Consciousness Raising: SCS Toronto 2017

Consciousness Raising: SCS Toronto 2017

The 2017 meeting of the Society for Classical Studies that took place from Jan. 5th-8th in Toronto had a common thread running through it: a growing interest among classicists to engage wider audiences through outreach, digital technologies, and social projects. But this desire to move beyond the traditional limits of classical research and pedagogy was also marked by internal anxieties regarding the field’s future, and what kind of role classicists should have in the current political climate. 

At “The Impact of Immigration on Classical Studies in North America”, the first speaker was supposed to be Dan-el Padilla Peralta (Princeton), whose 2015 autobiography – Undocumented – describes his experiences as a Dominican living in the US without legal documentation who worked his way to a Classics degree from Princeton, and the subsequent life of a scholar. Ironically, Peralta wasn’t able to be in Toronto to give his paper — for immigration reasons. James Uden (Boston University), one of the panel’s organizers, stepped in to read out Peralta’s paper, noting that even under normal circumstances, reading someone else’s paper is a strange thing, but that this case felt stranger, given the intimate nature of its content.

In 2015, Peralta published a two-part piece in Eidolon entitled “Barbarians Inside the Gate” (part I, II), which discussed the ancient parallels to – and influences upon – the modern problem of immigration in the US. One of the recent cooptations cited by Peralta is Ted Cruz’s assimilation of himself to Cicero with Obama as his Catiline in the context of then POTUS’ proposed immigration reform, an incident that I first saw written about by Jesse Weiner in the Atlantic in 2014 (“Ted Cruz: Confused about Cicero“). By casting himself as a modern day Cicero, Cruz had unwittingly (?) made a threat of violence against the “Catilinarian” President. Peralta went on to describe the privileged positions of scholars – traveling for research and conferences without having to consider any threat to their immigration status, or being turned away at the border (obviously given poignance by his own absence). Citing this passage from C. Rowan Beye’s contribution to Compromising Traditions (1997) —

— Peralta argued that a problematic and artificial distinction was being made between privilege of academics (prized for their foreignness – if it was the right kind) on the one hand, and undocumented workers on the other. Poised on the edge – now – of the political threat to the undocumented in the US, including our own students, this categorization of “good immigrant”/”bad immigrant” enforces value judgements upon human beings, impeding their mobility, settlement, and health – both mental and physical. The second speaker of this panel, Ralph Hexter (UC Davis), described the shape of immigration in California, the state with the highest number of immigrants: 10 million, of whom many are now citizens or residents, but 25% are undocumented. In California, undocumented students who have graduated from high school have access to higher education, but no access to federal loans. Through the DREAM act, undocumented students would be able to find federal work study or student loans, and individual states could decide to provide financial aid to such students. But, as Hexter pointed out, the incoming POTUS used the repeal of the DREAM act as one of his campaign slogans; and now undocumented students everywhere are fearful for their future. Hexter noted that for many students, the question of immigration will be an enormously personal issue. Hexter moved on to demonstrate how discussions of canonical classical texts could accommodate discussions of these issues. Classicists use texts capable of plurality of perspective – “immigrant, host national, universal order”:

Hexter suggested the Aeneid as a text with which to explore the problem of immigration: refugees leave a destroyed city (Troy); family, central to the problem of immigration, is central to the epic; Turnus’ hostility can be read as a hostility to new migrants. Hexter even cast Virgil’s Evander as Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, to Obama’s “well meaning but weak willed Latinus” – likening Dido to Angela Merkel, who left her border open to Syrian refugees. Hexter also invoked Luis Alfaro’s play – Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles – which combined the tragedy of the Ancient Greek Medea with the trauma of modern day Mexican immigration. The title “Mojada” is the Spanish slang equivalent to, and containing as much emotive force as, the English “wetback” – used to describe the undocumented who supposedly arrive in the US “wet” (mojado) because of crossing borders by water. During the Q&A section of Hexter’s talk, a member of the audience brought up Canadian playwright Olivier Kemeid’s L’Eneide, which explicitly brings out immigration as a central crisis of Aeneas’ tale.  

