The Witcher and Star Wars IX; tempora cum causis (10)

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With the release on the same day (Dec. 20th 2019) of both the Netflix adaptation of The Witcher and the final installation of the new Star Wars trilogy, The Rise of Skywalker, this week we got an object lesson on how cultural criticism works on a mass scale. Before we dive in to either of these, I want again to invoke Jia Tolentino’s analysis of social media as a commercially driven organ, designed to privilege negative or otherwise emotionally provocative content. In Trick Mirror, Tolentino writes that over time, personal lives transforming into public assets via social media meant that “social incentives — to be liked, to be seen — were becoming economic ones” (2019: 6). She goes on: “Twitter, for all its discursive promise, was where everyone tweeted complaints at airlines and bitched about articles that had been commissioned to make people bitch” (2019: 7-8). Looking at the internet as an exercise of performativity (one that extends and magnifies the natural human performativity of the offline world), Tolentino writes that “the internet is defined by a built-in performance incentive” (2019: 8). In How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell (2019: 18) discusses social media too, drawing in the remarks of Franco Berardi: 

“Berardi, contrasting modern-day Italy with the political agitations of the 1970s, says the regime he inhabits ‘is not founded on the repression of dissent; nor does it rest on the enforcement of silence. On the contrary, it relies on the proliferation of chatter, the irrelevance of opinion and discourse, and on making thought, dissent, and critique banal and ridiculous.’ Instances of censorship, he says, ‘are rather marginal when compared to what is essentially an immense informational overload and an actual siege of attention, combined with the occupation of the sources of information by the head of the company.’ [Berardi 2011: 35] It is this financially incentivized proliferation of chatter, and the utter speed at which waves of hysteria now happen online, that has so deeply horrified me and offended my senses and cognition as a human who dwells in human, bodily time.”

The commercial incentive of online interaction is what particularly disturbs Odell; the communities and networks of social media are one thing, the design of such platforms to fulfill a capitalist purpose is another. Odell continues (2019: 60):

“Our aimless and desperate expressions of these platforms don’t do much for us, but they are hugely lucrative for advertisers and social media companies, since what drives the machine is not the content of information but the rate of engagement. Meanwhile, media companies continue churning out deliberately incendiary takes, and we’re so quicky outraged by their headlines that we can’t even consider the option of not reading and sharing them.”

All of this has a bearing on what happened this week. When Netflix dropped The Witcher last Friday, it was met with some noteworthy and negative reviews. Darren Franich and Kristen Baldwin’s “Netflix’s The Witcher is nakedly terrible: Review” (Entertainment Weekly) gave the series an F grade, with a 0/100 on Metacritic. These reviewers immediately, and justifiably, came under fire themselves given that they admitted that they did not watch the series in its entirety. Reponse to The Witcher has been divided: critics hate it, the public loves it. So is The Witcher any good? One of the barriers here is the general distaste for “genre” pieces. Some might avoid science fiction, fantasy, or romance just because it is labled so. Ursula K. Le Guin took on this problem in her essay, “Genre: a word only a Frenchman could love” (reprinted in Words are My Matter, 2019: 10):

“So we have accepted a hierarchy of fictional types, with ‘literary fiction,’ not defined, but consisting almost exclusively of realism, at the top. All other kinds of fiction, the ‘genres,’ are either listed in rapidly descending order of inferiority or simply tossed into a garbage heap at the bottom. This judgemental system, like all arbitrary hierarchies, promotes ignorance and arrogance. It has seriously deranged the teaching and criticism of fiction for decades, by short-circuiting useful critical description, comparison, and assessment. It condones imbecilities on the order of ‘If it’s science fiction it can’t be good, if it’s good it can’t be science fiction.'” 

In the preface to her (critically acclaimedThe Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin had already drawn attention to the fact that science fiction, like any literature, is about its present, not the future (1969/1999: xvi):

“All fiction is metaphor. Science fiction is metaphor. What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors, drawn from certain great dominants of our contemporary life — science, all the sciences, and technology, and the relativistic and the historical outlook, among them. Space travel is one of those metaphors; so is an alternative society, an alternative biology; the future is another. The future, in fiction, is a metaphor.”

