MSA 2018 and Lo-Fi Modernism

If you or someone you love is a modernist, chances are, you’ve been hearing the post-conference buzz from MSA 2018 in Columbus last week. Wonderfully organized by Thomas Davis and Jesse Schotter, the conference has already been praised in a thoughtful recap in The Modernist Review by Séan Richardson, Michelle Rada, Patty Argyrides, and Meindert Peters. I wholeheartedly concur with our across-the-pond colleagues in BAMS that the conference was all “fire emoji” (and yes, I’m gonna keep that spelt out that way, for emphasis) (and yes, I’m gonna keep that spelling of spelt because it’s quite fun to think about ancient grains and also because I’m a shameless Anglophile).

For me as well, Indigenous Modernisms panel was a real standout. I’m looking forward to hearing more from Alana Sayers in particular, so thanks to Stephen Ross. I meant to attend the AfroGraphics panel but walked into the wrong room…which I so often do…. Anyway, Adam Hammond, representing the crew for MSA 2019, has promised us more panels on Modernist Indigeneity, so that’s something to look forward to in Toronto next year.

Some other trends I noticed involved the use of the word “pedagogy” for scholarly activities beyond the classroom. Hmmm. I agree that many organs of scholar communication have pedagogical implications beyond the formal classroom context and beyond the student/teacher relationship. There’s also some fantastic energy around Mina Loy, who formed the basis of two of the presentations at the “Feminist Designs: Visualizing the Future of Modernist Digital Humanities” roundtable organized by Amanda Golden. In that panel, imagery of crafts, quilts, collages, and other forms of feminist design mentioned by Suzanne Churchill as integral to Mina Loy: Navigating the Avant-Garde met with J. Ashley Foster’s imagery of student-made galleries and digital projects and Margaret Konkol’s imagery of 3D printing, modeling, and prototyping. I love that there’s a rising interest in a feminist ethos of creation countering some of the more ponderous and weirdly abstract versions of object-oriented ontology and new materialisms. In that same roundtable, Amanda Golden’s own work with midcentury correspondence networks in The New Yorker showed us the cool recovery stuff you can do with an archive & a spreadsheet, and Amardeep Singh (I dare you to find a cooler Twitter handle, and oh check out his new book) shared his super Scalar-powered digital archive, Women of the Early Harlem Renaissance: African American Women Writers 1900-1922, and introduced us to an author I wasn’t familiar with, Carrie Williams Clifford. Looking over this site, I sigh with regret/panic/jealousy/imposter syndrome that whereas I talk a lot about minimal DH editions, scholars like Amardeep just go out and do it. (Also see James Gifford’s excellent versions of In Our Time and the Harlem Shadows of Chris Forster and Roopika Risam, some of my favorites.)

Another trend I noticed at the conference is that populations I haven’t heard talking about precarity before are now pretty vocal about it–by which I mean that truly senior, established scholars occupying well-deserved academic posts bringing up questions about resource inequality, contingency, and other forms of insecurity. This is fantastic… I remember a lot of intergenerational tension around conversations about precarity a decade ago, when the first catastrophic job market failure dropped in the winter of 2007-2008. (Terrible album, btw.) Many senior scholars were markedly on the defensive, for a variety of reasons. To hear people who occupy similar socioeconomic positions in academe actively ask to talk about these issues is, frankly, all “smiling face with heart-shaped eyes emoji.”

The question of precarity came up in the Q&A session of the roundtable I presented in, “Do We Need a Feminist Roundtable?” (you don’t need me to answer that, right? if you wanna see my paper, “Feminism & Me at the Theory Buffet,” email me and I’ll send it: it feels too personal even for this blog to put up generally, what can I say, my courage is sadly limited). The question was about allyship: how do we support the people who need it? Of course, the “we” here was assumed to be people who are in positions that allow them to support people, but I think what I’m about to say is, I hope, relevant for a number of socioeconomic academic statuses. (Socioecodemic?)

My answer was that we need “lo-fi” solutions: ones that do not cost the earth, whether that’s money, time, attention, effort, or (in terms of what our scholarly activities do to hasten the end of time) the literal earth. Traditionally, we assume that authority rests on scarcity. Power and visibility are linked to monopolizing scarce resources. We assume that what is valuable is scarce. That what is smart is rare. That to keep any power we’ve scrabbled into, we need to perpetuate the idea that if too many people have something, then it’s not worth anything.

I suggest thinking about resources differently. How do we share scarce resources in creative, new ways? What resources are not scarce? What counts as a resource (a valuable tool for someone else to use, to their benefit) that you wouldn’t normally think is a resource? Can we make a list of them to remind ourselves what they are? What behaviors can allow resources not to behave as if they are scarce? If you’re in a stable position, how can you distribute your authority, rather than hoard it? Because the rewards, positions, and cash available in academia are so asymmetrically allocated, decentered & distributed intellectual authority is what we already have. It’s not hoarded in tenure-track positions: brilliance in teaching, research, and service is everywhere. Graduate students have it. Adjuncts have it. Librarians have it. Part-time workers have it. Independent scholars have it. (Let’s not forget the heroic people who keep on the good fight for knowledge without any institutional affiliation to help.)

I used the term “lo-fi” in my answer because it’s interested me as a term to use in articulating my vacillations between carbon-heavy or money-heavy modes of teaching and those that are less so (see this old post over here). Within the DH community specifically, my values align with minimal computing, which advocates for the least costly, most open, and most globally accessible technical solutions for academic problems. You can see this principle at work in my DH pedagogy book with Claire Battershill.

