On Student-Scholars, Editor-Scribes, and the Homer Multitext: An Interview with Mary Ebbott

“… the editor is no longer a dictator of what the text is, but rather someone who provides access to the sources within a framework that allows users to make these comparisons, to ask new questions, and to re-use the material for his or her own purposes.”–Mary Ebbott
Venetus A detail--Iliad 20.249
We recently had the opportunity to interview Mary Ebbott, Associate Professor of Classics at Holy Cross and co-Editor of the Homer Multitext (HMT) project at CHS. Ebbott is also an Executive Editor of publications here at the Center. Ebbott took time from her very busy schedule to discuss the Homer Multitext, the changing role of editors and readers in a multitext environment, and her current research with Casey Dué on the role of medieval scribes in the transmission of ancient texts.
CHS: First, can you tell us a bit about the HMT? What makes this project so unique? Who has been involved so far?
Ebbott: In essence, the Homer Multitext is a redefinition of a critical edition of the Homeric epics and the ancient and medieval scholarship on those epics (which are transmitted in the scholia, the marginal commentary in our manuscripts). It seeks to present our witnesses for the epics in their historical contexts (that is, information such as when these sources were created and where they were/are found now) and to better allow readers to see how the textual transmission reveals the multiformity of the oral tradition in which these epics were composed-in-performance. It also re-imagines what an edition of the epics can be in a digital environment, rather than on a printed page: that is, what the digital environment offers so that the edition can be much more than what a printed page allows. Another key feature of the HMT is that it is a large-scale, long-term project that relies on collaboration from many people from lots of different institutions, both in the U.S. and in Europe, in many different fields or disciplines. We have worked with curators, conservators, photographers, computer scientists. It is also an intergenerational collaboration that includes students, both graduate and undergraduate, from our own institutions and others. We are actively asking others to join us, too: this summer, we will have faculty-student teams from the University of Washington and Trinity University (San Antonio) learning the Multitext editing methods at the CHS summer seminar, and we hope that our collaboration will continue to grow.
CHS: Past editions of the Iliad and Odyssey seem to be designed to answer the question, what’s “the real text of Homer.” What kinds of questions do editors of a multitext tradition need to ask? How does working on a multiform tradition change the traditional identity and role of the editor?
Ebbott: The first question we are working on for each of our primary sources (the manuscripts and papyri) is: what does this source contain? We want to represent those as accurately as possible in digital form, but we also use a method (developed by HMT information architects Christopher Blackwell and Neel Smith [see their technical documentation here]) of citing and linking to the digital image of the papyrus or page of the manuscript itself to provide visual evidence of what our edition says. The digital edition makes it possible to search and do other sorts of automatic checks and collations, but unlike other editions, we give our readers access to the same primary sources we are using so that they can check for themselves. In addition, we are developing other tools so that readers can compare and use these sources in a variety of ways. We also plan to provide an introduction to each source, including its historical context  so that users can better understand what the sources are, where and when they come from, and how they relate to one another. So the editor is no longer a dictator of what the text is, but rather someone who provides access to the sources within a framework that allows users to make these comparisons, to ask new questions, and to re-use the material for his or her own purposes.
CHS: Does the role of the reader change when working with a multitext tradition? What new skills do readers need to develop to make the most of the Homer Multitext? For example, what if your reader has never read Greek from a manuscript before?
Ebbott: Because we give readers access to the same primary sources we have access to, the usual relationship of editor to reader, where the editor has made all sorts of decisions about what to include (and how) and is telling the reader what the primary source says without a way for the reader to check, is fundamentally changed. But we do want the HMT to be accessible to a wide range of readers, with varying expertise in the subject matter. That is a huge challenge for the project, and one that we are continually thinking about as we develop our editions and the tools readers will use in their research. Here, too, is where collaboration is important and marvelous. When we started working with our students on the Venetus A manuscript, one of them spontaneously made a kind of palaeographical guide to the manuscript for himself, and then shared it with his classmates. Over the past few years, that guide has grown and now uses the image citation methods to again provide visual evidence for the letter forms, ligatures, etc. When students start work on a new manuscript, they make a palaeography guide for that manuscript as well. So far we have used these palaeography guides internally, to train new students as they begin research for the project, but we now have plans to publish these guides for all users of the HMT.
CHS: It seems like this project is helping to redefine the working relationship between students and professors. How does the experience of working on the HMT compare with the type of work undergraduates are often asked to engage in a traditional classroom setting ? What engaging questions have your students proposed?

