MLA 2011 and #mla11: on tweeting conventions

I’ve just spent quite an exhiliarating weekend attending the Modern Language Association in Los Angeles. MLA had previously been known to me by reputation as a terrifyingly large conference, a place to hear academic rock stars strut their stuff but, for grad students, a purgatory that mainly had to be endured because of the job interviews that take place there. With neither a presentation nor the job market to worry about, and with the luxury of being able to recharge at home whenever I wanted, that couldn’t have been further from my experience. I was able to engage with the conference in a stress-free way and to immerse myself in the new modes of participation Rosemary Feal has been encouraging. When I ran into colleagues and told them how much I was enjoying myself, they tended to look fairly astonished.

Those who followed my twitter stream may have been less surprised. I’ve livetweeted quite a few conferences now, first taking the plunge at DML 2010 after lurking in digital media studies twitter streams more or less for as long as they’ve existed. I love swimming through the datastream, documenting comments, thoughts and interactions as they occur; I find more and more that there is a particular zone of attention it is possible to enter, where I can synthesize and transmit as I hear and engage far more intensely with what’s being said than I ever would otherwise.

The capacity to do that depends immensely on the style and substance of what is being said, of course. MLA is the largest conference I’ve ever attended, with a range of topics of discussion that’s so large it’s difficult to contemplate. For what it’s worth (and I wish I knew a way to easily link to portions of a twitterstream, but I didn’t tag panel numbers consistently), these are the panels I attended. I’d have liked to see more, but the disadvantage of a conference where you can go home any time you want is that you also have all your usual home commitments.

12. Labor in the Digital Humanities
74. Queerness and Disability
86. Writing with Eve: the Legacy of Eve Sedgwick
230A. Speculative Fictions: ‘Near Future’ Visions of Race and Politics
309. The History and Future of the Digital Humanities (#309)
366. Sedgwick’s Endurance: Writing with Loss
580. The Traffic in Gender: New Directions in Trans Scholarship

I wish I had managed to attend more of the “academy in hard times” panels and more on critical race studies, but what I did attend probably gives a good overview of my interests. I attended some of the intensely tweeted digital humanities panels, but more where there were relatively few people attached to their computers. In a digital humanities panel, tweeting made me part of an active backchannel conversation. In other panels, where I was either the only person tweeting or one of just a few, I felt like a broadcasting device, charged with bringing the discussion to those who would have liked to be present but couldn’t, and fervently hoping I wouldn’t misrepresent a speaker. I had some anxiety about sharing people’s words without permission, but enough online acquaintances (many from fannish and activist communities outside the academy, who would never have known about MLA but for its twitter presence) expressed interest my microblogging that I decided to keep going.

Making notes and tweeting in all those panels made me think a lot about the way ideas get presented orally. I often see comments complaining about the way humanities scholars read their papers aloud in conferences, calling for more dynamic modes of presentation. I agree with that to a a degree; no one wants to listen to someone mumbling into a sheet of paper, and we ought to study and practice presentation skills as much as we do writing. But outside the digital humanities panels I attended, most of the presentations I saw were more or less read, and that didn’t stop them from being easy to follow and engaging. I’ve begun to think about tweetability as an index for conference papers’ intelligibility: if they’re easy to parse into 140-character chunks, I am able to feel that I have assimilated what the speakers had to say.

There were two panels in particular where I found the talks sufficiently tweetable that I felt I was able to share with my community of scholars, fans, and online activists, letting them know what was being said inside the academy. The first was a marvellous panel on race and speculative fiction with papers from Chris Cunningham on Phillip K Dick’s imaginings of black leadership, Curtis Marez talking about the United Farm Workers movement as a political undercurrent to Star Wars, Shelley Streeby on queer families and black vampires in Octavia Butler’s Fledgling, and Kara Keeling on District 9, globalized cinema and black futurity.

The second was Jack Halberstam, Dean Spade and Aren Aizura’s panel on new directions in trans scholarship, though I think my capacity to tweet there was aided by my prior familiarity with Jack and Dean’s ideas and speaking voices. One of the main points all the speakers made in that panel was that sometimes it is politically important to remain unintelligible, that much can be lost when what is marginal becomes comprehensible to dominant discourses. The best example is Dean Spade‘s work on the history of state-sponsored quantitative studies and what kinds of content they require in order to render citizens legible.

