret Life of Fiction.” PMLA 130.3 (2015): 724–31. (169 downloads)

3. Chapter
Lisa Zunshine. “Introduction to Cognitive Literary Studies.” The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Literary Studies. Oxford UP, 2015. 1–9. (150 downloads)

4. Syllabus
Kathleen Woodward. “Reading Affect in Literary Studies.” (104 downloads)

5. Learning object
Rachel Arteaga. “Introductory Digital Humanities Curriculum for the High School English Classroom.” (80 downloads)

6. Article
Geraldine Heng. “The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages 1: Race Studies, Modernity, and the Middle Ages.” Literature Compass 8.5 (2011): 258–74. (64 downloads)

7. Article
Gaurav G. Desai. “Oceans Connect: The Indian Ocean and African Identities.” PMLA 125.3 (2010): 713–20. (55 downloads)

8. Editorial
Douglas E. Green. “On ‘The Coddling of the American Mind.’” Augsburg Echo 2 Oct. 2015. (53 downloads)

9= Article
James Dobson. “Can an Algorithm Be Disturbed? Machine Learning, Intrinsic Criticism, and the Digital Humanities.” College Literature 42.4 (2015): 543–64. (46 downloads)

9= Article
Matthew Kirschenbaum. “Operating Systems of the Mind: Bibliography after Word Processing (the Example of Updike).” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 108.4 (2014): 380–412. (46 downloads)

9= Article
Dennis Looney. “What Should You Expect from the MLA Job Interview? And What Do Your Interviewers Expect from You?” ADFL Bulletin 37.1 (2005): 30–32. (46 downloads)


Introduction: The Time of the Semipublic Intellectual

LILI LOOFBOUROW is finishing her dis­sertation, “Excremental Virtue: Eating and Reading in the Age of Milton,” at the University of California, Berkeley. Her work has appeared in venues including the New York Times Magazine, the Guard­ian, Salon, the New Republic, The Awl, The Hairpin, and The New Inquiry.

PHILLIP MACIAK is assistant professor of En­glish and film and media arts at Loui­siana State University, Baton Rouge. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Adaptation, J19, Film Quarterly, Slate, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is at work on a book about secularism and American visual culture in the silent era to be entitled The Disappearing Christ.

This article was first published in the March 2015 issue of PMLA.

Download (PDF, 247KB)


Profession, Revise Thyself—Again

MICHAEL BÉRUBÉ, the director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Pennsylvania State University, University Park, is the author, with Jennifer Ruth, of The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom: Three Necessary Argu­ments (Palgrave, 2015). In 2016 his The Secret Life of Stories: From Don Quixote to Harry Potter, How Understanding Intel­lectual Disability Transforms the Way We Read (NYU P) will be published. This article was first published in the March 2015 issue of PMLA.

Download (PDF, 240KB)


Make Revolution Irresistible: The Role of the Cultural Worker in the Twenty-­First Century

SALAMISHAH TILLET, an associate professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of Sites of Slavery: Citizenship and Racial Democracy in the Post–Civil Rights Imagination (Duke UP, 2012) and a cofounder of the Chicago-based nonprofit A Long Walk Home. This article was first published in the March 2015 issue of PMLA.

Download (PDF, 300KB)

The Modern Language Association and the Center for Digital Research and Scholarship Launch CORE

The office of scholarly communication is pleased to announce the beta launch of CORE, the Commons Open Repository Exchange, on MLA Commons. Developed in collaboration with Columbia University Libraries/Information Services’ Center for Digital Research and Scholarship (CDRS), CORE allows MLA members to deposit their published articles, essay drafts, dissertations, data sets, syllabi, photographs, and other works in a library-quality repository to maximize the discoverability of their scholarship. When you upload a file to the repository, you can choose a Creative Commons license, get a DOI, and share your work with any of your MLA forum groups. Click on the CORE tab at the top of the MLA Commons home page to explore the new repository or read more about the project.

Statement on Public Access to Federally Funded Research

On 14 and 15 May 2013, the National Academy of Sciences hosted a public comment meeting concerning public access to federally supported research-based publications. Kathleen Fitzpatrick presented the following statement on behalf of the Modern Language Association.

Since the Royal Society of London, learned and professional societies have been founded precisely in order to help facilitate communication among members and between their members and the broader public. That communication developed into the form of the scholarly journal, which accrued a number of formal publishing processes, including editing and peer review, that marked it as an authoritative resource for knowledge in its field. Such resources came to be valued not only by the members of the society but also by a broader range of scholars, researchers, and students; as a result, research libraries collected these journals and made them available to their patrons.

This system was stable for some time: scholars joined societies in order to access those societies’ resources; societies were supported in their work not only by their members but also by libraries, whose subscriptions extended the reach of those resources. Funds generated through membership dues and subscriptions enabled societies not only to fulfill their mission of facilitating scholarly communication but also to support members in developing professional practices and standards, to advocate on behalf of the field within institutions and on the national and international scene, and so on.

Things have changed in recent years, however, and the development of new communication technologies is only one of those changes. Scholars’ professional lives have become increasingly precarious as employment conditions in colleges and universities have dramatically worsened; as a result, many scholars are unable to commit resources to membership in professional societies. University and research libraries’ budgets have been strained by often exorbitant subscriptions to commercially produced journals; as a result, those libraries are decreasingly able to help support the not-for-profit societies to which the scholars at their institutions belong. Societies are faced with declining memberships, increasing publishing costs, and diminishing subscription revenue; as a result, many societies have turned to larger publishers as a means of sustaining their communication programs and supporting their other functions.

Into this already complex set of competing interests and needs, enter the Internet, and in particular the World Wide Web. The web was, like scholarly societies, invented for the express purpose of supporting communication amongst researchers. The difference, of course, is that the web permits any individual scholar with server access and a little bit of technical ability to share his or her work directly with the world, seemingly reducing the need for the collectives historically provided by scholarly societies. Moreover, the web reduces the reproduction costs – if not the production costs – of scholarship to near zero, further diminishing everyone’s willingness to pay for such work. And polarization sets in: the Internet wants all information to be freely and openly available; scholarly societies, needing membership and subscription revenue to survive, want to control access to the work they produce.

These constituencies in scholarly communication have largely talked past one another in recent days, but we at the MLA strongly believe that this need not be so. We all – scholars, libraries, and societies – share the goal of increasing the wealth of knowledge that we hold in common. And if we focus on that collective goal, a viable path forward can be forged.

There is still reason for some benefits of membership in a scholarly society to be exclusive to members if we rethink the role of the scholarly society in the digital age. The shifts that I have described require us to consider the possibility that the locus of a society’s value in the process of knowledge creation may be moving from providing closed access to certain research products to instead facilitating the broadest possible distribution of the work done by its members. This is a profound change, and not just for societies but for their members: we may in coming years operate under a model in which, rather than joining in order to receive the society’s journal, one instead joins a society in order to get one’s own work out to the world, surrounded by and associated with the other work done by experts in the field.

The value of joining a scholarly society in the age of open, public web-based communication, then, may be in participation. At the MLA, we have developed a platform through which our members can collaborate with one another, conduct group discussions, and share their work freely with the world. We are working with our members to develop a set of new professional practices and standards for such open, publicly accessible communication – new modes of editing, new forms of peer review – and we are committed to the idea that the role of the society in the years ahead will be to support those new practices, to promote the work done by our members, and to create the broadest possible public understanding of the importance of such work for our collective future. For this reason, we are happy to support the National Endowment for the Humanities in its work to meet the goals of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy’s public access directive, and we look forward to collaborating with the NEH in building a robust, open infrastructure for publicly accessible scholarship.