Articles by Lee Pearcy

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This fall I’ll be offering some informal workshops at Bryn Mawr on Latin verse composition—the translation of English into Latin verse.  In view of all that has been written about the impact of artificial intelligence on academic work, I thought I’d better take another look at ChatGPT and see if it was any good at producing Latin elegiac couplets.

The short answer is, it’s not very good at all; or at least, I haven’t been able to get it to produce a line that scans, and it doesn’t seem to have much understanding of prosody or meter. I won’t bore you with the details, gentle reader, but I’ll be glad to hear from anyone who can produce a better result than I have.

At first thought, this seems puzzling. Making Latin verses, after all, seems like a mechanical process—so mechanical, in fact, that in the 1830s an English inventor, John Clark, produced a machine to do just that. (John’s cousin Cyrus founded Clark’s Shoes, which still owns the device.) If gears and wires and cogs can produce a Latin hexameter, and play “God Save the Queen” at the same time, why can’t ChatGPT?

There may be several reasons. The simplest possibility is that I’m asking the wrong questions, and that I haven’t yet hit on the combination of prompts, definitions, and rules that would lead ChatGPT to scan a verse correctly and produce metrical lines in Latin. Another possibility is that ChatGPT doesn’t (yet) have enough metadata about Latin words. It doesn’t, for example, know which syllables are long by nature. To ChatGPT, that is, venit = “he came,” with its long first syllable, and venit = “he comes,” with its short e, are indistinguishable, at least as far as their metrical shape is concerned. But the possibility that interests me most has to do with the nature of poetry and a possible limit of large language models like ChatGPT.

In poetry, words have heft. They are not mere signifiers pointing to something in the world, in the way that “cat” points to the animal curled up by the fireplace. They have a material presence, a shape and weight—even an agency–that come from the essential nature of language as sound in the air and give poetry its special powers. In Latin verse, that materiality manifests itself in the shape of words—dactyls, spondees, trochees, iambs, and the like—and in their positioning into feet and lines. In Vergil and Ovid and Horace, words don’t simply mean different things. They are different things.

For a large language model like ChatGPT, though, words are nothing except abstract symbols to be manipulated according to a set of probabilities. A word points to nothing except the word that is most likely to follow it in a particular context. There is no connection between between word and world, between signifier and signified, not even so arbitrary and tenuous a link as that between “cat” and the furry animal by the fire. Asking ChatGPT to recognize some other quality in words—their shape or scansion—and to produce Latin verse by arranging them into patterns amounts to asking it to treat words as objects and to do things with them. My attempt, at least, was no more successful that if I’d asked ChatGPT to fix my dishwasher.

When I contemplate the grim future laid out in some projections of the effect of artificial intelligence, it is no small consolation to know that words are not all there is, and that making things work in the world—fixing dishwashers, writing Latin verses, painting a picture—is still a human thing.

~Lee T. Pearcy
September 10, 2023

If anyone had asked me about the phrase “summer reading,” I would have guessed that it’s fairly recent, perhaps coming into use with the rise of industrialized schools and the long summer break, and that it’s become steadily more frequent over the last 50 years. Google’s Ngram Viewer puts the lie to both conjectures:

 

There’s a blip in the 1820s (why?), another peak in the 1870s, and an up-and-down but declining roller-coaster thereafter. In the absence of more data, speculation about causes is futile, but for whatever reason, people seem to be thinking less, or at least writing less, about summer reading.

Still, among those of us whose life has been lived on the academic rather than the civil calendar, late May invites attention to a particular kind of reading: not strictly professional (I have those books on tap too), but in some combination entertaining, instructive, and mind-stretching. Here’s my list for summer 2023:

 

 

  • Sophy Roberts, The Lost Pianos of Siberia

This came off the stack first—Roberts, who began her working life as an assistant to Jessica Mitford, writes a combination travelogue and memoir about tracking down pianos in the most Godforsaken parts of Russia. So far, so good—I’m about two-thirds of the way in, on the Kamchatka peninsula.

  • Scott Samuelson, Rome as a Guide to the Good Life

Combines two of my enthusiasms: Rome and philosophy.

  • John Guillory, Professing Criticism

At one point earlier this year, this got a lot of press in journals favored by academic literati—I thought I should investigate.

  • Maggie O’Farrell, The Marriage Portrait

Another combination of enthusiasms, this time art history and historical novels.

  • The new Library of America volume of Charles Portis’ works

Despite being a fellow-Arkansan, I’d never read True Grit or anything else by Portis.

  • Eudora Welty, Delta Wedding

Continuing the Southern theme. Although she’s from Mississippi, not Arkansas, Welty write about the South I know.

And finally, one book not in the picture because the good people at Harvard University Press haven’t sent it yet:  Statius, Thebaid. Despite a life reading and teaching Latin, I’d never looked at the Thebaid until earlier this year, when Bryn Mawr asked me to fill in for a professor who couldn’t serve on a dissertation committee. I had about a month to read the dissertation and as much of the Thebaid as I could, and I was hooked.

