Main Question: Modern Languages and the Digital: the Shape of the Discipline

Undeniably, the advent of digital technologies on the shape of ML research and publishing has been immense. First, regarding research, digital technologies have changed the way in which we engage in our research practice right across the full cycle of the research process: from our objects of study, which may no longer be the traditional print book (as was the basis of our conventional, philological training), but instead may now include genres as diverse as the hypermedia novel, twitter poetry, net art, hacktivism, social media, and many more, through to our tools of analysis, which may now include visualizations, big data approaches, and so on, ML has – along with many other humanities disciplines – seen its shape change over the past two decades. It also has led us to challenge what it means to describe ML as a discipline, or, at the very least to re-inscribe its boundaries.

Second, regarding publishing, the changes to conventional models, with the rise of the e-book, online early journal articles, open access publishing, and online only publishing on the one hand, coupled with the rise of self-publishing that has been afforded by digital technologies and social media in particular on the other – where we now ‘publish’ on Twitter, blogs, Facebook or other platforms just as often as we do in conventional print outlets – means that many of us have had to re-think what it means to ‘publish’ in ML.

The changes to the basis of ML research are not only methodological and practical, but also conceptual. We find ourselves availing of new tools for analysis, new methods for approaching objects of study, indeed, for some, even the objects of study themselves are new. All these require us to re-formulate what it means to carry out research and to consider the possible affordances of a plethora of platforms, spaces, and tools.

One of the significant impacts that digital technologies have had on our conceptualization of ML as a discipline is to make us re-think some of the place-based assumptions underpinning our research practice. If as creators, academics or practitioners we can exist virtually, does place and space matter? Conversely, geopolitical shifts, uneven access points, legal differentials, and cultural particularities demand that we consider how we can become even more fixed and attached to place and space.

Another big impact of recent changes is the question of how the digital may have made us re-think ourselves as a fundamentally philologically-based discipline. In other words, the phenomenal explosion of user-generated content enabled by digital technologies has been a wake-up call for many of us –we can no longer take as read that a common object of study is the canon (be that literary, film, art, etc); and, moreover, we need to look at practices, as much as texts.

Of course, all of this didn’t happen in a vacuum – with the rise of cultural studies approaches, ML was rethinking itself anyway. So, perhaps, it’s more a case of this all crystallising at the same time: that at the point at which ML was already in the process of questioning some of its assumptions (philology; study of high literature, etc), the rise of digital technologies then has become this disruptive element that demands a re-formulated genealogy.

As we look to the future of the discipline(s) there are as many questions as answers. As a consequence of this new landscape with its new tools and practices, do we need to find new nodes where our disciplines reside that belong within and outside of national territories? Do we need to be open to all changes and forget a boundaried sense of what we do? Or, are there needs for new frontiers where we establish our own silos with connections to those who want to share and exchange ideas and methodology? As adopters of technology, do we need to be more than just end users and become designers, makers, or programmers?

It’s certainly the case that ML has had to (and has to continue to) re-conceptualize itself, in the face of immense pressures. Worton’s call for ML as a discipline to articulate a clear and compelling identity, all the while maintaining itself as a trans-disciplinary field ( 2009: 37), seems to be fundamental- and it’s still one that we’ve never really answered. This is a huge challenge for us as Modern Linguists, and it’s not clear we’ve actually got there yet. If this is the main challenge, then the digital is one set of coordinates within this bigger picture; it’s one of the things (but not the sole thing) that we have to negotiate as we re-think our discipline(s). We have previously contributed to a conversation about our own ‘discipline’, Hispanic Studies, where we both expressed a desire for disciplinary renovation and interdisciplinary exchanges and we proposed some forms in which we, as journal editors, could make our contribution at this moment (Fraser and Henseler 2014). Situated as we are in language- and area-specific knowledge and research, we have to ask about the desirability of such an approach in other fields and in the appeal of seeing ML as one discipline or several inter-related polyphonous disciplines onto which we patch the shifting prefixes (such as, trans-, inter-, intra-, multi-) as the need arise. Can we be DH-MLers? Can this be a thing?

Without a fixed object of study (literature) that the discipline is founded on, yet with the tools to understand other cultural objects and with communication as a fundamental skill, ML is well-placed to tackle the user-oriented end of DH. As researchers capable of reaching across into the unfamiliar and uncomfortable we have the capacity to test the limits of knowledge. Some of these are skills integral to all of those in the Humanities. But, we invite ML faculty to look at those with whom you work daily and you will find that we are well used to working across disciplines. Linguistic specialists parsing language usage work with social media researchers side-by-side with historians of early modern periods. Sometimes, within so-called disciplines, we may not even have a shared second language, or national focus. Yet, ML binds us. What have we learnt from this that can contribute to a widening of the scope of DH and how can this be mutually beneficial?


