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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Upcoming events at #AIASCS 2018

This year’s #AIASCS is in Boston, which is amazing for me since I just moved here! I wanted to draw attention to some exciting events that I’m involved in this year. Everyone is welcome at each of these, and hope to see you there!


Classics and Social Justice Open Meeting: 

We’re having a general meeting, which anyone can attend, on Jan. 4th 4-5pm and we have a panel on Jan. 5th 8-10.30am. More information on both here

BU Classics Department Party:

Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Ancient Book: 

Stephanie Frampton (MIT, @saframpton) and Joe Howley (Columbia, @hashtagoras) and I are hosting a roundtable at the SCS on approaches to the ancient book: Jan. 6th 12.15-1.45. This is an iteration and expansion of the work done in their excellent Materia conferences. The short term goal of this is to expand the network of those interested in studying the ancient book in antiquity (with broad definitions of all of those terms), the medium term goal to collect textual and visual resources (on our website, Stephanie has begun a gallery of depictions of the book in ancient media), and with some other long term projects. You can learn more about this event at the website, or its twitter feed @materianetwork (which I have been using to curate references and images to ancient books). 

Ancient MakerSpaces: 

On Saturday 6th there will be a day long workshop on digital tools for Classics. I’m moderating the final panel at 3-4pm, with the exciting panelists: Sarah Bond (U Iowa, @SarahEBond), Casey Dué (U of Houston, Homeric Multitext@caseyduehackney) , Cora Sowa (Minerva Classics), and Donna Zuckerberg (Eidolon, @donnazuck). More information on the workshop here, and a description of the workshop on the SCS blog by Patrick Burns (ISAW, @diyclassics).

#Itinera

In July 2017 after the Pac Rim in San Diego, Dr Scott Lepisto (@scottlepisto) interviewed me for an episode of the #Itinera podcast, where Classicists discuss their research, teaching, and lives as scholars. Notable guests have been: Alex Purves, Helen Morales, and Amy Richlin. Listen to my interview here.

Scholarly Engagement & Social Media

As part of our recent event at the University of Southern California, sponsored by the USC Classics department, the Levan Institute, and the USC Society of Fellows, I gave a short presentation on the ethical value of scholars being part of the project of the internet, using the tools of social media. See below a link to the slides from my presentation. We’ll be posting a piece on the Classics and Social Justice blog soon with a summary and reflection of the two day event.

Link to slides.
PDF of slides (with clickable links).

AAUW’s livestream: “(Not) All in Your Head: How Women Internalize Sexism”

This morning I tuned in to — and live tweeted — a live streamed panel organized by the AAUW (American Association of University Women) on implicit bias and sexist microaggressions:  “(Not) All in Your Head: How Women Internalize Sexism.” The moderator was Soraya Chemaly, and the speakers were Abigail Lewis, Gina Torino, and C. Nicole Mason.

The panel discussed the fact that sexist behaviours against women often come in insidious, undetected forms. Sexism happens casually, unconsciously — sexist ideas are so ingrained in our culture that they feel natural, but such gender coding has long-term effects for women, their treatment by both men and women, and their opportunities for leadership.

The AAUW panel discussed some of the implications of institutional sexism, and offered some solutions. The term “microaggression” was first used by psychiatrist Chester Pierce in the 1970s in the context of racial discrimination in commercial advertising, but has been expanded greatly by psychologists in recent years. Gina Torino was one of the co-authors of a highly influential academic paper, “Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life”, which defines microaggressions as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults towards people of colour (2007:271). The fact that the term originated in the study of racism and has been expanded to include sexist and classist behaviours alongside racist ones demonstrates that intersectionality is at work here.

The panelists shared their experiences of microaggressions: a male co-worker only says good morning to his male colleagues; a woman of colour is asked where the professor is when she’s the professor; another professor makes digs against women in an engineering class that is 20% women. In each case, the implicit message is: you don’t belong here, your body signals you as different from what I want or expect. Even if the person (man or woman) responsible for sending the message has no idea they are doing so. The panelists cited studies in which respondents, asked whether sexism still existed, answered “no” but still blamed women for not being more proactive in their achievements. The problem is that sexist behaviour is so prevalent that it becomes invisible. This means that women keep being silenced and excluded, and then they are blamed for their apparent incompetence. And women also blame themselves when they are at the receiving end of sexist behaviour.