Looking to classical texts as a means to remediate modern social problems was a thread that connected the “Impact of Immigration” panel and the “New Outreach and Communications for Classics” panel. At the Outreach panel, Roberta Stewart (Dartmouth) spoke about her experiences talking through Homer with combat veterans in New Hampshire (which has an 8% vet population), a project funded with an NEH grant. “Talking through” is a better way to describe what she does than “teaching” – she stressed in her paper that the aim of the sessions was to facilitate discussion, rather than to use a hierarchical teaching model:

Outreach in this case, Stewart says, means giving texts an environment of relatability, where expertise is not required. In fact, when veterans use Homer to work through issues of war, homecoming, and trauma, it is they who are the experts. Stewart’s project makes veterans the authors and authorities in designing curriculum for veterans. It’s not exactly that “reaching out” in such a way removes the expertise of the classicist who is there to facilitate – what became clear over the arc of this SCS panel is that the public wants an “expert” to be in the room, to guide things, to lend some weight to proceedings. But working with a text in such a way allows the reader to find the meanings which are most resonant and – in this case – healing. In the current climate, changing what it means to be an “expert” is an important shift: expertise moves from the top-down to something more open.

Another strong point that came from this panel is the necessity for outreach to be pluralistic. There are a lot of different kinds of audiences to reach out to. The implication here is that the centre is the academy, which normally looks inward to itself and its own initiated members. From the Paideia Institute, we heard about several projects: Jason Pedicone presented on the Legion Project, which connects classicists working outside of academia – including tracking those who have PhDs in Classics but did not find scholarly positions; and Liz Butterworth on Aequora, teaching literacy to elementary and middle school students with Latin. Christopher Francese (@DCComm, Dickinson College) described a number of outreach projects he’s involved with: a Latin club for children from Kindergarten to Middle School; blogging; podcasting. Francese’s podcast is a series of 5-10 minute recordings on Latin metrics and poetic performativity.

The outreach panel, while describing ways to open up classics to wider audiences, also brought up some of its inherent tensions. As I was live tweeting Francese’s comments on podcasting, multiple podcasters on twitter spoke to me to say: We’re here, and we’re doing this work. In the days after the conference, I was discussing with these podcasters – Aven McMaster (@AvenSarah), Alison Innes (@InnesAlison), and Ryan Stitt (@greekhistorypod) – the issue of in-groups and out-groups. These podcasters know each other well, are well known by their own audiences, but not that well known by the “professional” arm of the discipline. During the outreach panel, one member of the audience – a high school Latin teacher – drew attention to the fact that there was a weak relationship between school teachers and classicists in universities. And, given the fact that declining enrollment in classics is a serious issue, the apparent lack of interest in the teachers – on the front lines of training future classicists – was part of this problem. After the conference it became clear to me that it wasn’t the case that classical resources weren’t available on the internet, but that lack of centrality meant that they were difficult to get to know about, unless you were already part of a certain group. An antidote to this problem will involve those who do have a wide audience, in real life and on the internet, engaging in some signal boosting – letting those within and outside of the academy know what kind of projects are out there. The SCS has started an effort to review digital projects; see, for example, their review of The Latin Library.

Digital classics was also well represented, thanks to the “Ancient MakerSpaces” workshop, run by Patrick Burns (@diyclassics, ISAW). This workshop attracted the majority of live tweeters (for obvious reasons), and so is well documented in the twitter record of 2017’s SCS. The success of this workshop came not only from the content of its presentations, but its format – which eschewed the traditional Q&A, opting instead for interactive demonstrations. The digital humanities presentations seemed to have a deep connection with pedagogy:

Thomas Beasley (Bucknell University), demonstrating the visualization of networks in the ancient mediterranean, noted that his tool could improve spatial literacy in undergraduates, who often find it difficult to come to terms with the geography of the mediterranean. In the outreach panel, Sarah Bond (@SarahEBond, University of Iowa) had talked about how maps are always useful in teaching contexts. Bond demonstrated that the spatial visualization had been a part of enhancing engagement since at least the 16th century, when Protestants used maps to illustrate the Bible, to great popularity. Digital tools also allow a larger degree of participation. Rodney Ast (University of Heidelberg) demonstrated how anyone could suggest editorial changes to papyri entries in the Digital Corpus of Literary Papyri – during the course of his presentation, he edited a database entry for a Ptolemaic ostrakon to include the fact that it contains a quotation from the Odyssey:

