Digital pedagogy with the Ciceronian corpus

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In Spring 2019, I taught a class at BU which I called “New Approaches to Cicero.” In my course design, I aimed at “newness” in two ways: 1) I wanted to have students read a wider variety of Ciceronian works than is usually done in one class (in the end, we read examples of every genre: speeches, oratorical treatises, philosophical treatises, letters, poems — see the schedule of readings); I also wanted to emphasize how the reception of Cicero has impacted how he has historically been read. And 2) instead of writing a traditional essay for their final project, I wanted students to apply a digital technique to a Ciceronian text (or set of texts). The class was an experiment in many ways, but the results were successful and interesting, so I wanted to share my reflections. If you want to skip ahead and look at samples of the student’s final projects, they are available on the Cicero course blog

The class revolved around a course blog: Here, the students found the schedule of readings (there was no physical syllabus for them to lose track of), and other pertinent pieces of information, such as an outline of tasks and expectations, guides to digital tools, and general Cicero bibliography.

Students in this class were required to give two in-class presentations: 1) a text report: an analysis of an assigned passage of Cicero (e.g. In Pisonem 21-22); 2) a scholarship report: summary and comment on an assigned scholarly work (an article or a book chapter). If they were not giving a classroom presentation, they were required to send me a ‘selection’ (a small excerpt either of Cicero, or of a secondary source which we had read) by email before each class. I then collected these and put them in the blog post for that day’s meeting.

When we met in person, I projected the blog in the classroom and would read out the passages one by one. In class, I would ask the student who sent it in why they were interested in it, they would respond, and then we opened it up to general discussion. I would myself occasionally add Cicero passages from the readings which I felt were really important, but I did this less and less as the class continued. This was technically a class in translation, but we regularly looked at the Latin and took the time to consider different translator’s choices. (My general outlook was: those who had Latin should use it; those who didn’t could still take the class and find it fruitful.) Over time, the students were individually developing their specific interests, and we also, as a class, had a set of questions that we would regularly return to. I would also always include an image of a Cicero manuscript – as a constant reminder of how Cicero’s texts are remediated. Take for example the week in which we read the Tusculan Disputations (I included TD 1.3, but the rest were student selected):

tusculan disputations gif.gif

For their final projects, the students were to develop a research question, based on their own interests, and to use a digital tool to explore it. They knew from the beginning that this was where they had to end up; in week 9, they had to submit a written prospectus of their intended research (which helped them commit to their topic, and begin early prep work).

In the first week we discussed some of the options: mapping, textual annotation, data visualization. I understood going into this class that some students might be intimidated by digital approaches, so I included the option of doing something visual and remediating that would not necessarily be “data” heavy. And none of the tools which I suggested required the students to have any knowledge of coding (I don’t know how to code).

Not all data visualization has to be done digitally (or even visually). With that in mind, in the first week we discussed the work of the British data journalist, Mona Chalabi (@MonaChalabi) who draws her data visualizations by hand. Chalabi’s visualizations aim at immediate “reader” comprehension, and usually include part of the object of study as part of the image. I had it in mind that this class would help students theorize continuity and discontinuity with ancient and modern cultural practices and knowledge production (a discussion that digital humanities helps very much to facilitate), so I was attracted to Chalabi’s outlook on data that emphasized the humanness of data-gathering and its presentation. An excerpt from an interview with Chalabi in It’s Nice That (March 8, 2018)

A big part of my philosophy is that computer-generated images overstate certainty, my hand-drawn graphics show the real margin of error in the numbers while reminding people that a human was responsible for the data gathering and analysis.

The digital tool which we spent the most time with, and which the majority of the students used for their final project, is Gephi, which provides an interactive visualization and exploration platform for all kinds of networks and complex systems. Caitlin Marley has recently explored the entire Ciceronian corpus using the software programs R and Gephi. Our own Ryan Pasco (@rympasco, PhD student in BU Classics) has been working on small batch applications of Gephi to Cicero’s letters; and a UROP project by Ryan with BU undergrad and Classics major, Joseph Salzo (who was also in this class), is currently underway looking at how a specific historical event in the beginning of 56 BCE can be charted via social relationships in Cicero’s letters. In week 6, Ryan came to the class do a Gephi workshop with the students. Afterwards, Ryan wrote a twitter thread recapping his presentation. Read it here: 

I owe Ryan enormous thanks for his help with this class. Not only did he do this workshop, but he also helped students troubleshoot problems with Gephi as their research developed. 