The panelists also discussed strategies for communicating the problem of sexism to an audience that is inclined to deny its existence. They said that studies have shown that male listeners are likely to “circle the wagon” when confronted with reports of sexism; they double down on the status quo. The panelists suggest making changes by seeking support: find female colleagues who can validate your experiences; communicate your experiences through storytelling to male and female audiences. What doesn’t seem to work is an explicit statement of the problem — this seems generally to provoke an impulse to deny. If there is any way forward it is through persistence and through empathy — shining more light on the stories of sexism, and communicating these personally.

The AAUW also has an excellent discussion guide, which lays out how to engage in productive discussion about sexism in a formal setting. What I especially like about this guide is its care to bring muted voices into the forefront in the “community agreement”, which in many ways reminded me of WCC’s practical tips for feminist pedagogy:

  • What’s shared here stays here, but what’s learned here leaves here.
    The group agrees to confidentiality of names, but the knowledge and insight garnered will stay with them once they leave the room.
  • One speaker, one mic.
    When someone is speaking, they should not be interrupted. Everyone who would like to speak will be given the opportunity.
  • Move forward, move back.
    If you normally are the first to contribute to the conversation, considering allowing others the chance to speak. If you normally are shy, challenge yourself to share your opinions.
  • Challenge by choice.
    While everyone is encouraged to leave their comfort zones and share their thoughts, no one will be forced to share.
  • Listen to understand, not to respond.
    When others are talking, make sure you’re digesting everything they’re saying, rather than simply waiting for your turn to speak again.

 

 

Review — “Social Media for Academics”— Mark Carrigan (2016)

We’ve been speaking a lot about Classics outreach lately. And most agree that “outreach” – in the sense of a one-sided “reaching out” – is not quite the right term anymore. Alison Innes (@InnesAlison) recently argued for the term “engagement” rather than “outreach”, since engagement suggests a notion of exchange rather than the flow of knowledge in only one direction. The preference for engagement over outreach has been visible for a while — this was the takeaway from the “New Outreach and Communications for Classics” panel at the 2017 SCS, where speakers described community projects: teaching Latin to kindergarteners, high schoolers; working through Homer with combat veterans; connecting classicists outside of academia. The notion of outreach as engagement and collaboration is also at the core of the new Classics and Social Justice group, which wants to bring Classics to the least privileged in society. There have been some questions lately about whether or not twitter can be a useful tool for Classics engagement — in this debate, I stand firmly on the side that sees the value in twitter. There is much more to “outreach” than can be accomplished by social media alone, but it’s still a valuable place to start.

 

 

I use twitter in my scholarly persona — I tweet about my research, I live tweet conferences, I interact with other academics and non-academics interested in Classics, I find news about my discipline on twitter. If I were teaching right now (I have a research fellowship), I would be using it in the classroom. But I wanted to learn more about academic twitter from a scholarly perspective – to learn how it’s studied as a social phenomenon by academics. For this, I turned to sociologist Mark Carrigan’s (@mark_carrigan) book which came out last year, Social Media for Academics.

 

social-media-for-academics
Mark Carrigan, Social Media for Academics. Sage; Los Angeles. 2016. ISBN: 9781446298688

Although Carrigan’s book contains many helpful tips for academic blogging and tweeting, it’s not primarily a how-to guide but rather a sociological exploration of the state of academic tweeting as it exists today. As Carrigan writes (loc 166)¹, social media develop so quickly that by the time a scholarly work is finally published, the information it contains is already outdated. The first chapter begins by describing the almost unimaginable volume of information which is published on the internet every day, citing the Internet Live Stats project. If you click on this link, you can have the frankly nauseating experience of seeing how many blogs, tweets, emails, skype calls, tumblr posts are being made/sent in real time. But it’s a powerful way to show the vastness of the internet, its modes, and its growth. Sometimes social media are maligned as essentially superficial — but something more complicated, with greater consequences, is going on. Social media touch our personal lives, our political lives, and the state of our knowledge. Recently, I tweeted about how the current POTUS’ use of twitter will force future historians to come to terms with the nature of social media and its impact on society and knowledge — a compelling reason why scholars should now be involved in the project of the internet.

