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March 12, 2020

How does one (er, a pairing) write a collaborative book and how might we make sure that our work is accessible to students, teachers, and all those interested in Classics? Gather round for the biography of a new and freely available book, Homer’s Thebes: Epic Rivalries and the Appropriation of Mythical Pasts.

It was a dark and stormy night in Astoria, Queens. A basement apartment was steadily flooding, puddles of water seeping up through the carpet. Holed up there, in between binge-watching Battlestar Galactica, one of us (Elton) was struggling to finish a paper that was to be delivered at Columbia University in the morning, while the other (Joel) was fuelling the adrenalin rush by providing a running commentary on Homer (and BSG).The subject of the paper was Homer’s version of the Oedipus myth, briefly narrated by Odysseus in Book 11 of the Odyssey.

It was a passage that both of us had been drawn to at the time of an earlier watery encounter in Venice, when the seminar leader was exploring the passage for what it could reveal about Theban myth. We were both struck by how much it could reveal about the poem in progress, the Odyssey. Returning to this passage later, we came up with an idea for a book. It was, perhaps, not the most sensible use of our time, particularly when one of us (Elton) was early in his career and had to rewrite his doctorate dissertation for publication, and the other (Joel) didn’t even have his PhD in hand. But we had an idea—how Homer puts Theban material at the service of his poems. And we had a catchy title: Homer’s Thebes.

It was nearly five years later, that we met again face-to-face and returned to the discussion of Homer. We had already tested some initial ideas in a range of articles; now we sketched out the bigger picture with the intention of submitting a book proposal. But to whom should we send our proposal? Our ultimate choice of the Center for Hellenic Studies deserves a bit of explanation. We chose CHS because, unlike the industry norm within the publishing world, they both value collaborative work and publish online in Open Access (OA).

Figure 1: Attic red-figure pelike, Oedipus solves the riddle of the Sphinx and frees Thebes, by the Achilleus painter, 450-440 BC, Altes Museum Berlin (Image by Carole Raddato via Wikimedia).

Why Collaborate?

With some notable exceptions, working together is not the standard thing to do in academia if you’re a humanities researcher, still less working together in such a way that everything—from the reading to the writing—is jointly shared. When we write together, our aim is to get to the point when neither of us can tell who wrote what. Collaboration was at the heart of the seminar in Venice we had met at: eight members of faculty each led a seminar on their particular specialism outside of a traditional academic, credit-bearing course. Twenty students (selected from across North America and Europe) learned new methodologies, participated in discussion of the seminar topics), and worked with a faculty member over the intervening year to produce original research.

We each published work individually as part of that seminar, but more importantly the two of us had formed a lasting friendship and left brimming with ideas to pursue our interests together. Chief among them was a plan to work together on the New Archilochus fragment that had recently been published. No doubt the many nights of drinking together had had their effect, but our vision for Archilochus was of a sympotic poet working in and against an epic tradition that was evolving simultaneously. In this way, resonance could be read two ways. This is to understand Archilochus’s new fragment as projecting a Troy story event (Telephus landing on the Troad) in un- or anti-epic ways (where flight is privileged over fighting), even as Homer’s epics reveal similar concerns—think of Agamemnon’s self-reflection over whether to flee or not in the Iliad, or all those moments of (disastrous) sympotic revelry in the Odyssey.

Our distance relationship took the form of trading files back and forth over email and some early Skype calls, before our piece found a home (and then only after having been previously rejected by both JHS and CQ). The origins of our big idea about Homeric epic can be traced back to this first publication, which attempted to reconceive the relationship between poetic traditions as a-hierarchical. Our ‘Homer’ was just as likely to be responding to issues and themes and motifs from other genres as those other genres— lyric and elegy chief among them—were a response to epic.

