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“Digital Humanities” Reconsidered: Early Modern Latin Sources in Online Teaching

Isabella Walser-Bürgler
Ludwig Boltzmann Institut für Neulateinische Studien, Innsbruck

Teaching the early modern in the era of COVID-19 is challenging for instructors of all stripes. This article outlines how these challenges were met in teaching Neo-Latin in an undergraduate seminar in Austria by highlighting the special role of constructivist learning and digital resources. With regard to the Neo-Latin part of the seminar, the aim of the class was twofold: first, to familiarize the participants with the vast international production of Latin texts between 1450 and 1750 (i.e., Neo-Latin literature) by reading extracts from various texts in the Latin original; second to link those texts to their respective contemporary background and contextualize them.

Teaching via online platforms entailed its own ways of building knowledge in that respect—and surprisingly, not necessarily worse ways compared to the usual interaction between instructor and students. It seems that supplying students with only the most essential background information by mail, focusing on referring them to the right texts (primary material) and papers (secondary material) for them to plough through on their own, and backing up the weekly written assignments (the results of their study work) with regular feedback left most students with a clearer mind than when the texts and their contexts are discussed extensively in plenary classroom sessions. However, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that now students have so much time at their disposal, their workload can easily be increased. The secret to enabling students to master translating and contextualizing Latin texts was dictated by the motto “less is more.”

In the concrete present case this meant that instead of having students translate 150 verses or several pages of Latin prose per week, while also expecting them to read one or two historical articles (which is the usual undergraduate seminar workload), it proved more fruitful to task them with merely half the workload. This measure yielded quality on the part of the students’ work. Once they felt the assignment was not quantitatively overwhelming, they were prone to invest more time and effort into completing it. As the assignments submitted indicated, they had demonstrably read the secondary material and they had exhaustively engaged with the Latin sources in ways previously unwitnessed in this class. It might be controversial to state, but it seems that when students are no longer constantly exposed to the teacher as the “source” of knowledge, but remain convinced that the task is achievable, they are more likely to develop an independent understanding based on a more profound analysis of historical facts and philological matters. In other words, forced to find their own access to the topics on the one hand and driven by the desire to get at least “something” out of their work on the other, they end up with “the” something: They end up with personally more insightful conclusions.1 In this online teaching scenario, the instructor’s role is slightly changed. As is consistent with principles of radical constructivism, the instructor becomes the driving force behind the students’ knowledge building, by providing the main stimuli and determining the general course of action, rather than actively (and exclusively) delivering knowledge to passive student recipients.

In contrast to empirical subjects like biology or other sciences, early modern Latin not only lends itself to this sort of online teaching described due to the fact that the reading and translating of sources requires a lot of individual silent work from home (in fact, this statement holds true for various disciplines in the humanities). More importantly, the major role digital content plays for Neo-Latin studies in terms of both analysis and discussion fittingly situates the teaching of early modern Latin in an online environment. In most cases, modern critical book editions of early modern Latin texts do not exist, and neither do editions of auxiliary resources like early modern dictionaries or commentaries. These text sources, however, have become increasingly available in digitized form via Google Books online or digitization projects of central national libraries or selected universities (e.g., the digital stock of the Münchener DigitalisierungsZentrum (MDZ) [Bavarian state library] or the Camena project of the University of Mannheim in Germany). In addition, word lists and indexes by Neo-Latin scholars have been developed in the last years for an exclusive online use, such as the Neulateinische Wortliste (Neo-Latin word list) by Johann Ramminger or the Lexicon Morganianum by David Morgan and Patrick M. Owens. Modern online editions of Neo-Latin texts, fully fledged with interactive and interlinked critical apparatuses, translations, and/or commentaries, have started to substitute for the printed book edition and commentary recently.2 Finally, let us not forget all the databases on various topics (e.g., CroaLa, an electronic library of Croatian Neo-Latin authors, the Database of Nordic Neo-Latin Literature, the Noscemus database of Neo-Latin scientific works in the form of a semantic media wiki) or other text collections and bibliographical lists.

The advantages of all these online resources are obvious: the sources become available to everybody, they are free to use, and they are easy to handle, even for undergraduate students. Textual reproductions, a comment on a difficult passage, or the search for a word’s sixteenth-century meaning is often only a click away. These glimpses at the web presence of early modern Latin culture only go to show that the teaching of early modern Latin is somehow naturally akin to the online world. After all, much of the text-centred part of the work takes place on the internet already.3 The existing digital “infrastructure” enormously facilitates the online teaching of Neo-Latin language and literature in general—and it certainly did so in the case of the online undergraduate seminar mentioned above. Without the immediate availability of some selected databases, dictionaries, text editions, and commentaries, it would have been far more difficult for both the instructor and the students to meet the seminar’s goals. Similarly, the broad range of digital resources available means course content could be flexibly adapted to the circumstances of online teaching and learning. Considering this outcome, along with the online modalities highlighted, the term “digital humanities” truly takes on a whole new meaning.

Isabella Walser-Bürgler is Key Researcher (PI) at the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Neo-Latin Studies in Innsbruck/Austria. Alongside her research on the history of early modern education, she dedicates herself to imparting the growing knowledge of Neo-Latin studies to school teachers and programs in Austria and Germany. An important role in that respect plays the revaluation of teaching methodologies in the classical languages.

1 This approach reflects many of the epistemological theories raised by Ernst von Glasersfeld (1917–2010), which in turn have been adopted by the field of constructivist didactics. See, for example, Ernst von Glasersfeld, “Questions and Answers about Radical Constructivism,” in Scope, Sequence, and Coordination of Secondary Schools Science. A Project of the National Science Teachers Association, ed. Marcia K. Pearsall (Washington DC: NSTA, 1992), 169–82; and Rolf Arnold, Ich lerne, also bin ich. Eine systemisch-konstruktivistische Didaktik (Heidelberg: Auer, 2007).

2 For one such showcase project, see the digital edition of the works by the Danish-Norwegian historian Ludvig Holberg (1684–1754): Ludvig Holbergs Skrifter.

3 A detailed overview of Neo-Latin’s online presence is provided in Demmy Verbeke, “Neo-Latin Online,” in Brill’s Encyclopaedia of the Neo-Latin World, vol. 2, Micropaedia, ed. Philip Ford, Jan Bloemendal, and Charles Fantazzi (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2014), 1116–17.

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