“The Fragment and the Future” (Swansea lecture, 23rd Nov 2020) audio + text

Text and audio of an invited lecture given at Swansea Nov 23rd 2020 over zoom. Thank you to Ian Goh for organizing the seminar, and to all of the participants. Click here for the handout.

PART I: LIFE OF THE FRAGMENT

There are two ways that classical fragments are made: they are either (ironically) preserved through an act, or process, of destruction; or they are preserved by enclosure in a later text. The fragments of Sappho are a good and famous example of this process. In the 7th c. BCE, Sappho of Lesbos composed her lyrics; her poetry became so famous that it circulated as a text in nine books, as the ancients report (Suda Σ 107 = Campbell test. 2). But we can’t read Sappho’s poetry in its fullness, the way we read an ancient author whose text was transmitted with a robust manuscript tradition through the middle ages. Instead, what we have are numerous scraps of material, excavated from the sands of Egypt, onto which ancient readers of Sappho had inscribed her words. Sappho is most famous for existing in shards of papyri, but here’s an example of one of her poems which survives today because it was written onto an ostrakon, a broken piece of ceramic:

PSI XIII 1300 (c. 200 BCE) containing Sappho fr. 2. Image: Sailko via Wikimedia (CC BY 3.0)

This bit of matter, whose text was first published in 1937 by Medea Norsa, is the reason why we can read what we call Sappho “fragment 2”, a poem which summons the goddess, Aphrodite, from the island of Crete into the presence of the poet. Significantly, this object was made in the 3rd or 2nd c. BCE — that is, several hundred years after the poem inscribed on its surface was originally composed. Here is another Sappho fragment, a scrap of papyrus whose text, published in 1951, contains parts of the famous poem known as “fragment 31.” This piece of papyrus was produced in the 2nd c. CE — even later than our Sappho ostrakon; indeed, this scrap of Sappho papyrus appeared almost a thousand years after the poem inscribed upon it was originally composed:

P. Oxy. 2288 (c. 200 CE) containing part of Sappho fr. 31. Image: Oxyrhynchus Online

You would be hard-pressed to find a piece of scholarship on fragmentation that does not make reference to the following etymology: the English word “fragment” comes from the Latin frangere, “to break”; therefore, the fragment is, in essence, “the broken thing.” When we contemplate these artefacts of Sappho, brokenness is certainly palpable — particularly in the case of our papyrus sliver, which preserves only a narrow column of Sappho 31. From this perspective, the fragment is not only broken, but broken off from its fuller text — symbolically representing its own partiality. Yet, as I mentioned a moment ago, fragmentation as a process takes place in two ways: the first is preservation through destruction; the second is enclosure, or textual embrace.

In fact, we can use Sappho to demonstrate this second dynamic as well. Returning to our ostrakon: this object gives us the fullest text of Sappho 2, but we actually already had parts of this poem before it was published in 1937, because two ancient authors had quoted her words and embedded them in their own works. Short literary quotations were made by Greek writers in the Roman era: Hermogenes of Tarsus (De Ideis 2.4) in the 2nd c. CE and Athenaeus (Deipnosophistae, 11.463e) in the 3rd c. CE. We can present this information visually:

(By the way, this little timeline is obviously not “to scale” chronologically(!), but it will do.) While Sappho’s text was available, broadly speaking, in antiquity, the way in which it has reached us is historically complex — the text that we have now, partial as it is, is the product of several different ancient mediations: someone wrote out the poem on a piece of pottery in Hellenistic Egypt, but we didn’t find that until somewhat recently; in the meantime, Greek writers in the Roman period copied small excerpts of Sappho into their own works, and as a result, carried Sappho with them along their own path of textual survival. Even though the Sappho we imagine belongs to archaic Greece — the Sappho we’ve got was produced by generations of her readers, many centuries after her own era.

Indeed, the fragments of Sappho that are the most famous — such as fragment 31 (φαίνεταί μοι…; “he seems to me equal to the gods”)— survive more fully than most other Sappho poems because they were preserved by textual embrace; that is, because they were quoted by later writers (again: Greek writers in the Roman era): Sappho 31 was quoted by the author of On the Sublime (10.1) in the 1st c. CE. It is a papyrus fragment of Sappho 31 which I showed you a moment ago; we can present this fragment’s history in visual form as well:

As it turns out, then, examination of Sappho’s textual history demonstrates the extent to which our knowledge of her poetry is mediated by the afterlife (that is: the reception) of her work: it is the fact that later ancient intellectuals became interested in annotating, commenting, and excerpting her work that gives us access to her poetry, even though it is this very history of intellectual practice that is also responsible for certain limitations upon that access.

Crucially, this process which I have just traced in the transmission history of Sappho occurs basically everywhere in the classical tradition. Texts which do not have their own independent manuscript tradition survive for us to read because they have been consciously folded into surviving works by ancient authors. Let me give you a Latin example as well. The works of the 2nd c. BCE Latin poet, Q. Ennius, were deeply influential on the poetry and indeed, the thought, of Roman intellectuals during the Ciceronian period, but Ennius’ works only now survives in fragments. Since material scraps of Latin books don’t survive in the way that ancient Greek books live on in scraps of papyri excavated from Egypt, we rely on the fact that later Latin writers excerpted verses of Ennius, to carry along in their own textual corpus.

