A Degree in English

By request, a reprise of my 2009 Op-ed on Latin college diplomas.

Published: May 14, 2009
Carlisle, Pa.

NYT op-ed art

CONGRATULATIONS. You are graduating this month with a Baccalaureatus Scientiae in Compertis ad Salutem Pertinentibus Administrandis. It sounds impressive, but what does it have to do with your degree in health information management? Almost no one knows, and that’s why the Latin diploma needs to go.

Latin is a beautiful language and a relief from the incessant novelty and informality of the modern age. But when it’s used on diplomas, the effect is to obfuscate, not edify; its function is to overawe, not delight. The goal of education is the creation and transmission of knowledge — not the creation and transmission of prestige. Why, then, celebrate that education with a document that prizes grandiosity over communication?

A disclosure: Diploma Latin has caused me some personal pain and humiliation. I am in charge of adjusting the complicated Latin dates on the diplomas at the college where I teach, a project I’ve always taken pride in.

Last year, I was asked to update the text, and I made a mistake; the details are almost too painful to recall. An extra keystroke of mine changed “anno” into “annno.” This went unnoticed — because most people couldn’t read the Latin anyway — until the diplomas had been printed and distributed. Later, some people did catch the mistake, including one of my best students, who assumed that a king’s ransom in tuition guaranteed her a proofread diploma. The college had to spend $4,000 to print new diplomas.

So, yes, I am scarred. But even before the recent unpleasantness, I had my doubts about the wisdom of using the language of Livy for this particular purpose.

I know that getting rid of the Latin diploma will not be easy. While most colleges and universities now issue English diplomas, some prominent holdouts — including Yale, Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania — still use Latin. Many students and alumni cherish the tradition. In 1961, when Harvard switched to English diplomas, about 4,000 students protested in the “diploma riots,” and criticized the new documents as “Y.M.C.A. certificates.”

We Latinists have also been resistant to change. Like most keepers of arcane knowledge, we savor our rare moments of prominence.

I say this from personal experience: Once, the hardened leader of the local SWAT team asked me for a Latin version of his team’s credo, “The strength of the wolf is in the pack, the strength of the pack is in the wolf.” I told him: “Robur gregi in lupo, robur lupo in grege.” He thanked me and then said the nine most comforting words a SWAT team leader could say to anyone: “Let me know if you ever need a favor.”

Admittedly, this pales in comparison to the fame gained by the Columbia University Latin scholar who had the high honor of translating for the press the tattoo of the woman at the center of the Eliot Spitzer scandal from “Tutela valui” to “I use protection.”

This all sounds very exciting, but these stories of linguistic derring-do obscure the fact that Latin diplomas have outlived their usefulness.

Originally, diplomas were letters of introduction given to travelers by the Roman government. For centuries, Latin served as a convenient common language among educated people around the world. This is no longer the case. Graduates don’t pull diplomas out of their glove boxes, and fraud is resolved by checking college records. But diplomas are still supposed to convey information, and Latin diplomas fail to fulfill that function. When one Dickinson College alumna recently applied to work at a public school, she had a photocopied version of her Latin diploma returned as foreign and illegible.

I’ve heard some argue that Latin is on diplomas because it’s beautiful and the language of Virgil and Cicero. The sad fact, though, is that diploma Latin is a far cry from Cicero’s Latin.

Roman writers composed some of the world’s most thrilling verse and were masters of historiography, oratory and philosophy. But diploma Latin is some of the most depressing and long-winded legalese you can find. Hiding behind the lovely calligraphy are maddening syntax and appalling neologisms. How do you say the name of every college town in Latin? You shouldn’t have to.

(Nor should you have to struggle to read the text in the illustration that accompanies this piece, so let me help you out. It says: “I can’t understand this either.”)

As a college professor, I try to tell my students that education is more than a status symbol. Its purpose is the development of the mind and social usefulness through the clear communication of information and ideas. Why contradict that with the very piece of paper that is meant to represent the work they’ve done? A college education is something to be proud of, but its prestige should lie in its content, not its form.

I love Latin, but when the last American diploma is finally converted to English I will say, “Ita vero.” Right on.

