To cite this article:

Dilley, Paul. Introduction. With David Bouvier, Claire Clivaz, and David Hamidovic. Classics@ 17. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2019.


Paul Dilley, with David Bouvier, Claire Clivaz, and David Hamidovic
This volume of Classics@ aims to explore and analyze how the present digital turn enables a renewed theoretical engagement with multimodal ancient literacies. Cultural transmission in Antiquity was primarily oral, supplemented by images and texts. Nevertheless, Classicists first employed the term “literacy” in the singular, according to its 19th-century definition: the ability to read and write texts. [1] But since the 2000s, the plural form has gained currency, notably in Johnson and Parker’s collection of essays, Ancient Literacies, which explores literacy from the perspective of “text-oriented events embedded in particular sociocultural contexts.” [2] Different settings, kinds, and uses of literacies emerge, often reflecting differing specializations, competencies, and social hierarchies. [3] In the past several decades, new digital tools and expanding digital culture have provided additional opportunities to explore and theorize ancient literacies.
The connection between digital and ancient literacies can be elucidated by the of New Literacy Studies, which explores literacy “in its full range of contexts and practices, not just cognitive, but social, cultural, historical, and institutional, as well.” [4] Given this broader perspective, the importance of literacy as it relates to digital media, including the internet, is steadily being recognized, even if no clearly defined academic sub-field devoted to it has emerged. According to the American Library Association, “Digital literacy is the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills. ” [5] The articles in this collection explore various aspects of digital literacies as they relate to the study of the ancient world; indeed, we use the plural form to signal their diverse modalities, following Parker and Johnson’s approach. The multiple contexts, uses, and practices of digital literacy include pedagogy in and beyond the undergraduate classroom (Tulley); the building, use, and evaluation of a major online scholarly resource (Bacalexi and Skarsouli); the use of digital affordances to theorize the optimal means of presenting ancient medical sources (Reggiani); the role of coding, and how to learn it, in the study of ancient languages (Burns and Johnson); and the difficulty in visualizing the “qualitative” uncertainty in humanities data in a way that does not mislead the viewer.
Niccola Reggiani adapts Ann Hanson’s discussions of medical literacy [6] to a digital environment, using Genette’s concept of transtextuality and focusing on literacy as the “use of reading/writing abilities and communications strategies.” He uses both literary and papyrological evidence to analyze the practice of literacy as reflected in various sub-genres, including the catechism and recipes. These “complex and fluid” technical writings are best presented through digital tools which do not simply reproduce print conventions, but adopt the model of the “multitext,” as used for example in the Center for Hellenic Studies’ Homer Multitext project [7] and in Monica Berti’s digital edition of fragmentary Greek Historians. [8] For the medical papyri, Reggiani presents an image demonstrating the functionality of a multitextual edition for a fragment of the Michigan Medical Papyrus. Instead of a single, hierarchical textual apparatus, various boxes represent the hypotext, hypertext, metatext, and intertext.
In the context of their participation in the development of an online database for L’Année Philologique, Bacalexi and Skarsoul describe various scenarios in which digital literacies occur, beginning with the first-ever user survey in the history of the venerable institution. This showed that the desires and expectations of those engaging the site did not necessarily align, perhaps because of differences between print and digital sensibilities (such as the avoidance and misunderstanding of “fuzzy search”); on the other hand, the survey revealed a preference for linking to other digital resources, which is significant given that it preceded the widespread discussion with digital humanities of linked data. Other pedagogical challenges and opportunities are present in the very construction of the database. For example, Classicists learning from computer scientists, and vice versa, regarding optimal solutions for recording, querying, and presenting information.
