MLA Commons Launches at 2013 Convention

The annual Mecca known as the MLA Convention was marked this year by the launch of MLA's own comprehensive digital platform, MLA Commons. The platform has the potential to decentralize, or rather recentralize, the heart of the annual meeting: its basic structure provides a virtual space for constituents to congregate, converse, and soliloquize, with sections devoted to user-created groups, blogs, and wiki.

As soon as the Commons launched in full this January, hundreds of users flocked to the site to register and test out the discussion boards or set up a blog. Today, registration is well over 800 and still slowly climbing. Compare that to 8,000 attendees at MLA 2013, and it's not yet a stand-in for the convention itself, but it does provide the opportunity to those who want it to sustain and start new conversations beyond the traditional four-day window.

Who are the early adopters? Unsurprisingly, "While I would say that grad students and early-career faculty have probably been the most active so far, collectively speaking, there are a number of extremely active established professors working on the site as well," reports Kathleen Fitzpatrick, MLA's Director of Scholarly Communication. So while the MLA Convention provides a structured, traditional meeting place, the Commons appears to be, so far, an open forum where the younger members are setting the tone.

Fitzpatrick anticipates that one of the key next steps for the Commons will be "to expand the kinds of information that members can share on their profiles, and the ways that they can create a professional presence online with them," which means more opportunities for the young, technophilic membership to establish a presence in academic conversations, or at the least, to establish connections for future projects and engagements.

While the Commons has had significant uptake so far, it still remains to be seen what will last past the hype of the launch. While some blogs have been left empty or inactive, and the wiki remains sparse, the groups seem to show the most frequent activity and robust membership. And perhaps this is a good sign for the Commons: whereas blogs and wikis are for one person to post and others to add secondary comments, groups are set up for more of a roundtable discussion. So far, they also show the most varied and specific subject matter.

For university presses, the Commons is—like Twitter or Facebook can be—another tool for taking the temperature of academia, for staying current on the latest scholarly discussions, or at least the news of the day. While several of the blogs are missives from MLA leadership or meta-discussions about the academy, there are also subject-specific postings, on opportunities in Colonial Latin America studies, for example, or discussing the "Medical Humanities." And over 200 groups represent a wide variety of specific humanities interests, both general and niche, from "Drama" to "Opera as a Literary and Dramatic Form."

"We absolutely hope that presses will get involved with us and work with our members," says Fitzpatrick, "finding exciting new projects there that they want to develop for their audiences. We welcome any ideas from our university press colleagues about how we might create the best opportunities for this kind of fertile collaboration."

Regan Colestock
Communications Coordinator, AAUP