3 thoughts on “Main Question: Modern Languages and the Digital: the Shape of the Discipline

  1. Thank you for this, Claire and Niamh. As you point out, many of the shifts in all areas and stages of modern languages research in response to digital technologies (evidenced in the varied topics you have chosen for this writing sprint!) have mirrored those taking place in other humanities disciplines. I think the point you make about the rise of cultural studies approaches within modern languages is also an important one when accounting for the diversification of objects of study.

    Where I would like to add a provocation – for the purposes of debate! – is in relation to the connection you suggest between modern languages and digital humanities (DH) as a possible umbrella for these shifts, or the development of a modern languages-inflected digital humanities, which would have a widening effect. Could all the shifts we are discussing in this writing sprint be embraced under this umbrella? Is digital humanities necessarily the most obvious, or the most productive, inter/disciplinary interlocutor for all aspects of a digital modern languages?

    It is clear that there are many ongoing debates and diverse understandings about what is, and is not, digital humanities (see here for example, and click refresh a few times to see the range!: Perhaps the more ‘plural’ understandings of digital humanities (see Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s article here:, like this writing sprint, could embrace digital ethnography alongside big data, digital archives and digital objects of study, but in other digital humanities contexts, there might be less common ground. To keep the metaphor going, the umbrella might not be quite big enough, or there might be other possible umbrellas (e.g. the digital social sciences, for want of a better term?). Perhaps we need to keep a selection of possible umbrellas to hand?

    For me, working on digital culture from a base within modern languages (and/or ‘language-based area studies’) gives me freedom. It allows me to develop an in-depth engagement with Brazilian digital culture based on knowledge of the Portuguese language and of Brazilian culture and society. It enables me to explore multiple disciplinary and interdisciplinary (not to mention linguistic and geographical) interfaces and interlocutors, and to borrow, adapt and reflect on methodologies from a range of sources. My question, then, to you and to the other contributors and readers, is whether anchoring a digital modern languages to digital humanities would maintain this freedom (which I see as a strength), or whether it would potentially narrow the lens through which we view engagement with digital technologies in modern languages?


    1. Just a couple of thoughts in response to Tori’s ‘provocation’ to Claire and Niamh

      I’m quite clear that Modern Languages and Digital Humanities do need to talk to each other and that there will be mutual benefit from this dialogue.

      I’m also concerned when I read much of what is written in/about Digital Humanities as, despite many gestures to keep the definition open, its praxis seems to demonstrate a rather narrower conception of what it is that my research doesn’t quite fit. What I think I’d prefer is that we keep pushing to keep the definition wide enough to fit us all in, whether we’re studying the ‘avant-garde pyrotechnics’ of e-poetry or grassroots activism conducted via social media.


  2. The recent workshop on the future of Modern Languages Research at the IMLR here in the UK demonstrated that researchers in the field are well aware of the new challenges and opportunities in a rapidly changing information landscape, but it is also probably safe to say that much of the attention to ‘the Digital’ so far has been near the (traditional) conclusion of the process, in other words, at the moment of publication/dissemination. Modern Linguists in fact use digital tools at various points during the cycle of research, but still tend to treat them simply as quicker or more efficient means of performing established tasks within a workflow which is still, in the main, firmly print-based. In addition to re-thinking what it means to ‘publish’ in ML, this is an opportunity to re-think what it means to do research in ML – how the new genres which Claire and Niamh refer to alter the information landscape, and require new analytical skills, new research infrastructures and new modes of interpretation. Modern Linguists are surely better placed than most to reach out to new publics which are not merely bound by the Digital to an Anglophone template and to propose new models of knowledge creation which are not ‘linguistically mute’, to use a phrase employed by Charles Forsdick at the afore-mentioned IMLR event.

    There has been considerable debate about linguistic and cultural perspectives on the digital humanities in recent years, but much of this has focused on the formal manifestations of the field (its conferences and professional associations), whereas what interests me more is the broader knowledge space ‘between Humanities and the Digital’ (Svensson and Goldberg, 2015) which enables humanists and digital practitioners to set new visions and boundaries. There are many opportunities, I believe, for Modern Linguists and digital humanists to collaborate here: examining the linguistic assumptions of the new information landscape (how digital models/methods perform new kinds of translation between cultures); exploring how digitally mediated knowledge operates beyond the Anglophone world in dynamics of ‘core’, ‘periphery’ and ‘semiperiphery’; analysing geographical and linguistic inflections on humanities ‘data’; mapping (and re-mapping) the cultural geography of the new architectures of participation which have emerged through digital culture; and experimenting with ‘agile’ and ‘mobile’ pedagogies for the Modern Languages.


    Svensson, P. & Goldberg, D. T. (2015) Between Humanities and the Digital. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.


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