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Interview with Dr. Ray Siemens

Dr. Shelley Hulan: Usually we start just by asking people “Why Waterloo?” We want to know why people chose Waterloo when they first decided to go to university.

RS: Hm. Well, I grew up in an academic family. So I have cousins who were academics, and uncles who were academics, a father who was academic. One of the many reasons I chose Waterloo is that it wasn’t a place that anyone else [in my family] was at! And that doesn’t mean that Waterloo wasn’t a good choice for me, or the top choice for me otherwise (which it was), but that was part of the criteria. As it turned out, my cousin, my uncle and my father knew people who were teaching the classes I took in the way that one does when you’re a faculty brat, but that was okay. Mainly I wanted the change, wanted something different. I really liked the idea of being able to do English courses – I always enjoyed that – but also to do other courses, too, like those in CS. I was really interested in the Environmental Studies program, and was accepted into it, but then switched over because I preferred taking courses in the English Department. I also really liked the idea of co-op; I thought that integration [of a degree program with work experience] was good. And I’d heard something about a few of the professors, through my dad and through others, that suggested that it might be a good fit.

SH: Your career path is a little bit different from a lot of people, but why the Renaissance to begin with? Why did that interest you as a field to go into?

RS: Mostly personal interest. A couple things interested me a lot as an undergrad – one was Renaissance lit. I think my first Renaissance lit course was with Ted McGee, and I remember just enjoying that. My students these days seem really focused. By comparison, I feel I was very unfocused. I was enjoying reading. I found lots to enjoy in the Renaissance. I found lots to enjoy in the late Victorian Age. I found lots to enjoy in the contemporary novel, and so that’s where I tried to do a lot of my work. It was mostly just my enjoyment learning and my interests that were dictating that. It was a real pleasure to be able to take courses, letting my own interests and aptitudes dictate. Many of my students today are very career-‐focused, so they might be more inclined to let their potential job prospects dictate what they’re going to take. Even those in an English Department – they focus on what comes after graduation in second year, even though they’ve got several more to go before graduation.

SH: In some ways it’s fantastic. You know, when I have a student who says to me “I’m trying to get into the applied grammar course!” I think, “Wow, you know, that’s not something you hear every day!” But it is that kind of “at the end I need to know these things, and that course will help me do it.” Do you think that is disappearing, or do you think it’s just competing now with this other presence?

RS: Well, it’s hard to say. What I hear a lot these days is that a Bachelor of Arts degree is something that leads you into a flexible career path. People who do BAs develop really good human skills, problem­‐solving skills, interpretation skills, reading skills, writing skills – all those things. What I used to hear, and what I believed (and still believe) is that getting a BA makes you a good, well-­‐rounded person, and that all those other skills may come as part of the same foundation. I think maybe people are focusing a bit more on jobs these days, more thinking about marketable skills and less thinking about exploration. But I still think that the possibility for all those things and more is there. I know for me, as I became more professional, went on to do my Master’s degree and then my PhD, I started thinking, too, more in terms of how to position myself in terms of career, to align my interests and skills with employment. Then the Renaissance became even more important, and also the computational component, which I picked up first here at Waterloo, became more important at that point, too.

SH: Well, this is one thing when we think about the arrival of digital media in the English Department, and in libraries, and in other places where you’ll find books. One thing that you hear often is the idea of the serendipitous find, or the accidental find that happens if you’re in front of a bookshelf and you’re looking for a particular book, and right beside it is this other book you’ve never heard of and you take that down from the shelf. Then, a world is opened to you that you didn’t know was there, and you might not have if you had not gone to the library shelf. Is there an equivalent in the digital world? Is it still possible to have a serendipitous find if you’re looking at, say, a digital library?

RS: Oh, totally. That kind of serendipity I believe in and benefit from all the time because I go to the library. But you know, there’s a whole school of thought and study built up around organizing those books in a certain way too, so when the classification systems were organized, people thought, “Ah! Here’s a way of ensuring that that book would be next to that other book” – ideally, at least. Any good computational system will mimic that. It will reflect that, it will model that experience so that you can ensure when you’re working digitally that you can have that same type of seemingly serendipitous experience. In fact, you should even be able to have more of those types of experiences if you want. They just won’t be in the physical world in the same way.

SH: You could have a multimedia serendipitous find. You know, in a library you have wonderful books, but not necessarily moving pictures or anything like that.

RS: Yeah, true enough. The best type of serendipity I’ve heard people talk about today is on the iTunes module called the Genius. Basically, what it does is genre analysis. It classifies your music library based on genre and songs that people think go well with other songs. You know, we all used to make mixed tapes for each other, one or two generations ago. I think some people still do, but when you see this in movies it’s always some sort of reference to a bizarre past way of doing things! Genius does that. It uses classification systems to group things, and it does, for people who listen to music, make connections that are felt to be new and unique. They call that serendipity too, but it’s a rule-­‐based thing, just like the placement of books in the library is a rule-­‐based thing. Where I think it becomes even more interesting for people who do what we do is that you are no longer relying fully on a classification system (when you are using electronic materials) like the kind that places one book next to another. That system’s based on keywords, which then get rolled into a certain algorithm that determines what books will be next to each other. You can use that, too, in the electronic world as a part of good systems, but you can also go beyond this and do full-­‐text searches. So let’s say you’re working in literary studies and someone working in anthropology is writing a book on the texts you’re using but with a completely different approach, using a methodology that’s foreign to literary studies. It’s going to be classified under anthropology, not under literary studies; the classification system we use to place one book proximate to another will, therefore, fail you. But use a system that allows full-­‐text searching of content in some way and you’ve got a better chance of the connection existing between these two books popping up ... which could seem to us as being serendipitous as well. It would certainly have the same sort of feel.

SH: What was the campus like when you were here? Is it kind of the same now? Different? Are there changes that you notice?

RS: Well, there are more people and more buildings now – I’ve noticed that – but I think it still has the same basic, friendly feel. I took a walk this morning around campus and I noticed more buildings, but I also noticed the leaves were turning, and it was nice to see that students today were doing the same sorts of things that I remember doing when I was here with my friends. It could be that the more things change, the more they stay the same. What was important to my memory seemed to be preserved, let me put it that way. Those were more personal than professional things. But yes, it was nice to see people enjoying doing the same things that I remember enjoying.

SH: When you were here, was there already a certain amount of interaction between the Computer Science side of the university and the Arts side, or the English side?

RS: Oh, yeah! In fact, it was one of the things that really did attract me. You had Phil Smith, who was teaching introduction to arts computing courses in labs that were the best in Canada. And you had a number of others that made Waterloo one of the best English Departments in Canada to go if you had computing interests. There was Paul Beam; Neil Randall was hired while I was here. There were some of the big names in the area, especially big names who were willing to work with undergraduates. Waterloo also had a reputation for being a friendly place, and that combination for me, at least, was irresistible.

SH: Now, when you went on and did your graduate work, you started off at U of T and then you wound up at UBC, which is unusual. Often for PhDs, you wind up being at one place for however many years it takes you to complete, and it’s almost unimaginable to do anything else!

RS: It was for me, too! I was really afraid of any move of this sort. People always wonder what predicates it. But I’d already done things that were different, and so people wondered anyway! And it was an easy thing to do because there was a free exchange between the two universities, based on professorial relationship. After Waterloo I went to Alberta and did my Master’s degree, and then from Alberta my wife and I both got into U of T. She finished up early in a business faculty known for producing very, very hireable graduates, so she did an MBA and immediately had a job that wasn’t in this geographical area at all. There was nothing to do but make the sort of decision that two career-­‐minded people have to make. So eventually we worked out a transfer of program, to UBC for me, and it worked out really well – with the benefit of being able to continue my U of T relationships to this day, even though my final degree was not from there. As part of my PhD work I also spent the better part of a year in stints at Oxford, at Oriel College, working with, I guess, my third of three dissertation mentors! He worked with me and helped me with my primary source research there for my dissertation. So I like to say that I actually had three places for my PhD, not just two or one, and that confuses people even more! But it was great! Each place had its own benefits, and I really enjoyed the benefits of being at each.

SH: In some ways it would be desirable for everyone to do that, to do the travelling, and to be exposed to different groups of people and institutions and so on. At what point did you decide maybe academia was for you? As it was for me, I guess I didn’t really think of anything else. Was it the same for you, or were you thinking that maybe that you would do something else after you were finished?