I gave the students complete freedom to choose what they wanted to research, and as a result they individually produced very different projects, even if they were using the same digital tool. The samples of the final projects demonstrate the range: an exploration of Ciceronian invective (Willingham); a verbal analysis of the Pro Caelio (Solovay); a study of Cicero’s quotation of Plautus and Terence (Droegemuller); an exploration of the difference between Cicero’s relationship with Atticus and Terentia while in exile (Jiang); an analysis of the relationships between Tiro and the Cicero family (Salzo); a chart of the relationship between Pompey and Cicero between 55 and 48 BCE, as it appears in Cicero’s letters (Kennedy). In the last two cases, the students (unprompted by me), decided to present their findings in a digital format as well: Salzo used a blog format to present his annotations on the Gephi images produced for different letters involving Tiro; Kennedy used github to present his categorizing of 150 Cicero letters (!) – with each point of data linked to the actual letter in Perseus:

Haydn Kennedy

Going into teaching this class, I wondered whether the use of digital tools would produce something superficial, but in fact the result was quite the opposite. My broader intention with this course was to demonstrate that Cicero’s works, while by no means simple representations of Roman life, could nonetheless be pushed through, in certain ways, to reveal things about Roman cultural practices, as well as about Cicero himself. In this I was inspired, at any early stage in my career, by my predecessor at BU, Professor Ann Vasaly, and her 1993 book, Representations – widely believed to have produced a seachange in Ciceronian scholarship. 

By the time students began to put together their projects, they were well aware of the problems with Cicero. They knew that his oratory was so often a smoke screen; they knew how complicated his enomorous corpus of letters was a source (we spent some time with Peter White’s Cicero in Letters, 2010); they knew that if they wanted to hear the voices of women or former slaves, they would have to work hard to disentangle them from Cicero’s own voice. In addition to giving me a prospectus of their research idea early on in the semester, they had to present their results to their peers in the last two weeks of class, and, after incorporating their classmates’ suggestions, submit to me a written reflection alongside their images and data.

The student presentations were striking: all of the students reflected on how their research focus had shifted and complexified as they worked to create and visualize their data; and they all talked about the potential limitations and subjectivities of their particular approach. That is, they displayed a level of self-reflection and the knowledge of their own relationship to the research problem in a sophisticated and nuanced way. Each student was able to stand up and talk for at least 20 minutes on the intricacies of their project, and all the students ended up submitting write-ups on their data visualizations which were longer than a traditional essay would have been (!); and in many ways more sophisticated. Since the majority of the projects examined Cicero’s use of specific Latin terms, the students ended up with a greater intimacy with the text than either they or I had anticipated.

Overall, then, my fears about superficiality were unfounded. Their efforts to create data visualizations resulted in more writing, and better writing, than perhaps they would have otherwise, because the digital tool allowed them a close intimacy with the text. 

A final note that I will add is that alongside what we did in and outside of the classroom, there was a twitter hashtag for this course: #newcicero. For the most part, this is populated by my tweeting out Cicero materials and links to the lessons twice a week. I.e.: students would send me their ‘selections’, I collected them and posted them to the blog, and then I would tweet out the link to that blog (the same thing which I projected in the classroom so that we could work through and discuss their selections). This meant that anyone who was interested could see what we were doing. E.g.: 

I offered extra credit to students for tweeting on the hashtag. The student who deserves kudos here is Cory Willingham (@coriolanussum), who not only tweeted out an early version of his Gephi results (first tweet), but regularly reflected critically on the reading materials (second tweet). 

Although I would understand anyone’s reservations regarding exposing students to twitter in the social climate of 2019, I have found that it has had enormous benefits. Last semester, in my Women in Antiquity class (#womenancient), we were reading translations by Emily Wilson (@EmilyRCWilson) and Josephine Balmer (@jobalmer), as well as Adrienne Mayor’s (@amayor) recent book on the Amazons; all of the scholars engaged with the class hashtag, and the students were thrilled to see the immediacy and power of Classics playing out textually and interconnectively via social media. 

The Cicero course may have been the most explicitly digital class which I have taught, but all of my non-translation classes have course blogs. I also teach Women in Antiquity and World of Rome (Roman civ.) via a digital medium.