Thoughts on the #DATAM conference

I was blown away by the quality and diversity of conversations at last week’s DATAM conference at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at NYU.

The papers at the conference reminded me of the tremendous range of digital tools at use by my colleagues who study the Ancient world that allowed their students to organize, analyze, map, play, and animate the ancient world.

Five things:

1. Real World Experiences. One of the key aspect of this conference is that the participants and the audience members were willing to share their experiences in using digital tools. Folks at the conference drew from across the digital (and digital humanities) ecosystem and discussed frankly the results of applying these tools in their classes. Sebastian Heath showed how students placed elephants at Ostia, Eric Poehler discussed his use of vertiginous first person videos, Sandra Blakey worked with students to populate a video games with proxenoi and pirates, and Sarah Bond mapped readings of ancient Rome. The frankness of these discussions motivated me to continue to experiment with digital approaches and opened my eyes to new tools.

2. Student Directed Learning. So much of what the conference participants did was not scripted by the instructors but student directed. Instructors presented digital tools, experiences, and goals, but students framed questions, figured how to work with the tools, and presented their results. Marie-Claire Beaulieu and Anthony Bucci encouraged students to ask questions of datasets and create workflows to answer them. Lisl Walsh worked with a class to consider word frequency in Seneca in a statistical way. While there was nothing distinctly digital about student directed learning, it was hard to avoid the feeling that digital tools offered students at least the feeling of greater control over how they created knowledge, and this seems to have been empowering to students.

3. Empathy and Democracy. One of the more compelling observations made is that the use of digital tools in the classroom exposed students to their democratizing potential. Sarah Bond emphasized how digital humanities can affect empathy in participants in these projects and serve as a significant counterweight to narrow and illiberal perspectives on both the past and present. The projects that she developed in her classes used digital technology (as well as analog tools) to contemporary University of Iowa students to an earlier time on they campus were both accessible to anyone with basic digital skills and inspiring. 

4. Politics of the Digital. The final session of the day featured two papers that looked at the politics of digital tools and the digital classroom. These ranged from the kinds of narratives that digital tools (as they currently exist) allow in our classroom to the danger of seeing sources as “data.” I added my usual screed in which I called my class a “late capital and neoliberal disaster.” You can read my paper here.

5. The Goal of the Digital and the Goal of Classics. The most interesting conversation of the day occurred at the end of the conference when we began to unpack the relationship between digital tools, digital practices, and the goals of Classics. Several participants set the role of Classics in a digital world against its unique place in the academy. On the one hand, the lack of a neat connection to a singular method (or even methodology) makes it hard to place Classics within a modern university organized around discipline grounded in particular (if often ill-defined) methods. On the other hand, Classics would appear to be a model for a post-disciplinary (and perhaps post-departmental) university organized around particular problems, periods, or issues. This latter scenario might appear forward looking and appealing to the current climate of university politics, but is also risky for a field like Classics that has historically been risk averse. 

The role of digital tools – in the classroom as well as in the field of Classics – offers ways for Classics to redefine itself as both forward looking, dynamic, and engaged with technological and social changes. At the same time, this move involves certain risks both to how the field sees itself and to how it fits into the modern university. These risks involve change for the field and change will involve new opportunities for students and faculty who position themselves to take advantage of the changing landscape of higher education as well as new dangers for vulnerable individuals who don’t, won’t, or can’t adapt. 

The conversations started at the #Datam conference will linger in my mind for a long time, and I hope they’ll continue as we work to publish a little volume based on the papers at the conference through The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota

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