Incorporating Numerous Voices

Our method of working together has changed over time, as the technology has evolved. We no longer pass documents back and forth over email, but tend rather to share files in Dropbox or work asynchronously on GoogleDocs. While continuing to do our own things—both of us have been heavily involved in other forms of collaboration (see below)—we have published some half-dozen articles and book chapters that have danced around the topic of Homer’s Thebes. We have also contributed a Beginner’s Guide book to Homer, which helped us establish the larger framework of the project in the context of setting out what a reader needs to know about Homer. Communicating our love of Homer— trying to articulate just why the Iliad and Odyssey are such exciting texts to read, and still urgent and radical now—was way more fun than should be legally allowed.

Figure 2: Cover of Elton Barker and Joel Christensen’s Homer: A Beginner's Guide (Beginner's Guides), OneWorld, 2013.

The Homer’s Thebes book in its final form is available online for free and will stay that way. The print version—available from March 17th in all reputable bookstores (and at a very affordable price)—helps to support the editorial team at CHS and provide the resources that they widely share. Over its pages, this book explores how we can understand what Homeric poetry does with “other traditions” from within, not by postulating lost traditions without. At its core is the investigation into how Homeric poetry works, if we eschew some of our conventional assumptions about hierarchical relationships in time and genre.

There were times when it seemed that our Homer’s Thebes might never see the light of day. We got distracted by our other research interests, immersed in the everyday work at our respective institutions, and, above all, we started families. But each year we chipped away at constructing the edifice for it. When we finally brought it together and sent it to CHS, it was a bit of a mishmash of different styles from over the years. Thankfully, our production editor Jill Curry Robbins and our copy-editor have been vigilantly on the case and spared us many blushes.

In our foreword we thank the many people and institutions who have helped us through our endeavour; given the book’s long gestation period, we have probably omitted far more. The number of people who contributed to this book’s publication through conversations about, comments on, and edits and revisions, of it, not to mention the scholarship on which it is based—standing on the shoulders of giants, as it were—is truly humbling.

In this sense, the book is reflective of a much wider collaboration of sorts, beyond our own single, and singular, partnership. For this reason alone it was important for us to offer the book OA: everyone who has contributed to it should be able to read it. This was particularly true given the fact that many of our previous articles and chapters, out of which this book emerged, are not freely available to the public. This was a source of concern for us. We felt that paywalls and subscriptions not only limited the reach and impact of our work; they increased the privilege of those who already have it. Above all, they locked academic research away in an ivory tower and hid it from the world at large––reinforcing the elite academic minority who had access to current research.

Openness and the Democratization of Information

We have been lucky in our careers. We both managed to escape the full effects of the precarity that currently blights academia and our discipline/ The precarity that we faced was of a privileged kind, such as teaching at an Oxford college. We have been fortunate to receive grants and prizes for our teaching and research. We now enjoy tenured, gainful employment—this in spite of publishing records that are dominated by “joint” publications. Even though it is common in other, more scientific fields to publish work together, many humanities disciplines—and none more so than Classics—still idealize the single author monograph as the metric for academic talent. However, we believe that working collaboratively over time has made us better researchers and writers. If nothing else, having someone equally committed to the project has helped overcome those moments of inevitable frustration, boredom, stress and aporia. Writing together has also had the beneficial effect of ironing out each other's quirks—that fondness for excessive punning, for example, or the occasional lapse into theoretical jargon.

Collaboration has been more important than that, however. Our partnership has helped us clarify our values when it comes to research and publication. It is undoubtedly the case that our non-traditional backgrounds—both of us are the first of our working-class families to go to university, let alone stay and work in academia, or study Classics—have played an important role in getting us to think hard about making our work accessible, in terms of both publication format and the language that we use. But it is our formal collaboration together that has provided a stimulus to doing something about it. The primary reason that we chose the Leeds International Classical Studies journal as the home for our first Homer’s Thebes article was its OA credentials. Malcolm Heath, its then editor, has written eloquently about the economics (and politics) of OA. We were delighted to support his trailblazing efforts, while at the same time enjoy the benefits of an almost instantaneous publication whose audience reach was limited only by access to an internet provider.

Figure 3: Barker and Christensen debating Homer, ca. 2005.