Among the most significant excerptors of Ennius is Cicero, who, in the 1st c. BCE, preserved many fragments of Ennius (as well as poetic fragments of several other Latin — and Greek — authors) in his own textual body via the mechanism of citational embrace. Here is a manuscript of Cicero’s De Senectute/“On Old Age” (this 15th c. Italian manuscript is not one of the principals used to establish the text, but it is one which is digitally available; and it’s very nice to look at):

Arundel 124 f89 (15th century Italy) containing Cicero’s De Senectute: British Library

The first words of Cicero’s De Senectute are actually a poetic quotation from Ennius, from his epic, the Annales (Skutsch 337-339; 335; 336); and you can see that a user of this manuscript marked the quotation, writing “Ennius” in the right hand margin. This kind of textual enclosure — voices from earlier times encased in amber by ancient writers — is a fundamental and ubiquitous dynamic of ancient textuality, and in many cases we find ourselves face-to-face with not only one layer of embedding, but a series; enclosure upon enclosure, as intellectuals of each period recursively return to valued texts of the past.

PART II: FRAGMENTARY THINKING/THINKING FRAGMENTARILY

At this point, I basically want to ask: what can we learn about the ancient world, and the way we study the ancient world, by thinking about the fragment — or, by “thinking fragmentarily”? Here are a number of propositions:

1) The fragment by its very nature demonstrates the partiality of our understanding of the ancient world. When we look at a fragment of Sappho, or Ennius, we know that there is something missing, that there is a lack. That lack might have been produced by the randomness of papyrus disintegration; but it is also produced by the selectivity of our excerpting ancient sources: that is, we depend on what Hermogenes of Tarsus wants to show us of Sappho, what Cicero wants to show us of Ennius.

2) As a subset of the first point: the fragment testifies to the partiality of our vision, but it also, inevitably, gestures towards the fact that there were parts of the ancient world — big parts — that were never picked up by texts (and by “text” here, I really mean the ancient artefact in the broadest sense, from text to object to archaeological site) in the first place: the living, breathing parts, the spirit of culture and life which are only accessible or even scrutable to those who experience and contribute to it — the living ancients. The fullness of texts is, in essence, illusory. In reference to this phenomenon, Page DuBois (1995: 53) stated that “all texts are fragments.” That is, texts which survive fully — even if they give the impression of cultural capaciousness, and the possibility of being pressed through to the world which produced them — even these texts present only a partial vision. (This, incidentally, is why our interpretations of antiquity should probably not rely solely on piecing together textual evidence, but ideally will also use a theoretical framework; or at least, not rely on positivism when our sources are demonstrably partial.) When we consider the fact that the ability to produce text in antiquity is dependent upon the writer’s holding of power and social authority, we can appreciate the extent to which so many ancient experiences were not committed to textual form (viz. the relative scarcity of women’s writing; the suppressed narratives of slaves).

Even though fragments often live in the periphery of our discipline (it is only, really, quite recently in the history of the field that they have been studied and theorized as a historical phenomenon in their own right), it is important to remember that fragments, for the most part, represent something that was very famous in antiquity, but which is now difficult to access. Fragments made via enclosure — i.e. because they were quoted by ancient authors — are (generally) preserved precisely due to their authoritative status in antiquity: think of Hermogenes quoting Sappho, Cicero quoting Ennius. For the most part, then, what is contained within an ancient fragment was very famous at the time that the quotation (or enclosure) was made. Fragments interestingly exist as artefacts of inverse quality, depending on what historical point you are able to occupy: to the ancients, the material contained within what would later become a fragment was the most well known; to moderns, the least. Another nice example of this phenomenon is the commentary tradition to the comedies of Aristophanes, which contain a number of fragments of contemporary poets (e.g. the drinking songs of Praxilla of Sicyon; nos. 38 + 41 Balmer = schol. ad Thesm. 528; Wasps 1236); Aristophanes was parodying the most well known cultural touchstones of his day, demonstrating the vitality of the material towards which his plays gesture. If the fragment represents the transmission, via admittedly a complex mechanism, of mainstream information, we are left thinking — what kind of information wasn’t transmitted to us from antiquity?

3) Our understanding of antiquity is mediated, and it is entangled. When we consider the fact of enclosure as a dynamic of fragmentation — that is: when we consider the fact that our knowledge of some parts of antiquity depends on a textual frame — it is easy to be seduced into discarding that frame. In the history of the study of fragments, there have been many editors who wanted to throw away the text which surrounded the fragment: throw away Hermogenes, throw away Cicero, to get to the “pure” nugget within — the nugget of Sappho, the nugget of Ennius. However, in a significant number of cases, the fragment cannot be easily extricated from the framework which preserved it. Anne Carson (1992) has written about the deep entanglement of the fragment of Simonides (fr. 542) in Plato’s Protagoras (339a–346d); and there are many Latin verse fragments in the corpus of Cicero that are so deeply entangled with his prose that it is essentially impossible to separate them. The context of a fragment is, in fact, deeply valuable: not, necessarily, for the reconstitution, or reconstruction of the original, but as a demonstration of the development of ideas — the history of ideas. Again, the fragment forces us to see that our understanding of antiquity is remediated; and it entices us, as well, to value that remediation, rather than ignoring it entirely. As much as we may desire to access these texts in an unmediated fashion, removing fragments from the frames which hold them will not achieve that — and, in the meantime, risks discarding quite useful information about ancient intellectual history.

