Sean Gouglas Remembers Stéfan Sinclair

Sean Gouglas shared these memories of Stéfan Sinclair with me and asked me to post them. They are from when they started the Humanities Computing programme at the University of Alberta where I am lucky to now teach.

In the summer of 2001, two newly-minted PhDs started planning how they were going to build and then teach a new graduate program in Humanities Computing at the University of Alberta. This was the first such program in North America. To be absolutely honest, Stéfan Sinclair and I really had no idea what we were doing. The next few months were both exhausting and exhilarating. Working with Stéfan was a professional and personal treat, especially considering that he had an almost infinite capacity for hard work. I remember him coding up the first Humanities Computing website in about seven minutes — the first HuCo logo appearing like a rising sun on a dark blue background. It also had an unfortunate typo that neither of us noticed for years. 

It was an inspiration to work with Stéfan. He was kind and patient with students, demanding a lot from them but giving even more back. He promoted the program passionately at every conference, workshop, and seminar. Over the next three years, there was a lot of coffee, a lot of spicy food, a beer or two, some volleyball, some squash, and then he and Stephanie were off to McMaster for their next adventure. 

Our Digital Humanities program has changed a lot since then — new courses, new programs, new faculty, and even a new name. Through that change, the soul of the program remained the same and it was shaped and molded by the vision and hard work of Stéfan Sinclair. 

On the 6th of August, Stéfan died of cancer. The Canadian Society for Digital Humanities has a lovely tribute, which can be found here: https://csdh-schn.org/stefan-sinclair-in-memoriam/. It was written in part by Geoffrey Rockwell, who worked closely with Stéfan for more than two decades. 

Celebrating Stéfan Sinclair: A Dialogue from 2007

Sadly, last Thursday Stéfan Sinclair passed away. A group of us posted an obituary for CSDH-SCHN here,  Stéfan Sinclair, In Memoriam and boy do I miss him already. While the obituary describes the arc of his career I’ve been trying to think of how to celebrate how he loved to play with ideas and code. The obituary tells the what of his life but doesn’t show the how.

You see, Stéfan loved to toy with ideas of text through the development of software toys. The hermeneuti.ca project started with a one day text analysis vacation/hackathon. We decided to leave all the busy work of being an academic in our offices, and spend a day in the TAPoR lab at McMaster. We decided to mess around and try the analytical equivalent of extreme programming. That included a version of “pair programming” where we alternated one at the keyboard doing the analysis while the other would take notes and direct. We told ourselves we would just devote one day without interruptions to this folly and see if together we could take a project from conception to some sort of finished result in a day.

Little did we know we would still be at play right until a few weeks ago. We failed to finish that day, but we got far enough to know we enjoyed the fooling around enough to do it again and again. Those escapes into what we later called agile hermeneutics, to give it a serious name, eventually led to a monster of a project that reflected back on the play. The project culminated in the jointly authored book Hermeneutica (MIT Press, 2016) and Voyant 2.0, both of which tried to not only think-through some of the potential of the play, but also give others a way of making their own interpretative toys (which we called hermeneutica). But these too are perhaps too serious to commemorate Stéfan’s presence.

Which brings me to the dialogue we wrote and performed on “Reading Tools.” Thanks to Susan I was reminded of this script that we acted out at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in June of 2007. May it honour how Stéfan would want to be remembered. Imagine him smiling at the front of the room as he starts,

Sinclair: Why do we care so much for the opinions of other humanists? Why do we care so much whether they use computing in the humanities?

Rockwell: Let me tell you an old story. There was once a titan who invented an interpretative technology for his colleagues. No, … he wasn’t chained to a rock to have his liver chewed out daily. … Instead he did the smart thing and brought it to his dean, convinced the technology would free his colleagues from having to interpret texts and let them get back to the real work of thinking.

Sinclair: I imagine his dean told him that in the academy those who develop tools are not the best judges of their inventions and that he had to get his technology reviewed as if it were a book.

Rockwell: Exactly, and the dean said, “And in this instance, you who are the father of a text technology, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not study the old ways; they will trust to the external tools and not interpret for themselves. The technology which you have discovered is an aid not to interpretation, but to online publishing.”