OA, of course, is not a simple panacea or a process without cost. Bandwidth, server hosting, editing, archiving all cost something. And it is important to ask who should pay these expenses and how the labor behind every article is compensated. At the same time, the majority of means by which we as academics are judged—the journals in which we publish, the books that are published—are still overwhelmingly dominated by presses that aren't. (Even the apparently open “Oxford scholarship online” still requires an institution through, or a subscription fee by, which to access it.) But we want our work to be read; and we want it to be read by as many people as possible—regardless of background, status, or income. .

Indeed, there is a strong case that publishing our work openly, so that anyone can access and read it, should be a minimum requirement for all scholarly practice. It’s not just because, as tenured employees working at public institutions, we should enable our research to be read by the public; it’s critical that we do. More and more discussion ranging from the trivial (the latest cat meme) to the fundamental (what is a public good) is being conducted online, where everyone can have a say not just in collaborative authorship but in collaborative review.

The democratization (if we can call it that) of the assembly space does come with its own dangers. Where anyone can have a say, who do you believe? Where anything is up for grabs, in what can you trust? Where we might expect a considered response from colleagues about these issues—who, after all—have undergone decades of training how to do research—it is still all too easy for anyone, particularly those with vested interests, to weaponize people’s natural enough scepticism about what they do and don’t know. Hence politicians’ disparagement of experts or use of the label “fake news” to forestall criticism or shut down dissent.

Creating an Open Marketplace for Intellectual Exchange

It is within such a free-for-all marketplace of ideas that we can imagine Herodotus operating, at a foundational moment for humanities inquiry (historia). One of us (Elton) has helped pioneer ways of making use of the new digital medium in which we now conduct our business, primarily by developing the means of linking information online. Doing research nowadays can leverage the Web’s capacity for hyperlinking to enable our readers to directly access the information on which we base our arguments. The other one of us (Joel) has shown just why this is so urgent now. He has taken a stand in the open agora of words, in much the same way as Herodotus did when drawing on those other voices, in order to promote reasoned discussion of the evidence before us. If we as experts in our field are to counter the (mis)appropriation of our subject for insidious means—as an argument against inclusivity, for example—then our work needs to be presented in an open and accessible manner.

In all likelihood, there is a relationship between how we research and what we research, between our collaboration and the model(s) of composition and reception we explore for Homeric poetry. In both cases, we value the contribution of the unseen and the hard to recover: that is to say, the generations of singers whose own poems formed the basis of the two that have survived; the audiences whose responses to each performance helped shape and give meaning to them; and the successive generations of writers who have edited, altered, and handed them down. Similarly, we see scholarship as an activity performed by many different people. Ideally, it is not owned or monetized for individual profit, but is presented in competition with each other for a greater good. This is no zero-sum game; we all stand to benefit from the open dialogic encounter with each other. This is why we are publishing our work OA and why we have invited you to join the debate.

Figure 4: Homer statue in front of Old Cabell Hall at the University of Virginia, a public state university (Image via Wikimedia).

Header Image: "Mosaic depicting the removal of Briseis from the Iliad Roman 100-200 CE Stone and glass (6)" (Image by Mary Harrsch via Wikimedia, licensed under CC BY 2.0).


Joel Christensen (he/his) is Professor of Classical Studies at Brandeis University where he also serves as Senior Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs in the School of Arts and Sciences. He has recently published The Many-Minded Man: the Odyssey, Psychology, and the Therapy of Epic with Cornell University Press. He is part of the team behind and the twitter feed @sentantiq.

Elton Barker is a Reader in Classical Studies at The Open University. His research interests range from exploring poetic rivalry in ancient Greek epic to investigating representations of debate in epic, historiography and tragedy. Since 2008, he has been at the forefront of efforts to develop digital tools and methods for rethinking spatial understanding of the ancient world, chief among which is Pelagios, a means of enabling online historical resources to be linked together. The Pelagios Network is now a free-standing Association of equal international Partners from across academia and cultural heritage.