Questions of digitization and information technology were present in other areas of the conference as well. This year’s Presidential Panel – “Communicating Classical Scholarship” – included presentations from Sebastian Heath (@sebhth, NYU) on digital publishing through ISAW; Fiona MacIntosh (Oxford University) on the APGRD‘s (@APGRD) ebooks of the Medea and the Agamemnon, in which archival footage of performance reception are embedded in the books’ “pages”; and Erich Schmidt (University of California Press) on the future of scholarly publishing, including discussion of how expensive it is to print monographs. This panel betrayed some of the tension and anxiety felt by classicists regarding their digital futures, but also regarding their print past. When comments were made by panelists suggesting the general preference of scholars for print books, there were scatterings of applause from the audience. Essentially, we are not of one mind when it comes to digital humanities, or the future of how scholarship is disseminated – and that includes the role of social media. We’re not on the same page, either, on whether or not these new trends have value, or whether they can be counted among a scholar’s contributions to the field. This much is made clear by the fact that the SCS has a statement asking that classics departments take digital and technological projects into consideration when they consider a candidate’s value:

A final project to draw attention to is the new Classics and Social Justice group organized by Dan-el Padilla Peralta, Amit Shilo (UC Santa Barbara), Roberta Stewart, and Nancy Rabinowitz. This group is bringing together scholars and teachers who want to use their classical expertise to help address current social problems: many of the attendees of the first meetings have already done work of this kind, whether has meant reading Homer with veterans, bringing classics into prisons, or addressing the issue of immigration. The evening meeting on Jan 7 was broadcast on Facebook live, and the resulting video can be watched here. The existence of this group demonstrates a growing trend among classicists to integrate the intellectual part of their lives with action and advocacy, and to bring their intellectual energies into spaces outside the limits of the traditional classroom. Among the aims of this new group is to draw attention to the fact that many scholars have already been doing this kind of work some time – invisibly – and to bring together those with similar ideas, to be a resource to one another and to others.


What it’s like to live tweet the SCS (San Francisco 2016)

At the 2016 meeting of the Society for Classical Studies that took place from Jan. 6th-9th in San Francisco, CA, I live tweeted the panels which I observed. You can see the “storified” versions of these tweets here. For those of you who are unfamiliar with storify, it is a means of isolating and reordering specific tweets in order to see their cohesiveness and meaningful narrative. Read on for my thoughts on the experience of live tweeting the SCS.

Brooke Holmes, one of the scholars involved in the Postclassicisms project centred around Princeton, speaking in the SCS panel “Response and Responsibility”, said something along the following lines:

I tweeted this in a paraphrase that was intended to be representative, timely. And this itself is appropriate given that part of the purpose of “Postclassicisms” is to meditate about time, timeliness, response, and reception. What is at stake in the point represented by this tweet is, I think, the question of how to view our own involvement in the material which we study. In the face of objectivity and subjectivity – what role does our rejection or embrace of our own identities have to play in our jobs as scholars? How does our observation and critical response to the past shape our knowledge of it?

In the first Fragments session (affectionately named #fragfest by the panel’s moderator, Ayelet Lushkov, @Dr_AHL), Catherine Steel remarked on this very issue in the ancient world: when it comes to the extant snippets of Roman Republican orators, our sources seem not to be quoting from the text of the orations but from intermediaries; what at first glance seems to be a representation of a speech by a Roman orator turns out to be (or likely be) an excerpt from a historiographical text which dramatized the speech act.