One of the best things that I got out of this book is that the notion of “scholarship” doesn’t have to be defined by the memory of past models, but by the actions which we now take. Carrigan — citing Weller (2011: loc 105)— writes that “scholarship is what scholars do.” The tautology of this definition is actually helpful – it can free us from saying “this action isn’t scholarly”, and allow us to say “well this scholar is doing this, therefore by definition it is included in the remit of what scholarship is.” Being freer about the definition of what is or isn’t scholarly can allow scholars to embrace parts of themselves that they feel they have to hide to live up to the image of academia. I’ve written elsewhere about how it’s no coincidence that those who are attracted to scholarly twitter are those from groups typically underrepresented by the “professor” archetype (PoC, women, LGBTQ+) — twitter is a new(er) space where the performative associations of the “professor” don’t have to be enforced. In fact, Carrigan notes that, if you are an established or even famous scholar, you can’t assume that that is enough to attract followers or to foster a positive reception of your social media presence (loc 2239). This is because social media is about prolonged, consistent engagement. It’s about what you’re saying in the moment, and it’s as much about listening as it is about broadcasting. 

What becomes clear over the course of Carrigan’s book is that the main activities of scholarship — writing, publishing, networking, engaging — are all involved (and, arguably, enhanced) when scholars use social media. The only difference is that, when we use social media, the actions that are essential to the life of the scholar are taken in public. 

For Carrigan (citing dana boyd 2014), social media have specific and significant qualities which bring scholarship into the public eye — persistence, visibility, spreadability, searchability

  • persistence: once ideas are posted they (theoretically) last forever— “the experience of twitter is similar to that of being at an academic conference, but a conference in which our conversations linger on indefinitely in the room” (Carrigan loc 276); in this sense, social media is a form of record keeping
  • visibility: ideas once posted can be seen by many people — with a platform like twitter, you don’t even have to have an account to see what’s happening on it; using social media brings your scholarly work into the view of the public, to whom you may otherwise be invisible — and it can also make your work more visible to other scholars 
  • spreadability: ideas once posted are easily circulated — sharing or retweeting brings information into the sight of your friends or followers, who can then pass it on to their friends or followers
  • searchability: ideas once posted can be found with search terms— and since they are persistent and visible, i.e. are lasting and accessible to everyone, ideas can be found even if they haven’t been widely circulated

Carrigan is sensitive to the issue that “public” is a complicated idea; he opts instead to call the online audience “publics” (loc 1174). When scholars use social media to publicize their own work, and also — by extension — the kind of work done by their discipline, who are they talking to? Although Carrigan mentions the usefulness of social media in teaching students, this is not his main focus — he redirects his reader to Megan Poore’s guide, Using Social Media in the Classroom (2016). Instead, the interactions which he seems to focus on are between scholars and other scholars; between scholars and non-scholars. It isn’t exactly the case, Carrigan says, that when we use social media we are really trying to talk to “everyone” (loc 1149) — instead, we’re engaging in a kind of narrowcastingdefined by Poe (2012) as “the transmission of specific information to specific interest groups.” Narrowcasting may seem to support the view that twitter is an echo chamber, but Carrigan argues that the scale of the dissemination of information via the internet is much larger than anything we’ve known before (loc 1159):

This is a potentially transformative environment for academic research because it means that intense specialisation need not lead to cultural marginality. Even the most seemingly obscure topics have a potential audience outside the academy.

There is an assumption that because academic interests can be very specific, there isn’t an audience for that level of fine grained detail. Well, that’s not the case. Talking about a topic to people who are interested is powerful — it may not be that many people in the grand scheme of things, but it’s still many more than would have access to you, if that access was predicated on entry into a university environment.

And when academics use social media — even in a “professional” persona — we’re bound to include elements of our lives beyond just our work. Carrigan suggests that this can create a “new collegiality” between scholars (loc 894), because it draws attention to the obstacles faced by individuals which otherwise might not be spoken about. From personal experience, I find this to be true — I think of Ellie Mackin’s (@EllieMackin) open discussion of the challenges facing early career academics and the challenges of maintaining mental health in academia, which have found vigorous support in the online community.

Carrigan also points out the potential for social media to present a fuller picture of a scholar when “all manner of ephemera…get aggregated together into a stream, mean[ing] you sometimes get better acquainted with someone through a process that is almost osmotic” (loc 936). The aggregate view of the scholar is something that I love about twitter. At some point or another, you may read my CV, or some personal statement, or a research proposal. And certainly, we have to work hard rhetorically in such documents to make ourselves understood, to seem vibrant, to demonstrate our value. But you’ll really get to know me as a scholar if you follow me on twitter; you’ll get a sense, after the accumulation of hundreds of pieces of tiny information, of who I am – what my values are, how I do my research, how I interact with my community. You’ll also get a sense of who I am as a human person.

