Odyssey across cyberspace

Joseph Farrell, professor of classical studies and the School of Arts and Sciences’ associate dean for graduate studies, might not describe the creation of his two computer-generated babies in mythic terms. Yet colleagues say that Farrell (http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/~jfarrell/) is a pioneer on an odyssey exploring the use of computer technology in the study of ancient texts.

In recent years, Farrell has received both a $195,000 National Endowment for the Humanities grant and a $14,000 Pew Charitable Trusts grant for two projects that unite the ancient world with the very modern.

Though some may see an apparent incongruity here, others view the confluence of the two worlds as natural. In fact, classics has been at the forefront of using computer technology for academic research, said Peter Struck, assistant professor of classical studies.

He uses the Web to store images and factual informaion for his mythology class but finds it particularly useful for teaching grammer.

“Hypertext can organize cross-references in a way that’s conducive to learning grammar,” he said.

Farrell’s Vergil Project (vergil.classics.upenn.edu) provides Virgil’s text on the upper portion of the screen while offering help with grammar and definitions, as well as links to literary commentary, below. All information is accessible to registered users with a few taps on the keyboard and a click of the mouse — no more fumbling through stacks of papers and books to find the right citation.

He received the NEH grant for the period from 1997 to 2000.

His other baby is a digitized version of “The Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, Mythology, Religion, Literature and Art,” edited by Oskar Seyffert. The reason that this text could so easily be acquired and digitized is because it is in the public domain. Not only the original texts but also much of the classical scholarship is old enough that it is no longer under copyright protection.

Work on the on-line dictionary began last spring, with the aid of a Pew Charitable Trusts grant. It will be an ongoing project, Farrell said. Students, working together in class projects under the supervision of a professor, will update entries from the dictionary and link it to commentary on related subjects. The on-line version would offer both the original text along with the supplemented materials.

The computerization of classical studies may have far-reaching implications in the field, Farrell suggested.

“Now, practically all texts are digitized and able to be searched by computer,” Farrell said. The entire body of ancient Greek and Latin literature can fit on one CD-ROM.

“It used to be that the people who were the greatest scholars in classics had the best memories,” Farrell said. “A great scholar was someone who could remember a snippet of information from one source and connect it to another snippet of information and put them together for a new insight.”

Now, he says, “the field is more open to people who can ask interesting questions but don’t have that kind of memory.”

It is also more open to students who have not necessarily studied Latin and Greek since childhood — a former, almost mandatory prerequisite. Computers have made both the study of the actual language and the study of texts and criticism much easier.

“In my teaching, I’ve noticed we can come to an understanding of linguistic problems and move to interpretive issues much more quickly,” he said. “Now older students come to these cultures and literatures with more mature questions, and they want to know about the research more quickly.”


Originally published on February 17, 2000