Monday, September 26, 2016

2016.09.42

Gabriel Bodard, Matteo Romanello (ed.), Digital Classics outside the Echo-Chamber: Teaching, Knowledge Exchange and Public Engagement. London: Ubiquity Press, 2016. Pp. 234. ISBN 9781909188617. £34.99.

Reviewed by Gabriel Moss, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (gwmoss@live.unc.edu)

Version at BMCR home site

Open Access EPUB

Among specialists in the many subfields of classics, scholars whose work draws on the digital humanities tend to be refreshingly optimistic. Amid the pervasive gloom of modern academia, tech-oriented philologists, archaeologists, and historians form a rare group which believes that the state of its field will be better in a decade or two than it is today. In excess, this optimism can verge on a sort of technocratic utopianism, a belief that when data is sufficiently "Big", access sufficiently open, labor sufficiently crowdsourced (and grants sufficiently generous), then the seemingly intractable problems faced by generations of scholars and teachers will melt away. Such unchecked optimism is not entirely absent in Digital Classics Outside the Echo-Chamber. Yet as numerous outstanding contributions to the volume demonstrate, inventive digital approaches paired with the methodological rigor and thoroughgoing skepticism of more traditional scholarship can offer impressive results, especially as a bridge between academia and the broader public.

In an excellent introduction, Bodard and Romanello argue that it is vital for digital classicists to break free of the narrow "echo chamber" of their specialty, engaging with scholars outside the field of classics as well as students and enthusiasts beyond the traditional academy. This interdisciplinary engagement is a two-way street: digital classicists "import" high-tech methodologies and crowdsourced labor from beyond the echo-chamber, and they "export" in turn innovative pedagogy and engaging, open avenues for the general public to explore the ancient past. In one way or another, the projects described in this volume all make a self-conscious effort to breach the walls of their echo chambers.

The first and longest section ("Teaching") explores digital approaches to pedagogy, featuring projects which aim to improve classical language training both within the university classroom and beyond it. Three chapters argue for the benefits of various forms of textual markup in teaching Latin and Greek: chapter one provides a broad discussion of the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI), while chapters three and five focus on the specific examples of the EpiDoc markup standards and the Ancient Greek Dependency Treebank. These chapters make persuasive claims that the structured process of parsing texts into machine-readable formats provides students with rigorous training in both the technicalities of Latin and Greek, and in the interpretive choices scholars make when editing an ancient text. Though less than tech-savvy instructors will perhaps be daunted by this pedagogical mix of classics and programming, the pioneers of this hybrid approach provide an array of anecdotal evidence to suggest that it is engaging and effective.

The remaining chapters in section one stick closer to the traditional forms of classics pedagogy, discussing how the digital revolution has opened up wider access to instructional tools. In chapter two, Simon Mahony advocates for the increased availability and diversity of Open Educational Resources (OERs). He argues especially that they are most useful when released in smaller units, as lessons and assignments rather than entire pre-fabricated courses. In chapter four, Jeff Rydberg-Cox focuses on one OER (rather more sizeable than Mahony might like), an interactive Ancient Greek textbook aimed at students unable to study the language in a traditional university classroom.

In section two ("Knowledge Exchange"), focus shifts to the connections between digital classicists and their colleagues in other disciplines. Drawing upon her career as an image processing specialist for both surgeons and papyrologists, Ségolène Tarte presents a superb linguistic and epistemological primer for interdisciplinary cooperation. She argues that the key is an understanding of the loaded terminology and engrained expectations in both fields about knowledge production. In chapter seven, Campagnolo and others show Tarte's principles put into practice, reflecting on a project that studied parchment decay by combining the expertise of cultural preservation specialists with the methodologies of bio-medical engineers. Valeria Vitale in chapter eight proposes a new documentation standard for the 3D reconstruction of historical objects, a standard based on the information technology concept of Linked Open Data which promises to produce more transparent, intellectually honest 3D models.

The third and final section of the volume ("Public Engagement") turns towards crowdsourcing, public scholarship, and other ways that classicists can inspire and benefit from widespread enthusiasm for the ancient past. In chapter nine, Almas and Beaulieu present the Perseids platform, an initiative by the Perseus Digital Library which allows users to collaboratively transcribe, translate, and even edit ancient texts, and then makes the fruits of this labor available to the internet at large. Chapter ten, by James Brusuelas, discusses Oxford's Ancient Lives project, a crowdsourced effort to transcribe the Oxyrhynchus papyri. Finally, in chapter eleven, Silvia Orlandi discusses EAGLE (the Europeana network of Ancient Greek and Latin Epigraphy), which seeks to make inscriptions available to the general public not just as texts, but as material objects set in the full richness of their archaeological, historical, and linguistic contexts.