One of the things which became clear to me early on is that my tweets were motivated by a desire to document, record what was happening. By doing this I implicated myself in the project of the SCS. Part of my desire to document was encouraged by the fact that my tweets were read by those who were not at the meeting, and who were very glad to have a window into its proceedings. At the Presidential Panel on Thursday night (“The Spring from the Year”: Contingent Faculty and the Future of Classics), several of the speakers mentioned the fact that contingent personnel often can’t afford to come to the annual meeting, which is actually one of the both ironies and strengths of speaking on the topic in front of an audience of tenured faculty. To these we can add the scholars living and working all around the world, who have an interest and stake in the classical community, but who don’t have a compelling reason to spend time and money on international travel. At any rate, I received an incredibly positive response on twitter from the absent participants, especially from the UK. In the “Cicero across Genres” panel, Francesco Ginelli discussed Cicero’s application of rhetorical theory as epistolary theory, citing Fam. 2.4: the purpose of a letter is to update someone who is spatially or chronologically distant – someone you haven’t seen or heard from for a long time and/or someone far away. In fact this passage returns to one of the issues at stake in the “Postclassicisms” panel – the idea that antiquity is a guest among us (Phiroze Vasunia), that we are in a dialogic relationship with our material.

Users of twitter engaged with me as well as each other over the content I was representing. This is exactly the power of twitter when it is used well – it is a real time, invisible annotation; a meta-armature which exists all around the physicality of the meeting, but one that is widely accessible. The annotating and enriching function of twitter becomes clear in the following cases: while Brooke Holmes was speaking, she invoked and meditated upon Donna Haraway‘s 1988 article, Situated Knowledge: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective – while I was tweeting her talk, I also found and tweeted a link to the article. In the panel on Herculaneum, Richard Janko, speaking ex tempore during the question and answer session following his (excellent, truly) talk on his methods of papyrological editing, referred to the story of Verginius Rufus, who fell and broke his hip when he dropped a papyrus book roll and it began to unravel on the ground (and as we heard in that talk, extant papyrus rolls are long – 15m, 23m, 28m). I quickly found that the source for this anecdote is Pliny (Ep. 2.1.5), and tweeted it. When my colleague, Tom Sapsford, gave his paper on cinaedi at the Roman dance panel, demonstrating that cinaedi aren’t just bogey men but represent a real professional category, I tweeted the link to his 2015 Eugesta article on the topic, which is accessible to everyone. And one of my followers let me know that they were reading the article as I was live tweeting Tom’s talk.

In many ways the problem of twitter reflects the themes of fragments and genre treated in certain panels at this year’s SCS. Prof. Sander Goldberg during #fragfest discussed the issue of fragment contextualization. (This is of great importance to me in my work on Cicero’s quotations of Latin verse.) Consider the following “fragment” from Ennius’ Annales (Skutsch 154-155):

Septingenti sunt, paulo plus aut minus, anni
Augusto augurio postquam incluta condita Roma est

Some scholars, Goldberg said, refer to the speaker of these lines as Camillus, connecting the verses to Camillus’ famous speech in Livy 5.51-4. But, Goldberg says, the attribution of these lines to Camillus was conjecturally made by Skutsch (1985:314), and if we’re really honest with ourselves we have to say that the speaker of the lines is Varro, since it is Varro alone – as the cover text – who quotes the lines (RR 3.1.2f.). I could add to this that Varro describes the verses as having been written by Ennius (Ennius docet scribens) – he’s not at that moment imagining Ennius’ words to reflect a historico-fictive speech act by a legendary Roman. In the ancient world we find that writers are not always interested in referring to their source clearly – quite often this seems to come from the fact that they are more interested in the gnomic, universal quality of the statement, rather than engaging in what we might call “responsible” citational practices. Casual (i.e. non-scholarly) users of twitter very often tweet gnomic maxims or “pretty pictures” without giving attributions for (and perhaps knowing) their origin; they are interested in an interesting snippet, and in passing it along. A scholarly user of twitter really ought to be held to a higher standard.

The issue is that the things which I tweeted during the SCS aren’t my work or intellectual property, but my investment in the questions at stake means that between the point where I hear the arguments made and the point where I relay them to the internet, there has been some kind of intervention on my part. Sarah Bond (@SarahEBond), who has crowdsourced and made available a wonderful set of guidelines for tweeting scholarly conferences, notes that a tweeter has to be willing to remove or delete content if the original author is uncomfortable.

