Classicists without Borders

reaching hand

Photo: Quinn Dombrowski, via flickr

Classical outreach programs are proliferating. See, for example, the ones at Oxford, the University of Cincinnati, the Classics in Communities Project in the UK, and the variety of outreach initiatives at the SCS. The problem with the term outreach is the slight air of desperation. There must be people “out” there who have never heard our message, who need to be “reached.” Hands extend into a void, waving cheerfully at passersby, signaling for attention, anxious not to be ignored. I  believe we should think less in terms of reaching out and more in terms of service, of finding places where our skills are needed or welcome, even when those are not the places that our ordinary professional lives typically take us. Possibly the best current example of this is the series of workshops run by Classics in Communities, bringing support to those in schools with no Latin programs who want nonetheless to teach Latin. I can think of two other areas where there is a certain void, a space where the voices of Classicists without Borders would potentially be welcome, even useful, but have not so far been heard very much. The first is podcasting. The podcast medium is widely enjoyed as recreation be people as they exercise, walk, travel, go about housework routines, etc. This is an audience hungry for new content, eager to explore new ideas, and interested in all sorts of things. Perhaps they studied Latin at school, or have always had a love of mythology. The mechanics of producing and delivering podcasts to this audience are well within the technological competence of most classicists. Success in the medium, as with much teaching, requires a conversational style, a sense of humor, and an ability to tell stories. A second area is that of digital project reviews. The vast majority of people who are not professional classicists find their information about the classical world on the internet, and there is a heartening proliferation of good quality digital projects about the ancient world. Still, there is a good deal that is slapdash and ill-informed. Who can tell the difference? Classicists can. Where is there a reliable venue of critiquing, evaluating, and commenting on digital resources? Nowhere. The SCS Communications Committee (which I currently chair), among its other activities, is creating just such a venue as part of the SCS website and blog. When qualified review of open digital resources becomes as routine as it is for monographs, the prestige and the quality of open online publications will rise. The SCS Communications Committee has created a clear set of guidelines for such reviews, and is actively soliciting reviewers and projects to review. Please leave a comment if you have any suggestions for this, or ideas about other “Classicists with Borders” initiatives.

The Society for Classical Studies and Digital Publication

Every year at this time I have a look at the statements of candidates for leadership offices in the Society for Classical Studies (known until recently as the American Philological Association) to see what kind of positions they take on matters relating to digital humanities and digital publication. Two years ago the Digital Classics Association had just been approved as a Type II Affiliated group, and there were plans for a new multi-million dollar portal of classics digital outreach. Last year the latter initiative was rightly being abandoned, and the discussion was more about the role of our professional association in the world of academic publishing. While some wanted to defend the status and importance of the print monograph, others hoped the APA would help guide web users to quality resources on the internet. In last year’s post I made the point that to focus on the delivery method (paid print vs. open electronic) is to miss a key potential role of the professional association: to foster networks of peer review for scholarship, no matter how it appears.

This year’s candidate statements share a sense of anxiety about the future of the field and the status of the humanities in the academy. Several make the excellent point that more can be done to foster Latin in secondary schools, “literally our lifeline,” as presidential candidate Peter Burian says. As for digital publication, presidential candidate Roger Bagnall is reticent, which is odd given his key role in the development of online scholarly publication of papyri. But Peter Burian emphasizes the key issue, it seems to me, peer review:

The APA has a strong track record, and it could be used to help our profession (and others) move toward full recognition of on-line publication and various kinds of digital scholarship. Works of scholarship that are crucial for specialists are becoming increasingly difficult to get into print, and there are many kinds of scholarship for which print is not the best, or even a satisfactory, medium. A strong, well-understood peer-review process governed by our internationally recognized professional association could make the difference in how such works are weighed by tenure and promotion committees.

Publications and Research is the committee where the changes in scholarly publishing are of course at the center. Here there are two candidates, Emily Greenwood and Nita Krevens. Greenwood urges the association “to explore new avenues for open digital publication in Classics and to support and promote excellent existing sites.” Krevens’ comments are altogether more edgy. She says that electronic publication is “still the elephant in the room.” Krevens continues:

On the one hand, the natural ‘gate-keeping’ function of limited print space is disappearing; this means that scholarly associations like ours are becoming the source of new guidelines for peer review and publication.  On the other hand, commercial publishers of academic journals are fighting desperately to preserve their turf as learned society e-publishing emerges as a partial solution to strained library acquisition budgets (witness the battle between Elsevier and the mathematicians).  Academic presses are currently caught in the middle of these conflicting imperatives.  In addition to setting field-wide standards for electronic journals AND monographs, I believe the APA/SCS can play an important role advocating for the electronic archiving and dissemination of smaller scholarly journals in our field, which are currently not easily available online.  These days, if you are not in JSTOR, you are invisible.

I think it is optimistic to say that scholarly associations are becoming the source of peer review guidelines. In any case it’s not so much guidelines that are needed as mechanisms for actual peer review. Only rigorous editing and review of digital publications will generate the prestige that will motivate more good scholars to improve the quality of open resources. As Sander Goldberg put it recently in BMCR it is up to us to insist on the combining of the “accuracy and clarity of [traditional print publication] with the flexibility and accessibility of the [web].” Goldberg also makes the point that many of the most fundamental and traditional activities of classical scholarship, such as the close analysis of syntax, and other tools for close reading, are actually better suited to the web than to print. In some ways the more specialized and technical the issues, the more data that can be put before the reader, the more desirable is a digital presentation.

The SCS as an archiver and provider of access to lesser-known journals not in JSTOR is an idea I find very appealing, and hopefully one that the publishers of such journals would also embrace.