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"Problematic and In Poor Taste"

What effect does the conceptualization of the document have upon editorial practice?

· 9 min read
"Problematic and In Poor Taste"

On Wednesday 6 December, a German graduate student named Yannick Brandenburg sent out a call for papers to all members of the Liverpool Classics e-mail list. The list is public, so Brandenburg’s message can be read here in full. In short, his e-mail informed the list’s subscribers that a conference would be held at the University of Wuppertal in Germany next autumn, entitled “(un)documented – Was bleibt vom Dokument in der Edition?” and that it would address such questions as “What significance do particular disciplines attribute to a document/documents?” and “What effect does the conceptualization of the document have upon editorial practice?”

Brandenburg invited interested researchers to submit “an abstract of no more than 500 words, together with a short CV and contact details.” The discussion that followed (which can also be found in the list’s public archives) is transcribed below, unaltered:

Andrew Feldherr
Professor and Chair, Department of Classics, Princeton University
Thu, 7 Dec 2017 13:10:58

Given the political situation in my country at the moment and the real tragedies that are being visited daily upon those of undocumented status, I find the use of the term as the catchy title of an academic conference with no bearing on their situation unfortunate and write to encourage the conference’s organizers to change its name.

Andrew Feldherr

Judith P. Hallett,
Professor and Graduate Director at the Department of Classics, University of Maryland.
Thu, 7 Dec 2017 08:26:51 -0500

I strongly support Andrew’s recommendation.
Judith P Hallett

Alan Johnston
Emeritus Reader
 in Classical Archaeology, University College London
Thu, 7 Dec 2017 15:58:51

I was going to write a query to all in any case, but would add on this matter that I would support all true academic initiatives which are not directly concerned with political matters.  [Some hope!]

But can anybody give me the full reference to the article in, I think, Chiaka Chronika c.1990, to Lesley Beaumont’s article on red-figured pots on Chios?   It has the piece with Aktaion’s name and little else, c.450 BC (vidi).

Alan Johnston

Ernest Metzger,
Douglas Professor of Civil Law, University of Glasgow
Thu, 7 Dec 2017 16:52:21

I don’t understand why a matter of specific concern to Americans must be heeded by the conference organisers.

E. Metzger

Professor Feldherr responds
Thu, 7 Dec 2017 17:44:39

Well, I doubt in this particular case whether (un)documented would have been chosen to headline a conference were it not for its contemporary American resonance.  So the language is already American, and if you make use of its recognizability you must also it seems to me to be answerable for what it means in the context from which you have taken it.  That doesn’t mean that you need to cater to American sensitivities, simply to recognize that the language used has consequences in the real world about which it is important for us all to be circumspect.  The message that this conference title sends to me, and I suspect many others is that the fact that families are being destroyed unjustly is nothing to us.  It is a world away.  No one would ever take undocumented to refer to the undocumented.  Again, I am not accusing the organizers of the conference of thinking that way; I am simply trying to explain why I suggested the title might be reconsidered.

[Message not included in public archive, so name redacted] 
Department of Classics, University of Edinburgh
Thu, 7 Dec 2017 18:10:00

For what it is worth, I think that Professor Feldherr in mistaken, and that the word “undocumented” need not specifically evoke the USA (even if American speakers of English will naturally think of matters closer to home more readily than matters more distant, as we all do). I doubt whether German conference organisers using this word should be assumed to be playing on a specifically American resonance. (A more important question, though, is surely whether it evokes undocumented people, regardless of whether those people have anything to do with the USA.)

I would not have rebuked the conference organisers for this title.

It sounds a fascinating topic for a conference; I hope it goes well!

William Dominik
Professor Emeritus of Classics, University of Otago, New Zealand
Thu, 7 Dec 2017 18:37:07

I am an American, though I have worked in other countries for the vast majority of the past four decades. The conference organizers have the right to use an English word in the way they want that is not exclusive to American English. I think that those Americans who may object to the use of the wrod ‘(un)documented’ in the title of an international academic conference are being oversensitive because of domestic concerns to the use of an English word that does not only belong to Americans. ‘(Un)documented’  can refer to a host of phenomena and people and its use and meaning is not confined only to American society. Furthermore, there is no evidence that ‘many others’ (this vague phrase sounds like a Trumpism)  take the message of the conference title to be that ‘families are being destroyed unjustly is nothing to us’. Finally, I wonder why the message was not sent privately to the conference organizers instead of being posted to the entire membership of the Classics list, which has now made this an issue of public interest.

The Problems of “Privilege”: Lessons from the French Revolution
It appears in an increasing and disorienting number of forms, from male privilege and white privilege, to “gay privilege,” “black male privilege,” and “family privilege,” and these claims about privilege animate a wide array of political stances.

I wish the conference organizers well with the organization of the conference!


