mambo italiano

(Below, you’ll find remarks I contributed to an MLA panel discussion from which a case of pneumonia kept me away. The text was read in my absence by Steve Ramsay. I’d like to thank Steve, not only for that, but for cheering me through my disappointment at missing the conference by providing the earworm I now pass on to you. And here’s a promise: when I stop coughing and get my breath back, I’ll record the talk — and sing like I was a-gonna, at MLA.)

This is a call, in a session on the “history and future of the digital humanities,” for us to take instead a steady look at our present moment. I will offset immediately any concern that the intervention I mean to make in today’s conversation is as grim as we are perpetually reminded Our Present Moment to be, by telling you that these remarks are being published on my blog under the title, “Mambo Italiano,” complete with links to a clarion-cutesy Rosemary Clooney, an offensive clip from The Simpsons, and some French guy dancing with low-rent Muppets.

I’m at home in bed. Your grim reality at present, at the 2011 MLA convention, is that shockingly few of the job-seekers you’ll meet this week in elevators and at cash bars have a prayer of securing the stable faculty positions for which they have trained. Still others have been made to feel ashamed of discovering divergent desires on what was meant to be a straight and narrow path to tenure. A look toward the future of digital humanities requires that we be clear-eyed about the crisis facing our graduate students and the hundreds of unemployed and under-employed academics attending this conference right now — and about the impact their working conditions and career trajectories may have on DH and on the broader humanities.

To these people, and to faculty in a position to shape the graduate curricula that produce more and more of them, I say:

Hey goombah!
I love-a how you dance rumba.
But take-a some advice, paisano,
Learn-a how to mambo.
If you gonna be a square, you ain’t-a gonna go nowhere.

Not long ago, our community of practice called itself “humanities computing” — an adjectival signal of difference in which the humanities were empowered to modify computing, rather than the other way around. Now that we’re DH, academic futurologists (speaking either from a starry-eyed Eternal September or from a place of more administrative engagement) tell us that we’re moving toward sameness — that the present digital humanities will shortly be subsumed into the larger humanities, and that we will drop our new adjective to come back into the fold. The former say this in faith that the humanities themselves will be utterly and irrevocably transformed in a grand “methodological turn” stemming from (mostly other peoples’) development of digital tools. The latter group either find it an easier sell — as there’s already a smallish pigeon-hole labelled “humanities scholarship” — or a more hopeful one, as if a DH vanguard might lead their benighted faculties to a Humanities that is more, shall we say? — fundable. Both groups assume a push toward assimilation and speak as if traditionally-employed teaching-and-research faculty were the primary drivers and benefactors of the shift.

What on earth does this have to do with the Mambo Italiano?

Mambo is a Cuban dance originating in 1940s Havana. When it made its way to the States, dance instructors found it too wild and undisciplined to be marketable, so it was standardized into steps. By 1955, when it had become a somewhat predictable and Americanized craze, it was again ripe for cultural mashup. That’s when Rosemary Clooney hit the top of the charts with Latin rhythms and comedic Italian-American lyrics, singing “all you Calabrese / Do the mambo like-a crazy.”

And hey Mambo! Don’t wanna tarantella,
Hey Mambo! No more a-mozzarella.
Hey Mambo! Mambo Italiano,
Try an enchilada with a fish-a-baccalà.

There’s a methodological Mambo Italiano to be danced in the digital humanities. It resists the push toward sameness, or any too-easy assimilation into either humanities or computing, and into the institutional structures that have separated them. It has its own research agenda, and unexpected audiences. And importantly, in our present moment, it’s not only a great deal of fun, but it’s a living — a realistic and happy-making one, where there are jobs to be had putting doctoral-level humanities experience to work, and joy to be reclaimed. When I think about the folks who mambo this way most, right now, they are the ones we’ve begun calling “alternate academics” — people with deep backgrounds in humanities scholarship whose technical skills and passions drive them to work, generally off the tenure track, and increasingly in DH labs and centers, or in libraries, museums, and archives.

Asking today’s “history and future” panel to keep one eye on the present moment means asking them — and you — to reflect on how methodological training in the digital humanities can play a role in ensuring that good, early-career scholars keep their important talents in the academic orbit. If we can’t do better by them, this is a generation of humanities experts we will lose.

Doing better means preparing our junior colleagues for #alt-ac jobs and not training them to see non-tenure-track careers in DH as a consolation prize.

And even the least tech-savvy faculty in our academic departments should recognize that the people who study with us in graduate humanities seminars — if they can also acquire the skills to become makers and not just theorizers — are precisely the people we’d want to see engaging with the wholesale digital transformation of our shared cultural heritage, already underway.

Why are we, in the DH community, so bad at making this case — at clearing these paths? I’m sorry that I can’t join the panel today to discuss these things with you — but if I were in the room, there’s essentially one thing I’d say: Kid, you good-a lookin’ but you don’t know what’s-a cookin’ til you — hey! mambo.