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Computing: What Has American Literary Study To Do with It?
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American Literature 74.4 (2002) 833-857

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What's American Literary Study Got to Do with IT?

Martha Nell Smith


Two encounters, five years apart, inspired the question in my essay's title. The first one occurred in spring 1995, when the Dickinson Electronic Archives was launched. A long-term fellowship from the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (IATH) at the University of Virginia had enabled the Dickinson Editing Collective to develop this hypermedia archive of the manuscripts of Emily Dickinson. By 1995, my colleagues in the University of Maryland English department had begun to hear that not only was I developing this scholarly Web site, and possibly a CD-ROM, but that I also planned to devote much of my intellectual energy to a critical digital edition of Emily Dickinson's correspondence. 1 The most senior Americanist in the department, who had chaired the committee that hired me, stopped me in the hall. "What is it I hear you are up to?" he inquired. As I began to tell him about my work in digital studies, my excitement grew, but so did the furrows in his brow. He lowered his voice and, sotto voce, implored: "This is the English department, not computer science or mathematics. You will never be promoted to full professor doing this kind of work."

Five years later, I was a full professor and director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH), funded by a Challenge Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. In late winter 2000, two highly regarded humanities computing scholars were about to visit the University of Maryland as guests of MITH. For their joint presentation, they had no title. Flyers had to be produced, announcements made. When I called each of the speakers, they both told me to use whatever title I thought best. As I sat in my office, [End Page 833] staring at my computer screen, I thought about what they were likely to say as well as how my colleagues throughout the English department and the College of Arts and Humanities generally responded to digital studies, new media productions, cyberculture studies, and the complex markup schemes of computing devised specifically for literary texts, all of which had come to shape the routines of my scholarly life during the last half decade of the twentieth century.

My office at the time had a glass wall overlooking the Reserves Room in the main research library. At that moment, Reserves was packed, each student working separately in an individual study carrel. I mused upon my colleagues' response to humanities computing as I peered down into a quiet room full of scholars working separately in the traditions of the individual talent. In response to my excitement about this brave new world of electronic text encoding, digital imaging, digital sound reproduction, and transmission of all of these via the World Wide Web, DVD, or CD-ROM, colleagues would often insist that digital studies has no relevance to their own areas of literary critical inquiry. And I would continually puzzle over this resistance from scholars working in Americanist traditions that include such key critical studies as Leo Marx's recently reprinted The Machine in the Garden, still a classic after 35 years. 2 As I pondered these matters, Tina Turner was in some way serving as muse, for although her voice was not blasting from my cool new computer speakers, the title for our visitors' comments suddenly came to me: "Computing: What've the Humanities Got to Do with IT?" I knew immediately that I had seized upon the proper technological tool—which is of course what titles are—to convey a sense of what the audience could expect to hear. That title bears repeating now and is, in fact, perhaps even more relevant, for in our swiftly changing world of ever larger (gigabyte-size) pentium chips, larger RAM requirements (4– instead of 3–digit megabytes) for personal computers unimagined five years ago, sleek 20-inch or larger flat screen monitors, OS 10 MAC operating systems...