Sinclair: Yes, Geoffrey, you can easily tell jokes about the academy, paraphrasing Socrates, but we aren’t outside the city walls of Athens, but in the middle of Urbana at a conference. We have a problem of audience – we are slavishly trying to please the other – that undigitized humanist – why don’t we build just for ourselves? …

Enjoy the full dialogue here: Reading Tools Script (PDF).

Leaving Humanist

I just read Dr. Bethan Tovey-Walsh’s post on her blog about why she is Leaving Humanist and it raises important issues. Willard McCarty, the moderator of Humanist, a discussion list going since 1987, allowed the posting of a dubious note that made claims about anti-white racism and then refused to publish rebuttals for fear that an argument would erupt. We know about this thanks to Twitter, where Tovey-Walsh tweeted about it. I should add that her reasoning is balanced and avoids calling names. Specifically she argued that,

If Gabriel’s post is allowed to sit unchallenged, this both suggests that such content is acceptable for Humanist, and leaves list members thinking that nobody else wished to speak against it. There are, no doubt, many list members who would not feel confident in challenging a senior academic, and some of those will be people of colour; it would be immoral to leave them with the impression that nobody cares to stand up on their behalf.

I think Willard needs to make some sort of public statement or the list risks being seen as a place where potentially racist ideas go uncommented.

August 11 Update: Willard McCarty has apologized and published some of the correspondence he received, including something from Tovey-Walsh. He ends with a proposal that he not stand in the way of the concerns voiced about racism, but he proposes a condition to expanded dialogue.

I strongly suggest one condition to this expanded scope, apart from care always to respect those with whom we disagree. That condition is relevance to digital humanities as a subject of enquiry. The connection between subject and society is, to paraphrase Kathy Harris (below), that algorithms are not pure, timelessly ideal, culturally neutral expressions but are as we are.

CSDH / SCHN 2020 was brilliant online

Today was the last day of the CSDH / SCHN 2020 online conference. You can see my conference notes here. The conference had to go online due to Covid-19 and the cancellation of Congress 2020. That said, the online conference web brilliantly. The Programme Committee, chaired by Kim Martin, deserve a lot of credit as do the folks at the U of Alberta Arts Resource Centre who provided technical support. Some of the things they did that

  • The schedule has a single track across 5 days rather than parallel tracks over 3 days. See the schedule.
  • There were only 3 and half hours of sessions a day (from 9:00am to 12:30 Western time) so you could get other things done. (There were also hangout sessions before and after.)
  • Papers (or prepared presentations) had to be put up the week before on Humanities Commons.
  • The live presentations during the conference were thus kept to 3 minutes or so, which allowed sessions to be shorter which allowed them to have a single track.
  • They had a chair and a respondent for each session which meant that there was a lot of discussion instead of long papers and no time for questions. In fact, the discussion seemed better than at on site conferences.
  • They used Eventbrite for registration, Zoom for the registrants-only parts of the conference, and Google Meet for the open parts.
  • They had hangout or informal sessions at the beginning and end of each day where more informal discussion could take place.

The nice thing about the conference was that they took advantage of the medium. As none of us had flown to London, Ontario, they were able to stretch the conference over 5 days, but not use up the entire day.

All told, I think they have shown that an online conference can work surprisingly well if properly planned and supported.

Knowledge is a commons – Pour des savoirs en commun

The Canadian Comparative Literature Association (CCLA/ACLC) celebrated in 2019 its fiftieth anniversary. The association’s annual conference, which took place from June 2 to 5, 2019 as part of the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Canada at UBC (Vancouver), provided an opportunity to reflect on the place of comparative literature in our institutions. We organized a joint bilingual roundtable bringing together comparatists and digital humanists who think and put in place collaborative editorial practices. Our goal was to foster connections between two communities that ask similar questions about the modalities for the creation, dissemination and legitimation of our research. We wanted our discussions to result in a concrete intervention, thought and written collaboratively and demonstrating what comparative literature promotes. The manifesto you will read, “Knowledge is a commons – Pour des savoirs en commun”, presents the outcome of our collective reflexion and hopes to be the point of departure for more collaborative work.