[A version of this article appeared in print on May 15, 2009, on page A39 of the New York edition of the New York Times, and on the Times’ web site.]

Dickinson College Summer Latin Workshop 2014

Dickinson College Summer Latin Workshop

July 13-18, 2014


DIRECTIONS TO CARLISLE AND MAPS OF THE DICKINSON COLLEGE CAMPUS: are available on the Dickinson College web site: http://www.dickinson.edu

ARRIVAL: arrive no earlier than 1:00 p.m., no later than 6:00 p.m. Sunday, July 13. Our first meeting will be dinner, Sunday at 6:00. Meet in the lobby of the Holland Union Building (map). Check in at the Department of Public Safety at 400 W. North St. (See map. Their phone number is 717-245-1349). There you will receive a key and directions to your residence (Goodyear Building, see map), along with a card which will allow you to get meals, use the library and the Kline Center athletic facilities and pool, as well as other useful information about the campus and the town of Carlisle.

PARKING: park free on the streets around campus. Public Safety asks that you register your car with them at arrival. A map of parking on campus is available here: http://www.dickinson.edu/about/visit/maps-and-directions/Street-Map-with-Parking/

DEPARTURE: the final event will be the farewell dinner, 6:00 Friday, July 18. Please let me know as soon as possible if you will need lodging on the night of July 18th.

MEETING SCHEDULE: the group will meet in the morning (8:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.).

Meetings will take place in East College building on Dickinson’s campus (map). The plan is to read and translate selections from Lucretius, in the edition of Leonard & Smith.

OPTIONAL AFTERNOON SESSION: An optional session in the afternoon will be held for those who would enjoy participating in the Dickinson College Commentaries project. We will be collaboratively selecting and editing notes for an edition of Book 8 of Vergil’s Aeneid. This will meet from 2:00-4:00, with happy hour to follow from 4:00-5:00.

MEALS: will be taken in the Dickinson College Cafeteria (“the caf”) in the Holland Union Building on first block of North College Street (map). Vegetarian dishes are available. The Quarry is a coffee bar right across the street from the cafeteria, but your meal card will not work there, only cash.

WI-FI ACCESS: You will be issued a group password that will allow you to log on to the campus wireless network. There is also guest access, which lasts for a few hours before requiring a log in.

THINGS TO BRING: participants from previous years have suggested that you may want to bring: a desk lamp, an extra blanket, a swimsuit.

Schedule (Revised June 10, 2014)

Day One Book One
Read the first 214 lines of book one, then skip the section on conservation of matter, and pick up again at 265 and read to 429. Skip the arguments against particular philosophers and read from 921 to the end of the book, the argument for the infinite size of the universe.

Day Two Book Two
Read the first 164 lines of book two, skip a section on atomic speed and motion, then read
216-293 on the clinamen. Next, skip and summarize the sections on the qualities, number and arrangement of atoms and atomic shapes, and read from 991 to the end of the book on our mundus as one of many mundi.

Day Three Books Three and Six
Read the proem, lines 1-30 of book three, then skip and summarize the relationship of the
animus, anima, and corpus in order to concentrate on book three lines 830-1094, the
arguments against the fear of death. If time remains, let’s read in book six from line 1138 to the end, the disturbing description of the plague at Athens.

Day Four Book Four
Read the proem to book four, lines 1-25, skip and summarize the sections on seeing and
perception to concentrate on 907 to the end of the book, the interestingly interrelated
arguments on sleep and love.

Day Five Book Five
We’ll briefly summarize the description of our world within the universe and then read in
Latin from 772 to the end of the book, the history of the world, and beyond.


Vergil, XML-TEI Markup, linked annotation data, and the DCC

Organizing our received humanities materials as if they were simply informational depositories, computer markup as currently imagined handicaps or even baffles altogether our moves to engage with the well-known dynamic functions of  textual works.1

This sentence from Jerome McGann’s challenging new book on digitization and the humanities (part of a chapter on TEI called “Marking Texts in Many Directions,” originally published in 2004) rang out to me with a clarity derived from its relevance to my own present struggles and projects. The question for a small project like ours, “to mark up or not to mark up in XML-TEI?” is an acutely anxious one. The labor involved is considerable, the delays and headaches numerous. The payoff is theoretical and long term. But the risk of not doing so is oblivion. Texts stuck in html will eventually be marginalized, forgotten, unused, like 1989’s websites. TEI promises pain now, but with a chance of the closest thing the digital world has to immortality. It holds out the possibility of re-use, of a dynamic and interactive future.

