Creating Community in a Digital Diaspora

Old Manuscript

The process fostered a new engagement with antiquity: ancient texts were reanimated through the use of technological tools, and the students, working from their homes and in libraries, in North Carolina and beyond, often separated by hours as well as miles, shared texts across a digital diaspora.

The work of the textual scholar has always been, in my experience, one of solitude.  I assemble a pile of reference books, open browser tabs to various online tools, and sit with my material.  Whether I am analyzing a work or translating a poem, I work best when the house is empty and I am alone with my thoughts.  It was the only model I knew—until this semester.

I applied for the Bacca Fellowship in order to work through aspects of a new course I was developing on literary translation.  I planned an ambitious seminar: we would workshop short pieces of literature multiple times in order to experience, evaluate, and critique different philosophies of translation, examine the biases and consequences of translation as a practice, and experiment with what is gained as well as lost in conveying literary sources from one language into another. 

Unfortunately, at the last minute, I wasn’t able to offer the class as planned.  With new-found time in my schedule, I agreed to offer a graduate course which, it happened, would involve work in translation and with translations.  Translation wouldn’t be the focus of the new seminar, but it would be a component, so surely my work from the Fall could enrich the new course, even in an ancillary way?

My new graduate course, “Literatures of the Synagogue,” focused on two genres of writing I know well from my own research: targums (Aramaic versions of Scripture) and piyyutim (Hebrew and Aramaic hymns), from Late Antiquity (ca. 3rd-7th c. CE). Because the class was a VERY late addition to my schedule, and a new course at that, the students and I agreed to experiment with the format of the class, driven by their needs, skills, and interests and my mental and organizational capacity.  Our resolution: we would collaborate on everything.

In many cases, I shape my graduate seminars with an eye toward the practical needs of doctoral students: (1) to compile bibliographies for their comprehensive exams, which likely include an exam in early Judaism; and (2) to gain skills of use in the writing of a (publishable) dissertation in a field like Hebrew Bible, New Testament, or Early Christianity.  Adapting those conventional goals to this unconventional class, the students decided that they would pool their resources.

The first assignment: compile a class annotated bibliography, using a Google doc.  Each student could be assured of “credit” for his or her own work, and they could add sections reflective of individual interests, but at the end of the semester, we would all have access to this massive bibliographic resource on the early synagogue (not just literature but rituals, architecture, and art).

During discussions, as articles and books were mentioned, they would appear in our class Box and the annotated biblio (as possible entries) in real time. At the conclusion of class meetings, students would divvy up new sources they wanted to investigate for possible inclusion in the group document, but even those judged not sufficiently relevant to annotate remain in the document in case at a later date it does seem useful.  To a large extent, I acted as a facilitator and resource for the students, helping them become comfortable with autonomy as they decided collaboratively which direction our exploration of a vast body of scholarship would go.

Collaborative bibliographies, while new to me, seemed relatively intuitive.  Collaborative translation, synchronous and asynchronous, was far different.  I was accustomed to “workshopping” translations orally in seminar setting, but not to watching the synthesis of individual translations in real time: texts morphing like a living thing as words changed, punctuation was tried out, and comments added in the margins. 

The students could work together, but more often they fiddled with the text alone, at odd hours.  Initially, I worried: would they respect each other? Would feelings be hurt if a phrase were critiqued or changed?  How would differences of interpretation be handled?  It turned out, beautifully.  Discussions took place in comments, footnotes preserved variants, and humor was always present.

The process fostered a new engagement with antiquity: ancient texts were reanimated through the use of technological tools, and the students, working from their homes and in libraries, in North Carolina and beyond, often separated by hours as well as miles, shared texts across a digital diaspora.  Our discussions about translation were informed by the kinds of questions that shaped my undergraduate syllabus, but in a way far different from what I had planned: rather than having theory in common and texts of their own, these students shared common texts, testing and evaluating an array of approaches to translation as they worked in concert with each other.

This semester, things did not go as planned, but creativity and collegial support (including the encouragement of the students!), seasoned with a good dose of COVID exhaustion and perhaps even some COVID wisdom, led me to find new ways of engaging students—ways which will not be limited to this one course or topic.  I have always known that I need to be open to improvisation, and even enjoyed it, but this experience encouraged me to let go a little more than I ever had before, and to trust motivated, self-selected students to work with me, and with each other, on the pedagogy. 

In coming semesters, I expect to continue looking for ways to foster collaborative projects in a variety of classrooms.  I anticipate that undergraduates will enjoy projects in which they can work together but have their own contributions seen and valued.  In the Fall (2022), I plan to employ “crowd-sourcing” projects in my first-year seminar (“Jewish and German”), not only because of its pedagogical value but because I can see how it may help foster community among students still acclimating to “the new normal” of education (whatever that looks like in August). 

Collaborative approaches promise to be even more important for graduate students; Humanities scholars still typically work alone, but team-projects and co-writing are becoming ever more common, reflecting a recognition by scholars that we can tackle more ambitious projects by combining our knowledge, skills, and experiences.  Digital tools facilitate sustained, ongoing, sophisticated work by geographically dispersed scholars in ways unimaginable even a decade ago. 

I began my fellowship year expecting to work on a course about translation, but perhaps instead I discovered ways of translating scholarship, and the training of scholars, from a solitary task to community-building.

IMAGE CREDIT: Photo taken by Jared LazarusDuke University 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Laura Lieber's primary area of research is in the area of synagogue poetry ("piyyut") from Late Antiquity and the Byzantine period.