New Faculty Spotlight: Colin Webster

The Classics Program at UC Davis welcomes a new assistant professor specializing in ancient science, medicine, and philosophy. Colin Webster joins UC Davis after completing his doctorate in Classics from Colombia University.

Colin Webster, Assistant Professor, Classics Program

Webster spoke with the Davis Humanities Institute after teaching his 400-seat course “Greek & Latin Elements in English Vocabulary” – a popular undergraduate class that explores the Latin and Greek roots of words in the English language, with “some Greek and Roman history thrown in,” Webster explains.

Webster is a fitting teacher for bringing innovative takes on traditional studies of ancient culture. His own interdisciplinary background allowed him to combine studies in philosophy, literature, and history of science with classics and the ancient world.

Research interests

During his doctoral training, Webster explored how technologies shaped abstract thought in antiquity. By placing ancient science, medicine, mathematics, and philosophy into their material environments, Webster examined how even basic technologies can inform our assumptions about the natural world.

Webster asks how glass quality shaped the way people understood the function of the human eye: “living in a world with glass of a particular type and quality automatically informs the way you think about the eye – but glass is not the only optical material. Mirrors and wax tablets have had just as big an impact on assumptions about the physical mechanism of sight–and when mirrors around you are made of bronze and give off slight colour, you will assume different things about the eye and its operation.” Similarly, the daily technologies we encounter, like pipes, paper and pigments shape the way we presume that nature must obviously work—particularly as we use these technologies in analogies to understand natural phenomenon.

“What I do is track the changing technological environments to see whether abstract assumptions shift accordingly,” Webster explains. “So, as pipes get better, what happens to theories of the vascular system? As glass gets better, what happens to theories of eyesight?”

For his doctoral project, Webster also worked with diagrams in the geometrical tradition stemming from Euclid, Ptolemy, and others. He argues that basic material features of these abstract mathematical technologies can find their way into physical theories about rays. He asks “How does drawing a picture of something change our ideas about the objects under investigation?”

Webster’s current research expands on this last set of issues, insofar as he considers the role of diagrams and data visualization in the ancient world, particularly anatomical diagrams and visualization technologies like star charts.

Teaching and research at Davis

At Davis, Webster discusses his interest in a project looking at how anatomical diagrams are used in antiquity, and possibly “interacting with faculty in the veterinary school or biological sciences to see if I can get students studying ancient medicine to see how the messy work of dissecting animals gets translated into diagrammatic practices.” Only three months into his faculty position, Webster is still determining what is possible and desirable to get students excited about understanding how we visualize knowledge and how we conceptualize scientific theories through media other than text.

On the difficulty of teaching with ancient star charts, for example, Webster explains that “there is a whole world view contained within star charts that has so much to do with how astronomy worked in antiquity, how they were used to make predictions. … It is a major part of understanding ancient cultural literacy, and yet, looking at star charts can be excruciatingly boring.”

“I’m trying to think about how to bring these odd, non-canonical bodies of knowledge [ancient diagrams and data visualizations] to life for undergraduates,” Webster says. “It will likely involve something more interactive than simple textual research. This can also be quite beneficial for the field as a whole; there is still so much to do in ancient science and medicine.”

On collaborative work in the humanities

Webster relays an anecdote about applying for his faculty position at UC Davis, and how he had to conceptualize the best way to communicate with a broader community of people that are not necessarily familiar with the “contours of fragmentary evidence” that defined his doctoral work.

In doing so, Webster recognized the strengths of focusing on the ways that the technologies shape the way we think about the world more broadly. This compelling and widely-applicable research interest of how form affects content is a stunning example of the valuable contribution of humanities thinking and training in addressing the banal and profound features of our daily lives – in both antiquity and the present. Webster foresees teaching courses on ancient science and medicine, and possibly developing more courses that deal directly with integrating the biological sciences. “Students in the sciences [and] students in the humanities, [will] all find something that is worthwhile,” Webster says.

This is the final installment of “New Faculty Spotlight” interviews for 2014-2015. Read our previous interviews with:

Stephanie Maroney, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral candidate in Cultural Studies