On Walls, Dirt, and Being Wrong:
An Interview with Eric Poehler

The Pompeii Quadriporticus, PQP's reason for being.
The Pompeii Quadriporticus, PQP’s reason for being.

 

Eric Poehler is an Assistant Professor of Classics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is co-director of the Pompeii Quadriporticus Project, which is funded by Five College Digital Humanities, UMass-Amherst, the UMass-Amherst Department of Classics, the University of Cincinnati Department of Classics, and Cardinal Intellectual Property. He sat down with 5CollDH Post-Bac Jeffrey Moro, who assisted the project in the field this past summer, to talk about the work, technology, and bringing DH into the classroom.

JEFFREY MORO: For the folks at home, the ones who didn’t spend three weeks with you in Pompeii, could you give us an elevator pitch of the project?

ERIC POEHLER: The Pompeii Quadriporticus Project [PQP] is designed around two questions. First, what is the historical background to this building? This long-neglected, monumental structure in Pompeii that’s though to have been perfectly understood—but perhaps a little too perfectly. It’s suffered a lot of salutory neglect from that, at least in academic interests, so we were interested from the start to re-examine that: to re-examine the building’s origins; to examine the final decades of the building’s life and to understand what it transformed into [in the modern era]; and then, to see what can be said bout those intervening two hundred years of history, where people lived and used this building, but there don’t seem to be any architectural or archaeological remains to speak to it.

The other main goal has been to examine the way that non-invasive technologies let us stretch architectural investigation models, before we ran into the problems of not being able to date things. To sum it up: our second question is technological and methodological innovation around our historical questions.

JM: What are some of the technologies you used in the field?

EP: We’ve got the major instrumentation types of technologies. We use laser-scanning and ground-penetrating radar—in the former case to document the three-dimensional structure in exquisite, even excrutiating detail, and then using the radar to precede what we could know from excavation, to peer into the ground and get some glimpse of what might have been.

Then there are hand-held or information technologies, all revolving around the iPad. It’s our primary tool for information storage and capture. It’s the way we record individual observations, draw our images, make abstract representations in graph form of time, and the way we’ve branched out in the last couple of years into more experimental things, particularly doing archival research in the field, attempting to use the camera in different ways—and also it’s the way we control our drone!

So the iPad has become a technological slate. A platform from which we gather and share information with each other. Most recently we’ve been interested in looking at the iPad’s technical components: its gyroscope, its camera, its GPS, its Internet connection, and seeing how we can leverage individual components towards archaeological methods and questions.

JM: One of the things that struck me when I was working with you on the project was how the workflow you designed for the iPad never hid the project’s complexity but was simultaneously so simple to grasp. It really only took a couple of days for me to feel at ease with the tech, and after that the work became more terminological for me, like “what are all these stones?”

EP: I’ve been very much aware of needing that balance for a number of years. It particularly came to mind when I started a project with a colleague, with Stephen [Ellis, professor at the University of Cincinnati], in Ismea, where we basically had to start completely barebones and fresh. We needed to match our in-field, archaeological work flow with our end product, that is, to figure out how the work flow and the data flow didn’t have to end up perpendicular to each other, so they could come together and become one stream. I think that, as you mention, it just became terminological. The example of that: what you needed to do with us to get there was not to learn how to do the iPad, but to learn how to do masonry analysis, and then the recording of that just happened in the iPad. Because you didn’t ever get trained on paper forms, there wasn’t an adaptive curve for you, right? And that’s good for a lot of folks who come with us now. There are no born digital natives, like the way that we like to say sometimes in academe. But there’s no overcoming the familiarity of the past in that sense. […]

The iPad is our primary tool for information storage and capture. It’s the way we record individual observations, draw our images, make abstract representations in graph form of time, and the way we’ve branched out in the last couple of years into more experimental things.

JM: The immersion of the field work struck me, for the students at least, as integral to bringing everything back to that main question: “Why are we here? To learn more about archaeology.” Have you pinpointed ways that that kind of immersion can work in the classroom?

EP: One of the reasons why it works in Pompeii is you’re able to say, “This is not an exercise. This is not practice. Now, if you mess it up, we’ll just delete it, so don’t worry, you’re not going to break the past. But this is a research project, and you’re going to learn how to do research here.”

It’s a hard thing to do in the classroom setting, but I don’t think that it’s insuperable. This is fresh on my mind because I’ve just been teaching this honors class, which is supposed to be a “light touch” to Digital Humanities. It’s a one-credit class, so it’s not supposed to be a heavy-duty thing. But in order to get people to even reach that light touch, you have to embed and enmesh them in certain ways. So I’ve tried to organize the entire class around a group project. For example, next week we’re going to deal with digitizing primary sources, so we’re bringing special collections down to the DH Lab, we’re taking 200 documents about the Old Chapel at UMass and we’ll digitize them. One group is scanning, one group using the editing software, another OCRing them, and another will do metadata. Were going to do that each week with a different set of tools and try to get everyone to learn the minimum. And to some students who express an interest, I’ll say, “Look, you’re going to be the captains of this.” And that’s great, because you become a specialist in that. But everyone’s going to get that light touch.

This is not an exercise. This is not practice. Now, if you mess it up, we’ll just delete it, so don’t worry, you’re not going to break the past. But this is a research project, and you’re going to learn how to do research here.

And I think, I hope [knocks on desk] that structuring learning around a single project or ideal will replicate the intensity of a field situation.

JM: Are there any times where you felt you were really interested in a particular technology and knew that you had to learn it alongside your students—that you couldn’t just teach them?

EP: [laughs] I know incredibly little of the technologies I teach. Maybe it’s a conceit, or maybe it’s just genuine, but there’s a certain DIY ethos to the digital humanities, right? There’s a lack of fear, of trying stuff. You just try it and if it doesn’t work, then well, I’m not a failure if I couldn’t figure this one thing out, you know? On the first day [of my class] I wanted to admit to that. I wanted to embody that in the classroom. So I said, “Look, I don’t actually know what this stuff is, and I’m not going to teach you how if you don’t figure it out—we’re just gonna fail!” […]

You have to make room. You have to create space for failure amongst other people. Kathleen Fitzpatrick has a great post on what she calls “critical humility,” and she says, “The half-life of an idea seems desperately short today; the gap between ‘that’s just crazy talk’ and ‘that’s a form of received wisdom that must be interrogated’ feels vanishingly small.” If you give yourself room to be wrong, then you can play in the space of being wrong long, which gives you a sense of freedom to take on ideas that might seem crazy otherwise.

You have to make room. You have to create space for failure amongst other people

I recommend that approach to people who want to teach classes like this, because it is hard. I told myself all these things, and I still walked into the classroom with this frame around me that said, “I am the professor and I know stuff. And if I don’t know it, I don’t know what I’m doing here.” And it’s a hard thing to unlearn from the academic culture to go in and say, “I’m your captain, but I don’t know where North America is either. We’re just going that way.”

Jeffrey Moro
Follow Jeffrey Moro:

5CollDH Senior Post-Baccalaureate Resident

Jeffrey Moro is Senior Post-Bac with Five College Digital Humanities. He helps wrangle most aspects of the program, particularly the Student Fellowships and Microgrants. He's a PI on the AIRLab and E.LIT / NET.ART, and a close collaborator on The Space of Mexico City. He tweets at @jeffreymoro.