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Crane Talks Digitalized Humanities

Asst. News Editor

Published: Monday, February 11, 2013

Updated: Monday, February 11, 2013 02:02

“I always like to start by saying that I don’t believe in the digital humanities,” said Gregory Crane, chair of the classics department at Tufts University. “When we say digital humanities, we have people identify it as a separate niche field. From my perspective, it’s not about a separate field, but living in a world that we are a part of. Ideas are now flowing through a digital space—what does that mean for us as humanists?”

Sponsored by the Center for the Liberal Arts and the University Libraries, Crane came to Boston College on Thursday to discuss his work bringing together the study of the humanities and modern technology. A professor of Greek and Latin, Crane also serves as the editor-in-chief of the Perseus Project, an online digital library that primarily houses texts and other resources from the Greco-Roman world.

As a background to his work, Crane discussed the German and English intellectual traditions from which the American university system was created. He contrasted the German tradition of advancing human understanding and the English tradition of the privilege of education.

“University begins with the ability to contribute to and advance human understanding [in the German tradition],” Crane explained. “There is the other thread of Anglo-American education. Education is designed to establish you and give you privileges.”
Crane then turned to the goals of his current work and the challenges that he faces in incorporating technology into the life of the modern university and the intellectual life of humanity.

“How do we help people think about the particular languages and cultures you study?” Crane asked. “How do we get more people working with Greek and Latin?”

One of his focuses was the idea of metaphors and how they guide a researcher’s work. He spoke of “sustaining a global republic of letters” and “a dialogue among civilizations.”
As a researcher trained in the days before the Internet, Crane also talked about the transition to online databases and what the purpose of libraries would be in a digital world.

“Those who work for libraries are the only generalists at a university,” said Crane, defending the position of libraries within a modern university. “In the tradition of library science are the ways of thinking generally. Faculty cannot organize things cross-disciplinarily without robust library services.”
Describing the work of his former thesis advisor, Crane discussed a three-week project to digitize Byzantine manuscripts of Homer that was accomplished 10 years ago. These digital files were accessible to everyone, including undergraduates, and had never been translated before.

“When people realize that they are doing something new that no one has ever done, it is different than trying to get 100 percent of a task that has been assigned to them,” Crane said. “They are contributing to knowledge of a manuscript no one has ever done before. They had excellent retention in their Greek classes.”
As a classicist, Crane talked about how small the audience was for which he normally published and his desire to increase the study of Greek. One of the issues that he said this posed was that of labor shortage. With all of classical resources available online, he suggested that the solution was the work of student research and the citizen scholar.

Crane also recently received the Alexander von Humboldt professorship, a five-year funded position. He spoke about shifting his research to Leipzig, Germany and the work he would do in such a transatlantic setting.

“This is the first such transatlantic lab,” Crane said. “My task is to help Europe defend against Anglo-American cultural domination.”

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