 

~Lee T. Pearcy
Memorial Day 2023

If Bryn Mawr College had a cranky old female relative with embarrassing opinions whose appearance at family gatherings led to arguments and demands never to invite her again, it would be M. Carey Thomas. In the early 20th century, Thomas (1857–1935) was a pioneering advocate of women’s education and suffrage, an academic of some distinction (she was the first woman to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Zurich), and a brilliant academic administrator. As dean and then president of Bryn Mawr College from 1882–1922, she created the college that exists today, and her stamp is still visible in its reputation for academic rigor and in many of its peculiarities and customs, like its lack of a Phi Beta Kappa chapter (“All of my ladies are Phi Beta Kappa,” she is supposed to have said). Those brainy, self-confident women who made James Thurber nervous are the daughters of M. Carey Thomas.

And yet . . . like her contemporary Woodrow Wilson, whom she hired to teach at Bryn Mawr before he moved on to other jobs, Thomas had the misfortune to be a progressive in the early 20th century, and so she believed in the progressive ideas of her time: not only in women’s suffrage and education, but also in eugenics and the superiority of the white race.

Yesterday’s progressive is today’s Bad Person, and so Bryn Mawr’s leadership, which is fully as progressive as it was in Thomas’ day, has set out to expunge the racist, anti-Semitic eugenicist M. Carey Thomas from the public face of the College.  But this is Bryn Mawr.  Unlike in ancient and modern enactments of damnatio memoriae, no statues have been toppled, no inscriptions rudely chiseled out, no portraits defaced. There have been committees, studies, agonized deliberations, heartfelt acknowledgements of “the harm and hurt Thomas’ legacy of exclusion, racism, and antisemitism has caused for so many,” and so on. First a moratorium was placed on the use of the names “Thomas Library” and “Thomas Great Hall” for two of the most prominent architectural features of the campus.  Then the change was made permanent.  The John Singer Sargent portrait of Thomas, one of the College’s great treasures, was put into long-term storage, along with the Paul Manship bust of Thomas. That was not enough. An inscription in raised Gothic letters on the front of the building now known as “Old Library” proclaims, “The M. Carey Thomas Library.” Earlier this week the president and trustees announced that the inscription would be removed and, along with the Sargent and Manship portraits, become part of some kind of exhibit somewhere at some time. Thomas’s ashes are buried in the cloisters of the building that used to be named for her, but the trustees affirm their belief in the “sanctity of human remains” and declare their intention to “preserve them as they exist today.” I’m waiting for another committee to form, perhaps with an exorcist.

The lesson, I think, is this: progressive thought, like conservative or any other kind of thought about our social and political condition, is necessarily imperfect and incomplete. We get some things right, and some things wrong. In 1923, votes for women and eugenics were ideas that a decent person might hold. In 2123, it may turn out that intersectionality is part of a consensus shared by every right-thinking person, and that uttering the phrase “Black Lives Matter” will get you expelled from decent society.  Or the other way around. When we presume to judge the past, we should imagine ourselves as the past of the future. We should remember that all of us owe who we are to Bad People, and that those Bad People are also sometimes good, and worth remembering.

~Lee T. Pearcy
March 22, 2023

Update 4/12/23:  Well, maybe not an exorcist, but this event certainly qualifies as a Service of Purification.  And since M. Carey Thomas’ earthly remains are buried in the Old Library cloister, maybe she’ll show up.

The other day I was asked a question I’d never heard before, and because I am, or once was, a teacher of elementary Latin, it struck me as peculiar. I needed to make a routine medical appointment, and the person on the telephone put me through the usual litany—date of birth, address, current medications, and so on—but at the end, she added three others. The first two asked for my gender and my gender assigned at birth. I have encountering these often enough that I know to answer both with “male.” (No one ever asks, “Assigned by what or whom?” The answers might be interesting.) But then the voice on the phone asked, “Do you respond to the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘him’?”

For a moment I remembered the first lesson in one of the textbooks that we used in elementary Latin. In the classic fashion, it began with the indicative active present tense of amo, “I love”: amo, amas, amat. These were labeled, “first person,” “second person,” and “third person.” Seventh graders can be relied on to enrich their teachers’ lives by asking profound questions, and almost always some child wondered why the verbs were called by these numbers. I usually explained by asking them to imagine a dialogue in which “I” talk to “you” about “him” or “her.” Because seventh graders (and, indeed, most people of whatever age) have no difficulty as seeing themselves as the primary person in any conversation, they understand that if you are talking about yourself, you use first-person verbs. If you are talking to another person about that person, you use second-person verbs to describe their actions. If you and the person to whom you are speaking are talking about a third person, you use third-person verbs to describe them. Pronouns have the same labels: first person for ego, second for tu, and third for ille or illa.