Blogging is also a large preoccupation of Carrigan’s book. One of the issues with scholarly blogging, which doesn’t seem to be explicitly stated by Carrigan but is definitely on my mind a lot, is the fact that we as scholars work hard to produce research that we can’t really give away for free. Our success depends on publication in traditional media — we get promoted because we write articles and books. One model suggested by Carrigan which gets around this problem, is that scholars can “blog about the work, but not blog the work” (loc 735). Academics can write about the process of writing, as well as sharing resources which have been encountered during the research. Carrigan brings up the issue of speaking to multiple audiences simultaneously, and how various prominent bloggers deal with this. He cites Paul Krugman, Nobel prize winning economist who blogs for the NY times, who labels the more technical posts as ‘wonkish’ in the title to signal potential difficulty for mass readership. And then, there’s our Mary Beard, who writes short blogs for the TLS every few days. Both of these figures are world class academics who are secure in their renown and reputation; and they have the confidence to be able to write short pieces frequently. They also have the confidence to be contemplative rather than positivistic — they can say “I’m thinking about this right now” rather than “this is definitively the case”. But that confidence comes from being established. Sensible equivocation in them may read as uncertainty and luke-warmedness in individuals of lesser status. But I do think that the model of writing short blog posts reasonably frequently is a good one — one that I’m thinking of using in the future myself. 

Carrigan also draws attention to the usefulness of social media as research tools. This is definitely something that I’ve found to be true — twitter, for example, can have an archival function:

I frequently use tweetdeck to search for tweets I’ve made in the past about certain elements of my work. Blogging can have this function as well — working out some thoughts about a minor point and posting it online can serve as a organic growth of work, linked thematically rather than in a linear way — “the result is a ‘body of knowledge’ that is ‘more threaded and less sequential’ ” (loc 1558). Carrigan invokes Stuart Elden, writer of the Progressive Geographies blog, and his view that a blog is a “public notebook” or a “public set of bookmarks” (loc  1564). Live tweeting conferences also feels a bit like making notes in public.

In such a world where information is gathered (or aggregated) online, distraction is an issue. Anti social media screeds written by academics often begin from this point — that social media are a distraction. From what? Supposedly from the serious thinking and writing that happens when everything else is shut off. But for Carrigan, distraction is recoded as a positive thing, in the sense that, reading through the information that twitter and other outlets provide you ‘supersaturates’ (Gitlin 2002) the scholar with many relevant paths that could be followed. The problem, for Carrigan, is not that the distraction will lead you away from substantial to insubstantial thought, but that the distraction will lead you down many potentially fruitful alleyways which are different, if parallel, to the initial frame of inquiry. And Carrigan notes that this isn’t exactly — or at least necessarily — a bad thing. The issue is one which is actually very familiar to researchers — “The more we read, the more ideas we’re confronted with about what we haven’t read but should” (Carrigan loc 1509). 

A related point here (not brought up by Carrigan) is that keeping up with social media now means keeping up with the social, in a way that is more conscious than it once was. Classics has been in crisis over its relatability for the entire time that I have been a classicist. But increasingly there are classicists who are interested in speaking to an audience beyond just the one which has typically been granted access to a classical education — and for these scholars, “outreach” is an ethical issue. There are groups of people, underrepresented and/or maligned in the past, which are now becoming more visible than ever. And one of the ways in which these groups have become more visible, is due to the power of representation which social media give them. When scholars engage online – even if their research has nothing to do with social issues – they can be witnesses to the kinds of problems which their students and their colleagues face that don’t necessarily occur to them from just their own experience.

All in all, Carrigan’s Social Media for Academics is a very good book. It deals sensitively and sophisticatedly with a number of issues facing academics who want to engage with social media, providing several models and examples. Recommended for anyone who wants to learn more about the sociology of social media.


Note 1: I read Carrigan’s book in its Kindle edition. Throughout this blog post, I use Kindle location numbers rather than page numbers. This is also how Carrigan, for the most part, makes his citations from other sociological works.

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.