Increased Connectivity: SCS Boston 2018

During and after the Bomb Cyclone, view of the Boston Public Library, Copley Square. Photos by John Dugan (@sicsicsinefine).

For the last few years I’ve written about my experiences at the annual meeting of the Society for Classical Studies (2016, 2017). This year was different in many ways. For one thing, my involvement in a number of projects — Classics and Social Justice, putting together and moderating the final panel for the Ancient MakerSpaces workshop organized by Patrick Burns (@diyclassics) and David Ratzan (@papyrologus) where the panelists were: Sarah Bond (@sarahebond), Casey Dué (@caseyduehackney), Cora Sowa (minervaclassics.com), and Donna Zuckerberg (@donnazuck), the Ancient Books roundtable — meant that I was not able to livetweet as many panels as I usually do.

More importantly, the fact that the Bomb Cyclone arrived in Boston on the main travel day for the SCS meant that many participants either got here late, or couldn’t get here at all. I mentioned at the time that this would make livetweeting even more important than ever; those who were supposed to be here could still see how their own work was being received, and interact with their audience, long range. For example, Amy Pistone (@apistone), who skyped in to the Classics and Social Justice Panel, was able to give her paper and see it tweeted and engage in the discussion online. Immediately before she skyped in she tweeted the handout to her presentation. Of course, I feel that livetweeting the SCS is always important, since it helps a broader range of people spend their intellectual time with us. At last year’s SCS in Toronto, I livetweeted the outreach panel, and the discussion from twitter was this: we’re here, we’re doing this kind of work. But the blizzard, I think, highlighted for many the true power of livetweeting. In a world where not all of can travel for these conferences, livetweeting lets us broaden our audience and the range of participants in our discussions.

One of the fundamental threads throughout the conference, from my perspective, was this idea: as a scholar you don’t have to go it alone anymore. This is a lesson that some in the digital humanities learned a long time ago. Casey Dué, speaking during the Homeric Multitext session of the #ancmakers workshop, and at the panel afterwards, hit home the collaborative nature of this kind of work: she runs the Homeric Multitext project with Mary Ebott, and Christopher Blackwell and Neel Smith are in charge of the technical aspects of the work. Dué mentioned at the panel that this collaboration was one of the real joys of her professional life. Looking at the “Collaborators” page, you can see that the network of scholars involved in this project is very large indeed. A project like this demands a number of different technical abilities, which in turn requires many individuals. Working together in the context of digital humanities means sharing different skill sets, different strengths, different areas of expertise. And the project itself is a solution to a very significant question in Classics: how do we deal with the oral composition of the Homeric epics and how they manifest in written form? The digital approach to answering this question came not out of an attempt to use digital tools but rather simply to find a way to answer the question. One of my favourite audience comments made during the #ancmakers panel was from Thomas Koentges (@ThomasKoentges), who said that if Wilamowitz were alive today he would be using the same tools as us, but he wouldn’t call himself a “digital” anything. At a certain point, as Sarah Bond said, what we now call “digital humanities” will simply be “humanities”. For many that is already basically the case. There are of course still die-hard sceptics. And Sarah Bond, asked what we can do in the face of this kind of scepticism replied: peer pressure. Those of us interested in this kind of work should still keep doing what we’re doing, and we should show the world (via twitter, blogs etc.) that we’re doing so. The panelists, asked how we can try to legitimize public scholarship, answered: include substantial, scholarly blog posts you write on your CV (Dué), use blog posts as part of your teaching (Zuckerberg), cite blogs you use in your bibliography (Bond), think of blogs as articles: pieces on Eidolon are articles (Zuckerberg). 

