a tribute to Stéfan Sinclair

I’m sharing here remarks I offered today at the 2022 DH Unbound conference. The occasion was a plenary roundtable honoring the work and legacy of my friend and digital humanities collaborator Dr. Stéfan Sinclair (1972-2020). The session was moderated and introduced by Susan Brown (University of Guelph), and—alongside tributes from the audience—the other moving speakers were Michael Sinatra (Université de Montréal), Geoffrey Rockwell (University of Alberta), Diane Jakacki (Bucknell University), and Constance Crompton (University of Ottawa).

Some time late last summer, a software update made Stéfan’s name and email address start popping up in my mail client every time I tried to send a message to one of my closest colleagues here in the Libraries. When I finally got to confessing this to others, as a kind of commentary on aleatory grief in a digital age, I said that I knew I could take him out of my address book and be done with it — but at that point preferred instead to be stabbed in the heart, multiple times per day.

So… I’m still letting this happen. But the name that was a gut punch in September now pops up in the way you might catch sight of a dear, local friend in your neighborhood pub or cafe. Not wholly unexpected that he’s there, even if you didn’t enter the place looking for him — but a nice surprise, a comfortable delight.

I think I’m leaving it because there’s something about algorithmic surprise in that feature that’s a bug, the bug that’s a feature — something in it that Stéfan would have liked.

Stéfan holds up a light-up finger puppet he has made. His smile is brighter!

I first got to know Stéfan Sinclair when we were both grad students starting to run in humanities computing circles, through ACH/ALLC. He was working on HyperPo, the tool that later became Voyant — and Stéfan’s approach to it was so playful and fun, and completely theoretically aligned in its roots in OuLiPo to what I was doing with friends and mentors at UVa, in prototyping games and toys and gizmos for the study of literature. I recognized a kindred spirit.

Like, sure. There was analytical rigor to our mishmash of ‘patacritical tools and approaches (…some of them, anyway) — but there was also just delight — delight in what pops up — and that was so characteristic of all my later work with Stéfan, much of which was in DH community organizing and the administrative kinds of service that not many people take deep pleasure in. With him, it was joyful always, never forgetting even when we were trying to do big, hard things in the ADHO and ACH realms (in bringing people together across disciplines and professions and value systems and languages and time zones) — never forgetting that we were in it to BE surprised, amused, to take pleasure in each other’s company and in what we could enable for those around us — to have fun, to learn, and to set the conditions for the unexpected and delightful and weirdly useful to emerge for other people.

Maybe that’s just what you do when you’re young and you feel like you’re building a field.

But it’s also characteristic of Stéfan’s orientation toward the world. In what I think was the last letter he ever wrote to me, in response to my sharing some kind words and a syllabus from a couple of JMU librarians using Voyant in a class, he said this: “It’s great to see people seemingly having so much fun with their teaching, but then again, we have the immense fortune of being in a profession where we work with the things we love. If we’re not having fun, then we must be doing it wrong.”

I was going not just through emails but also old pictures recently. Not surprisingly, my favorites are of us goofing off while also working. Sneaking to take and then post screenshots of each other on some long-ago Day of DH. Stéfan posing with a light-up finger puppet he was going to take home to his girls from a soft circuits class Bill Turkel and I taught at THATCamp. Pictures he took from an open mike in a conference bar where we were sharing software programming haikus.

But aside from the joy and fun of collaborating with Stéfan — which included our time together on the Exec of ACH and then as a very tight-knit and happy team of president and VP — aside from sharing that sense of OuLiPian delight with you that I always felt in working with him — my other theme today is his generosity and kindness.

Screenshot of Stéfan speaking animatedly

I had never worked with someone outside of reporting-line or teacher-student relationships who was so very explicit in making sure I knew that he BELIEVED in me. Stéfan trusted and supported and was a vocal and frequent, private cheerleader for my emerging leadership of ACH to an extent I had never experienced before in my working life.

I was already a manager, you know — a longtime project manager, director of a center and manager of teams — but I have no doubt that it was Stéfan’s confidence in me and clarity, behind the scenes, that he WANTED me to lead, even though I considered him senior to me, that brought me to the kind of leadership I have since tried to offer in different domains — and which led me to my present work. I will be forever grateful to him for that.

He also recognized and nudged me from time to time about my workaholic tendencies, reminding me of what was really important in life. (And I’m coming now to a close.) When he got sick and I freaked out, Stéfan wrote me a letter about how he was doing that always sticks in my mind:

“I think a lot about being with my girls,” he wrote, “now 10 and 13, they’re like the best book ever that I don’t want to end… Despite everything I feel like I’ve been very fortunate in my misfortune… I savour the bonus time allotted to me. I wouldn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me, I’ve had an incredibly lucky life, from an absurdly happy childhood to a completely fulfilling adulthood including a loving family and rewarding work. And things are moving very fast in medical research, who knows what may be in store.”

That was in 2017, and I’m so glad he did get more time, for the people and the work he loved.

DH is a better field because of Stéfan Sinclair. Many of us are better human beings. Better leaders, co-workers, collaborators, friends, and people capable of surprise and delight.

[I closed with some more private words to Stéfan’s wife and parents, and greatly appreciate the conference organizers’ invitation to join and reflect.]

how the light gets in

I took a chance on a hackberry bowl at a farmer’s market—blue-stained and turned like a drop of water. It’s a good name for it. He had hacked it down at the bottom of his garden. (They’re filling in the timber where the oaks aren’t coming back.)

But the craftsman had never worked that kind of wood before, kiln-dried at steamy summer’s height. “Will it split?”

