Monday, July 22, 2013

Collaboration and new tools are keys to success for Holy Cross research teams

Summer researchers and members of the Holy Cross MID Club in the St. Isidore of Seville Lab at Holy Cross
(back row, left to right: Stephanie Lindeborg, Rebecca Finnigan, Brian Clark, Nikolas Churik
front row: Neil Curran, Debbie Sokolowski, Andrew Boudon, Christine Bannan)
Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit to the College of the Holy Cross where I met members of the Manuscripts, Inscriptions, and Documents Club as well as their faculty mentors Mary Ebbott and Neel Smith. The club has four teams of dedicated undergraduate researchers pursuing three different projects within the summer research program at Holy Cross. Two teams are working as part of the Homer Multitext project to digitize portions of the Venetus A manuscript. A third team is working on a 16th century manuscript of Archimedes. Another club member is working to digitize the Athenian tribute lists. I will be sharing more about the work of these teams over the coming days. And more importantly, the teams will author posts later this summer sharing their original and substantive research. But before posting results, I'd like to share some details about how these teams go about their work and why they are so successful.  Two significant factors emerged during my visit: innovative tools and collaboration.

I want to highlight the idea of collaboration because this has become a fundamental concept for the Homer Multitext project as a whole. Collaboration in an academic setting often involves sharing results or reaching consensus in meetings, but in this case it goes much deeper; the work process of each 2-3 person team is entirely collaborative. Here's what I mean: a team of three students might work through a the text of a folio line-by-line as what Neel Smith calls a "three-headed monster": one person checking a print edition, a second checking the digital image of the folio, a third taking notes. At Holy Cross, they have multiple teams all working side-by-side in one lab, so teams support each other when questions arise. When there are issues that the students can't resolve, faculty members are available right down the hall for consultation.

In addition to this collaborative approach, the teams are benefiting from the use of new tools that speed up the work flow while ensuring the quality of data. These tool also facilitate the creation of new resources and allow researchers to ask new kinds of questions about these manuscripts and the traditions they preserve.

For instance, the first team I met on my visit included Neil Curran (class of 2014) and Stephanie Lindeborg (class of 2013), who are both veterans on the HMT. This is Stephanie's third summer of research and Neil's second. [For more on Stephanie's research, see "Scholia On Odysseus in Iliad 8, Part One.]" Right now they are working together to verify transcriptions done by earlier teams on books 1-8 of the Venetus A. Part of the verification process involves a new tool: Mandatory On-going Maintenance or MOM, which Professor Neel Smith had just updated that morning. Among other things, MOM allows the team to generate an index of Greek words used on a folio along with the lines where the word occurs.

This list can then be automatically parsed and checked against all the entries in the LSJ to find words without a match. There are typically between 5 and 30 unmatched terms, or "failures," for each folio. These failures are then tracked and checked carefully, since some of them potentially represent "new" terms that can be added to the ancient Greek lexicon.

Partial list of possible "new" terms in Book 4 of the Venetus A.

This discovery of new words alone would be exciting, but these tools will also allow the creation of new and valuable resources, such as a "core vocabulary" for reading scholia in individual manuscripts—a challenging task even for many professors working from a print edition such as that of Erbse. In this case, however, undergraduates are reading a 10th century Byzantine script marked by the frequent use of abbreviations, technical language, and letter formations that are totally unfamiliar to most students, who are accustomed to reading from a print edition such as an Oxford Classical Text. And the HMT team has already estimated that about 20% of the scholia in the Venetus A have never been published, so there is often no authority to double check. These researchers become experts on many fronts.

As these students augment the ancient Greek lexicon and redefine undergraduate research, they are also building skills they never thought they would have. When I asked the team about this, Stephanie told me about the technical skills she has gained. It happens that her father is an engineer. Since working on the Homer Multitext, she has found that she is becoming fluent in the kind of technical language her father uses on a daily basis. And Neil noted the confidence that comes from being part of the HMT: "We are prepared to learn to do anything!"

This brings me to another point about collaboration on the project. The close, work-process collaboration I saw in action is not accidental. It has been intentionally and carefully fostered by the HMT team including Neel Smith, Mary Ebbott, Casey Dué, and Christopher Blackwell. Such collaboration is part of the genuine deep learning that is taking place, and it is hard to replicate in a traditional classroom. In fact, experience has shown that these teams are typically more successful when grades and course credit are left far behind. Perhaps this is because in a typical reading class, it's very easy to hide what we don't know. But when you are working through a text as "three-headed monster" there's no place to hide. You contribute all you can, then you simply admit what you don't know, you ask for help, and your team works it out together. Even the professors are in a position that requires complete intellectual honesty and at times modesty, since many of these scholia have never been translated before. The result is that good questions are valued as much as good answers.

And here's perhaps the most important outcome of this collaborative approach: teams develop their ideas in the context of meaningful intellectual relationships that extend beyond graduation day. Here again, the faculty have lead the way. Ebbott and Dué have been collaborating since their time as graduate students at Harvard, co-teaching courses, writing books, and now co-editing the Homer Multitext. Likewise, the project's information architects, Smith and Blackwell, have collaborated on the technical infrastructure of the project for over a decade now, and regularly collaborate on numerous other projects as well.

Over the next few years, the HMT team hopes to strengthen communication across its multiple teams at various universities. They are also thinking about ways to collaborate with participants after graduation, whether they are moving on to graduate programs in Classics or to careers in law, secondary education, or other fields.

Stay tuned for more from the Holy Cross teams and HMT graduates in the coming days.

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