4) In theory, the fragment should, by its very nature, stand for alterity, heterodoxy, “otherness.” While the contents of fragments represent, to some extent, an ancient mainstream (see: (2)), they challenge modern reconstructions of antiquity which flatten out complex ancient landscapes with narrative oversimplification. Indeed, in important ways, fragmented material presents counternarrative to prevailing thought, especially the back projection of modern identity (straight, white, male) into antiquity: Sappho’s lyric, of course, resists heteronormative sexuality and presents the erotic as a legitimate metaphysic. The modern poet, Josephine Balmer, has explored the heterodox aspect of fragmentation in her recent poetry collection, The Paths of Survival (2017). In this set of poems, Balmer moves backwards in time, starting with the viewing of a papyrus fragment — this one:

P. Oxy. 2256, fr. 55 (c. 300 CE) containing part of Aeschylus’ Myrmidons. Image: Oxyrhynchus Online

— of Aeschylus’ Myrmidons in the Sackler Library, working through each successive moment of rediscovery and loss, back to Aeschylus himself. Aeschylus’ Myrmidons, in which Achilles and Patroclus were explicitly lovers (see: fragments 135-137; cf. Plato Symp. 180a), famously speaks of gay love with the voice of one of antiquity’s most severe authorities. In The Paths of Survival (2017: 22-23), Balmer dramatizes the rediscovery of a papyrus fragment of the Myrmidons, set against the criminalization of homosexuality under fascism in Italy:

“And then, like the first flicker of smoking fire, slow to take,
I found a tattered word: Antelexa:
My heart turned over. I knew it:
speak out. oppose. dissent.

Later there came confirmation
from the professors in Florence;
I had unearthed a precious sliver
of Aeschylus’ lost Myrmidons

a new sigh from a long silence:
A stifled cry shuddering back:
Enough is enough. No more slander,
no more slurs to crush the tongue.
Time now to protest, to dissent
.

A point of no return. The moment
all the lies might start to shatter”

In the face of fascist neoclassicism, Balmer figures the rediscovery of a scrap of papyrus as a riot; a shattered object which in turn shatters the contemporary construction of reality: in the face of fascist persecution, a fragment of antiquity speaks to the essential legitimacy of homosexuality. This, I think, is the power of the fragment: it presents a challenge. Narratives of the present can be disrupted by fragments of the past.

At the same time, while the ancient fragment disrupts modernity’s conceptions of itself, it does not do so in a manner of simple correspondence. In an Eidolon article from 2018, Sasha Barish reflects upon the extent to which Latin literature reflects the transgender experience. While Barish meditates upon Ovid (rather than a fragmentary text), his words, in my view, reflect “fragmentary thinking”:

“I realized that I loved reading ancient Roman literature around the time I realized I was transgender, and I don’t think the timing was coincidental. I was trans and in high school, and I appreciated Latin poetry not only for its philological beauty but also because it came to me, unabashedly and without explanation, from a different time and from an alien culture. I watched two sets of social rules unfold in parallel. Gender roles existed in the ancient texts, but they were different from what I saw in the world around me. Men fell in love with men, and to some that was nobler than loving girls. Women weren’t supposed to fight in battle, but sometimes they did. Opposite-sex couples had once been individuals existing outside of the gender binary.”

While Barish here demonstrates the power of ancient literature to activate alternatives to dominant narratives, he goes on to make it clear that Ovid’s depiction of gender dynamics is not a one-for-one correspondence to modern experiences. At the same time, Barish recognizes Ovid’s ability to describe a sense of dysphoria which he can relate to, even though Ovid did not intend his words to connote transgender experiences:

“What’s more, I have been able to find a psychological connection between the poem and my own transgender experience—just not in the places I’d expected. The Metamorphoses actually contains some of my favorite pre-modern descriptions of what I’d call dysphoria — psychological, body dysphoria — only it’s never applied to gender.”

That is, even though the fragment can reveal possibilities of human experience that are hidden, sometimes deliberately hidden, from us, it is not simply that the fragment, as a thing that has survived against the odds, testifies to such experiences directly; instead, the fragment may do the work of alterity simply by being a data point that is difficult to deal with, difficult to fit into the narrative of history as it currently stands. We have an option here of saying either: no, this piece of information does not belong with what we already have; or we can say: yes, this piece of information is valuable because it complexifies what we have — places our other texts and objects in higher relief. Part of what I think of as “fragmentary thinking” includes the possibility of expanding our field of vision to include the data point of the fragment alongside what we think we already know, in order to deliberately broaden and complexify the range and depth of our knowledge. The fragment places everything else in higher relief.

