26 April 2007

Perseus is not a new kind of crutch.

Technology is anything that wasn't around when you were born. — Alan Kay


Early in April 2007 one of the few redeeming web sites on the entire internet, Perseus, had a security compromise. For two weeks the site was completely down, and as of this writing, three weeks later, it is still barely usable on those occasions when it is even capable of answering a HTTP GET request. It wasn't exactly overpowered before the security problem.

The absence of Perseus drew comment in all the expected places, but Mark Goodacre made a comment on his blog which I confess I find completely baffling:

Useful as these are in teaching and research, and grateful as we are to their developers, perhaps we should all sponsor "electronic free April" every year and insist that everyone has a good month each year when they are only allowed access to print resources for Greek. Perhaps we could institute it as a kind of compulsory Lent abstinence for all NT scholars and students?


Unless one believes that tedious labor (κάματος) is a worthwhile goal in itself, I cannot see how this is a good idea.

There is not a single resource Perseus offers which doesn't exist in print. The Greek and Latin texts of course have been around a good long while, but the commentaries and lexica for them have existed nearly as long. I don't know how long concordances have existed, but several centuries at least. There are interlinears available for the most popular texts, and parallel translations have their own publishing industry (Loeb, Budé). I can wander down to my local bookstore and buy a brand new copy of a work with the morphology parsed for me — Vergil comes in for this treatment especially — and numerous dictionaries will provide parsing help for beginners, plus you can always get one of those verb books for Greek.

The only thing new thing Perseus offers is speed. I have spent many, many hours of my life paging through dictionaries. The vast majority of the time I know exactly what the lemma is (modulo declensional class), so there's no intellectual work in this at all. Further, using the Perseus lexica is probably superior for most people because it gives us access to the largest editions of these works. At home I have only the Middle Liddell. With Perseus I can spend a lot more quality time getting full range of a word's use from the Great Scott — a far better use of time than flipping pages.

It has been quipped that computers allow us to make errors faster than ever before. They certainly make it possible to indulge in poor study habits more easily and more quickly than before. That problem is not in the computers, but in us. Instead of giving up Perseus for Lent, we should give up checking translations from Perseus and Loebs. Instead of relying on Perseus word lookup, the impoverished dictionaries at the end of student editions or marginalia, let us build lists of words to memorize.

Driving home a point in the Works and Days, Hesiod addresses his brother Perses:

σοὶ δ’ εἰ πλούτου θυμὸς ἐέλδεται ἐν φρεσὶν ᾗσιν,
ὧδ’ ἔρδειν, καὶ ἔργον ἐπ’ ἔργῳ ἐργάζεσθαι.       382

But if the spirit in your own soul wants wealth,
do as I say, and upon work pile work with work.


The Greek word for work, ἔργον (ergon, earlier *wergon) is cognate with English. Hesiod plays with phonetics, and issues the command to do with a very similar sounding word, erdein. What he doesn't do is recommend κάματος, wearying toil. That word is frequently paired with words for "pain" and "woe" in Epic. Learning these difficult languages, and reading the refined and literary works in them, is a lot of work in the best of circumstances. Why add needless toil?

7 comments:

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, William. I enjoyed your post. I'd add that of course my comments are largely facetious, but in so far as I am making a serious point, I am referring in context to all the electronic helps that are available to the Greek student, especially when they are working on the NT, with clickable parsing, etc. The post arose partly from a conversation with a student who was expressing her frustration at the lack of availability of Perseus, and the considerable inconvenience it was causing her.

Wm said...

I'd add that of course my comments are largely facetious,

Whew!

After more than a decade out of school, this semester I'm taking a Greek course. I have encountered a deep ambivalence within our Classics department towards tools like Perseus, from both faculty and students. Your post put me over the edge to comment with some thoughts that have been rattling around my brain for a few months now.

Eric said...

Your department is also somewhat averse to using email, as I recall, as well. I would bet there's some sort of alrger sociological principle at work here, but I've not done enough research to really nail it down yet.

But somehow I'm reminded of my 6th-grade english teacher, who refused to accept papers that I'd written on a word processor.

Elizabeth said...

Well, yes, if we make it more tedious, then pretentious classicists can maintain their hoard on the knowledge! Not that its useful, but it does make us terribly interesting at cocktail parties.

Wm said...

Well, yes, if we make it more tedious, then pretentious classicists can maintain their hoard on the knowledge!

That's a really masochistic approach to superiority.

Tarik said...

With the recent difficulties I'd pretty much stopped trying to get information from Perseus, since it became quicker to use printed books. I took comfort in the availability of the superfast lexica at Harvard. But these have been on the blink too lately, which means I've actually been thumbing through LSJ at my office desk! (I'm also reading Chadwick's Lexicographa Graeca right now, which makes you think of LSJ itself as a crutch, in the sense of a highly defective device for limping along instead of deploying the tools that let you do what you're doing with the greatest confidence & natural ease.)

Helma said...

The complaint (and a familiar one it is) is that students quickly lose their own ability to parse forms when they have it available, fast, in Perseus -- which is only an intermediate step to looking things up in the dictionary..
While dictionaries are universally available, there are very few indices that students will actually get their hands on in preparation for class.
Anyway, if you want fast access to the Perseus Greek and Latin texts and dictionaries and don't mind a less polished interface, Google "Perseus under PhiloLogic". This is a work in progress though..