The Witcher is not actually “about” magic and monsters; it’s about the relationship between storytelling and reality (Jaskier’s song vs. Geralt’s action), about the pain of isolation (Yennefer), about trying to live your life despite tempestuous circumstances (Geralt); it’s about assembling strange families, when biological ones fail (Geralt, Yennefer, Ciri). Assigning an F to The Witcher because it successfully engages with its own genre, one which you, the reviewer, do not know or care enough about to situate the object of your critique within, removes the rich layers of cultural entanglement which may make such a show worthwhile to a viewer like me. Le Guin continues (2019: 10): “If you don’t know what kind of book you’re reading and it’s not the kind you’re used to, you probably need to learn how to read it. You need to learn the genre.”

I’m not coming at this from a neutral perspective, since I voraciously played and replayed, and loved Witcher 3. But is Netflix’s The Witcher “objectively bad”? No, it’s not. It has haunting performances from Anya Chalotra (Yennefer) and Henry Cavill (Geralt) is perfection. The fight scenes are incredible. And it’s beautiful to look at. Yes, they say “destiny” too many times. But, look, it’s a romp!

On to Star Wars, then. Since we kept up our tradition of seeing the newest Star Wars on Christmas eve, I was aware of an enormous amount of critical disappointment and fan anger regarding the latest installment before I saw the film itself. You know what? It was fine. Yes, it had a very fast pace, and it wasn’t seamless with the trilogy’s own self-mythologizing. The Star Wars universe is full of holes because of the method of its composition; to some extent the writing, and overwriting (if you think that’s what J.J. is doing) resembles the process of story development in the oral tradition of the Greek epic canon, and in its reception. Consider Odysseus in the Iliad vs. Odysseus in the Odyssey vs. Odysseus in Sophocles’ Ajax. Indeed, the empty spaces projected by Star Wars are part of its charm: it’s a perfect landscape for imaginative rethinking, whether in the form of fan fiction, fan art, or roleplaying games like Edge of The Empire. That Star Wars captures the modern imagination so strongly is somewhat ironically reflected in the strength of the vitriol against it (and in the fan art. Peruse #reylo only if you dare).

All of this might be fine if it really were so simple. The emotional economy of the internet has a role to play here, but in this case we end up in a different place than we did with The Witcher. Anthony Breznican of Vanity Fair recorded J.J. Abrams’ public response to the backlash against TROS :

“After a screening at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on Friday, I [=Breznican] asked Abrams what he would say to those who are unhappy. Are they not getting something? Is there a problem in the fandom? ‘No, I would say that they’re right,’ he answered quickly. ‘The people who love it more than anything are also right.’ The director had just returned from a global tour with the film, where he also fielded questions about that mixed reaction. ‘I was asked just seven hours ago in another country, ‘So how do you go about pleasing everyone?’ I was like’ What…?’ Not to say that that’s what anyone should try to do anyway, but how would one go about it? Especially with Star Wars.’ With a series like this, spanning more than four decades, nearly a dozen films, several TV shows, and countless novels, comics, and video games, the fanbase is so far-reaching that discord may be inevitable. ‘We knew starting this that any decision we made — a design decision, a musical decision, a narrative decision — would please someone and infuriate someone else,’ Abrams said. ‘And they’re all right.'”

You can see how the viewers’ response to Star Wars might be taken as a reflection of contemporary political and cultural life in the US. In the New York Times, Annalee Newitz affirmed Le Guin’s view that cultural artefacts, sci-fi or not, are reflective of the society which produces and consumes them:

Star Wars became a new national mythos; it rebooted America’s revolutionary origin story and liberty-or-death values using the tropes of science fiction. Now, however, the movies no longer strike the same chord. Just as America’s political system is falling into disarray again, our cultural mythmaking machine is faltering as well.”

How and why we critique Star Wars may well reflect some deeper truth about the times we live in, but there’s another dark side to all this (get it?). To some extent the divided criticism is irrevelant, given that TROS earned an enormous amount of money. Indeed, the controversy only helped bring in the dollars (not to mention all the baby yodas hiding under the xmas trees this year). We entrusted our storytelling to a capitalist behemoth, and it’s disconcerting that cultural criticism has no impact on its forward march. Some have suggested that the F rating which Entertainment Weekly gave The Witcher was motivated by a desire to get more eyeballs (and more $) by artificially stirring up controversy. Given that the internet runs on divisiveness and ire (these are our social currencies), that might have been an economically shrewd move. But was it good cultural criticism?

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.

 

#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.

 

https://twitter.com/SarahEBond/status/830073237291806720

 

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.