The reading of textual artefacts in cuneiform studies (Assyriology), papyrology, epigraphy, palaeography, and mediaeval studies is at the core of the creation (discovery, invention) of new knowledge of past cultures and civilizations. The artefacts in themselves are devoid of meaning, and it is their interpretation and re-interpretation that contextualizes them and turns them into conveyors of knowledge.
This colloquium convenes scholars from a wide-ranging selection of fields in order to explore how knowledge is created through the act of interpretation of ancient documents. Each session puts into dialogue the work and methods, both digital and more traditional, of ancient documents scholars with findings from the cognitive sciences around the processes involved in the act of interpretation of ancient documents.
Through this event, we aim to gain a better-integrated view of the cognitive processes involved in the interpretation of ancient documents as well as some ways of supporting them and facilitating them digitally.
I have to say that I started that month exhausted and was really wondering how I’d ever make it through it. It turns out it was amazingly energising, thanks to all the fruitful exchanges I had with people from a wide variety of horizons.
Here are tidbits of what I thought were interesting points that emerged throughout this dense month, dense in content and in networking :
Cognition is on every lips. My approach to understanding the act of interpretation of ancient documents has become more and more involved with checking the cognitive sciences literature throughout the fellowship, and five major themes have emerged (see the preliminary announcement of the colloquium I’m convening in Dec). While discussing these themes at the Digital Humanities Congress I realised that people are not only interested in how they do things but also intrigued as to what it involves cognitively. And all of them want to do it better and, for that, they need to understand how they’re doing things now (well that is what expertise is made of , after all, cognition and metacognition!). The most frequent feedback I had on my presentations (eg this one) was: “It made me think about how I do things”. That was very gratifying, and definitely encouraging as far as the landscape of future research, beyond the fellowship, is concerned.
What I’m doing is notreally akin to cognitive archaeologyalthough I can see how some confusion can arise. As I understand it, cognitive archaeology tries to unpack what was happening in the minds of people past; in contrast, what I’m doing is trying to unpack what happens in present people’s minds when they attempt to understand the past. I believe the distinction to be significant. Even if cognitive archaeology is an interesting approach, I’m not entirely sure how tractable the questions about people past asked by cognitive archeologists are. In contrast, I have a direct access to the people creating/discovering/accessing knowledge about the past. And my focus is on them – what are they doing, how are they doing it, what might help them? Yes, there is some kind of connection between the two, but it is rather tenuous, and if made, it needs to be made much further downstream from the results emerging from my research; it should relate to the content of the knowledge scholars create, rather than directly to their cognitive processes.
More multi-disciplinarity is the way to go, but more “in-betweeners” are needed. And this is not just another case of putting C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures theory forward. On the contrary. It’s a rebuttal of it. We’re in a Multitude of Cultures landscape. And that was very flagrant at Dagstuhl. Each discipline, each field, each sub-field has developed their own terminologies, sometimes borrowing from each other and subverting the borrowed meanings, or just evolving the meanings in different (if sometimes divergent) ways. Take the word “feature”. In a palaeographical context, the word feature will, for example, serve to describe the remarkable characteristics of the end of stroke in a given scribal school; in image and signal processing terms, it will describe the behaviour of a curve or surface where changes occur in the (n-th order) derivatives (like a step or a ridge). There can then be some overlaps between palaeographical features and image processing features, but there are also some contexts where they definitely do not designate the some object. And actually, even within palaeography, the word feature might signify something different depending on the kind of script that is studied. Another striking example is the word “ontology”, used in AI and in philosophy. Here again there are overlaps, but most philosophers will cringe at the AI use of the word “ontology”. These simple examples show concretely how important it is to have “in-betweeners”, peolpe who are acquainted with the various domain-specific terminologies, and who will be able to identify when such terminological issues occur and take on the role of translator so that the scholars can understand each other across domains.
Asking questions vs. giving answers. Under this heading, I’m referring to styles of scholarly approaches in research. I had a real epiphany moment at Dagstuhl when I realised what was going on. At times, it felt like there were hiccoughs in the communication, but not hiccoughs that could be blamed on misaligned terminologies. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, it felt like people were getting frustrated because they weren’t heard; I pondered and it eventually dawned on me. The tradition in computer sciences is to find hard questions and then to answer them. The emphasis is often put on the answering. Answers act as a deliverables; that’s what computer scientists do, answer hard questions. In the palaeagraphical world, as well as in papyrology, epigraphy, and assyriology, with which I am familiar (I can’t really talk for other subjects), the tradition and emphasis is on the questions. What is of primordial importance is to ask the right questions. They can be hard questions (and they often are), and of course answering them is important, but the research process always puts the accent on the next question. No wonder people were slowly getting frustrated, on one hand you had the “answer-ers” and on the other the “question-ers”. A dialogue were each question is met by an answer and each answer by another question might just never end! I don’t have developed any tricks on how to handle this yet, but it’s really important to be aware of it – and again, that’s the kind of situation where having an “in-betweener” can come in really useful.