5) Fragmentary thinking helps us reconsider the effects of canonization on the wiring of our discipline’s mind. It is, of course, significant that the ancients created a series of canons — that they hierarchized their ideas and their texts; we do not need to erase the fact of those structures. But we can, I think, resist the focus which canonization of texts and ideas produces, to lift our eyes from this tightly defined field of vision. Fragmentary thinking moves us away from the acceptance of canons as natural or neutral by allowing small details to carry as much weight as large structures. Here, I would bring in the work of the 19th c. sociologist, Georg Simmel, whose theory of fragmentation attributed significance to every distinct aspect of human experience, no matter how small. In the Sociology of the Senses (1907: 1026; trans. Frisby 2013: 55), Simmel writes:

“On every day, at every hour, such threads are spun, are allowed to fall, are taken up again, replaced by others, intertwined with others. Here lie the interactions — only accessible through psychological microscopy — between the atoms of society which bear the whole tenacity and elasticity, the whole colourfulness and unity of this so evident and so puzzling life of society.”

While fragments are often conceptualized partitively — that is: as parts of wholes (w-h-o-l-e-s), wholes that are missing — Simmel considered the fragment in abstract as the gateway to the perception of totality. In Sociological Aesthetics (1896; trans. Frisby 2013: 57), Simmel writes:

“To the adequately trained eye, the total beauty, the total meaning of the world as a whole radiates from every single point.”

In such a conceptualization, each individual fragment of antiquity in its own way opens up a portal to totality: from such a perspective, a fragment of Sappho is as important as a Platonic dialogue; a fragment of Ennius as important as Virgil’s Aeneid, principally because it signifies its own position, and because it signifies the relationality of its position. In the meantime, such a distributive theoretical maneuvre allows us to stand back at a distance to observe the contours and the greater shape that each individual piece together presents; to observe the space between things, as well as the space between ourselves and the ancient: in sum, to appreciate a sense of relationality as well as distance.

6) Our understanding of antiquity is not direct; there is a critical distance between us and the ancient world. And that distance is, in fact, data. By virtue of our desire for antiquity, and by virtue of some of our scholarly practices, we often create a false image of antiquity’s unmediated persistence. Take, for example, this image depicting the conservation of a black figure lekythos, recently tweeted by the Boston MFA:

White ground, black figure lekythos (c. 500 BCE) in the Boston MFA (99.526). Images detailing modern repairs tweeted by the Boston MFA.

Such an image, unintentionally, presents a narrative that broken things can be fixed; damage can be healed; wholeness can be restored: antiquity is still here. It makes me think of the end of a poem by Adrienne Rich (“Meditations for a Savage Child II”; 1973: 58):

“these scars bear witness
but whether to repair
or to destruction
I no longer know”

Just as I want to insist upon the value of seeing fragments nested within the texts which transmit them, I also want to insist upon the value of presenting the image of broken things as broken — the image on the far left in this triptych. While these may seem to be maneuvres which pull in different directions, each gesture illuminates the journey that ancient materials have taken — whether that means that they have been damaged and have fallen apart, or that they have been swallowed by a subsequent moment in history. These kinds of meditations allow the distance between ourselves and our objects of study to remain present. Despite the fact that the romanticism of loss is a rhetorical component of Classicism, the fact of that loss, or distance, must remain an essential element of our theoretical toolkit, so that self-reflexivity, and awareness of relationality, inform scholarly analysis.

We sometimes act as though we somehow have a direct line to antiquity, that we have our noses pressed right up against the glass. That we can see the ancient world clearly, without interpretative or cultural bias. Other times, we make universalizing claims about ancient material: telling our students (and ourselves) that Greek tragedy, for example, contains the essence of humanity. Classics as a field has, of course, contributed significantly to the definition of “humanity” as a concept (which is distinct from “humanity” as an entity); the BA that I received from Oxford is not called “Classics” but literae humaniores, “more human studies” — implying, apparently, that by virtue of that education my knowledge of humanity is complete. In the US, the situation is much the same: take, for example, the definition of “humanity” made by the famed Commission of the Humanities (sponsored in part by the ACLS) in 1964:

“The humanities may be regarded as a body of knowledge and insight, as modes of expression, as a program for education, as an underlying attitude toward life. The body of knowledge is usually taken to include the study of history, literature, the arts, religion, and philosophy. The fine and the performing arts are modes of expressing thoughts and feelings visually, verbally, and aurally. The method of education is one based on the liberal tradition we inherit from classical antiquity. The attitude toward life centers on concern for the human individual: for his emotional development, for his moral, religious, and aesthetic ideas, and for his goals — including in particular his growth as a rational being and a responsible member of his community.”‘

The definition of humanities as ultimately deriving from Classics (or at least, Classicism), reveals itself to be woefully inadequate in this very description, centred as it is, firstly, on the needs of the individual (rather than the community); secondly, on the male individual. Humanity as an entity has obviously always been more multi-faceted than the way that “humanity” as a concept is here defined. What we reckon with here is a two-fold problem defined: firstly, by the insistence that the Greco-Roman tradition should be the measure of humanism, and as result, a measure of humanity; secondly, the retrojection of our own values back into antiquity, presenting the relationship between the classical world and the modern world (in specifically this case, the US) as a direct line. The dynamism of the fragment, testifying, as it does, to the complexities, the partialities, and the gaps in the transmission of ancient knowledge, is itself again a challenge: this time to the very possibility of revivifying of ancient values, of bringing them back to life. At the same time, we can also appreciate the fact that the selectivity required to define the concept of humanity so narrowly represents a further stage of fragmentation; testifying, crucially, to the fact that fragmentation is an ongoing process in which we are all still taking part.

