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Could DH save the Classics?

[Editor’s Note: This week’s post comes from my good friend Bill Briggs. Bill majored in Latin at the University of Michigan before moving onto law school, also at the University of Michigan. As someone not completely isolated within the ivory tower of graduate school and with experiences outside of history, I thought Bill could bring a new perspective, which I think he does quite nicely. To the chagrin of some, I will return to writing next week.]

Could Better Utilization of the Digital Humanities save the Classics?

Full disclosure: I know very little about the Digital Humanities. In fact, my knowledge basically consists of what I have learned reading Brian’s excellent blog. Yet when Brian kindly offered me a chance to write on any topic I wanted, my mind kept coming back to DH. It bothered me. The thing is, I was a humanities major myself, getting my degree in the classics. Yet DH had played no role in my education. This led me to wonder, do digital classics exist? And if so, why wasn’t I exposed?

The answer to the first question is obvious—of course digital classics exist—but the second question leads into a deeper problem. Classics programs have been in decline for years and have been in the news lately as budget cut targets.* Is it possible, that the lack of emphasis placed on digital classics has prolonged this decline? And could better utilization of digital resources help stop it?

To stop the decline, any solution would have to increase interest in the classics and, ultimately, enrollment in classics programs. In my mind, this requires accomplishing two goals: (1) kindle the interest of children and young adults with the aim of encouraging them to take a Classics class in undergrad; and (2) retain those students who do take a survey course or entry-level Latin or Greek course.

Kindling the interest of children

The first function hasn’t been well-served by the digital classics projects I was able to discover. It’s true that there is a surprising amount of digital classics projects out there on the web. See http://www.arts-humanities.net/disciplines/classics_ancient_history or the Stoa Consortium or the Digital Classicist to find lists of some examples. However, just because projects like those listed are out there doesn’t mean they’re accessible. First, most of the projects listed are geared towards graduate students and professionals (projects concern such esoteric subjects as Roman laws between AD 193-455 (the Project Volterra) and imperial Latin dictionaries (The Festus Lexicon Project)).

Second, even if there were digital classics created with the intention of being used by a younger audience, it doesn’t mean that that audience will be exposed to them. One example is Google Earth’s Ancient Rome. It’s an amazing project that can be used and understood by most ages. Yet it can only be effective at piquing interest in children if it is brought into the classroom. Latin teachers need to make an effort to incorporate valuable projects like Google Earth’s Ancient Rome into their curriculum.

But, while the incorporation of digital classics in Latin classes is a good first step, that’s not enough to accomplish this first goal. Not enough young children have the opportunity to take Latin in middle school or high school. Therefore, in my opinion, any digital classics projects to be effective at kindling interest must not only be aimed at children but also be multi-disciplinary. For all the benefits of Google Earth’s Ancient Rome, I’m not convinced that History or Social Studies teachers have the desire to incorporate it in their curriculum.

Retaining College Freshmen

This second goal is better served by the digital classics available. The most notable example, of course, is the phenomenal Perseus Digital Library, which provides interactive text of the most notable Latin and Greek works. This text allows users to click on any word, say from the Aeneid, and then, in addition to finding out that word’s grammar, see how many times and where Vergil repeated that word in the entire Aeneid. Moreover, you can see how often and where other ancient writers used that word. Not only does Perseus serve as a useful translation tool for beginning Latin and Greek students, but it also can force a freshman Latin student to consider a writer’s thought process—why he chose a particular word, who his inspirations were, and questions of that sort. It’s also very useful for discovering subtle (and not so subtle) themes (did you know that Vergil uses a form of the noun ira (anger) 71 times in the Aeneid?).

The key with this sort of digital classics project is bringing it into the classroom. Despite majoring in Latin and taking classes from numerous Classics professors, Perseus was a resource that I had to discover on my own. Classics professors need to embrace the digital resources available. As much as I love Latin (and I oddly enough do love it), translating ancient texts line by line, day after day gets old! Yet professors cling to this model. Spending a few moments a week discussing other ways to interact with the text, through Perseus or other digital projects should be commonplace, even in translation intensive classes. And there’s really no excuse for not doing this in non-translation Classics courses like classic civilization and classic archaeology.

Conclusion

Better utilization of digital resources will not save the classics from decline. There are too many hurdles to clear in making digital classics accessible to young people and it’s too big an assumption to conclude that such utilization will lead to increased interest and enrollment in the classics. But that’s okay. It would be an unfair burden to place on the digital classics anyways. And it doesn’t make use of the digital classics any less valuable.

Classics students of all ages should be made aware of the digital resources that are available. Use of the digital classics can allow interaction with the ancient world on a deeper level, leading to an increased appreciation of the classics. That use won’t save the classics on its own. But, in a world where appreciation of the classics is continually declining, it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

* If you want an example of this, see Michigan State University—with an enrollment north of 47,000—which is seriously considering cutting their Classics Department as a result of budget woes. They’ve currently put the program in what they call “moratorium,” a word which ironically enough comes directly from Latin. And Michigan Sate isn’t alone. Other schools such as Maine and SUNY recently faced similar proposals, and almost every school is dealing with dwindling enrollment in classics programs. However, Brian will be happy to know that Notre Dame remains an exception, along with, more surprisingly, Iowa.

Published in Digital Humanities

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