University of Michigan
News for Faculty and Staff

June 21, 2018

Scholar uses new technology to study ancient languages

March 5, 2018

Scholar uses new technology to study ancient languages

Faculty/Staff Spotlight

Topic: Campus News

Even though he studies cuneiform and ancient Mesopotamian culture, Jay Crisostomo advocates for the use of technology in the humanities to aid scholarship.

Crisostomo, an assistant professor of Near Eastern studies focusing on Assyriology, became interested in the ancient world while studying the Old Testament as an undergraduate at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids. He quickly gravitated toward cuneiform, an early system of writing invented by the people of ancient Iraq, for its larger body of material.

"(Assyriology) isn't a closed corpus like the Hebrew Bible. It's hundreds of thousands of texts. I could go into a museum tomorrow and find something interesting to talk about that no one has ruminated over," said Crisostomo.

He stumbled upon ancient scribes' translation as a site of scholarship while pursuing his doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley. "Translation isn't just about capturing meaning from one language to another. It's how these scribes sought to explore the potential of their literary traditions. Then translation becomes something phenomenal, it becomes a social phenomenon," he said.

Jay Crisostomo, an assistant professor of Near Eastern studies focusing on Assyriology, advocates for the use of technology in the humanities to aid scholarship. (Photo by Scott C. Soderberg, Michigan Photography)

By studying translation not as simply preserving meaning but as a way that languages interact, he says, it helps us conceptualize the ancient world in the ancients' terms.

Crisostomo came to the University of Michigan in 2015. "It's got a good tradition of scholars who are open to thinking about big ideas you don't get if you only think about grammar and parsing verbs," he said.

He recently finished a book focusing on translation and its place in scholarship and is beginning to explore why Sumerian was a preferred written language in multilingual societies.

He also works with the Open Richly Annotated Cuneiform Corpus, an open-access collection of thousands of cuneiform texts available online at oracc.org. ORACC is an example of the digital humanities that leverage technology to aid humanitarian scholars, a rapidly growing academic movement.

"Technology is another tool, another potential way of accessing the ancient world. It gives us more to do, more to work with, which can never be bad," he said.

The weekly Spotlight features faculty and staff members at the university. To nominate a candidate, email the Record staff at urecord@umich.edu.

While the digital humanities are sometimes mocked as being an end rather than a means of producing quality scholarship, Crisostomo says, it opens up applications for big data and text mining, a quantitative approach that complements humanities' usual careful reading and analysis. Working with technology also forces scholars to simplify and better understand their own scholarship when discussing it with people who work in computer science or IT.

"There's a translation back and forth. It forces humanitarians to talk to people outside of our discipline, to take another vantage point. I think that helps our public scholarship," he said.

While technology helps Crisostomo better analyze texts, his ultimate goal in using the digital humanities is the same as the humanities — to better understand the global human experience.

"Ancient languages and cultures help us take a different perspective to better understand people, homo sapiens. It's no longer just about what's happening in the West. This gives us a broader dimension of what it means to be human," he said.

Q & A

What moment in the classroom stands out as the most memorable?

Whenever a student indicates that my class is a favorite or made them change a major or minor.

What can't you live without?

My tablet. I do everything on it these days.

Where is your favorite spot on campus?

I like walking through the Diag on a nice day when I can get a sense for what people are protesting or thinking about.

What inspires you?

My children and anyone who exhibits the same kind of curiosity and desire to learn.

What are you currently reading?

"Discourse-Pragmatic Variation in Context" by Alexandra D'Arcy (2017); "Medieval Islamic Maps" by Karen Pinto (2016); "Truth in Motion" by Martin Holbraad (2012)

Who had the greatest influence on your career path?

My doctoral adviser, Niek Veldhuis, taught me how to be a good scholar. My other adviser, Francesca Rochberg, showed me how to be a good thinker.