RS: I don’t never really occurred to me that it would be important to imagine only one type of career as a product of my study. Maybe I was naive and not as career-­‐focused as some of my students, including graduate students, are now. I thought I liked what I was doing; I thought it was important; I knew – somehow I knew – that whatever happened would be good. It was just a matter of finishing my current course of study, and the things that I was committed to doing, and then seeing what happened next. Happily I got a post-­‐doc, and then a job, which led to the job I have now. Wonderful, but it could have easily gone in different directions, too. I would have been, perhaps, just as happy working in high-­‐tech. In fact, I had a high-­‐tech job offer (with a U Waterloo spin-­‐off company)which I turned down to stay in academia, and I sometimes wonder what it would have been like if I’d done that instead? Actually, the timing was just before the big tech crash in the mid-­‐90s, so I think I have a good sense of what that would have been like! But, I also can’t imagine doing exactly what I’m doing now forever. I’ve just finished my first term as a [Canada] Research Chair in digital humanities. Before that, I was teaching largely Renaissance studies, doing some computing things there. My research was in that vein. Before that, I was doing consulting and doing my post-­‐doc, which was on digital humanities and Renaissance studies. Now, I work a lot with commercial partners. I wonder maybe if I’ll be working more with commercial partners at the end of my second research chair term, or will I do more Renaissance studies, or something else? I don’t think you can imagine doing only one thing; there are so many things that one can do and still be engaged and make valuable contributions.

SH: Is that sort of how you think of your career? You’ll do what you like to do and just keep doing it, but it may change?

RS: It may change. One thing I know is that all of the decisions that I would really classify as being “bad” in my life, I made for reasons other than what felt right, or what I enjoyed doing. All of the decisions I made that have been really good, sometimes I made without clear connection to past decisions, but they were for the right reasons. That seems like a really good way of imagining how to choose even your university courses, as much as anything else.

RS: So, we flew out yesterday with – oh, gosh, I’m blanking on her name, the leader of the Green Party.

SH: Oh, Elizabeth May!

RS: Right. She was sitting next to Lynne and me on the airplane, and we chatted with her, and I said, “So what do you have to do to be leader of the Green Party?” (We’re in the British Columbia riding in which she will run in the next federal election.) She says, “Oh, well what I did is bus tables, and I did this, and I did that, and then I worked for the government, and then I went back to get a degree after my law degree.” And then she said, “You know, probably the most important thing I did to get where I am today is that first job, bussing tables.” It was completely unrelated and unconnected, but it was what she needed to do to get to where she was today, she had a good time doing it, and she felt that she could go back to doing it. And that seemed like a good approach, too, to get where one is leader of the Green Party.

SH: Well, in a lot of ways I think it’s really optimistic to look five years in the future and think you know what you’re going to want. We can’t imagine what we can do or what we will want to do until the time comes, you know?

RS: And even if you train for something, you may end up doing something different, or something adjacent. I bumped into someone who works in the research development office, and I knew her in grad school. I was chatting with her and I said, “So, what are you doing now?” She said, “Well, I’m working in the development office.” I said, “How’s that going?” She said, “Fantastic!” She’s loving what she is doing too, and she took a different trajectory. It’s easy to be happy – I think. If you work at it a little bit, keep an open mind, build on strengths and interests, it’s okay!

SH: Well, I think also, in terms of English, at least when I began we didn’t really think of other things you could do besides become a prof. And yet, as an instructor, what I’ve noticed in doctoral candidates is by the end of it, many of them do not want to be profs. They want to do other things, and so it’s important to keep the door open there. At the end of that five years you may have thought you would be a professor teaching Renaissance drama, let’s say. But then at the end of it, you think “I’m not that interested in doing that anymore.”

RS: “I want to be a games developer,” or “I want to work in banking!” You know, think of what goes on in the UK. You find people who have advanced degrees in all the humanities as “captains of industry,” as they say. They’re leading the banks. They’re leading R & D. They’re in top government posts. They’re taking the skills from a program like English, they’re taking what they’ve learned, they’re taking their abilities to problem-­‐solve and communicate, and they’re applying that elsewhere. It’s more than just having the choice of being a school teacher or a lawyer, which was what I was told when I told people I was getting an English degree: School teacher or lawyer! Which one are you going to be? Neither, as it turns out. Well, I still teach .... There are many options, and one of the things I think I’ve been feeling really positively about is how even our research funding agencies recognize that an investment in the sort of thing we do, even if it doesn’t lead to producing more professors, produces a better populace in our country. It ensures that humanities graduates, English graduates, are understood to have the possibility of contributing in many ways in society – not just as school teacher, lawyer ... or professor.