While interacting with the database of L’Année Philologique occurs primarily within the space of the digital text, Tulley explores the multi-modal evidence for, and reception of flute girls, especially in the undergraduate classroom. This is all the more striking given that, in classical sources (primarily philosophical), the flute girl is seen as antithetical to conversation and education. Tulley argues that in today’s digital world, citizen-scholars are important mediators of ancient culture whose work should also be considered by students. For example, “for example, there is a whole YouTube subculture devoted to showcasing musicians playing historic Greek instruments such as the aulos and pop up Pinterest sites devoted to showcasing the aulos on Attic pottery fragments.” Students, in their turn, can make their own contributions to scholarship, for example through annotating digital objects.
Burns, Hollis, and Johnson of the Classical Language Toolkit (CLTK) explore another aspect of digital literacy, namely the coding behind the developing suite of resources for the study of ancient languages. CLTK participated in the Google Summer of Code program in 2016, providing funding for Patrick Burns, then completing graduate study at Fordham, and Suhaib Khan, then working towards an undergraduate degree at the Netaji Subhas Institute of Technology. Burns’ work on lemmatization was part of a specialized training program in coding to produce a philological tool which could in turn be used by those with limited knowledge of programming. And as the authors note, the process of backoff lemmatization adopted for the CLTK module itself harnesses basic literacies related to classical language grammar, such as the identification of word stems and endings.
In “Addressing Divergent Digital Literacies and Visualizing Data Uncertainty in Social Networks and the Ancient Greek Garrisons Project,” Ryan Horne grapples with the question of how to present uncertainty within humanities datasets, especially through SNA and GIS visualizations. Apart from the theoretical and methodological difficulties in the visualization of uncertainty, as Horne notes, audiences for these projects include many with little or no technical background or understanding of the basic principles for SNA and GIS. Using his Social Networks and Ancient Greek Garrisons (SNAGG) project as a case study, Horne discusses the difficulties inherent in visualizing “fuzzy” humanities data, which have “qualitative” uncertainty, as opposed to the quantitative uncertainty which has been addressed with respect to information visualization in the social and natural sciences. In his database, Horne assigns numerical values corresponding to different confidence levels, but this uncertainty is less easily represented in maps or social network graphs. There is a palpable excitement in the many possibilities for representing this information, for example with combined GIS-network graphs which include both static nodes (fixed places) and individuals, who “bounce” around several locations with which they may be affiliated. At the same time, it is necessary to develop further strategies for directing the user’s attention to the data’s uncertainty.
In conclusion, this volume demonstrates the rich spread of digital literacies along a broad spectrum of teaching and research practices, from classroom engagement with contemporary multimedia reception of classical themes; the use of online resources by citizen scientists with little or no classical training, as well as classicists with little or no familiarity with computers; complex editorial structures which attempt to integrate historical patterns of textual transmission with contemporary information structures; and training in coding which adapts human strategies for identifying word structures to produce resources for large-scale philological work available through a basic interface. Digital literacies, as applied to the ancient world, involve a “big tent” of skills and strategies that are best learned through practice, whether in formal instructional settings or individual use. In either case, we hope that this volume inspires reflection on the challenges and possibilities of these new practices.


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Clivaz, C. 2013. “Literacy, Greco-Roman Egypt.” In Bagnall, Brodersen, Champion, Erskine, and Huebner 2013:4097–4098.
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Hanson, A. E. 2010. “Doctors’ Literacy and Papyri of Medical Content.” In Horstmanshoff 2010:187–204.
Horstmanshoff, M., ed. 2010. Hippocrates and Medical Education. Leiden.
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[ back ] 1. Clivaz 2013.
[ back ] 2. Johnson and Parker 2009:3.
[ back ] 3. As demonstrated for ancient Greece in Thomas 2009, which explores various kinds of commercial and political literacies. For the variety of literacies from the perspective of education, see Cribiore 2005.
[ back ] 4. Gee 2015:35.
[ back ] 5. ALA Literacy Clearing House (accessed 6/28/2019). An early use of the term “digital literacy” is found in Gilster 1997, who understands it to mean, among other things, the reading, understanding, and navigating both traditional and new media forms through the internet (Gilster 1997:2, 33).
[ back ] 6. Hanson 2010.