PART III: PAST, PRESENT, FUTURE

And, of course, it must be directly acknowledged that this definition of humanity, dependent upon classical invocation, has had indisputably violent consequences. For example, as Phiroze Vasunia (2013: 240) has discussed, the British colonial presence in India in the 19th century imagined itself as a “civilizing” force by invoking Classics as the precedent for rule: Robert Needham Cust, a British administrator and judge, wrote in his autobiography (1899: 17) that when he “found [him]self” (as though it were some kind of accident!) “helping to rule Millions in their hundreds of towns and thousands of villages” he could not help but think of Aeneid 6.851-8, which, of course, ends with: parcere subiectis (“spare the conquered”) and debellare superbos (“strike down the haughty”). Edith Hall (2013) described the infamous “Rivers of Blood” (1968) speech by the Conservative MP, Enoch Powell — which quoted Aeneid Book 6 (again; 6.86-7) to incite racial hatred against immigrants — as the moment when “classical literature was put to its most shameful use in the history of British oratory.”

Examples of such invocations of antiquity for modern hatred — where elitism meets racism, sexism, homophobia etc.; that is to say, denials of humanity — are plentiful. The consequences of these historical examples are still with us, and fresh examples are made every day. As modern America roils in the face of violence against Black people, typified, but not limited to, the police murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, we cannot forget the notorious anecdote, discussed by Emily Greenwood (2011: 163), which was attributed to John C. Calhoun, who served as Vice President of the United States (1825-1832); Calhoun reportedly measured the humanity of Black people by their knowledge of Classics, saying:

“if he could find a Negro who knew the Greek syntax, he would then believe that the Negro was a human being and should be treated as a man.”

There are some in the field of Classics who might say: these were utterances made by politicians, not by us; this isn’t us. This is where I want to insist upon the lessons that we learn from the fragment. The fragment says: I am made by reception, I am made by recursive return, I am made by invocation. The fragment says: my life is very long and I mutate as I age; my lifespan represents the intellectual history of ancient ideas; my afterlife is threaded through, entangled with, cannot be separated from, the very history which informs your intellectual and social life. The fragment says: more things are connected than you are currently willing to see.

When Ian Goh asked me to speak as a part of this series — which is called “relevant Classics” — I couldn’t help but think: I have heard anxiety surrounding the extent of Classics’ “relevance” since I myself was a beginning Latin student. The question of “relevance” is deeply interconnected with the perception, and the fact, of Classics’ inherent elitism. For a long time, in both the UK and the US, the study of Latin and Greek was deliberately designed as a programme of elite self-signification; put another way: the elitism in Classics was, quite frankly, the point. Even though the circularity of elitism (study Latin to be elite; elites study Latin) is (maybe) slowly coming apart, the structures erected by the history of this kind of thinking, this curricular design, this hierarchy of access, nonetheless remain. This summer, Dani Bostick published an article in AJP — “Not For All: Nostalgic Distortions as a Weapon of Segregation in Secondary Classics” — which stressed the fact of the Latin classroom as a racialized environment in modern America. Bostick writes (2020: 284):

“While racialized barriers to Classics persist, segregation is euphemistically described as low enrollment; systemic cultural failures are blamed on poor marketing, external trends in education, and regressive pedagogy; and proposed solutions to deeper problems often ignore race, as if all students encountered the same barriers.”

Bostick goes on (correctly, in my view) to pinpoint a nostalgia — or desire — for antiquity as a vital mechanism of the segregated classroom. Bostick (2020: 290) notes the consequence of the nostalgia-driven mentality to classical education as a kind of self-mythologizing which facilitates the acceptance of racially segregated environments: Classics is “for” some people, and not for others. If Classics’ relevance has been defined in relation to its usefulness for such self-mythologizing, then it certainly makes sense that its “relevance” would now feel like it is waning. Amongst all of the claims that we could make about why any student should study the ancient world, we have repeatedly chosen to assert the primacy of our own hierarchical relationships — both to each other, and to the ancient material. In the meantime, even though we market Classics as a way to develop historical consciousness, we habitually turn a blind eye to how we arrived here. The field of Classics is ever mindful of its own relationship to the past (or “a past”, or “some pasts”): the ancient past which we study, and the more recent past which established the frameworks of such study. We keep the past and the present in steady dialogue, but what we also need is a futurist mentality. Futurism requires a sober apprehension of our intellectual history, its consequences. Turning away from material circumstances that we don’t think we’ve caused, while still upholding the systems that created such circumstances, is a mistake.

