Looking to the past to understand the future
Professor Ray Siemens is an international leader in digital humanities, a field that combines computing technologies with traditional humanities topics.
“Professor Ray Siemens is the Global Innovation Chair in Digital Humanities at the University of Newcastle. He is an acknowledged leader in the digital humanities, a field of study concerned with bringing computing technologies and methods to traditional pursuits and activities of the humanities and its core disciplines. We welcome his leadership in the development of research and evidence-based translational practice and policy in the growing field and area of research strength that is digital humanities.” Professor Catharine Coleborne, Head of the School of Humanities and Social Science.
Siemens directs the Electronic Textual Cultures Lab (ETCL) at his home University, the University of Victoria in Canada, and works in collaboration with its strong research and administrative team. The ETCL engages in cross-disciplinary studyof the past, present, and future of textual communication and is a hub for digital humanities activities across the University of Victoria (UVic) campus, from coast to coast, and around the world. With a mandate including research, teaching, and service activities, the ETCL is an intellectual centre for the activities of some twenty local faculty, staff, and students as well as visiting scholars (over 60 since inception), who work closely with research centres, libraries, academic departments, and projects locally, regionally, and internationally.
“We’re understanding the future of professional reading and engagement through its past. Earlier in this work, we focused on devices like iPads and Playbooks – really, any device you can read on electronically and work to understand them and what might be coming next through the lens of what we already know about the past and how people have communicated through reading and writing,” Professor Siemens said. “Currently, we’re working with open social scholarship, exploring and understanding how we engage with each other in knowledge environments, as academic specialists as well as engaged members of society at large. In this work, the past is valuable preface to the present and future; here, we are building bridges between the past and the future. To understand our present and our future, best, we have to have the foundation of the past clearly understood.”
Siemens has led a variety of large-scale complex digital humanities research projects. One of those is the $2.5 million Implementing New Knowledge Environments project. INKE began as a seven-year program of research funded by a Major Collaborative Research Initiative (MCRI) grant (2009-2016), which focused on researching, exploring, and prototyping contemporary reading tools and online environments. Distributed nationally and internationally, INKE’s program of research also provided training and development opportunities for staff, faculty, postdoctoral fellows, and undergraduate and graduate students across various institutions. The large project involved more than 35 researchers, 21 partners, 19 postdoctoral fellows and 50 graduate research assistants. Growing from these roots, the earlier research and development program evolved into the INKE Partnership: a collaborative, interdisciplinary network that brings together respected scholars, partners, and stakeholders in research and dissemination processes. The INKE Partnership’s primary objective is to foster open social scholarship in Canada.
“Together, the project team has worked to adopt varied approaches and methods including proof-of-concept prototyping, critical design, tool building, and electronic publishing to engage in world-leading research, and to build community among groups impacted by that work,” he said.
Siemens is also a Director of Iter, a not-for-profit online bibliography for Renaissance studies. “Iter is a partnership dedicated to the advancement of learning in the study and teaching of the Middle Ages and Renaissance (400-1700) through the development and distribution of online resources,” Professor Siemens said.
The literature of the Renaissance
In the field of literary studies his research interests lie in Tudor poetry and Renaissance literature. Professor Siemens’ earlier contributions include much-cited articles on the critical engagement of early poet John Milton (Cambridge Companion) and award-winning Canadian authors (Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada) encouraging new inquiry in these areas. His original contribution to our understanding of Renaissance literary history, his scholarly edition of The Lyrics of Henry VIII Manuscript(published by the Renaissance English Society), makes available for the first time lyrics of a young Henry VIII in a form suitable for scholars and students and yields important insight into early Tudor poetic and political culture.
Siemens is also the founding editor of the electronic scholarly journal Early Modern Literary Studies: A Journal of Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century English Literature, the first publication in Renaissance studies internationally to take advantage of the potential offer to academic publishing by the electronic medium.
He has authored numerous articles on the intersection of literary studies and computational methods and is the co-editor of several book collections on humanities computing topics, among them Blackwell's Companion to Digital Humanities (with Susan Schreibman and John Unsworth), the Blackwell Companion to Digital Literary Studies (with Susan Schreibman), and MLA's Literary Studies in the Digital Age (with Ken Price).
Siemens suggests that “the basis of the electronic scholarly edition and e-books more generally can be seen to be algorithmic in nature, drawing on the notion that computational methods allow us to organise and navigate materials related to our discipline in new and more effective ways.”
From computer games to humanities computing
Professor Siemens interests in computing started in high school when he undertook a course that involved video game programming.
“When I got to university there were courses to take that nicely flowed from gaming in high school into a more university-oriented curriculum,” he said.
Very early on in his university education Professor Siemens realised he could use many means beyond close reading to help understand the literature that he was engaged in.
“I did graduate work at a number of places, all of which had nascent programmes in digital humanities, then called humanities computing, or computational literary studies.”
Siemens entered the field at a time when significant computational moments were occurring. While termed at IBM in Toronto in the mid-eighties he was tasked with revising the manual for the fledgling internet.
“They gave me this big pile of books and said, ‘OK, it's your job to revise these. It's called Telecommunication Protocol / Internet Protocol’. And I said, ‘What's that?’ They said ‘Well, we call it the Internet for short.’ That was my job: to revise the manual for the thing that would blow wide open by 1989,” Professor Siemens recalled.
Defining digital humanities
Professor Siemens’ work has seen disciplinary, theoretical, pedagogical, and practical interventions involving adaptation and repurposing of digital tools, and further original research and interdisciplinary cross-fertilisation, in the areas of data harvesting, textual content analysis, document encoding application and conversion, and dissemination / communication / social-engagement models and mechanisms.
“Humanities is this vibrant set of disciplines and sub-disciplines that look at the nature of the human experience over time via the representation of that experience in its material manifestations,” he said. “In digital humanities we consider computation or the digital, itself, as a grouping of methods, approaches, technologies, and tools that are themselves dynamically and continually changing.”
“There’s this assumption that the humanities are staid and fixed, but of course, nothing could be further from the truth. By adding digital to the humanities we can make new discoveries about how people read, wrote and communicated in the past. We can then apply these discoveries to our future in a meaningful way.”
“For me that eureka-moment is understanding that digital humanities is in fact, more a process than any fixed thing. Not all fields are like that, I think that makes digital humanities really exciting.”
Professor Siemens says the core values he believes in regarding digital humanities are: community, method, and (inter)disciplinary self-determination.
“With the digital humanities we can remediate old worlds and existing material artefacts as well as create new ones with the technologies we use. I believe in embracing and enlarging scope, privileging diversity within that embrace, and focusing on both professional and public outreach and engagement.”