University of the Fraser Valley

From Beowulf to text encoding — a thoroughly modern approach to researching English

From Beowulf to text encoding — a thoroughly modern approach to researching English

Sien Barnett learned early about the value and importance of education.

His mother tried to complete her degree while supporting her family as a single parent, but had to drop out.

“She always made sure we knew that getting a good job without an education is really tough,” Sien says.

Fortunately for Sien, he found his passion in the English department at UFV and was able to explore his interests with a series of research assistant postings.

“It was through one of my courses that I found the area I want to specialize in — Celtic Norse and Anglo-Saxon studies,” Sien recalls. “I want to be able to translate old English and hopefully assist with more accurate translations of text. Beowulf, for example.”

Sien’s first role as a research assistant was with Professor Heather McAlpine, researching Ezra Pound.

“Specifically, we were looking into Ezra Pound and his orientalism — the way he was very interested in Mandarin and Chinese characters and poems, and his translations,” explains Sien. “In the research I did with Heather, there was a defined gap, and I was like ‘oh, we can actually fill this in’. The highlight was finding the area where we could insert ourselves and say something meaningful.”

McAlpine acknowledges the value of Sien’s work, particularly when it came to working with Asian languages.

“Sien’s work as a research assistant on my project was hugely influential to its development,” she says. “With his broad knowledge of art history, literary movements, and both Japanese and Chinese language and culture, Sien was able to perform research I couldn’t and contextualize things I had found but didn’t know what to do with. Our meetings were always lively and full of discoveries.”

In 2021, Sien was a Research Excellence Award recipient for his work with Dr. Hilary Turner: Bridging the gap: Exploring literary tradition in Alison Bechdel’s fun home.

“Winning a Research Excellence Award and working in research is great for my grad school application but it also provides real-world knowledge. All of these experiences have given me a little glimpse into my future.

“Honestly, I could do research for the rest of my life! There’s so much out there others have looked into but there’s always a gap and that’s the fun part about research.”

In summer 2021, Sien began working with Dr. Melissa Walter of UFV English, gaining a broader scope with multiple options for research topics including TEI (text encoding initiative) coding and the creation of an online version of Shakespeare’s The Gentlemen of Verona.

“She’s fantastic when it comes to Shakespeare. I definitely enjoy doing just research, but it’s nice to have the opportunity to develop a skill such as this type of coding.”

While Sien enjoyed the research, working and learning remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic came with challenges. The biggest — figuring out how to overcome procrastination.

“The experiences and challenges have made me even more passionate about going forward in my studies,” he notes. “I know that I want to go onto a master’s program and I want to get my PhD. Basically, I just want to be in an academic environment, and live in an academic world, forever if I can! That would be my ideal.”

Sien, an English major, graduated Fall 2021, making him the first one in the immediate family to graduate university.

And his mom? “She’ll go back! Her plan is to graduate with my sister,” Sien announces proudly.