Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Who does Classics? Where?

David Bamman's presentation was only one of several high points at last week's meeting at Tufts University on "Greek, Latin, Arabic." We heard from the Alpheios project about recent development of their language learning tools. I'm thrilled to be using alpheios this fall both as a teacher of intermediate Latin and a student of first-semester Arabic, but what continues to impress me most about the project is the thoughtfulness of its architecture. The lexica (such as Liddell-Scott-Jones for Greek, and Lewis-Short for Latin) and linguistic information (very comprehensive morphological analyses, and for some sets of texts, syntactic tree banks of the kind David Bamman's research uses) are cleanly organized as services that are accessible over the internet. If there is another project in the digital humanities that has grasped this fundamental architectural principle as clearly as the Alpheios project has, I'm not familiar with it.

Also in attendance was Google's Will Brockman, who was able to comment on the recent public release of scans of over 500 Greek and Latin texts. (Six copies from three different editions of Pomponius Mela! Can you do that in your home library?)

A dynamically constructed lexicon; network services exposing Greek and Latin lexical and linguistic information to the internet ; a corpus of freely available texts — individually, these are major contributions to the study of Classics. Collectively, they really do lay the foundations for a radically altered discipline — and they exist today. If I wasn't constantly hearing from fellow classicists that our discipline is in crisis, I would think that there has never been a better time to study Greek and Latin.

Oh, and who does this work? David Bamman is a senior researcher at the Perseus project, not a member of an academic department. The Alpheios project is independent of any academic institutional affiliation. Google — well, you've heard of Google.

I was reminded of Brockman's blog post when he first announced Google's free release of Greek and Latin texts in June. He cites three examples of studying ancient texts that excite him: reading a Latin text in the Perseus project's interactive edition; reading an article about Sophocles in English from the Suda On Line; and consulting the high-resolution photography of the Venetus A manuscript from the Homer Multitext project. His selection caught my eye, because I've been involved in all three projects, and know some of the back stories. None of the junior members of the original Perseus project were tenured at their original home institutions: all moved to other jobs, or left the field altogether. When an external review committee visited the University of Kentucky in the 1990s, after an extensive presentation about the Stoa prominently including the Suda On Line, a classicist asked the late Ross Scaife, "In what way does any of this constitute scholarship?" (A curious question about the first effort ever to translate into any language the rich and complex text of the Suda.) The Homer Multitext project has not faced such overt hostility, but it is interesting to note that it originates from the Center for Hellenic Studies (a branch of Harvard University in Washington, D.C., independent of the Department of the Classics), and that the two editors and two project architects all hold academic positions at institutions that do not grant PhDs in Classics. (Speaking for myself, I couldn't be happier about that.)

Connect the dots however you like. I draw two conclusions: first, that the study of classics is far too important to leave to classicists; and second that the study of Greek and Latin is still exciting enough to attract brilliant contributions from committed scholars who are not shackled with a title like "Professor of Classics." In 2010, I'm starting to envy my students, and wish I had a few more decades to continue this work.

1 comment:

JB Piggin said...

Great summary. There are also broader changes afoot in the humanities which mean that there are few passive readers left: everyone can be a writer too in some sense. We are likely to see a wider selection of people writing about the classics and antiquity. You have also inspired me to install Alpheios and I plan to enable it in my Latin pages including the collation of the Great Stemma.