For the past few days I’ve attended the annual Classical Association (CA) conference, an event that brings together academics, researchers, students and teachers from all over the world – this year it was held at the rather lovely University of Kent campus in Canterbury.
Despite being based in a Classical Studies department, and having a largely Classics and Archaeology based focus in my research, it has been a long time since I actually considered myself a Classicist. I was worried that a lot of the talks would go over my head, that there were topics I wouldn’t find interesting, and that it wouldn’t be that helpful to my PhD. As it turns out, I needn’t have worried – attending the CA conference reintroduced me to what I’d enjoyed about Classics and Archaeology as a BA and MA student, and introduced me to a plethora of new topics.
I tried to sample as many of the different themes as possible by attending a diverse selection of sessions on subjects ranging from Star Wars to scholia (comments in the margins of manuscripts). I was particularly keen to attend sessions on non-digital topics that might have the potential to benefit from a Linked Data approach, and saw various examples where semantic annotation of texts could be used to unite multiple sources around a certain theme, or to enhance existing ancient annotations of manuscripts. The latter type of content I felt would lend itself very well to being annotated using RDF, and would allow comparison of commentaries from different authors, or that relate to the same character in different retellings of a myth. For the former, I wondered how the researchers discovered particular passages of text that mention a certain concept – these often require close readings of the text as a simple keyword search tends not to be sufficient.
Thinking about the presentation topics in this way made me wonder whether these information-gathering processes could be enhanced in the digital world using some form of semantic search – would researchers want the increased efficiency this could bring, or would it lose the serendipity of discovery and the importance of having a deep contextual understanding of the source in question? To explore this, I intend to look in more detail about previous research on information seeking in Classics and related disciplines, and potentially conduct some structured interviews and/or user observations with existing resources. My current plan is to focus more on the producers of these resources, but perhaps looking more at the consumers would provide more helpful results for practical improvements.
As well as the above topics, there were also some digital-related sessions. Several talks concentrated on the use of online platforms and resources for teaching languages and Classical Civilisation – Helen Lovatt’s talk on using interactive voting technology in lectures was particularly interesting. I also enjoyed Francesco Grillo’s talk on virtually reconstructing Hero’s Automata in a 3D simulation. This piece of experimental archaeology is extremely clever and detailed, and variously proves or disproves assertions from Hero’s text using simulations based on entering different parameters for mathematical equations. This is such a good example of how digital technologies can be used positively to assist with Classical research. Additionally, the Thursday afternoon concluded with a Digital Classics panel, led by Gabriel Bodard, which consisted of a series of short talks on pertinent issues for digital research in Classics (e.g. infrastructure, publishing and research data management), followed by a lively discussion. This was probably the most directly relevant session for my research, and I was particularly keen to hear the different perspectives on what constitutes research data, and the related difficulty of trying to apply rules led by science subjects to the Arts and Humanities. As a former Repository Manager it is so interesting to hear about these issues from the perspective of individual researchers – I know I will always think about these things differently as I’ve now experienced it from both sides.
Aside from the topics of the talks, one thing that really struck me was the difference in presentation culture compared with the Digital Humanities / research support / collections-related conferences I have attended previously. Most people seemed to read their papers word-for-word rather than talking more spontaneously with a few notes as an aide-memoire. It was also quite common not to use slides, which I found made some papers very difficult to follow, and I was surprised by the amount of paper handouts I received. I’m not sure this difference in presentation technique is a bad thing particularly – some speakers managed to be extremely dynamic and engaging despite reading from a script – but it did make some talks a bit more difficult to engage with if there was minimal eye contact and visuals. I’m not sure I’d feel entirely comfortable just reading from a script, so I doubt I’ll be changing my technique any time in the near future!
Finally, I just want to say how friendly and welcoming the conference was. It was great to meet people doing such a diverse spectrum of research, and to put some names to faces – particularly from Classical Studies at the Open University. I really enjoyed my time at the CA conference – despite my initial misgivings it most certainly was worth attending, and gave me a lot of food for thought that I will be applying to my own research. I would like to thank the Classical Association for awarding me a half bursary and the Open University for providing the rest of the funds required to attend.