I decided not to make the telephone clerk’s life difficult by pointing out that I can’t really “respond” to third person pronouns. My personal pronouns are “I” and “me” (and in pompous or academic moments, “we.”) I respond to “you” and, in the increasingly rare moments when I’m dealing with elderly Quakers, “thee”. He” and “him” may be used to refer to me, and I find it more important to listen to how people want to talk about me than to presume to tell them which pronouns to use when they do.

By “Do you respond to the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘him’?” the nice woman on the telephone meant, “When people use ‘he’ and ‘him’ in a conversation that might be about you, do you recognize that those pronouns might refer to you?” So I responded to the “you” in her question, answered with a yes, and we moved on to the portion of the litany dealing with Covid symptoms.

~Lee T. Pearcy
February 21, 2023

Mabel Lang taught at Bryn Mawr from 1943 until 1988, and for nearly every semester of those forty-five years she taught elementary Greek. The course became so popular that she often taught two sections, one at eight o’clock in the morning and the other at nine. You can read about her here.

Prof. Mabel Lang teaching, seated at a desk in front of a blackboard.

I thought of Mabel the other day when this essay by Blake Smith appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  It has to do with the writing centers that feature on nearly every college campus these days, and by extension with the teaching of writing generally. In the writer’s view, college writing centers are ineffective, jargon-infested hives of neo-liberal practice, like the assertion that a good essay “delivers value” to its reader, and of progressive theory about race and capitalism. (Quite how neo-liberalism and woke piety manage to sit in the same room goes unexplained.) They fail in their plain duty, to teach students how to write.

I know little about teaching English composition, and the merits of writing centers are not my concern here. I want to think instead about a two-fold assumption that receives only passing attention in Smith’s essay: that the actual delivery of instruction in composition is in the hands of graduate students, adjuncts, and other dwellers on the lower rungs of the academic hierarchy that culminates in tenured full professors, and that instructors of composition and other elementary subjects wish they were somewhere else. As Smith puts it, “instructors at writing centers, chafing at their low status within their institutions and fields, and resenting that they are often called upon to bring students up to speed rather than to do what is perceived as more serious intellectual work, try to give some gravitas to their positions by charging the simple but difficult work of writing with a complicated new conceptual vocabulary or pompous assertions of their own social importance.”

This hierarchical dynamic certainly holds true for my own field. In most colleges and universities, including Bryn Mawr, tenured faculty do not teach the early stages of Greek and Latin, and most would be horrified, I think, at the thought that they should. Recently I suggested to one of my senior colleagues, a retired full professor, that it would be good if people like her brought their accumulated wisdom to the teaching of elementary or intermediate languages. She opined that she didn’t want to take a job away from the graduate students to whom it rightfully belonged. A few years ago, I interviewed at a large, midwestern state university for a job overseeing and guiding the graduate students who taught elementary and intermediate languages. During the interview, I suggested that one of my goals would be to have every member of the department, including senior faculty, teach intermediate Greek or Latin at least once every five years. The learned men and women sat in stunned silence before moving on to the next question.

Many senior college and university classicists, I suspect, have stopped thinking of themselves as language teachers. Their calling, they argue, is a higher one: to convey to students the complex ideas and critical theories that constitute the conversation of the humanities in modern universities. They have spent a lifetime, they might argue, becoming expert in Plato’s metaphysics or ancient religions or Roman political theory, and in the modern ideas, from Althusser to Žižek, that shape those topics. Why should they waste their time with the ablative absolute?

I can think of three reasons: first, to show that they care about the ablative absolute; that is, that they care about the close, analytical reading that lies at the heart of classical studies. (Assuming, of course, that they do believe that—there are signs that the belief is not universal.) Second, to show that beginners and beginnings matter, and so that a first-year student beginning Greek is as important to them and to their professional ambition as a graduate student writing a dissertation on Pindar. (This was the message sent by Lionel Trilling every time he taught a section of the required freshman humanities course at Columbia.) Third, because to teach anything is to set your person before students as an example, and beginning students may need the example of senior scholars.

Is it a waste of time and talent for tenured full professors at the height of their scholarly prowess to teach Greek 101?  Mabel Lang didn’t think so.

~Lee T. Pearcy

 

Update 2/8/2023:  Above I wondered “how neo-liberalism and woke piety manage to sit in the same room ”  A hint of an answer appeared in this essay, also from the Chronicle of Higher Education:

DEI Inc. is a logic, a lingo, and a set of administrative policies and practices. The logic is as follows: Education is a product, students are consumers, and campus diversity is a customer-service issue that needs to be administered from the top down. (“Chief diversity officers,” according to an article in Diversity Officer Magazine, “are best defined as ‘change-management specialists.’”) DEI Inc. purveys a safety-and-security model of learning that is highly attuned to harm and that conflates respect for minority students with unwavering affirmation and validation.

(Anna Khalid and Jeffrey Aaron Snyder, “Yes, DEI Can Erode Academic Freedom,” Chronicle of Higher Education 2/6/2023.)

 

 

 

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