One of the things which is always on my mind when it comes to digital humanities is the fact that I tend towards the humanities part rather than the digital. But one of the reasons that I think of myself in this way is because I have been following the path set for me of the scholar who works alone. Coming into the field with a philological training (in the broadest sense) seeded in me a kind of antagonism and territorialism that even now I have trouble letting go of. I’ve been thinking of myself as someone who has to “get there first”, have original research that came principally from my own creative and intellectual engine (accompanied by the correct citations and bibliography of course), and carve out a unique area for myself. And along the way that has made me competitive with, hostile towards, and afraid of other people’s ideas. This is not the way that the model of digital humanities operates. If you try to do everything yourself, you will come up against insurmountable obstacles. Daniel Libatique (@DLibatique10) and Ryan Pasco (@rympasco) said it best in this twitter thread, where they discussed the fact that their assumption that they had to do everything on their own in their digital projects was slowing them down, both practically and psychologically:

It seems to me that if we can bring the collaborative mindset of digital humanities into the more traditional area of classics, we’ll all benefit. Part of this will involve letting go of the sense of territorialism that I mentioned before. But those who are working on projects which are pedagogical or public facing are already making their knowledge and resources more openly accessible. I think, for example, of the speakers at the Classics and Social Justice panel organized by Jess Wright and Amit Shilo. Molly Harris spoke about the The Warrior Book Club, a group that reads stories of war from antiquity and modernity with combat veterans as well as civilians. While Harris was speaking she described the evolution of the group, her experiences doing this work, but also spent time giving her audience a detailed description of the resources that the project used. In essence, she was giving us a roadmap: are you interested in this kind of work? Well, here’s my bibliography (thread), and here are the texts which we read together: you could do the same.

This kind of collaborative spirit is also at the heart of the ancient books project organized by Stephanie Frampton (@saframpton), Joe Howley (@hashtagoras), and myself, the Materia Network (@materianetwork). This group’s aim is to bring together the many specialists who work on material writing in the ancient world but come at it from different perspectives: papyrologists, paleographers, literary scholars, bibliographers etc. etc. The spirit of the project comes from the idea that none of us can all be experts in these very specialized fields: if we want to get a better idea of the ancient book as a concept, we can learn a lot from each other. At one point in our roundtable discussion, I saw Stephanie Frampton write down the note “Kill the Author”, based on (I think) something that Joe Howley had said: let’s move away from the model of the centrality of the sole “genius” who writes literature, and add in the human labour, the modes of production that are necessary to make book culture in the ancient world possible. But I think that many of us are also in the midst of a shift towards a mindset in which we individually “kill the Author”. Our research and our teaching seem to be less and less about the Authors, and more about something more elusive.

I find the Materia network to have something in common with the spirit of the digital humanities workshop (#ancmakers) and the Classics and Social Justice group. None of us individually has the whole picture. And, especially for social justice work and digital tools, we need to work harder to broaden the audience: things will be better if social justice people are not just listened to by other social justice people; those working hard  to make digital tools should have an audience of humanists who are ready and interested to implement them, even if they don’t understand how they were built. That is actually the role that I see taking: I don’t make digital tools, and that’s exactly why I need to pay attention to them; I don’t research social justice, but I should pay attention to that research so I can incorporate its results into my teaching, mentorship, scholarship. As I often say, one of the benefits of the internet is plurality of perspective, if you’re willing to see it. And if you’re willing to listen as much as you broadcast, and to signal-boost as much as possible. Perhaps this increased willingness to collaborate in Classics is a by-product of the ways in which the internet is embedded within and structures our lives. Although, one thing that I had planned to talk about as part of the #ancmakers panel was the long memory of the internet within the field of Classics. We did speak at the panel about the fact that there have always been classicists who are early adopters of technology and digital tools: Cora Sowa described hand punching Hesiod’s Theogony, and watching the moon landing at the original Summer Institute for Computers and Classics held at the University of Illinois. Sowa also made the 1969 report to this meeting available online: 

As part of my preparations to moderate this panel, I asked twitterati to let me know when they first started using the internet as part of their scholarly lives. The thread itself is pretty fascinating. Classics has been part of the internet since its very beginning. Perseus Digital Library went online in 1995; William Thayer’s LacusCurtius went online in August 1997; Barbara McManus’ and Suzanne Bonefas’ vroma.org appeared around the same time. 

