The APA and Digital Populism

It’s election season at the American Philological Association. I opened up my ballot for next year’s officers and discovered that digital classics and digital outreach have vaulted to the forefront of debate in ways that would have been hard to predict only a few years ago. The APA is known as one of the more conservative of academic professional associations when it comes to matters digital, and its own web presence has until recently been very minimal. But now not only are they on Facebook and Twitter, but the new Digital Classics Association has been approved as a Type II Affiliated group, and there are plans for a new multi-million dollar portal of classics digital outreach. This is new and big and exciting, so I wanted to offer a little outsider’s guide to the candidates’ personal statements which, combined with some recent posts on the APA website, help to predict the near future of things digital at the APA.

A dash of context: Since 1989 the APA has been a major force behind the digitization of the nonpareil bibliographic research tool L’Annee Philologique. This is primarily for advanced scholars. But the APA has been much slower to engage with social media and the popular ferment of classics on the web. Previous efforts at outreach to secondary teachers and the popular audience (long a strong point of the AIA, for example), have generally been viewed as well-meant but not very successful. The APA has traditionally been a group that focuses on advanced research, and very successfully so. Big new initiatives are now aimed at speaking to the popular audience. A successful capital campaign is well underway to raise $4 million, part of that to be devoted to a new web portal called “The American Center for Classics Research and Teaching.” Ward Briggs’ capital campaign video predicts that the new portal will be “the authoritative site on the web for classical study,” and “will offer the highest quality information about classical civilization to the widest possible audience in the format best suited to each segment of that audience.” It will open the gates of classical learning, so that “a privileged background and an elite education will no longer be requirements . . . in this digital age.”

Briggs seems to see the site as encyclopedic, a kind of more open version of Perseus, with links to a broader variety of approved sites, organized by topic. This would obviously be a massive undertaking. Current President Jeffry Henderson, putting a different spin on the project, connects an APA web presence with public advocacy and improvements in pedagogy. The APA should “build information paths that connect professionals in the field and the lay public to data and information about the state and value of Classics, to 21st century resources for research, and about materials for pedagogical development.” The website, he hopes, will “make full use of social media on all media platforms, so that users can find information, follow developments in the field, enjoy presentations and other learning opportunities, and connect with colleagues.”

This year’s candidates for President and VP for Publications and Research do not exactly endorse all of these extremely ambitious goals. All support some kind of portal or gateway to classics as a way of bringing to bear the scholarly expertise of the APA membership in the digital realm. But how is this actually supposed to work?

Presidential candidate Kathryn Gutzwiller embraces neither Briggs’ expansive Perseus-like vision of an omnibus reference site, nor Henderson’s focus on professional networking and pedagogy. She sees it as more about announcing discoveries and aggregating (free? paid?) research tools: “The APA website should be a place where important discoveries in classics are announced and through which there is easy access to information about publications, to electronic resources, and to research tools. A well-constructed and accessible portal should appeal to classicists and non-classicists alike.”

Gutzwiller’s fellow-candidate for the presidential spot, James Tatum, sees the web site more in terms of teacher development: “It will enable us to support teaching at every level, even more than we do now.” He highlights the need for more dialogue between secondary teachers and college faculty, and thinks the site could help “Increas[e] collaboration between college and university teachers and teachers in secondary schools.” The site will “make it clear that the road between university and secondary education can run in both directions.”

David Blank, a candidate for VP for Publications and Research, helpfully acknowledges the difficulty of these tasks. It will not necessarily be easy to “mak[e] ourselves heard by scholars, students, and the general public amidst the profusion of digital divulgation, diversion, and distraction.” He floats the idea of adding scholarly video content to the APA website, although his specific example–reports from the TLL fellows on their experiences in Munich–would seem to have limited popular appeal.

Blank’s fellow-candidate for Publications and Research VP, Michael Gagarin, wants to make knowledge of the classical world as widely available as possible, but acknowledges that the digital is something of a problem for current modes of production. He identifies “dealing with digitization” as “the biggest long-term challenge for both research and publication.” I’m not sure if he means dealing with the problem of properly evaluating digital work (something the MLA has been grappling with), or if the challenge has to do with the economics of scholarly publishing, or intellectual property, or what. In any case, he is loathe to have the APA take on dissemination roles traditionally assumed by print publishers: “my preference is that the APA should play largely a support role, working with publishers and libraries to promote digital publication and with universities, foundations, individuals, and others to produce digitized resources and make them as widely available as possible.” The distinction between digital “publication” (presumably peer reviewed in some traditional way, and paid for), versus digital “resources” (presumably free but evaluated only after the fact by the APA) is implicit in Gutzwiller’s remarks as well. In both cases the APA should identify “the most reliable and useful” electronic resources and “provide access to these materials for all our members,” presumably through the new portal.

These are all exciting ideas, but implementation would probably take ten or twenty times the money being raised by the capital campaign. Moreover, none of the candidates or current officers mentions a model in another field for the kind of site they have in mind, or mentions any current classics sites that they could build on.

Perhaps a good model would be Rather than trying to be the final authority on all matters physical, it merely attempts to keep tabs on what is happening in physics on the web from day to day. It is jaunty and fresh and delightful to explore. This kind of crucial curatorial work is now being done in classics by lone heroes such as David Meadows and Charles Jones. It is highly useful, very popular, and not unduly resource-intensive. It seems to me that the APA could usefully give such work a more well-appointed home. The current APA Facebook page is mostly press releases. Going out and aggregating classical news and projects from around the world would be a great service to the profession.

As for professional networking and pedagogy, a good professional website model is probably the American Mathematical Association or the American Physical Society. But  I’m not sure we need a new APA-sponsored teacher community. The best thing would be for APA members to become more active on existing listservs and social media platforms for teachers, and of course to get out and visit classrooms and meet teachers in their own areas.The College Board’s AP Latin teacher community is very impressive example of collaboration between college, university, and secondary teachers, backed by some (not-for-profit!) corporate web development heft. And there is now, a kind of Facebook for classical languages and studies. This is still small, but it is populated by college faculty, secondary and primary teachers, and some students as well.

So it’s great to see this kind of energy coming from the APA. Thanks to all the candidates for volunteering to run and help pilot our profession through the tricky waters that lie ahead.

3 thoughts on “The APA and Digital Populism

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