McGann points out that print always has a twin function as both archive and simulation of natural language. Markup decisively subordinates the simulation function of text in favor of ever better archiving. This may be why XML-TEI has such a profound appeal to many classicists, and why it makes others, who value the performative, aesthetic aspects of language more than the archiving of it, so uneasy.

McGann expresses some hope for future interfaces that work “topologically” rather than linearly to integrate these functions, but that’s way in the future. What we have right now is an enormous capacity to enhance the simulation capacity of print via audio and other media. But if we (I mean DCC) spend time on that aspect of web design, it takes time away from the “store your nuts for winter” activities of TEI tagging.

Virgil. Opera (Works). Strasburg: Johann Grüninger, 1502. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland City Libraries

Virgil. Opera (Works). Strasburg: Johann Grüninger, 1502. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland City Libraries

These issues are in the forefront of my mind as I am in the thick of preparations for a new multimedia edition of the Aeneid that will, when complete, be unlike anything else available in print or on the web, I believe. It will have not just notes, but a wealth of annotated images (famous art works and engravings from historical illustrated Aeneid editions), audio recordings, video scansion tutorials, recordings of Renaissance music on texts from the Aeneid, a full Vergilian lexicon based on that of Henry Frieze, comprehensive linking to a newly digitized version of Allen & Greenough’s Latin Grammar, complete running vocabulary lists for the whole poem, and other enhancements.

Embarking on this I will have the help of many talented people:

  • Lucy McInerney (Dickinson ’15) and Tyler Denton (University of Kentucky MA ’14) and Nick Stender (Dickinson ’15) will help this summer to gather grammatical and explanatory notes on the Latin from various existing school editions in the public domain, which I will then edit.
  • Derek Frymark (Dickinson ’12) is working on the Vergilian dictionary database, digitizing and editing Frieze-Dennison. This will be combined with data generously provided by LASLA to produce the running vocabulary lists.
  • Meagan Ayer (PhD University of Buffalo ’13) is putting the finishing touches on the html of Allen & Greenough. This was also worked on by Kaylin Bednarz (Dickinson ’15).
  • Melinda Schlitt, Prof. of Art and Art History at Dickinson, will work on essays on the artistic tradition inspired by the Aeneid in fall of 2014, assisted by Gillian Pinkham (Dickinson ’14).
  • Ryan Burke, our heroic Drupal developer, is creating the interface that will allow for attractive viewing of images along with their metadata and annotations, a new interface for Allen & Greenough, and many other things.
  • Blake Wilson, Prof. of Music at Dickinson, and director of the Collegium Musicum, will be recording choral music based on texts from the Aeneid.

And I expect to have other collaborators down the road as well, faculty, students, and teachers (let me know if you want to get involved!). My own role at the moment is an organizational one, figuring out which of these many tasks is most important and how to implement them, picking illustrations, trying to get rights, and figuring out what kind of metadata we need. I’ll make the audio recordings and scansion tutorials, and no doubt write  a lot of image annotations as we go, and do tons of editing. The plan is to have the AP selections substantially complete by the end of the summer, with Prof. Schlitt’s art historical material and the music to follow in early 2015. My ambition is to cover the entire Aeneid in the coming years.

Faced with this wealth of possibilities for creative simulation, for the sensual enhancement of the Aeneid, I have essentially abandoned, for now at least, the attempt to archive our annotations via TEI. I went through some stages. Denial: this TEI stuff doesn’t apply to us at all; it’s for large database projects at big universities with massive funding. Grief: it’s true, lack of TEI dooms the long-term future of our data; we’re in a pathetic silo; it’s all going to be lost. Hope: maybe we can actually do it; if we just get the right set of minimal tags. Resignation: we just can’t do everything, and we have to do what will make the best use of our resources and make the biggest impact now and in the near future.