Smith and Roughan with poster
Image: Neel Smith and Christine Roughan at Council on Undergraduate Research’s Posters on the Hill 2012 event with Christine’s poster

Ebbott: Undergraduate research on the project isn’t just a “side benefit”: it is essential for the project to move forward. So our students are true collaborators on the research involved. Both in the intensive summer research (full time for nine weeks), in the work the students do throughout the academic year (sometimes as coursework, but more often not), and in long-term work like senior theses, the students are working closely with us, but also independently as researchers in their own right. They are examining these manuscripts as closely as anyone has, and so their observations lead to new questions and new answers. I liken it to the difference between a laboratory component of a course in the sciences and working in a laboratory. Within the lab course, the experiments the students run are designed to give them a particular outcome—getting that “right” outcome is how they know they did it correctly. But when students work in a research laboratory in the sciences, they are doing the real basic research, with outcomes yet to be determined. The same is true for our undergraduate researchers. We provide methods and protocols, but we don’t yet know the outcomes. So working with the students has reshaped our methods and protocols as well—we refine the process depending on what they are finding in their work. We are discovering what is in these manuscripts along with them, and so they can see how we work with new evidence—and then they do that themselves. Students get a true sense of what research is, and how it is different from the usual assignments that are meant to be in line with what we already know. Once they create a diplomatic edition of the manuscript (a book at a time) including its scholia, they have observed closely all sorts of features that they pursue in more depth—their own research interests point them to particular questions. We have started to publish some of their preliminary findings on the Homer Multitext blog, such as Christine Roughan’s post on the numbering of the similes in the Venetus A manuscript, Stephanie Lindeborg’s post about some marginal notes in red ink in the first few folios of the Venetus A, and Thomas Arralde’s post on identifying Aristarchean commentary in the Venetus A scholia.  There is more to come!
CHS: What has been the biggest surprise for you since this project began?
Ebbott: Even in the most famous and well-studied manuscript of the Iliad, the Venetus A, our student researchers, using a “total editing” approach in which they include every mark on the page, have discovered scholia and other elements that have not been published before or received much attention in the past century or two. So I am happily surprised by the new questions that we can ask of the material that we never thought to ask before, or couldn’t answer before even if we did think to ask. Looking closely at these deluxe, scholarly manuscripts has also changed our fundamental ideas about the scribes who created them. My HMT co-Editor Casey Dué and I are currently working on the two manuscripts from the Escorial, and in the process of getting to know these manuscripts well we have started to develop an argument that we should think of the scribes not as “copyists” (which has the unfortunate side effect of focusing solely on their copying mistakes) but as editors in their own right, who were making decisions about what to include and how, especially in the scholia. Changing how we think of the scribe also changes how we understand and use the primary sources, since we will be trying to understand the choices he was making and what range of sources he may have had at his disposal, rather than lamenting the “contamination” he wrought by using more than one source. It changes the perspective from that of conventional textual editing in trying to exclude as much as possible from our multiple sources to one that finds value in including everything the scribe decided to include.
Cover of Iliad 10 and the Poetics of AmbushCHS: Two of your books have addressed issues of legitimacy;  Iliad 10 and the Poetics of Ambush (coauthored by Casey Dué) focuses on a scroll of the poem which has historically been considered “un-Homeric”, and your first book studied the metaphors of illegitimacy in classical Greek literature, with a focus on depictions of the illegitimate child (nothos). In some sense the HMT also deals with legitimizing variant readings. Why do you think you are so drawn to these questions of legitimacy? Why is this such a critical issue?
Ebbott: Wow, I hadn’t ever thought about that connection between my first book and my current  work, but I like it! Legitimacy, or authenticity, is a central concept to the conventional practices of textual criticism. At the root of everything the conventional textual editor does is the question: is this genuine? “This” might be a word, a line, a whole book (in the case of Iliad 10), or a whole play (like the Rhesos that Casey and I also discuss at some length in our Iliad 10 book, because it is a tragedy portraying the same story). But that very question comes from a particular idea of authorship, and of value based on authorship. In the Homer Multitext, we are reframing that question. In my first book, Imagining Illegitimacy in Classical Greek Literature, I examined literature from a wide timespan, but within that span there were particular historical moments that raised questions about legitimacy and its connection to citizenship. cover Imagining IllegitimacyOne such moment was the middle of the fifth-century in Athens, when the Periclean Citizenship law of 451/450 BCE changed the terms of legitimacy: now your mother as well as your father had to be Athenian for you to be eligible for Athenian citizenship. That change is reflected in Athenian tragedy because a change in the definition also exposed that the definition was not natural and inevitable but artificial and arbitrary. As unsettling as that was for the fifth-century Athenians, the HMT is similarly rethinking the conventions of textual criticism in conjunction with developing new practices of criticism that are specific to the digital medium.