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: https://cicero.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. 

 

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.

 

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.