The good news here is that I am a scholar and I know my responsibilities when it comes to proper citation. And yet I don’t, and can’t, tweet everything that I hear, and I also don’t care equally about all arguments or even talks, so certain things won’t be passed on by me. This is where the tweeter exerts control – we hear the whole (although we may not always understand the whole), but we tweet only snippets. We have a certain power of censorship, in the sense which we read in Gumbrecht’s the Powers of Philology (2003:14):

…we presuppose, for any fragment deserving of this name, a violent intervention that has caused the difference between the text (or more generally, the form) intended by the author and the text that has come down to us. Such violence may come from an intention that conflicts with the author’s intention and has at its disposal, in addition, superior power to impose itself. It is obvious that this second case of fragmentation includes and illustrates what we call “censorship.” We take fragmentation through censorship to imply, first, that the censor is clearly aware of what he wants to eliminate and, second, that he usually wants the censored text not to appear fragmented. This means that it may turn out to be particularly difficult to identify such a text as a fragment, but also that, once the censor and his intentions are identified, we have a particularly rich orientation for our task of imagining the complete text.

(By the way, this Gumbrecht citation comes from me, not from any talk I heard at the SCS.) There’s also a question of expertise – I feel pretty comfortable with Cicero and with fragments, but when I was at the Herculaneum panel, I found that Virginia Campbell (@campbell798), who took over the twitter feed for the Herculaneum Graffiti Project (@HercGraffProj), did a far better job than me, precisely because of her expertise. Incidentally – the Ancient Graffiti Project is incredible: they have created a topographical search engine, where you can search for graffiti from Herculaneum and Pompeii by specific location:

Although twitter has potential for widening the audience of academic work, there is still something kind of insular about its use at the SCS. The hashtag #aiascs is probably inscrutable to the majority of the twitterverse, and of course as academics generally and classicists particularly we have our own language in which we talk about our ideas, which is a fellowship of knowledge for us, but can be particularly frustrating to a broader audience. As I was checking in with the other panels on the #aiascs hashtag whose topics are not as well known to me personally, I felt myself alienated sometimes – cf. this impressive slide regarding sieges in Thucydides via Hamish Cameron (@peregrinekiwi):

I’m sure I also did my fair share of alienating. Many noted that Cicero was well represented at this year’s meeting – one might even say, overrepresented. You might find this a shock coming from me, a Ciceronian, but although I enjoyed most of the Cicero papers I heard – and was particularly happy at the “Cicero across Genres panel” (organized by Isabel Köster, @iota_subscript, and Caroline Bishop), I can sympathize with this reaction. When Cicero dominated the #aiascs hashtag, there was some annoyance at this (although I think this is founded in the current fashion of Cicero-bashing which I don’t endorse):

It is satisfying to be in a room where you are not the only one tweeting – there’s a sense of camaraderie to it, and also a sense of curiosity as you try to figure out who the other tweeter is, e.g. when Vanessa Rose Phin (@wordfey) and I both wrongly thought that the other was a person sitting between us who was looking down into her lap a lot. This level of participation is one that helps cut across the isolation that can be felt at the SCS. The well known twitter powerhouse, Patrick Burns (@diyclassics), spotted me at the WCC/LCC opening night party and introduced himself, and our paths continued to cross throughout the meeting. A colleague who observed Patrick and me sitting next to each other, each furiously live tweeting the presidential panel, remarked that it was like being in the journalist room at the White House. I found myself being able to talk to a wider range of people because of this digital engagement, including Joseph Howley (@hashtagoras), another twitter powerhouse, and Virginia Campbell (@campbell798) at the end of the Herculaneum panel.

Essentially, I found live tweeting the SCS satisfying. I myself was engaged with the content on a level that I hadn’t experienced at the meeting in previous years, and my social interactions were greatly enriched in a number of ways. My way in to live tweeting was actually eased by the increased interest which the august society itself has in the use of social media – a stance evinced by the fact that the hashtag #aiascs was on our name tags. The final aspect to this which I’ll remark upon is the usefulness of twitter in letting the presenting participants of the SCS know that their effort is appreciated: voices from twitter expressing interest in the topic at hand means that there is an audience out there, an audience that is willing to listen, to appreciate, and to speak back.