In this context, “fragmentary thinking”/“thinking fragmentarily” is, I argue, a helpful practice, in that it is inherently self-reflexive and inherently deconstructive. It is a mindset which simultaneously apprehends the complexity of the intellectual tradition while minimizing the kind of romanticism which imagines the ancient to be here with us still in a form that is somehow: perfectly present, perfectly whole, and perfectly understood. The fragment testifies the partiality of our understanding of the ancient world; it points to losses on the micro level as well as on the macro level, allowing us to question to what extent our textual picture of antiquity could ever present a totality such as the one that modern self-mythologizing would need as a foundation. The fragment demonstrates the mediated and entangled nature of our ancient understanding: ancient knowledge is transmitted through a number of filters, which testifies both to the ancient tradition’s tendency to loop back upon itself, as well as to the indirectness of our cultural understanding. The fragment stands for alterity and otherness: not only because fragmentary material often contains challenges to what is found in the mainstream, but in the fact of its potential to represent data which cannot be easily reconciled with what we already know. While the fragment itself is, to a significant extent, representative of canonization, fragmentary thinking can help to loose the hold of canonical thinking, within which texts gain greatest weight by virtue of the doctrine of “survival of the fittest.” Finally, and crucially, I think: the fragment, in all these ways, illuminates distance; it communicates the journey which ancient knowledge has taken to reach us, and, as a result, it plants us historically in our own position, here in modernity. THANK YOU.

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#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.

How to teach

Note: Feel free to pick and choose from what follows; some things will appeal or seem helpful to you, others not so much. When it comes to teaching, given the personal nature of it, you yourself will develop best practices from your own readings, explorations, and experience. Long story short, what follows is not prescriptive.

1) introductory remarks re the ethos of teaching, emphasizing the role of the personal in the teaching persona

2) brief outline of responsibilities in student safety/wellbeing (title IX, immigrant students); be sensitive + mindful with your language

3) a basic structure of a “lesson” plan; suggestions how to plan a lesson, how to create discussion; how teaching languages requires different kinds of planning and structure

  • for language instruction: 
    • handouts for Wheelock: http://www.wheelockslatin.com/wheelocksteacherguide.html 
    • have specific daily lessons dictated by the textbook; e.g. one chapter of Wheelock a session is a good pace
      • first part of class introduce new material, second part of class use practice sentences with students to solidify that material
    • for language instruction testing is an important and useful way to make sure students commit to memorizing vocabulary/internalizing constructions; I usually do two a week:
      • one short quiz just on vocabulary/principal parts [an example];
      • one more substantial test on material covered in class that week [an example] (both egs from Latin 2 class taught 2015).
    • take at least one session a week to read a longer passage with your students so that they can get used to longer translation
    • try to foster a good group dynamic with your Latin students; one idea is to make them a facebook group, so that they can arrange study sessions together (I did this and it was very successful)
    • if you can, it can be nice to offer extra credit reading sessions outside of class, where students can come and sight read Latin together with you in an informal (but rewarded) setting
    • here is the structure I use for beginning Latin language instruction (can be adapted for different schedule)

Monday: vocab quiz (10 mins) + go over homework (a longer passage from Wheelock, or from 38 Latin Stories)
Tuesday: chapter of Wheelock
Wednesday: chapter of Wheelock
Thursday: weekly test (15-20 mins) + read a longer passage from Wheelock

  • for discussion section:
    • set the tone for discussion sections by setting up rules and expectations up front (don’t take for granted that students know how to disagree respectfully!)
    • structure the class around specific questions which have arisen out of the course lectures
    • but don’t be afraid to bring in external material from outside the classroom to generate discussion

    • try to engage all students by having a variety of possible formats (small group, pair, written)

    • ask individual questions, specifically varying Bloom’s taxonomy

    • offer support for developing paper assignment ideas 

    • have a handout/powerpoint with specific texts or images which you discuss together with your students; giving your students material to respond to which is immediately in front of them can help break the silence
    • split your students into groups to discuss specific passages of text or images
    • have your students submit questions to you ahead of time for discussion
    • have your students use an online forum format to discuss the week’s material in advance (an example: Miranda Butler’s use of tumblr and blackboard)
    • have your students do short (5 min) presentations on primary materials
    • show your students excerpts of other media (audio, video) which relate to ancient material; can be helpful for helping imagination and creating inroads, e.g. this video taken by someone walking to the Purpose Built Lupanar in Pompeii demonstrates the narrowness of space; or this video of the Nikandre Kore demonstrates the surprising slimness of the statue, and what it looks like in its museum context

4) brief overview of digital tools/resources:

5) brief overview of pedagogy bibliography/other resources:

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).

The Latin dictionary — digital or physical?

Welsh Latin dictionary 1632, John Davis Mallwyd.JPG
Welsh-Latin dictionary 1632, John Davis Mallwyd (wikimedia)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Digital humanity?

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

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.

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.

 

Twitter for Classicists

In December 2016, a post appeared on the Society for Classical Studies’ blog, co-authored by myself and Dr. Hamish Cameron (@peregrinekiwi), on how to live tweet academic conferences (such as the annual meeting of the SCS) and why you might want to do so. I wanted to take the opportunity to reflect here on what I find so important and valuable about academic twitter more broadly.

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The ‘twitter’ of ancient birds was associated with speech; 7th c. BCE Etruscan inkwell inscribed with the 26 letters of the Etruscan alphabet (The Met).

