Today was a heck of a day at the MLA. I actually experienced the conference, and the way it was meant to be experienced, I think.
In part, I mean having had a full night’s sleep, which was blissful and amazing, and which I hope to repeat immediately after this post. In part, though, I mean that I attended two great panels, ran into some old friends, met and talked with some new folks, and generally enjoyed the entire thing.
I started early today, at the 8.30 am panel “Everquesting: Digital Learning and the Humanities,” and while I was waiting for it to begin, I immediately ran into Scott and Matt. The papers, by an all-star cast of Anne Balsamo, Cathy Davidson, Anna Everett, and Douglas Thomas, were all quite interesting, though the timing was quite off somehow, and by the time Thomas got up to give his paper, six minutes were left in the session. The result was that Thomas barely even got to launch into his presentation before the entire thing was stopped, and there was no discussion at all. Which was a shame, as several ideas came up that I’d have liked to hear more about.
Anne Balsamo’s paper was a very sci-fi oriented projection of a future higher education scenario deriving from contemporary virtual presence and gaming technologies; part of her point was to unpack the ways that the students of the future will far outpace contemporary faculty (in their fluid uses of network technologies for gathering knowledge), but also the ways in which they still need educating (in critical thinking and creative synthesis; in being convinced that knowledge is not simply out there to be “found,” and is inseparable from the act of thinking). One of the most compelling bits of her talk, for me, was the last item in her closing manifesto for the future education of what she, after Pat Cadigan, called “original synners”: that academics must cease their quest to educate students-as-replicants and instead start thinking about education students-as-mutants. Higher education has for the last two hundred years largely–though by no means exclusively–been focused on self-replication, on a constancy of values in knowledge production, and it simply must think more fluidly about the new technologies through which knowledge is actually produced today, and how future generations are going to need to morph to meet the demands of those technologies.
Cathy Davidson, furthering this point, mentioned her frustrations with the rhetoric of crisis that has seemed to engulf the humanities, as the traditional disciplines have been faced with contemporary technological change, saying that, given the issues that are at stake in our encounters with new technologies, “if we cannot find ways to take on leadership in the digital realm, then we in the humanities deserve our crisis.” Indeed.
At noon, I attended Matt and Kari‘s panel on Material Textualities, which was fascinating, not least for the ways that (as Matt pointed out at the beginning of his talk) the MLA’s reliance on alphbetical organization of panelists resulted in a reverse progression of papers from the digital (Matt) through the image (Kari), and back to early print (Peter Stallybrass), which created some great backward-resonances of a sort that isn’t usual in these settings.
Inbetween these panels, I cruised the book exhibit, which I’ve inevitably found to be the place for the chance encounter with the person I didn’t expect to see. And indeed, I ran into two old pals in quick succession, neither of whom had I planned on seeing, but each of whom was great to catch up with. After the panels, I had a short breather, and then spent some time with a former colleague, before heading off to the blogger meetup.
About which more at a later point. For now, there’s crashing–another full day ahead tomorrow.