One of the things that helped me make this decision was a conversation via email with Bret Mulligan and Sam Huskey. Bret is an editor at the DCC, author of the superb DCC edition of Nepos’ Life of Hannical, and my closest confidant on matters of strategy. Sam is the Information Architect at the APA, and a leader in the developing Digital Latin Library Projects which, if funded, will create the infrastructure for digitized peer reviewed critical texts and commentaries for the whole history of Latin.

When queried about plans to mark up annotation content, Sam acknowledged that developing the syntax for this was a key first step in creating this new archive. He plans at this point to use not TEI but RDF Triples, the lnked data scheme that has worked so well for Pleiades and Pelagios. RDF triples basically allow you to say for anything on the web, x = y. You can connect any chunk of text with any relevant annotation, in the way that Pleiades and Pelagios can automatically connect any ancient place with any tagged photo of that place on flickr, or any tagged reference to it in DCC or other text database. I can see how, for the long term development of infrastructure, RDF triples would be the way to go, in so far as it would create the potential for a linked data approach to annotation (including apparatus).

The fact that the vocabulary for doing that is not ready yet makes my decision about what to do with the Aeneid. Greg Crane too, and the Perseus/OGL team at Tufts and the University of Leipzig, are working on a new infrastructure for connecting ancient texts to annotation content, and Prof. Crane has been very generous with his time in advising me about DCC. He seemed to be a little frustrated that the system for reliably encoding and sharing annotations is not there yet, and eager to help us just get on with the business of creating new freely available annotation content in the meantime, and that’s what we’re doing. Our small project is not in a position to get involved in the building of the infrastructure. We’ll just have to work on complying when and if an accepted schema appears.

For those who are in a position to develop this infrastructure, here with my two sesterces. Perhaps the goal is someday to have something like Pleiades for texts, with something like Pelagios for linking annotation content. You could have a designated chunk of text displayed, then off to the bottom right somewhere there could be a list of types and sources of annotation content. “15 annotations to this section in DCC,” “25 annotations to this section in Perseus,” “3 place names that appear in Pleiades,” “55 variant readings in DLL apparatus bank,” “5 linked translations available via Alpheios,” etc., and the user could click and see that content as desired.

It seems to me that the only way to wrangle all this content is to deal in chunks of text, paragraphs, line ranges, not individual words or lemmata. We’re getting ready to chunk the Aeneid, and I think I’m going to use Perseus’ existing chunks. Standard chunkings would serve much the same purpose as numeration in the early printed editions, Stephanus numbers for Plato and so forth. Annotations can obviously flag individual words and lemmata, but it seems like for linked data approaches you simply can’t key things to small units that won’t be unique and might in fact change if a manuscript reading is revised. I am aware of the CTS-URN architecture, and consider it to be a key advance in the history of classical studies. But I am speaking here just about linking annotation content to chunks of classical texts.

What Prof. Crane would like is more machine operability, so you can re-use annotations and automate the process. That way, I don’t have to write the same annotation over and over. If, say,  iam tum cum in Catullus 1 means the same thing as iam tum cum in other texts, you should be able to re-use the note. Likewise for places and personal names, you shouldn’t have to explain afresh every time which one of the several Alexandrias or Diogeneses you are dealing with.

I personally think that, while the process of annotation can be simplified, especially by linking out to standard grammars rather than re-explaining grammatical points every time, and by creating truly accurate running vocabulary lists, the dream of machine operable annotation is not a realistic one. You can use reference works to make the process more efficient. But a human will always have to do that, and more importantly the human scholar figure will always need to be in the forefront for classical annotation. The audience prefers it, and the qualified specialists are out there.

This leads me to my last point for this overlong post, that getting the qualified humans in the game of digital annotation is for me the key factor. I am so thrilled the APA is taking the lead with DLL. APA has access to the network of scholars in a way that the rest of us do not, and I look forward to seeing the APA leverage that into some truly revolutionary quality resources in the coming years. Sorry, it’s the SCS now!

  1. Jerome McGann, A New Republics of Letters: Memory and Scholarship in the Age of Digital Reproduction (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), pp. 107-108. []