So it’s not exactly the case that digital Classics has recently arrived. Although it is true that our use of the internet as a society is more intense than it has ever been. But we are scholars of intellectual modes of production, so we can study our own involvement and entanglement in the digital world. We can see twitter and the internet as our own inscriptional culture: when we write ourselves into the internet, the persistence of that data means that we’re making our mark on the “material” of our own time.

If anyone wants to get involved with the Classics and Social Justice group, including writing a blog post, please get in touch (@classics_sj). Likewise, if you want to get involved with the Materia network, you can add your email address to our mailing list and follow us on twitter (@materianetwork).

I want to thank Sarah Bond, Casey Dué, Cora Sowa, and Donna Zuckerberg for agreeing to be panelists and for creating such a fantastic, important discussion. Last but not least, I want to thank Patrick Burns (@diyclassics) for asking me to moderate the panel at his workshop. I’m so grateful that there is someone working to expand digital spaces, make them inclusive, make them into conversations. Kudos to him for being enthusiastic and supportive of a panel of women. Patrick and I met at the SCS in San Francisco (2016) when he introduced himself to me at the WCC reception after our having only ever met through twitter, and that’s how our professional relationship began. Academic twitter is powerful.

 

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The Latin dictionary — digital or physical?

Welsh Latin dictionary 1632, John Davis Mallwyd.JPG
Welsh-Latin dictionary 1632, John Davis Mallwyd (wikimedia)
I’ve been writing a syllabus for an undergraduate Latin seminar and thinking about whether or not to have my students buy a specific Latin-English dictionary. After seeing some slides from a presentation on twitter that came out of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) conference on the burden of the cost of textbooks on students, I became reaffirmed recently in my dedication to try to make as many of the readings (and visual/material culture) on my syllabuses come from Open Access or at least online sources. With the way things are going, this is becoming easier and easier. But a dictionary should be part of a Classicist’s arsenal, right?
I went to twitter first to ask what Latin-English dictionaries instructors have assigned to their Latin students. The one that I used as a beginning Latin student, and still sometimes use, is the Langenscheidt pocket dictionary. But it’s not so easy to get your hands on in the US. The most popular suggestions from twitter were Cassell’s, Chambers Murray, with some votes for Traupman; although one respondent mentioned that they got into trouble with Traupman when doing Latin prose composition, and switched to Lewis & Short. None of these is especially expensive (under $10), although both Chambers Murray and Langenscheidt are tricky to get new copies of.  It’s clear that we hold on to the tools that we begin learning with very fondly — even though I teach in the US now I still can’t give up Kennedy’s Latin primer, whose table of principal parts I have given to every Latin class I’ve ever taught. (The reason why Kennedy’s is a problem to use with US students is that the case order is N./V. Acc. Gen. Dat. Abl. rather than Nom. Gen. Dat. Acc. Abl.).

My next question (via a twitter poll) was whether Latin instructors encourage their students to use online dictionary tools.  My assumption, just based on casual discussions or passing comments with colleagues IRL, is that many would be against it just in principle. But perhaps asking Latin instructors on twitter is not the venue for cynicism about digital tools. As I write the poll isn’t closed yet, but the majority of respondents use digital tools in some form. Cillian O’Hogan () replied that he had that day taught his students how to use Logeion’s online version of Lewis & Short; he also mentioned that he gives lessons in how to use physical dictionaries, including a demonstration of their shortcomings. The important thing here, whether you have your students use physical or digital dictionaries, is to dedicate time to demonstrate how to use them. It’s not degrading to anyone to take the time to meditate on issues or forms which seem self-evident — in fact, it can be quite a profound experience.

