Blogging for Ada Lovelace Day: Martha Nell Smith
Today is Ada Lovelace day, and I (and many many others) pledged to write about a woman in technology who has inspired me. When I originally signed up, I thought “great! I’ve worked in technology for 15 years—this will be a piece of cake.” Yesterday, when I realized Ada Lovelace Day was upon me, I thought “Crap! I don’t think I’ve actually been inspired by women during my time in industry.” I mean, besides my best friend/long-time boss, whom I met via a listserv in 1993 and who said “hey, you should check out this web thing,” which I did and soon after found myself with her in California, any inspiration in our work has pretty much come from each other. In my industry life, the people who work with our agency are mostly marketing folks (and mostly women) but they are not inspiring (most of the times their mandates disallow us from doing anything inspiring or technologically advanced). In my writing life, my editor at Sams is a guy. A lovely, wonderful guy (Mark Taber) but a guy nonetheless. Now, I’m not at all saying that there aren’t wonderful women doing wonderful things in technology, because there are tons—I’m just saying that through circumstance and timelines, I can’t think of a time in industry when another woman inspired me to fundamentally change something about what I was doing or how I was thinking. I know, I really sound like an asshole. But new programming languages, software products, business practices, you name it—anything that affected the way I did my job could be directly attributed to a man. So, that does sort of suck. And fixing that is the point of the thousands of posts that should appear today via the list of Finding Ada posts.
Since looking at my life in industry produced nothing noteworthy for me, I turned to my non-industry life, my scholarly life. Good move; the difficulty here was picking just one. But I managed. My inspirational woman in technology? Martha Nell Smith, Professor of English at University of Maryland and Founding Director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH).
When I was living in California, working in industry and doing my MA in English as a sort of test run for re-entering academia, there was a faculty member in my department whose work and actions soured me on the thought of working in the digital humanities. Ludicrous, considering my background, I know. But there it is. Thank Jeebus that a year later, when I arrived at Washington State, my now-dissertation chair sat me down and said something along the lines of “I don’t care —you need to spend some time with Martha Nell Smith’s work, and right now.”
So I did. And I’m not even particularly fond of Emily Dickinson! But I’ve gone to Dickinson-related panels at conferences just to hear what Martha Nell Smith has to say, and I use the Dickinson archive as a teaching tool whenever I can (antiquated in its technology though it may be). But more importantly, she is one of those people who gets it, from the ground up—from the bit level on up—what it means to do work in this field. You know how it is with something new—there are the people who can walk the walk and talk the talk, and then there are those who jump on the bandwagon and fire up the buzzwords and you end up with a lot of nonsense and vaporware and people using technology just for the sake of using it and with no thought as to why. Well, Martha Nell Smith is definitely part of the former camp.
Although I didn’t read it in 1995, the fact that her article, “The Importance of a Hypermedia Archive of Dickinson’s Creative Work,” was written in 1995 shows the early adoption of new technological possibilities for reading and interpreting works of literature. Everything in that article still holds true today, and the advances in technology that we have made in the ensuing years have not rendered that article (or any of her numerous others) irrelevant. In fact, one could instead look at the goals, outcomes, expectations, desires, and so on as outlined in that early article and still use it as a basis for continued development using the current technologies available to both end-user and backend developer.