SH: What you were saying was reminding me of something that a retired professor was saying when I interviewed her. Before the co-­‐op program, there were lots of women in the program, and often the women would be told, although not by her, that their options were either librarian or teacher, and there wasn’t really anything to do after that. But they weren’t told lawyer – so, you know, these were the two options! And then she said, “Co-­‐op came!”, and all of a sudden, the world opened up for everybody. It was an instance of not being able to imagine things, and then they happened, and suddenly your career options were expanding incredibly fast. She thought co-­‐op was excellent for all students – for literature students, for RPW students, for everybody – just for that alone, that idea.

RS: Well, I think that’s a clear strength of Waterloo. You have your focus on so many other possibilities here because they’re present here – they’re ever-­‐present in the student body and in options available to students when they graduate. Was it Keats or Shelley who talked about imagining things that we do not know? (I studied it awhile ago but I’ve forgotten it since, I’m afraid.) That’s the toughest thing: If you aren’t willing to think beyond what seems immediately apparent, then I guess you are constrained.

SH: Yeah, I’ve come to really appreciate co-­‐op for that reason. It wasn’t part of my own undergraduate education, but even the people who are not in co-­‐op can see the possibilities because of co-­‐op. They just see that they’re out there. They may not be working towards them right now, but they’re there.

RS: Well, for me [co-­‐op] was great. My first term was writing software manuals in Toronto for a spin-­‐off company that was doing something we take for granted now. They were doing the original software that would allow you to dial a phone number and figure out when your bus was coming. The one that I had after that was with IBM, and the first job they gave me at IBM was to write manuals – rather, to revise manuals – for something called TCP/IP (telecommunication protocol, Internet protocol), just before the Internet was this big social phenomenon. It was interesting; I revised the books! I knew it cold from the ground up. Then, I got a term with Watcom writing a C++ manual. All those things have given me a different sense of the possibilities, especially computing-­‐oriented [possibilities]. My last [co-­‐op job] was teaching in the computer science department here, teaching the computing course for Arts students. That was a lot of fun, too.

SH: I can imagine! I so wish I had taken a course like that when I was going through. Darn it! Now, all computers still seem like magic.

RS: Well, that’s okay.

SH: It is okay! It’s nice to have a little magic in your life. Five, ten years from now, how do you see – if you see – English changing in any way, in response to digital media in English studies? What would those changes be? Or will it change?

RS: Hmm. English studies has changed a lot in the last twenty or thirty years. Depending on who you talk to, it’s gone from largely new critical work and old historicist work to work that’s driven by many more theoretical concerns and methodological approaches. That’s been an interesting change to watch. I remember noticing first that it was happening when I was in grad school, in at least one place where I studied it was quite controversial. Some people say that this change has fractured English as a discipline. I don’t know; it seems to me it all depends on your perspective. There was a great article in Profession a little while ago, the last one – Clifford Siskin, and someone who’s name I’ll remember in a minute: Bill Warner. Forgive me – it’s still very early in the day. I’m not used to the three-­‐hour time difference at this point! It talked about the future of English and the future of English particularly imagined as an extension of the past (naturally), but one that focuses on basic humanistic concerns. Do reading, writing, and communicating make you better? Is there something to be learned by vicarious experience, which people felt 100 years ago was one of the primary benefits of teaching English as a discipline, versus religious studies, maybe? English has also been seen as a discipline that mimics media studies. In fact, media studies in many places grows out of English, or is part of English. Because of that focus we’ve always had in large English departments on elements of media, games studies has come out of English departments largely. It’s been interesting to watch that happen, too. I can only imagine, as people in Profession did, that we’re moving in that direction, possibly further away from a canon that we have already been moving away from considerably, and probably never really had. We had a sense of a canon, and that was something that then spawned curriculum development, and reactions against curriculum development, and canonical thinking.