Every now and then an opinion piece appears online in which an academic denigrates the use of social media by other scholars. One of these pieces, which appeared in the Guardian in August 2016 – “I’m a serious academic, not a professional Instagrammer” – used the unfortunate phrase “serious academic” (as in, I am a “serious academic” and therefore do not use social media), sparking the #seriousacademic hashtag on twitter, where the idea that engaging with the internet is somehow against the academic creed was immediately undercut and lampooned. (The #seriousacademic hashtag is still alive and well, by the way, still being used to publicize the joy and humour of scholars on twitter.) The most recent attack – “Quit Social Media – Your Career May Depend on It” – appeared online with the New York Times in mid November 2016. Not only did I see this piece make the rounds on twitter, it was, the next day, advertised to me on facebook (which seems like a conflict of interest for facebook). One of the arguments of this second piece is that social media services such as twitter limit your productivity.

But productivity is not the only metric by which to measure the success of your intellectual life. And “productive” intellectual life is one which is enriched by many voices. A life in which you listen as much as you broadcast. One of the aspects of twitter which has become most important to me is that it provides incitements towards plurality of perspective, and enticements towards empathy. Twitter’s strength is that it’s as much about listening as it is about speaking – as much about conversation as it is about lecture. I follow a lot of professional accounts of academics who are women, people of colour, and/or part of the LGBTQ+ community. These are the kinds of scholars – and people – who have historically been marginalized in the academic environment as well as in the world at large, but whose strength of voice has now helped to lead the humanities in more vibrant, diverse, and interesting directions than ever. One of the sentences in “Quit Social Media” reads: “Professional success is hard, but it’s not complicated.” For many academics, professional success is hard and it is complicated. And it’s not a coincidence that the scholars who have historically been out of place in traditional contexts have found a home on social media. 

The internet is not a material world in the traditional sense – it’s a world of ideas, of information, of communication. The internet is increasingly where we store, organize, and discover our knowledge. We learn more about our “real” world than ever from the internet – from news outlets, from social media. And post-election, many of us are beginning to distrust news outlets, which feel monolithic, sluggish, uncritical in the face of the right wing’s ascent. The problematic state of public knowledge has reached new heights recently. On the one hand, we’ve seen the proliferation of fake news, with especially facebook’s failure to curb its spread. Hand in hand with the rise of disinformation: a rise in the inability to critically discern truth from falsehood. The Wall Street Journal recently published an article detailing a study from Stanford University which revealed that school-age students in the US have a hard time distinguishing good news sources from bad, real from fake. (One of the causes put forward by WSJ is the modern dearth of school librarians, who used to teach pupils source criticism.) On the other hand, we’ve seen a fear of experts arise in both the UK and the US, a dread of institutional authorities. The result: widespread belief in the untrue and distrust in the ostensible guardians of truth. A state of affairs which contributed to the two disastrous votes of 2016: Brexit in June and the American presidential election in November. I was in Glasgow, Manchester, Dublin in the days before and after Brexit; I was in Los Angeles when the presidential election happened – and it was twitter that helped me start to make any possible sense of these events. 

In this age of disinformation, the skills of criticism which are fundamental to academic work seem more important than ever. The current political climate in the west has seen a rupture between public and private knowledge. The internet is a wide, big place. Universities, on the other hand, are closed spaces. Academic thought is often proprietary. There are barriers that keep knowledge within walls, within heads, within books. Who gets to know things? Who gets to exert the authority of knowledge? How and when does expertise matter? These are political questions now. And the internet is the site of this struggle of different kinds of knowledge. In this context, being an academic on twitter becomes less about managing a personal brand – or “cultural shallowness” (“Quit Social Media”) –  and more about ethics. In a world where critical thought is needed more than ever, scholars should be part of the conversation. And the conversation is happening on social media. I’m not saying that we’re the only ones who should be doing this. But what I am saying is that, given the often lifelong commitments to research, to teaching, and to mentorship that are part of our profession – why are we not already part of the conversation?  

Whenever I teach – especially large GE classes, where there are up to 200 students, most of whom aren’t Classics majors or minors – I think about how I can be a role model for young women. When I started teaching, I was in my early twenties – barely older than some of my students. It was important to me then, and it’s important to me now, that young women – and men – get to see women engaged in intellectual and cultural work. Twitter is an extension of this for me – it’s a question of representation. Performing my identity as a woman and an academic, engaging with technology, engaging with an audience, being heard, being willing to listen – these, for me, are part of being a positive role model. This is important to me. Probably because I myself have always been looking for role models. I’ve been in educational environments which defaulted to the masculine. I’ve been told, at different institutions, as an undergraduate and a graduate student, to “write like a man” (!; L’ecriture feminine, anyone?).  I want to demonstrate that intellectual and creative authority is not situated in masculinity, but in dedication, passion. Twitter is one of the venues where breaking past traditional models feels closer to possibility. 

In the modern era, Classics has been fixated with the question of its “relevance”. Classics’ anxiety over communicating its relevance has been part of my experience as a classicist from the beginning. The word “relevance” has been repeated so much, that it seems to lose its meaning, to itself lose its relevance. What the question of relevance has asked of Classics is whether the field is capable of demonstrating its value in a world which does not find the value of classical education self-evident. As we change and as we grow more inclusive, we see different things in the ancient world. Different aspects of the ancient world become more important to us. Technology opens new doors (Homeric scholarship may itself be thousands of years old, but think about how new the field of papyrology is.) There’s nothing irrelevant about the study of language, art, literature, culture, history. Demonstrating and representing pluralism is not irrelevant in the face of political, social, intellectual monoliths.  What makes it harder to see the value of Classics is the decision to close off a world of learning from a broader audience. And this is where taking steps to make your knowledge public becomes ethical action. 

