Training a generation of citizen scholars

 “Everyone has the capacity to add to the sum of human knowledge,” says Gregory Crane, chair of the Classics Department in the School of Arts and Sciences.

As editor of the Perseus Digital Library Project, Crane is shaking up stereotypes about the classics and demonstrating that anyone can get engaged with this dynamic field.

“Humanists aim to advance intellectual life,” said Crane. “Through Perseus, we’re doing that on a global, intercultural scale with the goal of creating a full record of human history. That is very much active citizenship.”

An online, open source collection of classics, Perseus allows people from around the world to contribute their knowledge to the translation and interpretation of classic texts. Founded in 1987, Perseus is one of the oldest and most widely used digital resources in the humanities, and is an essential tool for classicists.

“Students love doing things that are real and have impact,” Crane said.  “Perseus allows students to have that kind of impact early on in their studies.”

For example, Perseus partners with students at the University of Cairo to study Greek texts which only survive in their Arabic translations. Similarly, students in Crane’s classes at Tufts have helped develop Greek and Latin treebanks – large collections of parsed sentences which help a reader more fully understand a work.

While this work directly helps explore the questions classics scholars are working on, it also has an important impact on people’s sense of cultural identity.

“Greco-Roman culture is common for everyone from India to Spain,” Crane said.  “The Greek texts which serve as the basis for western civilization were translated first into Arabic and then into Latin. At every step, there were changes and improvements – they existed as living documents which were shared and discussed widely.”

It was this sharing of knowledge, largely driven by Middle Eastern scholars of the time, that made the Renaissance possible. Ironically, the Renaissance then changed the classics from an ongoing dialogue to a more sequestered study.

“In many ways, the Renaissance represents the closing of the western mind, because with the advent of the printing press, people began going straight to the Greek texts and skipping over the important contributions that were made in the Arabic translations,” Crane said. “As this happened, ideas became more self-contained and that lively intercultural dialogue disappeared.  Over time, this led ‘classics’ to become its own subject which has continued to be studied in this self-contained way.”

But thanks to scholars like Crane, all that is changing with the advent of digital technologies.

“As global communication has gotten faster and easier, scholars have more data than ever to work with,” Crane said. “We can derive data using computer programs that analyze text, allowing us to see patterns that previously went undetected and we can instantaneously share that information with anyone around the world.  We have vast amounts of data at our fingertips – far more than any one person could truly master.”

The availability of all this information has caused a shift in intellectual life for the classics.

“Until recently, the study of classics had evolved into a relative closed network of scholars – with only people who’ve devoted their life to this work able to participate in the conversation,” Crane said. “But now, the scale of data we have access to is forcing scholars to think differently about this work.  There is so much data available that not only is it impossible for one person to master all that information.”

By engaging students directly with substantive research projects to work on, Crane is helping to broaden the reach of who can participate in conversations about the classics.

“We are training a generation of citizen scholars who can contribute to this growing wealth of knowledge” Crane said.  “We are getting students excited about this work by giving them the tools and skills to directly contribute to the knowledge pool in the field.”

Tufts students also directly experience the value and importance of knowledge-sharing. For a class midterm, Crane has his students translate a document. Based on their personal path of study, some students translate from Greek to English, while others translate from Arabic to English. They then partner, compare their translations, and begin to see the nuances in ideas and meaning that can emerge.

“No one can master every language or read every text,” Crane said. “Students and scholars alike have to bring their information together in order for any of us to be able to see the bigger picture.”

Originally published January 2012