I recently read a discussion by Geoffrey Nunberg of the limits of the physical editions of the Oxford English Dictionary that have been overcome in its online edition:

The advent of online historical corpora has also altered the lexicographer’s method. Word sleuthery has become a game that anyone with access to a search engine can play. It’s not hard to find examples that antedate the OED’s earliest citations for words, particularly in the modern period. The first use of Ms. listed in the second edition was from 1949; the Wall Street Journal’s language columnist Ben Zimmer tracked it back to 1901.

The issue with online Latin dictionaries is probably not so much about the quality of its contents as much as the question of whether use of a digital dictionary is detrimental to the student’s progress in language acquisition. Anecdotally, we classicists as a group seem to think that using a physical dictionary leads to better vocabulary retention. After I posted the twitter poll, Clara Shaw Hardy () responded with a blog piece in which she described her own experiments with students, who tried both physical and digital dictionaries and reported their experiences; Hardy also cites an article in Teaching Classical Languages by Jacqueline Carlon arguing that students retain vocabulary that they learn “the hard way.” Hardy also put forward the suggestion that online dictionaries develop a means of quizzing students on the words which they have looked up in a given session. Patrick Burns responded to this with a blog piece of his own, which is a tutorial on how to use Learning with Texts (LWT) to learn vocabulary in context. 

All in all, I’m encouraged by the fact that many classicists are not ideologically opposed to using digital dictionaries. Although there is evidence that doing things the old fashioned way has better results, in a world where students are more naturally inclined to turn to the internet as a source of knowledge, I think that there is something to be said for using rigorous, philological online lexical tools like Logeion. Whether physical or digital, dictionaries are a technology that need to be explained, explored, and contextualized. I feel that a lot of the resistance to digital forms probably comes from an inherent conservatism within classics that says more about the discipline than it does about the functionality or pedagogical outcomes that result from use of digital dictionaries. The important thing is to explore different avenues with an open mind, rather than allowing cynicism to hold you back from new teaching opportunities.

 

Digital humanity?

In many ways, I’m not a digital humanist. I don’t know how to code. I’ve never built a database. I don’t work with “data”. My research would be quite challenging to communicate visually (with charts, infographics) in a way that would be satisfying. I have a basic literacy in html which is pretty much obsolete now. A lot has been written about the fact that “digital humanities” is difficult to define, exactly. When I was at Patrick Burns’ Ancient MakerSpaces digital classics workshop at the 2017 SCS — which showcased tools for creating and managing digital information within the field of Classics — it occurred to me that I had a different background than the majority of the other audience members. Many of the individuals in the audience had a similar level of technological literacy to the speakers — they could understand the presentations from a technical perspective in a way that I simply couldn’t. But I think it’s important for people like me — perhaps more “humanist” than “digital” — to be present in such spaces. These are the ways in which I do consider myself a digital humanist: I am present in a scholarly persona online, and I believe that scholars should be engaged in the project of the internet. I’m a digital humanist in the sense that I want to tell the stories of the humanities online, using its tools to reach a larger audience, and to increase the reach of learned networks beyond its traditional limits. And I see the benefits of bringing the forms of the internet, which encourage discussion, into the classroom (with blogging etc.).  And someone like me can perhaps help make bridges between the digital and non-digital humanists. Even if you yourself as a scholar are not engaged in a particular aspect or practice developing within your field — such as digital humanities — you’re still influenced by these developments. Weller (2011: loc 2612) calls this “network weather”, i.e. “changes in your environment are occurring because of other people’s use of these technologies and the behaviour they facilitate, even if as an individual you are not engaged with them.”  The digital humanities — which gives us online editions and commentaries of texts, databases of papyri, digital books, thousands of high quality images of ancient objects facilitated by creative commons license, and more — are already pretty incredible, and are only going to get better and better, provided they find continued support, financial and otherwise. It’s up to us to shine a light on these projects and tools, and to make sure our students — especially the graduate students who will shape the next generation of Classics — are given the opportunities to learn and use these tools.