On twitter, I follow lots of different kinds of people. Academics from different fields, facing similar questions, using similar methodology, show me how elements of my own work run through other areas of the humanities. I’m also exposed to different questions, different methodologies. I follow classicists, medievalists, sociologists, linguists, scholars of digital humanities, librarians, archivists, etc.; I follow writers I respect from inside and outside academia. I follow accounts from all over the world – I get a sense of which issues are important in many locations, which issues are more important in specific countries. I’m from the UK but I’ve lived in the US for a number of years now; on twitter I can live in a globalized world that understands this kind of cultural straddling. And part of what twitter has encouraged in me is an embrace of all the elements of my identity that add up to the totality of being a scholar, including more personal and subjective experiences. Some of my tweets are strictly about my research (since I work on literary fragments, I especially revel in publicizing understudied material). Many of my tweets, though, are about what my life is like as an academic – my daily routines, my professional successes, sometimes even my setbacks. Other academics on twitter respond strongly to this – there’s a warm scholarly community on twitter ready to commiserate and congratulate. 

Notes from the classroom: Cicero and the genre of biography

I have mixed feelings about the genre of biography. I read recently that as a boy Napoleon used to hide away in the library of the Royal Military school of Brienne-le-Château and read the ancient biographers (Roberts 2015:12). His favourites were Plutarch’s Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. This is not exactly a surprising thing to read about Napoleon – his early obssession with Caesar never left him. In March of 1790, for example, as Napoleon was writing his own history of Corsica, he spent his evenings rereading passages of Caesar’s Bellum Gallicum, and committing pages of it to memory (ibid: 31).

It is precisely the image of Napoleon obsessing over Caesar that makes me uncomfortable about biography. Biography seems to me to generate a feeling of either veneration or voyeurism in its readers, and I find it hard to reconcile this with a scholarly mindset. In certain places and times, the lives of famous men were written precisely to be emulated. But I want to believe that we’ve made it past the need to study “great men” precisely because of their “greatness”, which usually has more than something to do with imperialism, colonialism, or cultural chauvinism. But the fact is that these texts which we use were made by people with personalities and lives – and there’s something to be said for trying to find a satisfying way of discussing that fact without falling into fanaticism.

So when a colleague of mine asked if I would come and speak to her Ancient Lives class about Cicero, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to think through these ideas with her students. This particular class had been asked to read Plutarch’s Life of Cicero, specifically Rex Warner’s 1958 translation with Penguin, given notes and introduction by Robin Seager in 1972. As it happened, the students in this class had never really encountered Cicero before, and their first exposure to him was through Plutarch’s biography. The idea of encountering a figure like Cicero for the first time through an intermediary was interesting to me. We have so much extant Cicero that Cicero usually speaks for himself. When Shackleton-Bailey wrote his biography of Cicero in 1970, he chose essentially to allow Cicero to speak for himself by quoting huge swathes of text from Cicero’s letters, interspersing these translated passages with the biographical narrative. Since at least John Dugan’s Making a New Man (2005), Ciceronians and classicists generally have been pretty comfortable with the idea of rhetorical “self-fashioning” – that is to say, we know that Cicero was always reworking his image in his literary publications, and as a result we know that we have to be careful at taking certain things which Cicero says about himself at face value.

And so, given the size and complexity of the Ciceronian corpus, it’s interesting to have an ancient account that makes Cicero a singularity using the sources which we still have, as well as the ones which we will never even know we’ve lost. But although Plutarch puts Cicero in the state of being an object, objectivity is not really the aim of biography, nor is it the outcome. With Plutarch, we get an ancient opportunity to reflect on Cicero’s self-representation and how that representation was received by an audience which is already historically removed. We have something in common with Plutarch, in that he also only had Cicero in a textual form. I asked the students to consider Petrarch’s shock at uncovering Cicero’s letters in 1345 and his inability to reconcile the spirit of philosophy with the grimy reality of his being a human person. “It is true, Cicero,…that you did live as a man, you did speak as an orator, you did write as a philosopher. It was your life with which I found fault,” (De rebus familiaribus 24.4). This is a nice example of the disjuncture which biographical knowledge (if you can call it knowledge) introduces; that faith can be rescinded from an author whose text is venerated due to his biography begs for an assessment of what one should be doing with the text in the first place. I asked the students also to consider Theodor Mommsen’s 19th c. criticism of Cicero as cowardly and constitutionally indifferent for his execution of the Catilinarians. Both Petrarch and Mommsen were reacting against Cicero in worlds where the lives of the ancients were to be venerated and taught as examples – their disappointments and disgust in Cicero were still essentially rooted in a biographical view of this figure, even if that view was still developing.

Further reading: Ironically, my readings on Napoleon come from an (excellent) biography of Napoleon by Andrew Roberts. This irony accounts for my initial comment about having mixed feelings regarding biography. As for responses to Cicero in the Renaissance and the 19th c., there are good chapters by David Marsh and Nicholas Cole in the 2013 Cambridge Companion to Cicero.