Classics Goes into Hyperspace

I signed myself up for the Digital Classicists Workshop with little more than a hazy idea of how the internet works (and where it is located? Who knows…?) and with the blind optimism that I would be taught how to construct a time portal and how to use it. Because, obviously, this is how computers can benefit Classics. Classics – the great old academic discipline going back to the Romans and Greeks. Or, if you want to start a fight with somebody, dating back to the Ancient Near East as well. Or, if you most certainly fancy a bout of fisty cuffs outside, you could deny that Classics is a justifiable academic discipline. That is of course, a side matter. The issue at hand is that when people hear “Classics” they either imagine the land that time has forgotten, complete with people in togas discussing important things in the forum in long-dead languages, or they remember the time they spent as an undergraduate sitting in a crowded (probably overheating) lecture hall listening to a lecture with, if you’re lucky, an accompanying OHP slide and a pointing stick. Those days are long behind us now, with the advent of PowerPoint and interactive whiteboards for teaching, but what’s really the cutting edge for research is the use of computer programmes likes Diogenes. I’ve used Diogenes many times for my own research, and it is an invaluable tool for sourcing information located in ancient texts (which are typed up and inside your computer’s hard drive). But what I hadn’t got a clue about was how you could use software which we use in our day-to-day lives for academic research. Enter: Google.

Google could be very useful for classicists indeed. Our training day focused mostly on unwrapping the enigma of mystique surrounding Google Maps, Earth and Docs. Armed with this knowledge we should be able to harness their omniscient awesomeness for more than just finding our way to our friends houses, the pub or the Science lecture halls. In fact, Google Maps is a good tool for making your *own* maps of ancient sites, and by contributing information to these you are also feeding into the big pool of global knowledge for all internet users. On the plus side, you can also make a map of the route to your office and then embed it in an e-mail to all your students. This counteracts the ultimate excuse which goes something like “I don’t know where your office is/I got lost on the way”. Excellent. Will remember that for the future.

Google Earth is not just for stalkers. Now it’s for classicists too. Like with Google Maps, you can add information to the hub, marking things like ancient sites and explaining them (if you feel brave!) for the general public to see, or you can use it for your own private research. One demonstration was particularly convincing – an archaeologist decided to mark all the sites where Romano-British inscriptions were found, and then on another map marked all the current locations of the inscriptions. After laying both maps over each other, we started a conversation about the politics of museums. Although this topic’s mileage as an ice-breaker at parties might be limited, it is a very valuable way of using modern technology to visually represent database level information in a way which we can connect with and can start a conversation about.

I have to admit that before the course, I didn’t have the foggiest what Google Documents was. But it turns out that it’s an ideal way to share files which are too large for institutional mail servers, and a way for more than one person to edit a document (which could be useful for co-editing a book). Oh, and it also has a chat feature too 🙂

After a filling lunch (sadly no plates turned up, but we rose to the occasion and had it picnic style), the training course turned a little more technical. I was introduced not to HTML, but to XML, which hides somewhere behind HTML, or so I am led to believe. The objective for the afternoon was to type into a database (the Digital Papyri project, which is digitizing records of crumbling old manuscripts) a record of a partially wrecked inscription. After a number of hours, a friend and I managed to type up four lines (short ones) and submit it to the Heidelberg system. If your interested it’s O. Cret. Chers. 8. It’s a ripper.

All in all, the training course was a fab day and I have learnt a lot about how to use software in the public domain to advance my own research. Now to incorporate all this into my seminar teaching… watch this hyperspace!