Digital Approaches to Teaching Mediterranean Archaeology: A Conversation with Sebastian Heath

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As we look ahead to a busy summer of class redesign and an uncertain fall, The Digital Press is pleased to re-introduce Sebastian Heath’s edited volume, DATAM: Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean. It is now available as a glorious full-color digital download and in resplendent paper which you can buy at Amazon or through an independent bookstore.

To celebrate its publication in paper, we had a conversation with the book’s editor, Sebastian Heath, where he talks about linked open data, teaching during the “Time of COVID”, and the future of digital practices in the classroom and in various discipline.  

1. Can you talk a little about how you decided to organize a conference and a volume around the theme of Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean?

In 2012 and 2013, ISAW was part of organizing the NEH-funded Linked Ancient World Data Institutes (LAWDI). These were multi-day events that really did seem to create a community of scholars who have kept talking to each other about their practices applying digital tools within their own work. As an informal follow up to those workshops, my ISAW colleagues, David Ratzan and Thomas Elliott, and I have been co-organizing a series of one-day workshops that have tried to bring more people into that dialog. DATAM came about because we wanted to extend the conversation specifically to teaching. The goal was to provide a forum for colleagues in the classroom to share what they’ve been doing, what has worked, and also what hasn’t. We approached Helen Culyer of the Society for Classical Studies (SCS) and we’re very glad that she agreed to participate and to have the SCS join as a partner. We then thought the day went extremely well and that the papers were interesting. This couldn’t have happened without our speakers, and the audience, and the help of the ISAW community, You and I had already talked about publishing the results and there was real enthusiasm for doing that. It’s now great to see the volume actually appear.

2. As a leading voice in the linked ancient world and linked-open data standards in archaeology, how do these larger conversations influence how we teach archaeology?

I really try to emphasize to my students that it is important to share work. This certainly happens within the classroom. Whether it’s maps, or 3D models, or Omeka websites, I almost almost have a shared Google Doc to which students add links to what they’ve made. We all click through, and we all look at our results. I talk to them about my own efforts to share data and we often use that data in class. This builds a general ethos of “share first” that I hope will influence students to be more worried about people not using their data, rather than be worried about people “stealing” it. None of this is really about the technical aspects of “LOD” – or linked-open data – but it is about the ethical aspects. The technical can come later or can be implicit when students download existing data and think about how useful it is. I do also directly teach the technical aspects of LOD in my Digital Humanities graduate seminars; but when I’m teaching Roman art and archaeology, any available digital resource counts as a form of LOD and I try to create an environment in which students are comfortable finding and working with those resources.

3. With the recent spread of COVID-19 and the massive curtailing of field schools, study tours, and archaeological fieldwork around the Mediterranean, what role can digital approaches serve to fill the gap in 2020 and beyond? What are the limits to these methods?

Maybe it’s useful to think of any individual archaeologist now having the same relationship to their site or to the objects they might have been studying in a museum that the general public has. We can’t travel so we can’t directly experience the material culture with which we’ve become so intimately familiar. So did we do a good job in collecting data about our sites and our objects (or any other aspect of our field work)? Do we have digital surrogates that let us keep working? Probably not perfect ones, but hopefully pretty good ones. And if we have them, why not share with everybody else? This is a long-time discussion within the discipline. But I do think COVID19 has highlighted the importance of digital resources. The library community has really stepped up and tried to fill the gap left by not being able to visit physical collections. And the museum world is joining this trend as well. The archaeological community can – and in many instances is – participate in sharing digital resources. There are limits of course. Any digital surrogate is not as useful as the “real” thing. But when no one has access to the original, we may all choose to gain greater expertise in creating and sharing surrogates.

4. The intersection of digital approaches to teaching and online teaching seems particularly fertile as more and more higher education is becoming hybrid in some ways. How do you see the relationship and possibilities of the digital approaches presented in this volume and larger field of online instruction?

This is an interesting question. Even before COVID-19, most of our students were never going to visit the sites we talk about or go to the museums that hold the objects we show. And we essentially can never do that during the term. A visit to a local museum might happen, but it will only have a small selection in comparison to the full set of material used in a course. So digital tools and resources have long played a role in bringing the ancient world into the classroom. We’re well into the age of using digital images for all our courses, and, as discussed in the volume, there are growing opportunities to use resources such as 3D models, maps, games, programming tools, video, and other resources to add to how we communicate with our students. While the volume didn’t address online teaching per se, all of these approaches have a role in such environments. A 3D model can come to the students (at least metaphorically) and if the content owners allow, they can paint it, or annotate, or combine it with other models. All this can be done asynchronously and that may be an advantage in online pedagogic environments. So I think the focus can be on good teaching, rather than online, face-to-face, or hybrid. Digital tools allow any teacher to encourage students to be creative as they virtually paint an imperial portrait. And any teacher can ask students to explain their choices. It may be that digital approaches are agnostic as to the pedagogic environment in which they are used. I hope anybody who wants to find out how digital tools can allow exploration of aspects of the ancient world that have been hard to represent previously will be interested in the papers in the volume. Bill, your essay about digital divides is extremely important here. I got to be an optimist in my essay and to write about a computing rich environment. It’s naive to think that’s going to be available for everybody, but I do think it’s useful to think about how to use digital tools in our teaching when we can.

5.  It seems like the world of digital approaches to teaching is always changing and developing and many of the most innovative instructors feel like they’re one-step ahead. Having been thinking about digital approaches for a long time now, where do you see digital teaching going in the future? What tools, skills, and approaches will emerge? 

I’m going to take this opportunity to stress the importance of teaching digital skills and digital pedagogy to graduate students. As you say, it’s all changing rapidly. So we need cohorts of new teachers who are comfortable responding to this change. I think they should understand how digital resources are created, so we also need new cohorts of digital researchers. And graduate students should be comfortable using digital methods in the classroom. All of this will position them to take advantage of whatever new trends develop. Looking to the near-term future, I see increasing opportunity for our undergraduate students to learn by doing. I’m becoming repetitive but making 3D models, making maps, using programmatic approaches to create data driven visualizations and then to critique those are all methods that can help students become sophisticated digital citizens. We them to be able to critique both the output of digital work and the modes of its production. And to do so in all spheres, not just when thinking about the ancient Mediterranean.  I do think the variety of digital resources that we bring to the classroom will allow us as teachers and our students to explore new aspects of ancient experience. What did a city sound like? Or can we immerse ourselves in the practicalities of traveling by road or ship? Whose experience will we try to communicate? So rather than a specific technology, I see a trend to a more complete consideration of the ancient world. And this is a paradox I’ve come to enjoy, the more we virtualize the ancient world and the more we bring that virtual version of it into the classroom, the more we can focus on specific detail within a bigger picture. Again, that’s the trend: joint consideration by student and teacher of the full richness of the ancient world. I look forward to that.

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