I cringe. I’ve accepted an invitation to speak somewhere, and an email comes back asking me politely for a bio. Cringe. Every single time. It’s downright Pavlovian.
I loathe, despise, abominate, and abhor writing professional bios.
However. There’s a point to the exercise: situating myself in context, so that folk can decide whether I’m worth listening to in the first place, evaluate my expertise and my biases, and make an educated guess about what questions to ask me that I can actually answer. So now that I’m starting to settle down here in my new ScienceBlogs digs, it’s time for (dramatic prairie-dog chord) the bio.
Fortunately, I’ve all the space I care to use, and no need to maintain a strictly buttoned-down speech style. I hope that will make this easier?
I majored in comparative literature (specifically, inter-arts studies; even more specifically than that, literature and music in the Western European Middle Ages) and Spanish with a linguistics minor at Indiana University?Bloomington, a wonderful place for a curious and moderately versatile undergraduate. While I was there, I worked as a campus computing-lab attendant (oh, the wonder of the Mac Centris that could play music CDs during the Tuesday graveyard shift in Lindley Hall! wait, am I dating myself here?) and was introduced by a wise and prescient mentor to the Perseus Project, the Thesaurus Musicarum Latinarum, and other early exemplars of what we now call the digital humanities.
“That’s the future,” he told me bluntly over coffee (his) and soda (mine), thumping the table with both hands as was his way. “Electronic projects are the future of the humanities.” I was too young and awestruck to do other than nod dumbly, not quite understanding what I was hearing, but the memory lingers? and who is to say? Perhaps I wouldn’t be doing what I do without that.
Only about eight months separated my graduation from Indiana and my start as a graduate student in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. In hindsight, I should of course have waited. In hindsight? I should have done many things differently. Ah, well. Long story short: four and a half years later I left, shell-shocked and miserable, just short of taking Ph.D comps.
I had, however, learned a few useful things in that otherwise wretched and fruitless interim. I learned some paleography and lexicography. I learned the basics of teaching in the college classroom. I learned manuscript transcription, though not in TEI. Importantly, I learned the amazing raw power that digitized text offers the linguist.
(Consider, for example, this tour-de-force dissertation from 1912. Give me digitized texts and a Python IDE, and I can do this work more accurately and completely in vastly less time, because the only labor I will be putting in is the intellectual labor of defining words. The computer is vastly better at collation than I can ever be.)
After a few months’ worth of temping, my experience with medieval-manuscript transcription landed me a steady job. (How many people can say that? I wonder.) For the princely sum of $9.53 an hour to start, I was to help route scholarly journal and book manuscripts through an SGML-based typesetting workflow.
I learned SGML and fell utterly in love with it, DTDs and all. I learned regular expressions and loved them (and yes, I do long for the XKCD regex shirt, why do you ask?). When I tried to learn Perl it didn’t stick? but I learned Python and got along moderately well with it, as I do to this day.
With my usual ability to dogpaddle in waters considerably over my head, I somehow landed on the Open eBook Publication Structure working group during this time. That was a heady experience, debating the minutiae of XML namespaces and the practicalities of book-production workflows with engineers from Microsoft and XEROX PAL as well as sharp entrepreneurs, and brilliant markup wonks such as Allen Renear and Steve DeRose. Perhaps someone could exist in that rarefied environment and learn nothing? but that someone was not me.
All things come to their destined ends, however, and the ebook boomlet of the early 2000s was no exception. I landed with the Puerto Rico Census Project while I sorted out what to do next, learning a bit about Microsoft Access and Visual Basic that I’ve since more-or-less successfully scrubbed from my brain. Then came library school, and after that my current run of some four years’ length running various institutional repositories.
So, all right, what has all this to do with cyberinfrastructure and data curation?
The thread that runs through all my motley history is the preservation and availability of digital data for future uses. I loved SGML because warts and all, it was an elegant, future-conscious representation of digital text. I’m fond of the business of keeping digital artifacts viable and usable, and I stubbornly and in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary believe it a growth industry.
There. That’s my bio. Hope it’s done its job.