Ray Siemens talk: a summary

March 4, 2010 at 4:30 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Disclaimer: this summary was created from my notes and memory, and should not be taken as a verbatim account.

The Department of English hosted a talk by Professor Ray Siemens, Director of the Electronic Textual Cultures Lab (ETCL) at the University of Victoria on 2 March 2010 entitled ‘Research in Electronic Textual Culture and the Digital Humanities: Understanding the TEI Community, Exploring Manuscript Culture, and the Implementing New Knowledge Environments (INKE) Project.”

After a gracious introduction by Professor Ian Lancashire, Ray outlined the four main subjects of what he described as a ‘casual, descriptive talk’: 1) Digital Humanities and Digital Literary Studies, 2) The ETCL’s work on the Devonshire Manuscript, 3) The INKE project, and 4) Understanding the TEI community.

The first part of Ray’s talk was an introduction to DH. He made reference to literature on DH, including the Wikipedia entry on DH, Willard McCarty’s Humanities Computing (2005), and the essay collections A Companion to Digital Humanities (2004) and A Companion to Digital Literary Studies (2008). He also mentioned that Canadian scholars interested in DH could participate in the annual conference of the Society for Digital Humanities/Société pour l’étude des médias interactifs (SDH-SEMI) and in the annual Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) at the University of Victoria (which attracts participants from around the world). Noting that the membership of SDH-SEMI has been growing exponentially, Ray explained that these forums offer a different type of scholarly engagement than other forums because of the interdisciplinarity of the participants, and that there is a great opportunity to learn about new methodologies of scholarly inquiry coming out of different disciplines.

In order to demonstrate what DH does and can do, Ray then turned to the Devonshire MS electronic edition project (you can read a brief description of this on the project page of the ETCL website, and more about the project in an essay published in Digital Studies/Le champ numérique, ‘Drawing Networks in the Devonshire Manuscript’). The manuscript represents an early example of the sexes writing together as a community (at the court of Anne Boleyn), and the project’s aim is to investigate and better understand the nature of early reading and writing communities. To this end, Ray demonstrated a ‘reading dashboard’ that had been created for the project, consisting of the SIMILE project’s Timeline widget, PieSpy (a tool designed to infer and visualize social networks on IRC [Internet Relay Chat]), and another visualization tool, TextArc, ‘a funny combination of an index, concordance, and summary’. By modifying Timeline to track authorial activity over the MS’s foliation rather than over time, one could quickly detect who had intervened where in the MS, while simultaneously seeing the shifting reading/writing networks of the authors in PieSpy, and what words were most in play in TextArc. Being able to see this information at a glance isolated the points in the MS that were the most intriguing and potentially the most useful for understanding the Devonshire MS.

Ray next talked about the INKE project, a collaborative, multi-institutional endeavour generously funded by SSHRC’s Major Collaborative Research Initiatives (MCRI) Program, which is currently in year 1 of a 5 year research plan. INKE’s impetus came from the convergence of reading device developers, content deliverers, and readers and the bad modelling of textual engagement that resulted, in part due to the limited R&D cycle in business, which is tied to the marketing cycle. As Ray pointed out, academia’s ‘R&D cycle’ is much less tight, and therefore scholars can more carefully and thoroughly study textual engagement, by looking at the history and practices of reading to offer direction about the future of reading. The project is made up of four research groupings: textual studies (co-led by Alan Galey at UofT), user experience, interface design, and information management, the current activities of which Ray outlined. You can read more about the project here.

Ray’s talk concluded with a description of the study of the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) community. The issue was that the official membership of the TEI was composed of various professional associations and it was unclear who comprised the community of TEI users. Ray and his team decided to see if they could get a sense of this community by creating this video, posted on YouTube. They day after it was posted, it had received over 2000 hits (apparently becoming at one point the most watched Canadian YouTube video), and was being blogged and tweeted and otherwise redistributed. (This experiment was included in a report Lynne Siemens delivered to the TEI.)

In the discussion that followed Ray’s talk, two related issues arose that were interesting. One was in response to a question about what Ray would say to a student who was interested in DH. Ray’s answer basically was that most students were already DH practitioners because digital technology has impacted how they do research, and this will become even more true with the ‘born digital’ generation. He invoked the concept of hybridity, suggesting that the impact of digital technology was mixing together disciplines and competencies in new ways. He told an illustrative story of two humanities graduate students who had studied together and shared the same research interests: upon graduation, one went into academe and the other got a job at Google — but they were both still doing the same kind of research.

Another issue that was indirectly brought up in the discussion, in reaction to the substantial funding awarded to the INKE project, was a lament about the difficulty of obtaining modest funding to engage in ‘traditional’ humanities research, which I interpreted as the solitary scholar communing over books in preparation for writing a monograph. That funding for this kind of activity is becoming scarce should be a wake up call to humanities scholars, because it means we have to reconceive humanistic scholarly practice. It does not mean that this practice will not involve being alone in one’s office reading and writing, but rather that this activity needs to be reconceived as contributing to a larger and collaborative research agenda, more ambitious in scope, and including partners within other fields, disciplines and sectors, as represented by projects like INKE, or Editing Modernism in Canada (EMiC), or the Canadian Writing Research Collaboratory (CWRC) (to give a few Canadian examples).


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