William Dominik

Irina Dumitrescu
Professor and Head of English Medieval Studies, University of Bonn
Thu, 7 Dec 2017 19:51:06 +0100

It may indeed not specifically evoke the US, but it definitely evokes the most common contemporary use of the word in English, which does indeed refer to people crossing borders without official papers. Surely German conference organizers could have chosen a German word that had no such associations. Incidentally, the issue of migration and its legitimacy is not exactly confined to the US. I’d expect German scholars, especially those drawing on public funds, to be careful about the way their use of language looks to the wider public. (The Graduiertenkollegs are all funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, and thus, indirectly, by the German government and my taxes.) I’d also expect scholars to be particularly thoughtful when using a foreign language. They’re not using a slur or anything, but it shows a lack of care and reflection. After all, defining the “Begriff” is the first research step for most German scholars….

Irina Dumitrescu

Angela Parkes
PhD student, University of Birmingham
Thu, 7 Dec 2017 20:16:11

I wasn’t going to take part in this discussion but now, as a mother tongue speaker of English, with fluent German as a foreign language I should like to add my voice.  Certainly for me and, I should imagine, for most UK English speakers, (un)documented, with or without the brackets, has no particular association at all.  In my field of academic research I might use the word in the sense that no written sources are available.  I am interested in this conference because, on first reading of the information, I started to consider whether aspects of my research on early Christian Latin, particularly the question of what written sources for early Latin biblical translations may or may not exist, might be worked into a relevant paper.  Maybe I have misunderstood.

Angela Parkes

Karen Fox,
Classicist at the University of Leeds
Thu, 7 Dec 2017 23:23:05

Dear all,

I feel like you should consider there are thousands of members on this list and this is annoying. Please consider if you have a specific intellectual request, make your private email available so members can contact you privately only.
Merry Christmas,

Best wishes,
K Fox

Tessa Rajak
Professor Emeritus, University of Reading; Senior Research Fellow in Oriental Studies, Somerville College, Oxford
Thu, 7 Dec 2017 23:49:12

May I beg to differ with Karen’s response? I have found this an enjoyable and thought-provoking discussion thread, revealing not only intriguing differences between the US and Europe in the resonances of an English expression, but also, I think, a subtle contrast in how the academy tends to articulate its relationship with the political/social sphere.
Tessa Rajak

Jim O’Donnell
University Librarian, ASU Libraries, Arizona State University
Thu, 7 Dec 2017 17:12:34 -0700

It is very much in the interests of those who would make this a less civil and open world for those who would make it more civil, open, and respectful to fall to hard words with each other.

Jim O’Donnell

Johanna Hanink & Dimitri Nakassis
Associate Professor of Classics at Brown University & Professor of Classics at the University of Colorado, respectively.
Fri, 8 Dec 2017 00:14:28

Dear colleagues,

We write this letter to the entire list because we feel that this is a matter that affects and reflects the entire profession.

If anyone on this list doubts the chord that the word “undocumented” strikes over here, s/he can simply run a quick Google search or look up “undocumented” in the OED and find this:

“That has not been documented; spec. in U.S., not having the appropriate legal document or licence.”

Like Professor Feldherr, we find it very hard to believe that this conference would have this title were it not for the very specific contemporary North American resonance of the word. Any claims otherwise seem obviously disingenuous.

Regardless of whether any individual thinks the use of the term in this context is problematic and in poor taste (it is), what should be clear is that a number of people on this list do take issue with it. If colleagues cannot be persuaded to change their minds by the moral/ethical/human compassion-and-decency arguments, then perhaps they might be moved by a simple appeal to professional courtesy. In at least one corner of the Republic of Letters, the title of this conference seems to trivialize and even exploit a matter of supreme consequence and danger for real people–no doubt including colleagues subscribed to this list.

Surely the conference organizers never had that intent, however, and so we look forward to receiving news that they have swiftly and graciously rectified the honest mistake.

Best wishes,

Johanna Hanink & Dimitri Nakassis

Nick Lowe
Dept. of Classics, Royal Holloway London, and Classics e-mail list admin
Fri, 8 Dec 2017 00:58:30 

This was a useful discussion in its early stages, but civility is starting to run ragged and circles to be gone round in, and several subscribers have privately expressed disquiet over the very public on-list calling-out by very senior scholars in one country of graduate students in another. (One used the word “shaming”.) I hope we can all be as sensitive to asymmetries of institutional and professional power as we rightly are to the care that needs to be taken in an international forum such as this over local corruptions of discourse, and take further discussion offlist.


Yannick Brandenburg (who posted the original call for papers)
Graduate Student, Institute of Ancient History, University of Cologne
Fri, 8 Dec 2017 14:33:25

I hope I do not warm up a discussion that has at times been very heated, but for the sake of clarification I would like to point out that the title of this conference (which deals with documents and their (non-)representation in editions, after all) has been chosen with no reference whatsoever to the US usage of the term “undocumented”; and for that matter, there have been a number of native speakers involved, Americans among them. I appreciate that you shared your concerns, and have forwarded them to those in charge.

To come back to the conference, all those interested in its topic are still warmly invited to send an abstract to Oliver Humberg [email redacted] by December 31.

Professor Feldherr’s final word
Fri, 8 Dec 2017 14:58:36 

I hope I may be allowed back on list just long enough to say thank you for giving a hearing to the concerns I raised and to wish you all success for what sounds like a very interesting conference.

Featured image by Alex ProimosLicense here.

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