Presentation styles unpacked. With my background in the so-called hard sciences, I was always taught to not, ever, in a million years, read my presentations and to always always have slides (and even in a foreign language – like for my very first academic presentation, at a German conference, when my German was shaky at best, I spent a lot of time practicing not to read – reading really was a big no-no). My incursions in the Humanities have taught me differently. It’s again a question of culture. In the eyes of their peers, speakers in textual scholarship who read their presentations are perceived as mastering their subject, and having a definite point to make with some possibly complex arguments to put across; whereas in the image processing community (and in medical imaging and computer sciences in general), a speaker who reads is someone who is perceived by their peers as being insecure about their subject. And towards the end of Sept, after lengthy and detailed discussions with palaeographers, papyrologists, and epigraphers I discovered this: for textual scholars, presentations are built just like written articles: the slides are illustrations, the text, which is (most of the time) read, is the main text of the article, and the handouts (if any) are the footnotes. To me, what is striking about this is that it absolutely makes sense, yet it doesn’t seem to take full advantage of the orality of the mode of communication. And this cultural diversity usually shows at Digital Humanities conferences; some presentations are more read than others, usually depending on the traditional subject the presentation is rooted into, and some presentations are hybrids of reading and talking, showing some signs of the mutual influences of the disciplines they bring together. (I haven’t broached the question of the language the talk is given in here; that would likely yield a whole discussion on yet another type of cultural differences!) .
To be fair each one of these points would probably be worth a full post, but with deadlines looming and a colloquium to prepare, I thought I’d try to evoke these topics – in broad brushstrokes.
Have you encountered any occurrences such as those in points 3, 4, and 5? Have you developed tips and tricks to deal with them?
What do expertise and expert performance have to do with this digital curation of knowledge creation project? Well, if I can understand better what expertise is, where it comes from, and how it is constituted, I will have armed myself with a very valuable tool to identify how experts in the reading of ancient documents can be digitally supported in their task. The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance  is a very informative and rich book, which gathers findings on and around expertise as studied from various points of view: from Psychology, from Artificial Intelligence, from the Cognitive Sciences. Here are the highlights of my readings, presented, of course, within the framework of my own interests, that is, my aim to develop a piece of software which experts working with inscribed artefacts (including papyrologists and ancient near-east scholars) will find useful to conduct their research.
How to define Expertise? Naturally, expertise is defined with respect to a specific domain; experts are specialists, they excel in a given domain. Yet regardless of the domain, there are two stances to define expertise and thereby experts. The first one states that expertise is a talent; this is the absolute approach, where experts are identified as those who produce exceptional results. The other one states that expertise is characterized by a high level of proficiency; this is the relative approach, where experts are those whose achievements and experience are greater than that of novices . In that scope, Hoffman  defined the following proficiency scale (analogical to the craftsmanship stages as established in medieval times): Continue reading On Expertise and Expert Performance→
It’s great to be back “in the field”! Well, it’s nothing exotic, really, as I went to Wolfson College, Oxford, to attend one of Dr Jacob Dahl‘s interpretation sessions, where the subject of study for this group of three students, Jacob and myself was a set of Proto-Elamite texts (yes, this is a wikipedia link; it has been approved by Jacob, for more info on cuneiform scripts, check here). When I say it’s not exotic, in fact, to me it is – well, not Wolfson that is, but Proto-Elamite, which I have never encountered before. So far, the interpretation sessions I’ve attended had to do with Latin cursive texts such as the Vindolanda tablets, or with Greek epigraphy; two scripts that belong to the group of segmental alphabet writing systems (as does the script I’m using to write this post). Proto-Elamite, in contrast, is thought to be a derived from the proto-cuneiform script; it is classified as logophonetic and seems to be at times pictographic and at times syllabic. Additionally – and non-negligibly – Proto-Elamite is one of those few ancient languages thatContinue reading Deciphering and interpreting (proto-)cuneiform→
Initialement dans le contexte de la recherche en papyrologie et en épigraphie, mais à plus longue échéance dans le contexte d’artefacts culturels et historiques en général (textuels ou non), ce carnet de recherche vise à documenter:
• l’étude des pratiques des experts lorsqu’ils s’attèlent à la tâche de déchiffrement et d’interprétation d’un artefact.
• les méthodes adoptées afin de provoquer, d’identifier, de soutenir, et d’enregistrer les moments clefs de la découverte, de la création, de l’invention de la signification des objets étudiés et du savoir historique qui en découle. Ces méthodes auront recours à des approches issues aussi bien des sciences cognitives que de la philosophie et de la sociologie des sciences.
• l’élaboration d’un logiciel de support pour cette tâche, basé sur les résultats d’études de cas.
• l’évaluation de l’impact de l’outil informatique sur les pratiques traditionnelles, et son intégration dans le processus professionnel des chercheurs.
L’objectif ultime est de montrer que, au-delà de la curation des (méta-)données attachées à un artefact, il est essentiel d’aussi conserver les étapes intermédiaires de la création du savoir attaché à cet objet afin, le cas échéant, d’en faciliter la ré-interprétation. La contextualisation des objets est cruciale à leur interprétation, et par conséquent à leur signification, telle qu’elle est restituée dans les musées. L’aspect narratif associé à la diffusion du savoir historique et culturel consistera aussi en un des objets d’études de ce carnet de recherche.
Understanding the process of interpreting textual cultural and historical artefacts, and developing digital tools to support the act of interpretation