Ancient. This week I was in New York visiting the Classics department at NYU. On Thursday (5th March 2020), I talked about my primary research interest at the moment, Cicero and the Latin poets. Big shoutout to the NYU Classics grad students who invited me and are doing very important work right now to make the field more inclusive. Handout to the talk below:
While in New York, as well as stopping in at ISAW, I headed over to the Guggenheim, which is currently showing a very interesting exhibit, “Countryside, The Future” by AMO/Rem Koolhaas. This is an installation which looks at the earth from a global perspective and underlines the necessity that human beings living right now closely examine our relationship with the ecosystems into which we have inserted ourselves. It’s an ambitious and important project which turns the interior of a major art museum in one of the most monumental and complex cities on the planet into a microcosm of what’s happening outside of cities right now around the world.
A careful observer will find a number of classical referents throughout this exhibit. The invocation of the Roman concept of otium (i.e. time off from duty) in the countryside, paired with the contemporary ancient Chinese idea of xiaoyao (“blissful repose”), represents, for the creators of this exhibit, moments of human history where reverence for the creative and contemplative spaces of the countryside facilitated respect for its rhythms and boundaries. In the modern era, they suggest, these ideas of restful contemplation have developed into intensely rapacious spatial practices, where the natural world is cannibalized under a commodified idea of “wellness.” The inclusion of ancient testimonia in this exhibit does something that Classicists often fail to do — namely, to situate our understanding of antiquity in broader movements of not only textual transmission, but environmental processes. Naturally, there’s a sense of urgency to this exhibit. (And I experienced it through a further layer of complexity — walking around with hundreds of other people while holding within me anxiety surrounding the spread of the coronavirus.)
Modern. So here’s a question which I find myself struggling to answer. Are academics allowed to “be themselves”? An unspoken aspect of scholarly training is that, in addition to developing the various skills and deepening your research interests, you are also expected to internalize certain social practices and academic ways of being. I have already written about how much I despise the “professor” trope in pop culture — one that, sadly, is consciously reenacted by some flesh and blood professors, who present themselves to the world with horn-rimmed glasses and elbow patches despite the fact that they are 35 years old. Listen. It’s not actually the aesthetic that I have a problem with. It’s the fact that this is a costume which we feel that we have to put on to do our jobs properly, to be taken seriously as scholars, even to be identified as scholars.
The trouble, of course, is that if you don’t look and sound a very particular way, it’s impossible to bridge that gap. I’m a younger woman and even if I put on some elbow patched tweed, it would still never be enough for some people to ascribe intellectual power to me. This happens to women, of course, and it happens if you’re not white, if you deviate in any way from perceived gender norms, etc. etc. (Actually, this brings up an old New York memory. I was walking in Central Park when an English woman, who turned out to be an academic, asked me directions which I, of course, couldn’t give. When she realized I was visiting too, she asked if I was a student. “No,” I said, “I’m a Classics professor. I gave a lecture at Columbia last night.”)
And obviously the academic “costume” goes far beyond dress — it includes what your interests are, how you talk, and, basically, everything about how you interface with the world. Okay, so. Given that there is no physical way that I can present myself in the form which is considered authoritative, my question is this: will people want to hear from me in the way that it is natural for me to communicate? I have come from my own particular circumstances, had my own particular experiences, and all of these things, of course, have an impact on my intellectual powers. So to some extent denying what comes natural to me in order to constrict myself into a very confined space, one which I could never fully occupy anyway, is not just a moral problem but also an intellectual one. Scholarship wants — or it should want — intellectual plurality. This makes the work more interesting, and, frankly, it makes it better. But it’s going to be hard to achieve this if we keep constricting ourselves into these artificial shapes in order to be identified as a scholar in the first place. It’s going to be hard, but we — all of us — have to do some work to widen our field of vision, and put effort into consciously ascribing authority to those whose faces, bodies, and voices do not look or sound like the models of the past.
Excerpt. Will Allen, The Good Food Revolution (p18): “Farming had taught me to have trust in the unseen. You plant for a harvest that you hope will arrive but that is never guaranteed. The opening of Will’s Roadside Farm Market required a similar kind of faith. I hoped it would be rewarded. Yet farming had also taught me to expect the unexpected. Two days of heavy rains could wash away a crop that you had worked on for weeks. A cruel drought could choke your plants, and they would come up stunted or withered. I didn’t know yet what would become of my dream.”
Daily life. A different writing perspective than usual.
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.
We’ve been speaking a lot about Classics outreach lately. And most agree that “outreach” – in the sense of a one-sided “reaching out” – is not quite the right term anymore. Alison Innes (@InnesAlison) recently argued for the term “engagement” rather than “outreach”, since engagement suggests a notion of exchange rather than the flow of knowledge in only one direction. The preference for engagement over outreach has been visible for a while — this was the takeaway from the “New Outreach and Communications for Classics” panel at the 2017 SCS, where speakers described community projects: teaching Latin to kindergarteners, high schoolers; working through Homer with combat veterans; connecting classicists outside of academia. The notion of outreach as engagement and collaboration is also at the core of the new Classics and Social Justice group, which wants to bring Classics to the least privileged in society. There have been some questions lately about whether or not twitter can be a useful tool for Classics engagement — in this debate, I stand firmly on the side that sees the value in twitter. There is much more to “outreach” than can be accomplished by social media alone, but it’s still a valuable place to start.
I use twitter in my scholarly persona — I tweet about my research, I live tweet conferences, I interact with other academics and non-academics interested in Classics, I find news about my discipline on twitter. If I were teaching right now (I have a research fellowship), I would be using it in the classroom. But I wanted to learn more about academic twitter from a scholarly perspective – to learn how it’s studied as a social phenomenon by academics. For this, I turned to sociologist Mark Carrigan’s (@mark_carrigan) book which came out last year, Social Media for Academics.
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.
POTUS' troubling use of twitter should encourage scholars *now* to get to grips with twitter, its powers and its implications for knowledge
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 narrowcasting, defined 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:
@opietasanimi Not to mention a placeholder for future leads that I don't have time for at the moment.
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.
Literary fragments are not easy to access, and are often difficult to make much sense of. But for those who are interested in Roman Republican literature, the majority of the works of which we know are fragmentary. In this blog post I list the known titles of the following Roman playwrights from the 3rd to 1st centuries BCE: Livius Andronicus, Gnaeus Naevius, Plautus, Caecilius Statius, Quintus Ennius, Marcus Pacuvius, Terence, Lucius Accius, Trabea, Atilius, Sextus Turpilius, Titinius, Lucius Afranius, T. Quinctius Atta.
If I give no English equivalent for a title, the title is the name of a character in a play (e.g. Andromacha = “Andromacha”, like “Hamlet”), or sometimes a place (Naevius’ Clastidium, named after the victory over the Celts at Clastidium by M. Marcellus in 222 B.C.E).
Lucius Livius Andronicus Tarentum 3rd century BCE; b. 290?
Odusia, “Odyssey,” in Saturnians. Latin translation of the Odyssey. Warmington II:24-43.
Petrarch Letter to Cicero, Letter to Cicero (Rerum famil., XXIV, 3) On paper Italy, second half of the 15th century Mellon MS 14, ff. 39v – 40r
The Fall of the Roman Republic Six Lives Plutarch Introduction by: Robin Seager Translator: Rex Warner Notes by: Robin Seager
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.