Thanks to a panel on the Journal in the digital age at CSDH-SCHN 2020 I learned about the manifesto, Knowledge is a commons – Pour des savoirs en commun. The manifesto was “written colingually, that is, alternating between English and French without translating each element into both languages. This choice, which might appear surprising, puts into practice one of our core ideas: the promotion of active and fluid multilingualism.” This is important.

The manifesto makes a number of important points which I summarize in my words:

  • We need to make sure that knowledge is truly made public. It should be transparent, open and reversible (read/write).
  • We have to pay attention to the entire knowledge chain of research to publication and rebuild it in its entirety so as to promote access and inclusion.
  • The temporalities, spaces, and formats of knowledge making matter. Our tools and forms like our thought should be fluid and plural as they can structure our thinking.
  • We should value the collectives that support knowledge-making rather than just authoritative individuals and monolithic texts. We should recognize the invisible labourers and those who provide support and infrastructure.
  • We need to develop inclusive circles of conversation that cross boundaries. We need an ethics of open engagement.
  • We should move towards an active and fluid multilingualism (of which the manifesto is an example.)
  • Writing is co-writing and re-writing and writing beyond words. Let’s recognize a plurality of writing practices.

 

Welcome to Dialogica: Thinking-Through Voyant!

Do you need online teaching ideas and materials? Dialogica was supposed to be a text book, but instead we are adapting it for use in online learning and self-study. It is shared here under a CC BY 4.0 license so you can adapt as needed.

Stéfan Sinclair and I have put up a web site with tutorial materials for learning Voyant. See Dialogi.ca: Thinking-Through Voyant!.

Dialogica (http://dialogi.ca) plays with the idea of learning through a dialogue. A dialogue with the text; a dialogue mediated by the tool; and a dialogue with instructors like us.

Dialogica is made up of a set of tutorials that students should be able to alone or with minimal support. These are Word documents that you (instructors) can edit to suit your teaching and we are adding to them. We have added a gloss of teaching notes. Later we plan to add Spyral notebooks that go into greater detail on technical subjects, including how to program in Spyral.

Dialogica is made available with a CC BY 4.0 license so you can do what you want with it as long as you give us some sort of credit.

(Against) Virus as Metaphor

Our fondness for viruses as metaphor may have kept us from insisting on and observing the standards and practices that would prevent their spread.

Paul Elie in the New Yorker has a comment (Against) Virus as Metaphor (March 19, 2020) where he argues that our habit of using viruses as a metaphor is dangerous. He draws on Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor to discuss how using the virus as metaphor can end up both misleading us about what is happening on the internet with ideas and memes, but can also cast a moral shadow back onto those who have the real disease. It is tempting to blame those with diseases for moral faults that presumably made them more vulnerable to the disease. The truth is that diseases like viruses pay no attention to our morals. There is nothing socially constructed or deconstructed to the Coronavirus. It wasn’t invented by people but it has real consequences for people. We have to be careful not to ascribe human agency to it.

Continue reading (Against) Virus as Metaphor

Show and Tell at CHRIN


Stéphane Pouyllau’s photo of me presenting

Michael Sinatra invited me to a “show and tell” workshop at the new Université de Montréal campus where they have a long data wall. Sinatra is the Director of CRIHN (Centre de recherche interuniversitaire sur les humanitiés numériques) and kindly invited me to show what I am doing with Stéfan Sinclair and to see what others at CRIHN and in France are doing.

Continue reading Show and Tell at CHRIN

Digital Synergies Launch Event


Today I gave a short talk at the Digital Synergies Launch Event. The launch included neat talks by colleagues including:

I showed and talked about Lexigraphi.ca – The Dictionary of Worlds in the Wild. This is a social site where people can upload pictures of text outside of books and documents and tag the words – text like tatoos, graffiti, store signs and other forms of public textuality.

Engaged Humanities Partnerships Between Academia And Tribal Communities

Last week the Oregon Humanities Center put on a great two-day conference on Engaged Humanities Partnerships Between Academia And Tribal Communities that I attended. (See my conference notes here.) The conference looked at ways that the humanities can partner with indigenous communities.

One of the highlights was Jennifer O’Neal’s talk about the importance of decolonizing the archives and work she is doing towards that. You can see a paper by her on the subject titled “The Right to Know”: Decolonizing Native American Archives.

I talked about the situation in Canada in general, and the University of Alberta in particular, after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.