SH: Annette Kolodny has that argument that is quite old now, because “Dancing Through the Minefield” is old, but still very valuable, where she says, you know, the thing about a canon is that it’s the point where you come together to discuss what it is that you find important. One of the things you discover there, or that she discovered, is that it takes a little while to try to change ideologies. So, you know, if someone says to you, “That person shouldn’t be in the canon, because if that were a really great writer, they’d already be in the canon.” So, the canon is organic. It shows up, and then you approach it and you look at what’s there, but you don’t actively put anything into it.

RS: That’s funny! That’s a high priest approach, isn’t it?

SH: For her, that is why the canon is enduringly valuable, because that’s the point where the rubber hits the road. Everyone comes together and says, “important!”, “not important!” Now why? Why is that true? I’m sure that we’re going to have a discussion about that to do with the graphic novel, if we haven’t already.

RS: The graphic novel is a great thing.

SH: They’re fantastic!

RS: Yeah! I don’t think I’d have the skills to teach them, but it has been great working with my kids on them. I think there’s a very rich, rich represented life there. It seems to be something that really taps into the current, young generation – the teens and tweens today, and people into their twenties. I’m twenty years out of that, so I feel a bit old, but I can see the potential. And same with gaming studies. I did the old kind of almost ‘analog’ gaming, not digital gaming that’s done today, but I can really see how our sense of narrative has been shaped by traditional gaming, and how computing gaming is really changing that, and why that’s important to us in literary studies.

SH: Well, and you know, when you look at images – because I’ve taught one graphic novel, and that’s on Louis Riel. I forget the author... Chester Brown? Chester Brown. In some ways it’s more challenging to look at them and think they may be “inaccurate” in some way, because he makes up part of the history of Louis Riel, and in his footnotes at the end, at certain points he’ll say, “This image or this page – I made that up. That didn’t happen!” “This is my imagination of this,” or “This happened before this.” He’s really in your face about historical fiction. He’s really saying, “Yeah, there’s a history, and I’m giving you the history, but I am also inventing it.” So, it’s a whole thing about methodology there.

RS: And how different is that, in that media, from what those working in print call “creative non-­‐ fiction.” Miriam Toews, for example. Some of her stuff of this sort I think is really good. Many of those sorts of things abound. We saw it in film, too. In the seventies, there are some Woody Allen movies where he does that sort of thing, or Kurt Vonnegut’s novels, too. You have the same thing going on there. And why not? Why not understand it? It’s the same domain. It’s interpretive strategies and studies. It’s the same toolkit – why not?

SH: And as Neil Randall says, it’s all communication.

RS: There you go! I recognize there are some key differences, but not as many as we might think. You’ve got an image which tells a story, and then you’ve got that reinforced by and complemented by text, which tells the same story, or makes the same argument. These things have been going on for a long time.

SH: Well, Blake I guess, and that’s another thing. I don’t know if anyone’s studied it, but I can see it coming, that we’ll be looking at how symbols get created and recognized. When I think of emblem books, I think, “Boy, those people were really good at knowing what this or that image...” – which to me is an image of a fleur-­‐de-­‐lis, or something – but to them it was a symbol of something. And they knew what that symbol was. I think that in some ways, graphic novels operate in the same way. Many more images, but certain key images repeated at certain key times until you start thinking, associating that visual image with a specific idea.

RS: I taught a course at Malaspina, now Vancouver Island University, on contemporary realistic fiction – which has its own imagistic sense. And so I read all of James Clavell for that, and my colleagues were just aghast. “You read all of James Clavell?” I said, “Oh yeah, sure! “ I just ploughed through it and it was read and done, and then put a few of them on the syllabus for the course, and it was great. We had Matthew Arnold in there, and John le Carré. There is a distinct representative tradition there, just like there is in everything that precedes the graphic novel. I know of no discipline that isn’t evolving rapidly, but I think ours is evolving more rapidly than some others right now. Some disciplines that emerged in the sixties, with technology, let’s say, and have continued evolving rapidly are undergoing now what English Departments went through in the sixties, when they began what people have talked about as their “splintering.” So, interesting watching that, too. It’s all about movement. If you don’t move, I think, probably, that’s a bad thing.

SH: I hope you enjoy the rest of your time here.

RS: Looking forward to it. It’s been fun! It is fun. Nice being back here. I think the department here is wonderful.

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