Stéfan Sinclair, In Memoriam

CSDH/SCHN 

December 05, 2020 

Reprinted with permission from the Canadian Society of Digital Humanities / Société canadienne des humanités numériques; csdh-schn.org/stefan-sinclair-in-memoriam/

Stéfan was an Associate Professor in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at McGill University, who specialized in digital humanities, text analysis and visualization, and humanities tool development. He was perhaps best known for Voyant (http://voyant-tools.org), an accessible in-browser suite of text analysis tools suited for the interpretation of unstructured texts. Voyant is available in a dozen languages (including English and French) and is one of the most widely used tools on the Compute Canada Calcul national research infrastructure with tens of thousands of users a month. With Geoffrey Rockwell he published a book titled Hermeneutica: Computer-Assisted Interpretation in the Humanities (MIT Press, 2016) which documents the development of Voyant and his experiments in text analysis. This book received the 2017 Canadian Society for Digital Humanities Outstanding Contribution Award.

Before coming to McGill, Stéfan was at McMaster University from 2004 to 2011, where he was Director of the Sherman Centre for Digital Scholarship. Before that he was at the University of Alberta from 2001 to 2004 where, with Sean Gouglas, he developed the first MA programme in Humanities Computing in Canada, a programme that has evolved into an MA in Digital Humanities and still thrives today thanks to his early leadership.

Stéfan’s doctorate was in French Literature from Queen’s University, awarded in 2000 after an M.A. (1995) from the University of Victoria and an Honours B.A. from the University of British Columbia (1994). As part of his doctoral dissertation on OuLiPo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle), he developed one of the first in-browser text analysis environments, called HyperPo, a fittingly playful platform for text analysis and transformation that inspired him eventually to create Voyant

Stéfan contributed enormously to the development of the digital humanities both in Canada and internationally. Over the years he served as President of the Association of Computers and the Humanities, Vice-President (and for many years infrastructure guru extraordinaire) of what is now the Canadian Society for Digital Humanities/Société canadienne des humanités numériques, and one of the editors of Digital Humanities Quarterly. He was also one of the Local Organizers of DH 2017 in Montréal that brought close to a thousand people to the McGill campus. In addition to directing the Sherman Centre while at McMaster, he later launched the DH Initiative at McGill when he was appointed at that institution in 2011, and, with Michael Sinatra, helped found the Centre de recherche interuniversitaire sur les humanités numériques in 2013, a centre that brings together over 70 researchers across eight universities in Québec. While at McGill, Stéfan started his CFI-funded lab, “Scaling Humanities Analytics and Visualization Lab” (SHAVLAB), as a hub for humanities-based text analytics and data visualization, helping to spread new approaches and involving students who have benefited, and will continue to benefit – both for academic and non-academic careers – from the mix of humanistic and technical skills that the digital humanities offer. Stéfan was also involved in several large-scale projects across Canada, the United States, and Europe, including the TAPoR project, SAToRBase: A Database of Topoi for French Literature, CWRC, NovelTM, and CO.SHS, to name just a few. More recently, he was a founding member of the interuniversity Québec-funded Groupe de recherche sur les éditions critiques en contexte numérique (GREN). 

Stéfan was unfailingly gentle and caring. He was an advocate for students, and taught a generation of digital humanities students to enjoy programming as humanists, for example developing an online textbook on The Art of Literary Text Analysis. He led the development and maintenance of much of the research infrastructure that the rest of us depend on and, in depending, forget. In addition to Voyant, he helped develop and run the Text Analysis Portal for Research (TAPoR), the MONK Project, the Simulated Environment for Theatre, the Mandala Browser, and BonPatron (a widely used French grammar checker he developed with Terry Nadasdi), not to mention numerous servers and web sites. It is a testimony to the care of our shared infrastructure that he continually repaired and improved one of the most used text analysis environments from 1996 to the present as it evolved from HyperPo to Voyeur to Voyant.

Stéfan not only created beautiful and useful things; he also reflected with others on the making and interpretation of digital technologies. In 2003, for example, he wrote an important paper entitled “Computer-assisted reading: Reconceiving text analysis” that was based on his work on HyperPo. With Rockwell, he developed a collaborative praxis of experimenting, developing as needed, and reflecting back as a way of thinking-through technology which is described in Hermeneutica and shown online at http://hermeneuti.ca. He also collaboratively wrote Visual Interface Design for Digital Cultural Heritage with Stan Ruecker and Milena Radzikowska (Ashgate 2011). In the last years he worked closely with Andrew MacDonald on Spyral, a notebook programming environment that extends Voyant in ways that would make it play well with infrastructure like the LINCS project, led by Susan Brown and grown from seeds sown by Stéfan himself.

Stéfan is survived by his wife, his two daughters, his sister and his brother-in-law, his niece, and his parents. His last days passed in peace at the St. Raphael’s palliative care centre, where he was able to welcome family and his lively dog, Choco. We will all miss his care, courage, genius, and gentle questions. The Canadian Society for Digital Humanities/Société canadienne des humanités numériques and the Association for Computers and the Humanities will be exploring how best to honour him, and an announcement will be made in the fall. The Centre de recherche interuniversitaire sur les humanités numériques will also name an annual lecture in his honour.

In lieu of flowers, contributions to CanAssist http://www.canassistafrica.ca/ and St. Raphael’s Palliative Care Home https://maisonstraphael.org/en/ would be greatly appreciated.