Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Memory Lane - the influence of personal experience and societal change.

As many members of The University of Queensland's Classics and Ancient History Society have seen, I have been spending a lot of time digging through old notes and memories to post interesting ancient facts on their Facebook page to amuse people during the exam period. My personal trip down memory lane stirred up the memory of a humorous item which had been photocopied from the Wall Street Journal involving classicists in the United States, the Unabomber and the FBI.

This single photocopied page was passed around staff and students (postgrad and undergrad) within the then Classics and Ancient History Department, chortled over and discussed. In a discipline that always felt under attack, we were both happy to see classics mentioned in a business journal, but then felt the dismay that we as a community were being laughed at by people in the business world. I decided to find that long lost article the other day. I couldn't remember what year it was published, what it was entitled, or even the names of the classicists involved. All I could remember was some classics academic said they had called the FBI to suggest that another classicist was the terrorist known as the "Unabomber". For readers who don't know what I'm referring to, here's the Wikipedia article. I knew it predated September 11, because as a community we still felt it was okay to laugh at the concept of accusing an innocent party of being a terrorist.

A little online research (i.e. typing Unabomber, classics, FBI, and Wall Street Journal into Google) didn't get me to the article I had read so many years before; instead Google books had thrown open to me a page from Victor Davis Hanson, John Heath and Bruce S. Thornton's Bonfire of the Humanities: Rescuing the Classics in an Impoverished Age, 2001 (but with a 2014 eBook edition).  You can read the Bryn Mawr Classical Review article here.  It was a follow up to their highly contentious Who Killed Homer, the book which sparked much of this fight which was published in 1998. From here I got the date 1999 and I found through the Library databases the text to that Wall Street Journal article: J. Bottom, "Taste -- It's War! --- You thought the Balkans were bad; Look at these classics professors," Wall Street Journal, Eastern Edition, 28 May, 1999, p. W 11. I'd love to post the entirety of the text, but unfortunately it is illegal. So I reread the article, now as someone who has completed her PhD, attended a number of conferences in various countries, and gotten into an occasional academic stoush, rather than the undergrad in her last year of her BA.

Fifteen years made a great deal of a difference to my reaction to this story. My first reaction was one of deep discomfort and embarrassment. The idea that classicists were being viewed by the wider audience in this way made me squirm. Were we all seen to be like this to readers of the a Wall Street Journal? Were the opportunities of classics graduates being adversely affected by this article? I certainly hope not. This is one example of the classicist community, not a reflection of the whole. Whereas before I laughed myself silly and drew further attention to this article among my peers, I am writing this now with my conscience divided between "This is an interesting facet in the history of classicism" and "Don't draw further attention to this embarrassing facet of the history of classicism!" The historian in me is winning this argument. My reaction to this article is also tinged by having met Judith Hallett (I think!). I have a vague memory of meeting this academic who claimed to have called the FBI, and my immediate reaction was in recognising her name was "She didn't seem that nasty." From my personal 5-10 minutes of interaction she seemed nice and supportive of young, up-and-coming academics.

The article then went on to cite segments of the email discussion, referred to various swipes the combatants had taken at each other in various articles, and book reviews. I'm sure if Bonfire of the Humanities had been published at the time of this article, it's closing chapter which was devoted to the analysis of this claim to have called the FBI, would have been cited. The closing paragraph still makes me feel anger that these people had brought my discipline of classics and ancient history into such disrepute, and there was no body like cricket's ICC to publicly rebuke them:
It's wrong for him to write about her book, you see, because she once called the FBI and compared him to a multiple murderer. There. That's the way for scholars to answer a brutal review of their latest book. That's the way to defend, once and for all, the high-minded, classical profession of Greek and Latin.
Apart from these reactions, what I noticed more about this was the nature of communication at the time. The claim that Hallett had called the FBI was posted on an email forum. This term meant nothing to me in 1999. I had a University issued email address which I never checked at the time. I didn't own a computer. The computers made available by the student union were limited in number, and old tubes which showed green text on a black screen (think the opening credits to The Matrix). We still enrolled in classes by filling out paperwork, literally. The idea of communicating as a member of a group on a computer was completely foreign to me. We live now in a society saturated in social media where we share articles online, but at this time it was a photocopy left on a table in a tea room where staff and students socialised on a daily basis. Although I post frequently online within the UQ classics student's community, I miss the days where socialising was more interpersonal than Internet.

The article even included the link where all these emails were publicly available so all its readers could go and laugh at the classicists, like digitally throwing peanuts at monkeys at the zoo. I checked to see if it's still available. It doesn't appear to be, at least not on that link. These kinds of lists still exist in classics community, and occasionally something is discussed which incites the ire of the group, but I know of no other case quite like this one. I think that today we are more aware of the impact of what we place online; we know that everything can be seen and judged. The circumstances surrounding publication of the emails of Prof. Barry Spurr was a timely reminder that even what we write in emails requires circumspection. And in this post September 11 world, I think that everyone needs to consider the real world consequences of suggesting someone is a terrorist.

I had fun looking at my old notes to find interesting facts. I rechecked my sources, looking at them once again with a decade's more research experience. But in looking back on that article I realised how much my personal experiences had changed my response to it, how much society had changed since its publication, and how much technology had changed the way we communicate. When looking at historical material from any age, even recently published history books, I think we should also consider how these elements might have influenced an author's body of work throughout their life. Despite what people in business, or any other community for that matter, might think, we do not study, write or argue in a vacuum.
One of my favourite posts from the series of facts.  You can't avoid classics even in your maths classes.

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