Perseus and Classics DH

I am extremely grateful to the folks at Perseus, and to all the others who took the time to reply to my earlier, rather dyspeptic, posts about the Perseus Word Study Tool. A valuable blog post by Bridget Almas, the Senior Programmer at Perseus, is up on the front page of Perseus right now. And the conversation on Google+ was animated as well.

Bridget Almas’ central point is that resources are limited, and we need to prioritize. Is morphology per se really worth the investment, in comparison with other more urgent needs? And would a truly open, distributed editing environment for the annotation classical texts (like that already in place for papyri on Papyri.info, and planned by Perseus) attract enough people interested in that particular issue? Probably not, she suggests.

Helma Dik, heavily involved in improving and re-purposing the Perseus data at the University of Chicago, points out that with any tool, including the LWST, we need to teach students how to use it properly. She insists that the large-scale results produced by the Perseus parser are valuable, and that its accuracy can be substantially improved incrementally by means of hand parsing. She has made good progress on the Greek side with Perseus at Chicago. The Latin parser lags because no one has yet taken the time to improve it, and she suggests that that–rather than grousing about the current inadequacy of the tool–should be the focus of our efforts.

Laura Gibbs of the University of Oklahoma, a pioneer and dynamo in digital pedagogy in classics, makes the (to me) central point that what students most need is not full parsing of every word, but to know from what word a given form comes. From a pedagogical standpoint, the correct dictionary head word is the only crucial information. The process of intelligent glossing and annotation is greatly aided by having a core vocabulary, a list of very common items that will not be glossed at all. She argues that this process of pedagogically-driven glossing must be human-created, not machine-generated. She would like to see a collaborative digital environment for reading Latin and Greek together asynchronously, hopefully one that does not focus exclusively on translation as the goal, but on comprehension and reading.

Justin Schwamm, the driver behind Tres Columnae and another pioneer and expert in digital classical pedagogy, helpfully focuses the discussion on the pedagogical goal, which for him is getting people to read Latin, not just translate it. If the tools don’t contribute to reading fluency, we shouldn’t use them. He also points out that from a user’s perspective, the LWST provide too much information. Students’ eyes tend to glaze over when presented with a solid mass of new information, whether in a print textbook or on a web page.

I think that Bridget Almas has put her finger on the central problem we face right now. What should be the priorities, and (a closely related question) how are we to marshal the labor, and raise the level of interest among classicists in improving current digital tools and creating new ones? This profession is full of amazing, learned, selfless, phenomenally hard-working people. Why are so few of them putting energy into digital collaboration, teaching and dissemination, as opposed to traditional print monographs and articles? If we could get 20% of those PhD’s toiling away on university press monographs to work on digital editions, where would we be?

The value of DH for humanists lies in its collaborative nature and the transformation of scholarly communication it enables; in the innovative and effective pedagogy it facilitates; and in the vast increase in access to information and learning it makes possible. Why are more classicists not excited by this? Things are of course changing slowly, and we’re all working on this in our own ways, but to accelerate the acceptance of digital classics in the profession and bring in more labor to fix things like the LWST, a few things are especially important, I think. None of this is news, just trying to articulate it as clearly as I can:

First, it’s important to keep exploring modes of peer review. Classicists are very sensitive to what Dan Cohen has called the social contract in scholarly communication represented by presses, proof-reading, peer review, and also design aesthetics. Digital publishing has a severe, nay, crippling deficit in prestige. Second, and of course related, we have to keep focusing on the quality of the content. Classicists have a very low tolerance for error, and thus distrust the internet more than most. But quality is not enough, as the lackluster start of the Princeton/Stanford working papers shows. Next, and this is more relevant to the issue at hand, we should make tools like the LWST respond to current pedagogy and reading practices. The tools should be aimed laser-like at the real needs of users, and respond to their culture of reading. Pedagogy, rather than computational linguistics, must be central to the iterative design process. Finally, something that is not really in the debate as far as I know, we should focus on the scholarly voice. Classicists’ reading culture places a high value on the expert, and prizes the trained scholar above all. Most digital tools currently are either highly impersonal (as with the LWST) and thus would be viewed with suspicion even if they were more accurate; or they try to rely on crowd-sourcing, which goes rather against the grain of the classical mind. Reverence for expert opinion both inhibits ordinary readers from contributing to crowd-sourced annotation (compare the rather slow start of The Open Utopia), and prevents most readers from taking it seriously. The good news is that the digital environment allows closer contact with scholars through blogging and especially though audio recordings (check out the classical material on New Books Network).

Ok, I have strayed rather far afield from the Latin Word Study Tool. My grand scheme was to create a distributed editing environment for creating vocabulary lists, like the environment the papyrologists have at Papyri.info, but the minds at Perseus were way, way ahead of me, and have something like that in the works already. In a future post I will think about what kinds of features I might want to see in such a thing.

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