But for me, the issue isn’t just about defeating assumptions that massive NEH grants and armies of graduate students are always required for great DH work (c.f. Singh, Gifford, Forster, and Risam, above). The issue of creative resource redistribution goes beyond technical resources. This is why I’m saying “lo-fi” instead of simply “minimal computing.” Donating to academic association funds for supporting contingent faculty or grad students to attend conferences is one classic example of this sort of lo-fi redistribution. So are open CFPs, in which you don’t always present or publish your friends, but keep your eyes and ears open for a “fresh voice,” which is usually code for graduate student, early career, or adjunct, no?

Space is a resource. Once a week, I open up my home to graduate students for three timed writing sessions. These sessions are more formal than just meeting up with friends at a cafe (although we do have some socializing time afterward, where a lot of informal mentorship happens). We go through a lot of ginger ale and pomegranate juice in these meetings (s/o to Deanna Stover and Desirae Embree and Laura Mandell and Andrew Pilsch), but really, all that’s needed is quiet space, a table, and some chairs. That I can offer.

Time is a resource. Margaret Konkol made it clear in her presentation that prototyping isn’t just about connecting with a local makerspace to get some time on a 3D printer. By conceiving of assignments as “prototypes” intead of finished products, students can experiment with minimal foreboding, their minds not shut down by fears about having finished products. This is especially true in digital pedagogy, where students who are not confident in their tech skills can evince considerable anxiety, but it’s true with any sort of assignment. Rapid prototyping offers a temporal model that can save student time while not compromising on your learning objectives.

Attention and goodwill are resources. Alex Christie remarked that, in the Feminist Designs roundtable, all participants were kind to one another, supporting and mentioning their work. As a chair, I made sure to add “impromptu” (but actually quite scripted!) remarks about recent milestones met by the participants (notice the shout-out to Amardeep’s new book? that s/o that was there, at MSA, too). It just took a moment of Googling to make sure I had one detail to add in the biographies of each of the panelists. We are working so hard, y’all. Let’s celebrate our accomplishments when we can, okay? Redirecting others’ attention to cool things is a resource, especially if you have some sort of authority position, however temporary (e.g., I had the floor because I was the chair).

Although the main point of my answer to the Q&A question was about people up in the hierarchy reaching to help those downward in it, these kinds of lateral networks–moving resources from one person to another who socioecodemically look like peers–are important as well. Some inequalities are invisible outside of peer networks (we’re so very good at fronting that everything is OK, right?), so what may look like a peer-to-peer shout-out may be a helpful redistribution of resources. This is especially true because different kinds of institutions and departments have different sorts of resources or perquisites, as do people at different stages of their careers. People with people- or time-resources should find people with financial or equipment resources. What resource do you have unique access to?

Shout-outs like the one to Amardeep’s new book are part of a fuzzy idea I’m trying to work out: an idea about “radical citation” or “radical bibliography.” Citations are scarce resources, but we have the power to move a bit flexibly within disciplinary norms. One transformative reading experience I’ve had was with this DHQ article, “A Culture of non-citation: Assessing the digital impact of British History Online and the Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership”. Go read it, but for now, essentially, the point is: Why are you consulting blogs, or Wikipedia, or databases, and then not citing them? Be honest about where we’re getting our information! For modernists, if you’re citing from the Modernist Journals Project, for heaven’s sake, put it in the citation! The MJP has lots of authority now…and if you have a digital project in modernism, you can apply to ModNets to get yourself some of the sweet validation they’re offering…. But: the main point is that precarious folks often don’t have the time to churn out books and articles. So cite your conversations with them (as interviews). Cite their conference presentations (and encourage them to get them published with a DOI with MLACommons!) Cite their email exchanges with you. Cite their blog posts. Cite their websites. Cite their syllabi. Cite their book reviews and encyclopedia articles. Cite forthcoming works. Cite from open-access journals. And publish in open-access journals, too, so your authority helps all the others in the table of contents! Cite frequently and often.

This is getting too long, so let me conclude with a list of some things I’m gonna try to do to work on rethinking academic authority to to redistribute resources:

  • Shape my graduate course on Bibliography and Research Methods in Spring 2019 to think about radical citation practices.
  • Keep working with Margaret Konkol on the “Modernist Switchboard”, based on our workshop at this MSA, the Modernist Collaboratory. Please join this MLA Commons group, or follow the @ModernistSwitchboard account or hashtag to find collaborators and to find or give help.
  • Push forward my DIY Digital Editions project, which Margaret Konkol and I will be workshopping for DHSI 2019, and use it to contribute to the UVA Scholars’ Lab’s programming and initiatives related to the expansion of copyright due to come through in January 2019.
  • To open up new populations to DH (senior scholars!), write a guide for incorporating DH in the graduate classroom aimed at the kinds of senior scholars who were asking about DH for the first time. (Note: if you have a digital project you’d like some crowdsourcing for, please tell me! I’m going to assemble a list of projects that modernist graduate students can contribute to so that graduate instructors who don’t know already what these projects are can find you and use your project as an out-of-the-box DH activity. Win-win!)
  • While promoting ModNets more openly, also develop a blog that is less formal to give visibility to embryonic DH projects in modernism, or ones that for whatever reason don’t have the institutional clout to get in the ranks of “normal” ModNets.

We may not be able to control objective conditions of austerity–not immediately and not fully, that is–but I am convinced that we can make some inroads by rethinking our assumptions about how value, authority, and scarcity are all related. What other ideas do you have for lo-fi modernism or lo-fi academia?

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