It did. Now it’s winter, and I make kintsukuroi, a golden repair. I found the wax conservators use on gilded picture-frames, and had some mailed from London. It softens in the heat of hands.

Go on. Let the dry air crack you open. You can break and be mended again.

hackberry bowl, repaired

iv. coda: speculative computing (2004)

[Shannon Mattern’s wry observation that “speculative now seems to be the universal prefix” got me thinking about time and unpredictability, and reminded me that my PhD thesis — Speculative Computing: Instruments for Interpretive Scholarship — is now and forever the same age as my eldest kid: 13 years old. Here’s the coda.]

By now the term “speculative” has slipped into my writing in several different contexts: first when I cite Swift’s satire of a Llullian combinatorial device busily cranking away in cloudy Laputa (a “Project for improving speculative Knowledge by practical and mechanical means”), and then in Ada Byron’s early realization that algorithmic devices like Babbage’s Analytical Engine have subtle, extracurricular benefits:

For, in so distributing and combining the truths and the formulae of analysis, that they may become most easily and rapidly amenable to the mechanical combinations of the engine, the relations and the nature of many subjects in that science are necessarily thrown into new lights, and more profoundly investigated.  This is a decidedly indirect, and a somewhat speculative, consequence of such an invention.   (Lovelace, “Note G”)

It returns later, when I describe and interrogate the notion of aesthetic provocation and speculate forward from the subjective and intersubjective premises of IVANHOE to its possible manifestation as Ivanhoe Game software.  And of course every branching past or future expressed through our Temporal Modelling nowslider tool is a concretely-imagined, interpretive speculation.

Speculation is the first denizen of the curious realm of the  ‘patacritical, that “science of exceptions” which seeks to expand our scope of thinking about ordinary and extraordinary problems through the proposal of “imaginary solutions,” solutions which crack open the assumptions through which those very problems are framed. Continue reading “iv. coda: speculative computing (2004)”


[Trigger warning: miscarriage.]

Ten years ago today, I lost the baby that might have come after my son, and not between him and my daughter, but instead of her. How can I be sad, when such a child is in the world? But grief doesn’t work like that. I fucking hate Halloween. I hide it from the kids, but have hated it for nine years. I hate All Saints’ Day, too. This is the tenth Hallowmas I’ve had occasion to hate — All Saints’ to All Souls, día de los Muertos, de los Inocentes. Angelitos.

Looking back, though, there were sweet things even then. My boy was two. He had been a pirate the night before, with an eyepatch I’d made, and a tinfoil dagger. On November 1st and 2nd he was still wobbling around the house chanting his botched catchphrase: “Shiver my noodle!” And all the costumes and candy and autumn leaves since.

About a month ago, I started steeling myself, as usual, and realized I was feeling better. I thought, “Ten years! Maybe that’s a coin you toss in: the TPQ for getting-over-it.” Now of course the day is here, and I’m thinking this is less like stratigraphy and more like carbon dating. Is there a half life for this crap?

Losing a little, wriggling germ of potential can be incredibly lonely. You go from future to now, and us to awful me in an instant. I can’t even imagine the earth-stopping grief that must attend a stillbirth or the death of a child. But with a miscarriage, people — friends, even family — may not know yet, that you were pregnant. This contributes to a culture of silence around the issue, and makes what is actually an entirely common event (by some estimates, up to 20% of known pregnancies and 50% of all conceptions) come as a terrible, unexpected, and solitary shock.

A couple of years after it happened, I started sending quiet little pings out into the social media ether, in alternating networks, to mark the date. I’ve done this every other year since, sometimes deleting them after they’d been up a while, and sometimes letting them linger. I decided a long time ago that the tenth year would be my last, and most public. (This is it.)

I’m a pro-choice atheist feminist whose life is full of joy. I believe that any feeling a person may have about this matter — from grief to anger to guilty relief — is valid and okay to feel. I began writing about my own pregnancy loss because I was always teaching grad students in one way or another, and working in the gendered field of librarianship which put me into contact with lots of women of childbearing age — and also because my work brought with it a growing following of younger colleagues online, where professional connections turn easily into friendships. My past Twitterings and scattered signal flags on Facebook were all much shorter and less personal than this post, but they’ve shared the same message:

Like so many women, many more than you may realize, I’ve been there. If it happens to you and you find you need someone — please remember this message, and know we are of a sisterhood.

You can talk to me.

speculative computing & the centers to come

[This is a short talk I prepared for a panel discussion today with Brett Bobley, Ed Ayers, and Stephen Robertson, on the future of DH centers. The lovely occasion is the 20th anniversary celebration of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. Happy birthday, CHNM! Next year, I’ll buy you a drink.]

When I was a graduate student in my mid-20s, around (gasp!) the turn of the century, I helped to found an intentionally short-lived but very interesting and effective humanities computing think tank. It was sort of an unauthorized, prototyping or tool-building offshoot of the center where I worked, UVa’s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. This is before the Scholars’ Lab existed. Only CHNM and (relative to today’s wild blossoming) a startlingly few other such digital humanities and digital history centers were in operation. This is, in fact, before “DH” existed, as a term of art.

One of the many fun things for me, about establishing this think tank—alongside folks like Jerome McGann, Steve Ramsay, Johanna Drucker, Geoffrey Rockwell, Andrea Laue, Worthy Martin, and a few others—was that I got to name it! Sometimes you do, if you’re the one building the website. (Or at least, you used to.) The name I suggested was the Speculative Computing Lab—SpecLab, for short. I was so enamored with the idea—the metaphor, really, of speculative computing—that it also became the title of my dissertation. Let me tell you why, and explain why I tell this story on a panel about the future of DH centers. Continue reading “speculative computing & the centers to come”