Clearly, Digital Classics Beyond the Echo Chamber encompasses an impressive diversity of topics, and a review can most usefully identify those chapters which exemplify the systemic strengths and liabilities both of the volume and of digital classics more broadly. For example, when the digital classics stumble it is often through the unchecked optimism and overconfidence mentioned above. This weakness can manifest itself in the unreflective assumption that a digital approach is the best solution to any given problem. Strong though both chapters are, Simon Mahony's survey of Open Educational Resources (chapter two) and Jeff Rydberg-Cox's presentation of a digital ancient Greek textbook (chapter four) could both be more explicit about the benefits of a digital approach to pedagogy. Mahony, for instance, quite openly takes the value of OERs as a given. Yet the inherent worth of open-access, online teaching materials (from MOOCs on down) is hardly agreed upon outside the echo-chamber of digital classics.1 In a book that aims to break disciplinary walls, OERs deserve a more forceful defense. For his part, Rydberg-Cox makes a compelling case for widely available, digital resources for learning ancient Greek (especially for the benefit of students geographically removed from elite universities). Yet he does not provide enough evidence that his own interactive Greek textbook is educationally effective. Despite its long list of impressive technical features, his tutorial is fundamentally based on a textbook from 1896, with its attendant hyper-grammarian slant (for example, students learn to decline nouns in the dual before learning the verb "to be"). A digital, interactive version of this textbook is certainly better than no Greek resources at all; yet Rydberg-Cox could do more to convince us that it is necessarily better for the conscientious student than a newer, non-digital textbook.

Hints of utopian overconfidence in digital methodologies also appear in several of the chapters on crowdsourced research. Almas and Beaulieu's Perseids Platform (chapter nine) and Silvia Orlandi's EAGLE network (chapter eleven) share the laudable goal of "democratizing" research, breaching the ivory walls of the academic echo-chamber to engage the general public in the consumption and construction of academic knowledge. Both platforms not only give users access to vast libraries of ancient texts, but also allow them to publish translations and editions of texts (in the case of Perseids) or micro-narratives around epigraphic documents (in the case of EAGLE's storytelling application). These are without doubt worthwhile projects, backed by sophisticated technological infrastructures. Yet we are told very little about the editorial processes used to ensure the quality of user-published work.2 Crowdsourced research is only as good as its editors. If the products of these platforms are to be accepted by the mainstream academic community, Almas, Beaulieu, and Orlandi should feel obliged to more thoroughly convince us that strong editorial checks exist against too radically democratic scholarship.

Whereas this volume's more problematic chapters stumble over their contagious enthusiasm for the digital humanities, the best ones firmly constrain themselves within the bounds of the possible. They recognize the limitations of digital approaches along with the opportunities, and at every step they work to ensure that digital optimism does not sweep away the intellectually rigorous cynicism of traditional scholarship.

James Brusuelas' Ancient Lives project (chapter ten) is exemplary in this regard. While it shares Perseids' and EAGLE's mass-participatory approach to research, it sets more easily achievable goals, asking its users only to transcribe papyrus texts. As Brusuelas puts it, this project has been successful because its central crowdsourced task is nothing more than pattern recognition, "a task at which the human brain excels." Beyond setting this reasonable goal for untrained users, Ancient Lives employs some truly impressive computational techniques to collate and "average" many users' transcriptions of the same papyri in order to produce a "consensus text." This approach nicely leverages the numeric advantages of crowdsourced research: not just editorial oversight but the law of averages checks academically untenable contributions by rogue enthusiasts. Finally, Ancient Lives excels in rigorously self-assessing the accuracy of its crowdsourced contributions: at least on relatively simple and legible papyri, its consensus transcriptions matched expert transcriptions 95% of the time. The inclusion of this statistic is critical to the success of Brusuelas' chapter in breaking the echo-chamber of digital classics: skeptical readers in traditional academia need not take the accuracy of crowdsourced papyrus transcription on faith alone. All told, Brusuelas' careful, measured approach to democratized scholarship has produced an outstanding model of a well-designed research project.

Valeria Vitale's proposal for a new set of documentation standards for 3D modeling (chapter eight) deserves similar praise. Like Bruselas, Vitale sees a technology-driven research trend that is very much in vogue (crowdsourcing for the former, 3D reconstruction for the latter), and is keenly aware that its products may not meet the traditional standards for academic rigor. Vitale makes the convincing case that the lack of shared, technologically viable documentation standards has rendered many 3D models of historical objects little more than crowd-pleasing curiosities. Without clear and accessible metadata describing the decision making process that went into each aspect of a reconstruction, the project cannot be replicated or formally critiqued, excluding it from mainstream academic discourse. Vitale's new standards cleverly apply a relatively simple and well-understood technology, Linked Open Data, to this basic problem of academic credibility. Vitale's program is still in its early stages. Yet if it wins widespread acceptance in the field, her melding of the visual potential of 3D reconstruction with traditional academic rules of evidence may well be remembered as this volume's most important contribution to the field.

All told, Digital Classics Beyond the Echo Chamber reflects a field in the process of self-discovery, balancing the utopian optimism of the digital revolution against the traditional standards of classical studies. The work is at times too technical for non-digital classicists, and its focus on digital philology to the exclusion of projects involving G.I.S. or archaeology means it does not quite capture the full diversity of the digital classics in 2016. Still, its best chapters provide models of outstanding research design for scholars of the ancient past contemplating public-facing, digital research projects.



Notes:


1.   On the heated debate over MOOCs in particular, see Heller, Nathan. "Laptop U." The New Yorker. May 20, 2013.
2.   The EAGLE storytelling application, whose FAQ's encourage users to "unleash their creativity" is particularly concerning in this regard.

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