About me

The flip side of failure is learning. I’ve failed a lot, so I’ve had to train and retrain myself over and over again. I became what I’m seeing called “post-academic” in 1998, when I left a detestable Ph.D program shortly before embarking upon preliminary exams. After a short spate of temping, I landed a job at a small publishing-services bureau, where they threw me into the deep end of the SGML/XML pond to sink or swim.

I swam. I loved markup (and still do). I taught myself just enough Python programming to be dangerous, enough HTML and CSS to make the primitive websites of the day, enough about regular expressions to do major text-cleanup and conversion projects. My coworkers taught me the basics of typesetting and layout. During the dot-com boom, I slipped onto an ebook standards committee by dint of trying my hand at technical writing. I didn’t even know what technical writing was at the time!

Unfortunately, nobody likes a smartass, and I hadn’t learned not to be one. After run-ins with new management, I eventually found myself in a data-entry job, teaching myself relational databases and Visual Basic and casting about for the next thing to do, some other arena where digitization and markup were taken seriously.

Librarianship looked likely, particularly digital librarianship as practiced in academic libraries, so I betook myself to library school. A lot of my professional friends consider it déclassé to admit to having learned a lot in library school. Too bad. I learned a lot in library school, from reference-interview technique to systems analysis to labor theory to SQL. I enjoyed myself thoroughly, despite the occasional (probably inevitable) clunker class, and was eager to be a credit to my alma mater when I graduated.

That didn’t work out so well. I spent the next six years failing miserably at making institutional repositories go, with an added stint toward the end of failing to make a research-data service go.[1. For the curious, these failures have been distilled into three articles, “Innkeeper at the Roach Motel,” “Institutional Approaches to Providing Research Data Management Services” (though the more honest explication of that failure is this presentation deck), and the satire “How to Scuttle a Scholarly-Communication Initiative.”] I learned plenty along the way—DSpace, PostgreSQL management, enough Java to be absolutely sure I hated Java, a little more CSS, XSLT, meeting management, professional writing, professional presenting, and so on—but unlike some, I can’t celebrate or even advocate failure as a way of life. It’s bruising, and hard to come back from.

As it happens, I had also been learning to teach during that time—the hard way, by doing it. To my considerable surprise, I discovered that I enjoy teaching, and with a little help from colleagues and students I can manage not to fail at it. So it is that I now teach for my alma mater, as well as my alma mater’s continuing-education program. I also teach classes and workshops independently.

Am I still learning? Absolutely. From the mysteries of accreditation to the logical bizarrerie of linked-data modeling, there’s still plenty for me to learn. After all, I have to. I can’t possibly believe I’ve seen my last failure.