Spotlight: Professor Gregory Crane
Published: Wednesday, October 23, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, October 23, 2013 02:10
The disciplines of classics and computer science might seem mutually exclusive. Many people don’t typically see how one informs the other. For Gregory Crane, however, making the two work in harmony has been a lifelong passion.
Crane, adjunct professor of classics and former chair of the department, is also an adjunct professor in the Department of Computer Science at Tufts and holds a doctorate in Philology from Harvard University. He directed a grant from the Digital Library Initiative from 1998 to 2006, and has also published a number of books about Thucydides, including “The Blinded Eye: Thucydides and the New Written Word” in 1996 and soon after “The Ancient Simplicity: Thucydides and the Limits of Political Realism” in 1998.
Crane is currently in Leipzig, Germany, where he is doing research as part of his Alexander von Humboldt Professorship.
He began working at Tufts in 1992, where he started as an assistant professor of classics, and has worked as a tenured professor here since 1998. Crane described himself as a firm proponent of enriching humanities education through the use of computer science and research.
“Undergraduates are able to collaborate in a much more substantive way than was possible when I was an undergraduate,” he said. “[Research is] not just an assignment ... in this space, where everything is potentially public, the meaning of the contribution can be quite different.”
Of the courses he has taught, Crane said that his favorite was a class on the maintenance of Greek and Latin works by Arabic translators.
“An immense amount of Greek science and philosophy was translated into Arabic roughly between 800 and 1000 CE,” he explained. “It was a huge statement of cosmopolitan interest in the Arabic world at the time. Euclid and Aristotle reentered Western tradition through the Arabic translations of Greek or Latin.”
An enduring venture of his, the Perseus Digital Library Project has been dedicated to the digitization of linguistic and physical artifacts since 1985. Crane is the project’s current editor-in-chief. In general, the project researches anything associated with the applications of technology in the enhancement of the study of the humanities.
“[Perseus is] an open-ended experiment in what you can do if you integrate digital technology with sources like Greek and Latin,” he said.
According to Crane, due to the nature of conversation about the classics and the eventual decline of print media, digitization — not only of ancient texts, but also of printed literary criticism whether a few decades or a few centuries old — is vital for their survival.
“The conversations about these texts go on over generations. ... You’ve got a book in your hand that was written a hundred and twenty years ago about a text that’s over two thousand years old,” he said. “You’re thinking in terms of a conversation that goes on for generations and centuries, and the world of print is clearly on its way out. ... I couldn’t imagine not thinking about how to deal with a digital space and what that would mean for us.”
The idea of Perseus originated back in 1982 while Crane was studying at Harvard and was fully underway by 1985, when Crane helped compile a mass of digital textual information on the Greek world — one of the first full text digital databases ever.
His interests in computers, he explained, began for practical reasons.
“I needed to type my [classics] dissertation with something other than a typewriter,” he said.
Crane noted how living in the digital age now is a far cry from the time during which the Perseus project was formed.
“Hard disks ... looked like washing machines,” he said.
Crane explained that a 670-megabyte hard drive used by the database cost $34,000 with a service contract of $4,000 per year. Even then, he believed in the eventual superiority of the digital format.
“[Artifacts can be] more valuable in a digital world than they are in print,” Crane said. “You can have these crazily high-resolution, digitized versions, where you can see the manuscript better than you can if you were sitting in a library with bad light.”
Perseus has over 160 million words — in languages from Greek and Latin, to Germanic, to Arabic, to more recent 19th century American sources — archived in the project. Thanks to grants from his Humboldt professorship, Crane plans to increase that number through a new project called Open Greek and Latin Project, which, in part, aims to take the number of Greek words readily available from 15 million to 150 million.
Crane is also currently working on adapting a Greek and Latin-learning course whose framework is generalizable to other languages. One of its major components, he said, will be international collaboration through Skype or other online means.
“[There are] people collaborating on analyzing a text ... one student in Tehran, a student at Tufts, a student in Zagreb,” he explained.