“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.

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 Proimos. License here.


  1. I hope I may be allowed back on list

    Prof. Feldherr (nomen est omen) was bounced off a public mailing list?

  2. They complain that their email was public, but it needs to be made a lot more public. These people need to be outed so that the world can know what they are and vote accordingly.

Continue the discussion in Quillette Circle


Comments have moved to our forum


  1. Lobster says

    I can recommend a good book on how to manage and control your emotions for anyone on the list or reading this article that is triggered by the word “undocumented”. I also would like to point out that “undocumented” does not mean “illegal immigrant” as even legal immigrants go through phases where their documents expire and they are waiting for the system to catch up with their workload and issues updated papers.

    • @Lobster, you should watch ‘The Lobster’. Great movie.

      And seek professional help.

  2. Good grief. I work for a software company. I use the word document at least 50 times each day. I use undocumented from time to time as well–a feature of software is undocumented if there’s no documentation on that. Never would have guess I was being so tasteless and problematic.

    • @Alex. That’s because you have a real job. I mean, like those where you fired if you don’t actually produce anything.

      I know, it’s troubling.

  3. Matthew says

    It is patently clear from the full title of the conference that documents and how they are used in different disciplines is the topic. Talk about making a mountain out of a molehill. Sheesh.

  4. For quite sometime now, I could not really pin point the pickle Western civilisation got itself in.

    Was it the ruinous wars, the same that sunk Athens? Or a too big of an empire, unable to see the vassals being trounced by the Huns, marching with revenge to their masters in Rome ? Or the private army, refusing the defend the Constantinople, until it got paid? Climate change or resources exhaustion like the Incas or the civilisation of the Indus Valley?

    “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”.

    That’s it. What is it then that rumbles into the brains of our finest scholars?

    Angels, it is well established, are cisgender non-binary – hence case closed – so the issue du jour is “with or without bracket”?

    But, really, this begs the question, will they survive such blatant e-aggression? Who’s going to courageously drop an F-bomb?

    PS: “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.”

    This one really, really takes the cake. I need my play-doh kit. Now.

    We deserve everything that’s coming to us.

    • When you say “being trounced by the Huns”, do you realise that “Huns” was a problematic term used by British soldiers during world war one to refer to Germans?

      • Problematic words in your comment: “trounced” connotes a violent attack and is therefore triggering; “Huns” is problematic for reasons you give yourself, as well as a trigger to people descended from the victims of Attila’s excesses; “British” is problematic as it refers to a nation of white people who subjugated brown and black people around the world in their “empire”; “soldiers” is triggering to anyone who has been raped by a soldier or who has seen family members killed by soldiers; “World War One” is problematic because it suggests that the world revolves around what happens in Europe, because the people there are white; “Germans” is triggering to holocaust survivors.

  5. I really can’t help it…

    “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.”

    Typical liberal educated german, post-WWII, after breaking implicit social norms : “I’m sorry to beg your pardon that you misread what I said, and I thank you for that.”

    Too bad he isn’t a sausage maker from Bavaria. Would have been a lot more colourful.

    This thing has to be made into a play.

    • Markus says

      Nope. This was the Princeton University guy. Not the german original poster…

      • Mmm… good point.

        We have a case of group-think-mediated behavioral mimetism.

  6. Those who argued that the word doesn’t refer to undocumented immigrants in the US implicitly concede that it would have been bad to do so.

    I wanted one person on the list to reply that, even if it did so refer, it would not be objectionable.

  7. Andrzej Szpor says

    Thank you, Yannick Brandenburg, for a brilliant tip on how to organize a productive conference nowadays: you use a word like “undocumented”, than you let those idiots from progressive universities be ofended, and than you wait for real scientists to come and talk about common topic.

  8. James Kierstead says

    I didn’t get time to reply to the thread before the discussion closed, but while I sympathize with undocumented people in the US at the moment (one of whom is a friend), I don’t understand how changing the name of a conference on textual scholarship in Germany will make things better for them, or how not changing it will make things any worse.

  9. Jochen Becker says

    When one considers the context in which the word document was used originally, it seems to me an act of bad faith to change the context to arrive at something entirely unintended. Who, if not scholars of Classics should be able to think in context?

  10. Juan Castillo says

    It’s important to understand all of this from a game theory point of view. Right now, >all< institutions can be derailed from their ostensible purposes by bringing up concerns like this.

    Whether intended or not, it's a logjam on institutions and it is not resolvable as long as expressing concern for for people has the highest social payoff. It will continue until people stand up and say "I hear your concerns but addressing these issues continually is not aligned with our purpose. You are free to find another institution where you may address them."

  11. Ziggi says

    Interesting: empathy / compassion as a tool of manipulative tyranny of SJW movement reaching each and every aspect of life with its totalitarian approach.

  12. Richard A. O'Keefe says

    As a computer scientist and programmer I use (un)documented nearly every day in the same way that Alex does. I believe in the USA “undocumented” is used as a euphemism for “illegal immigrant”, but that really doesn’t fit the context of a Classics conference; to the point where it is difficult for me to believe that the complaint about it was in good faith. I have an interest in Biblical criticism, where the analysis of hypothetical source documents (hence drawing conclusions from undocuments) has been a prominent (and to my mind risible) activity in the field for far too long. Comparatively recent empirical work on reconstruction has shown very clearly the perils of this approach. If I could afford to travel to Germany, I would have been interested in submitting a paper on undocuments. Seriously.

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