While it’s something of a twisted appropriation of the panel’s radical anti-assimilationist politics to say so, I think there is a similar value to difficult intelligibility when it comes to thinking about ideas. And that makes me want to resist my own desire to make every new idea condensable to a 140-character reduction. In the Sedgwick memorial panels, particularly the talks by Judith Butler, Lauren Berlant, and Lee Edelman, the theoretical content of presentations was of an intensity that I find difficult to parse until I have written it down. Deep theory is not tweetable, at least not for me, though attempting to synthesize it on the run is fascinating and engaging as an intellectual workout. Listening to talks of that kind is an experience of grasping the insight that runs away before you can type to the end of the sentence. I tried tweeting what I could catch hold of, but I’m not sure it was useful. Still, I’d hesitate to say that these scholars should begin to give tweetable papers, should package their thought for easier consumption; I think something would be lost then too.

Crossposted at HASTAC

6 thoughts on “MLA 2011 and #mla11: on tweeting conventions

  1. Jason

    I’d agree that the goal of “tweetable papers” is probably a little misguided, although a tweetable moment or two might not hurt.

    I sometimes wonder about the extent to which a paper that can’t be tweeted *at* *all* is even comprehensible aurally, though there are certainly some kinds of valuable papers that would be hard to tweet in their entirety.

  2. Brian Croxall

    Thanks for your thoughts on the panels that can and cannot be tweeted. I agree that intense theoretical papers cannot easily be assimilated into a series of tweets. And there is a reason why papers like that normally have to be read rather than performed: it’s very difficult to remember all the right steps and moves that one is making when wrestling with small and complex issues. Many of these papers will be published eventually, but it’s just as valuable, from my perspective, to see someone like yourself reacting to the presentations live. I appreciated your being present in the queer theory panels as I wasn’t able to be there.

    As an aside, I find it interesting to contemplate the anxiety we sometimes feel about sharing others’ words. This is a conversation I’ve had at times with people, and I find that people’s anxiety shifts very much depending not only on venue but also upon the fields in which they work. Unsurprisingly, digital humanists tend to expect what they say to be tweeted in presentations. Shakespeareans are much more touchy and concerned with the permanent record. I don’t think one perspective is right, but I would like to see a wider professional discussion on this subject.

  3. Alexis Lothian Post author

    I am glad you found my often elliptical tweets to be interesting and useful.

    The question of broadcasting others’ words is something I think about a lot. I’ve done a fair bit of teaching, writing and presenting about the creative productions of fan artists, who publish to very specific groups and don’t expect their work necessarily to go beyond that, and in that context I consider it inappropriate to not at least let the creator know in advance that you’re going to be sharing their work beyond its original sphere. There’s an argument to be made that conferences are similar spaces, but I do tend to assume that academics would like their ideas to traffic widely. At MLA I checked in as much as as plausible with speakers and didn’t hear any negative feedback, but most of the sessions I tweeted had the element of activist engagement common to feminist, queer, ethnic and disability studies that would probably make them more willing to be public. Shakespeare scholarship is very likely to be different, I expect.

  4. Alexis Lothian Post author

    Thanks for your comment (somewhat belatedly…)

    Since beginning to microblog conferences, I have definitely become conscious of ‘tweetability’ in my own papers, and I now think of the capacity for tweetable moments as part of the work of making a complex written text, or involved and twisty readings and research, into an orally presentable work.

    But the MLA presentations by Berlant and Edelman, to give an example that I found very difficult to turn into anything tweetable, was definitely planned as an aural experience and performance; it was read, but read with great consciousness and address to an audience. In that case, the paper presented might only be translatable into quotable chunks when/if it is published,but being present definitely had an unquantifiable experiential impact. (Of the sort that both Berlant and panel-mate Munoz have theorized with regard to less elevated locations in their theoretical work, in fact.)

  5. aren

    Hi Alexis — it’s so interesting to hear about the capacities for conference panels to be tweeted. It makes me think about how being able to scribble notes is a crucial part of hearing complex ideas when they’re presented in conference panels or lectures, for me, even though later the scribbled notes might never make sense. Notes work as markers that help me remember the sound of the phrase or sentence I am hearing and retain it, or come back to it later. I wonder whether tweeting is like that, or whether being conscious of broadcasting to other people (instantly) means that you are working harder to make sense?

  6. Alexis Lothian Post author

    Hi Aren, and thank you for your amazing talk at MLA!

    I find that tweeting is a mix of note-scribbling and more serious attempts to synthesize. I always take notes (on the computer if I can, because I like being able to go back and actually read what I wrote…), and tweeting for me is basically a process of making notes, deciding whether any given sentence is comprehensible enough to make sense to another person, and tweeting it if it is. I was able to start livetweeting conference panels etc only when I gave up on the idea that what I said had to be a true and perfect representation of what I had heard and instead thought of it as sharing my notes with an interested community who couldn’t be in the room with me. I don’t know if I would ever have started without that feeling of connection to an online community beyond academia…