Invisible Agents: Networks of Learning in Late Antiquity

By Annabelle Mansell //

The aims of this project were to begin to understand how low-status, often unnamed individuals functioned within the broader educational network of Late Antiquity. We examined many of the letters of one well-connected teacher, Libanius, and transferred the key relationships discussed into an Excel spreadsheet, which allowed the creation of visual depictions of Libanius’ networks through graphs. With the information being presented in this digital, visual format, it is possible to do specific enquiries into Libanius’ networks. For example, one could see the centrality of a pedagogue within a given family cluster by looking at a specific dossier, or one could investigate the causes of the changing shapes of the network chronologically. The data being in this form allows for further investigations and a visual presentation of relationships which was not immediately available before. The graphs that have been generated already from the research begin to show how unnamed individuals’ centrality within a network can shift depending on the size of networks, and has begun to reveal the true nature of their positions and attitudes held towards pedagogues. In conclusion, this project has started to lay the foundation for this area of enquiry, illustrating the value in transferring written data into a visual form.

This project presented unanticipated challenges. Learning how to operate Microsoft Excel and ConnectTheDots took more time than expected, and technical issues caused large losses of data on multiple occasions, which massively delayed progress. This had an impact on how targets were set and achieved, as I had to learn to create a flexible schedule which allowed for surprise setbacks. A second issue was the large quantity of data available to me throughout this project, making it difficult to finish all of the letters that I had initially planned.

My supervisors have been invaluable to me throughout this project. The wealth of experience and knowledge they possess (both in regards to Late Antiquity, and the procedures of research) has been a huge help, and without their guidance and support I could not have achieved as much as I did. Our meetings were always beneficial and encouraging, and even when I was struggling most with the project’s future I was flooded with support and further avenues to explore. It has been a privilege to work on this project together, and an invaluable introduction to collaborative research.

This experience has been a unique opportunity which has allowed me to explore areas I am interested in pursuing further, as well as introducing me to new ideas and burgeoning approaches to handling historical texts. I have gained technical skills in digital literacy and network analysis tools such as ConnectTheDots. This experience will help with my future study as I have learnt how to extract important data from texts efficiently, and how to use more visual methods to analyse it. It has given me ideas for further possible related research and applications for this data, as we could use it to create maps and timelines, as well as more expansive graphs.

*To view Annabelle’s research poster and presentation recording, please click on the thumbnails below: