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. 

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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.