DIGITAL CLASSICS OUTSIDE THE ECHO-CHAMBER: Teaching, Knowledge Exchange & Public Engagement

Edited by Gabriel Bodard and Matteo Romanello

Ubiquity Press (2016) p/b 221pp £12.99 (ISBN 9781909188488)

This collection of papers, edited by the organisers of the Digital Classicist seminars in London and Berlin, is published as an open access volume and is available for free download from

http://www.ubiquitypress.com/site/books/10.5334/bat/

as well as for purchase in print.

It aims to present some computational approaches to the ancient world and to focus attention on their value to audiences outside the ‘echo chamber’ of the digital classics or digital humanities community. The chapters are grouped into three parts, considering in turn teaching, knowledge exchange, and public engagement. Most chapters consider concrete examples of digital classics projects which engage contributors and/or audiences outside of the traditional professional classical academic world, whether students, colleagues in other fields or the general public.

The five chapters relating to teaching consider the learning of new digital skills (such as ‘marking up’ texts) and the use of digital resources in classical teaching more broadly. While the merits of electronic working, and text encoding in particular, are more or less tacitly assumed, the most successful of these chapters at least try to show how acquiring traditional skills in such fields as epigraphy and syntactic analysis can be integrated with acquiring digital skills.

However, even then the advantages to be gained through using digital techniques are too much taken for granted, and more of a case could have been made explicitly for the benefits of the digital skills acquired, whether for further classical study or as skills transferable into other work or leisure settings. This seems all the more true when some of the techniques discussed, such as marking up a text, are relatively straightforward to learn both conceptually and practically, but their subsequent employment can be laborious and the utility of the resulting data questionable. It would have been good to read much more about what opportunities the various authors consider these specific skills to open up in themselves, and what the next stage might be for building on them: to take one example, once one has taken considerable time to key in and mark up some text, the skills then required to make effective use of the information now encoded in the text are considerably more advanced, and this area is hardly touched on.

Knowledge exchange is the theme linking the three chapters in part two, looking at how digital classics work may interact with—mainly benefit from rather than contribute to—others outside the university humanities sector. Imaging projects are the focus of these chapters, and of these the most interesting is a discussion by Campagnolo et al. of work on how imaging techniques used in medicine can be applied to recover text from a palimpsest.

By far the most engaging part of this book is the third part, which focuses on public engagement. Two of the three chapters discuss work with significant ‘crowdsourcing’ components, namely Perseids and Ancient Lives, the latter with a fascinating tale to tell. Both show an admirable awareness of possible advantages of crowdsourcing made possible by digital techniques and crucially the pitfalls too. The final chapter looks at the Europeana network of Ancient Greek and Latin Epigraphy (EAGLE) and concludes with some vivid examples including property advertisements and films, where ancient inscriptions are used, sometimes unrecognised, and can generate interest and enthusiasm.

The aim of this book is a thoroughly worthwhile one. Classics is both a strongly traditional field and one that has been at the vanguard of digital work in the humanities for several decades. The achievements and promise of such work without doubt deserve a wider audience both within and outside the classical arena. To open it up, however, digital humanities needs to shed its aura of technical exclusivity and acquire the prize of normality: digital techniques are often relatively new but nevertheless they are now simply ordinary ways of working alongside the more traditional. Their recognition will come for what they achieve rather than the ingenuity of how they go about doing so.

However, despite the array of impressive work reported on, which clearly does have implications and achievements beyond the ‘echo chamber’, this collection itself does not quite live up to its promising ambition of taking digital classics, and even digital humanities more broadly, out of the ‘echo chamber’. The chapters of this book concentrate too much on the techniques for a general audience. Most of the chapters reverberate with impenetrable jargon, abbreviations, and the presupposition of technical knowledge to such an extent that even a reader familiar with the techniques of the field would find them opaque. A reader from the implied target audience coming to this without any background in digital humanities may well be deterred altogether from reading by a brief glance at these chapters. If the volume is not successful for this audience, it is to my mind not significantly more satisfactory for a more technical audience: the technical discussions are also insufficiently detailed for anyone who might wish to explore using similar techniques in other contexts.

It is certainly not easy to marry sufficient background to enable the untrained reader to understand the technology being reported and adequate description of how that technology is being applied, and such a marriage is found in few places in this collection. That said, it is on occasion possible to see past the technical aspects of the material to find inspiration for pursuing existing and new avenues in digital classical work, and as a free download there is nothing to lose in taking a few minutes to browse through this collection.

 Richard Ashdowne—University College Oxford

 

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