Classics on YouTube: An Interview with John Henry
In 2018, current MA candidate in Classics John Henry created his own YouTube channel, Foxwede History, where he delivers mini-lectures on myth, literature and history through his alter ego, Dr Eldon Foxwede. Beautifully produced and presented with humour and creativity, his videos have drawn an audience from many different countries. We spoke with John about this project and how it connects with his scholarly interests.
So, how did you first become interested in classical antiquity and the ancient world?
In Year 11 and 12 I was very interested in philosophy in general, which was a gateway into Greek philosophy. At that time I was tutored in Greek by the Mongolist Jonathan Ratcliffe, who never passes up a discussion on Plato or Herodotus. Later on, majoring in philosophy at Monash, I started to head towards ancient history. I think the decisive moment of ‘conversion’ was after reading Peter Unger’s Empty Ideas, which I think identified some problems with analytic philosophy as a discipline today. At the time, I think the study of ancient literature seemed to have a lot more going for it, in terms of putting forward new assessable claims. Some translations are better than others, some allusions can be better understood.
What is it about the classics (or Greek & Roman mythology) that continues to fascinate you?
In general I like digging through old texts and commentaries, especially when commentators write “this allusion remains unknown” or “this textual problem remains unresolved”. There are quite a few puzzles that still lurk about in ancient Greek literature, even in well-known authors that have apparently been studied to death.
On another level, I just enjoy the stories in Greek literature, especially in epic and tragedy. In my YouTube channel, I’ve tried to showcase this as much as possible outside of an academic setting.
You’re currently writing an MA thesis, and now you even have a couple of short articles published in a European peer-reviewed journal. So, you’re no stranger to academic practices. So why choose a YouTube channel as a further medium to write about antiquity? What does YouTube allow you to do and say differently than, say, a journal article?
My MA supervisor K.O. has talked about outreach as “knowledge transfer”, and for Classics this means conveying information that was once confined to an academic setting to anyone with a curiosity about the ancient world. Both approaches have something different to offer.
On the one hand, academic research can be antiquarian and not immediately “useful” – the past can be studied as an end in itself, regardless of its contemporary relevance. There’s some view to keeping it relevant, but no obligation. But on a platform like YouTube, a Classics video addressed to a popular audience needs to introduce an element of entertainment, with modern comparisons (memes, popular culture) to make the information come alive. With this licence there’s some loss of historical rigour, but if the essential details aren’t too distorted I think the ‘knowledge transfer’ has worked. Research and outreach are complementary despite their sometimes conflicting purposes.
How has your knowledge of Greek in particular influenced the content of your YouTube videos?
Alongside writing papers for my thesis and publications, the channel has been an incentive to study aspects of Classics I might otherwise have paid less attention to, in particular, metre for reciting Greek poetry aloud. Earlier on, it was also a useful compulsion for translating a few selected passages that I could keep in my head permanently – if you record and illustrate for a spoken passage in Homer over and over, the verses never completely go away.
On YouTube, the educational videos on Ancient Greece tend to neglect the language side of things, but I hope that the videos on the channel give the viewer some indication of how it may have originally sounded. Although the channel never delves into the technical details of Greek, I think it’s helpful to constantly return to how the Greeks were still quite different to us in many ways; reading their original language aloud from time to time is a vivid way to express the historical distance between our milieu and theirs.
How did you develop the character and the iconography for your YouTube channel?
Dr Foxwede, the fictional presenter of the channel, mostly owes something to the ‘absent-minded professor’ character that can be found in Professor Calculus in the old Tintin comics or Indiana Jones Snr from The Last Crusade. But over time other influences have crept in; one of Dr Foxwede’s suits comes from the musician Jarvis Cocker (pictured below). This is all to make the professor seem more cartoonish and ludicrous, and very outdated in his mannerisms and appearance; but he does make clumsy references to meme culture occasionally.
The design of the channel is also old-fashioned, and I wanted to create the impression that a YouTube viewer had opened up a nineteenth-century reference book, with the information being told by a similarly dusty professor. So the illustrations are an attempt to reflect this atmosphere; it’s modelled on books that are filled with the rather sinister Teutonic script found in old German classics monographs, combined with woodcut-style drawings and faded maps. So I often use scanned blocks of German text kept at archive.org, and try to replicate the line-drawing style you can find in old classical dictionaries of history and mythology.
The drawings themselves are done in fine-liner pen and scanned into Photoshop, and the finished product is cobbled together with Wondershare Filmora, a very simple editing program. I find the more sophisticated editing programs a headache, as the editing always occurs at the end of a very lengthy process!
What further projects for your YouTube channel are you planning?
Late last year I decided to put my channel on hiatus so I could pay more attention to my thesis research and draft some more articles, as the channel requires quite a bit of time-consuming research and illustrating. But I see value in returning to the project, as some of the videos can reach a fairly wide audience if the YouTube algorithm is kind to it, and if it fills a niche. Outside of Anglo countries I notice there’s a fair few views from India and the Philippines, so it’s encouraging to see the videos getting use in various places.
Overall, I’d like it to eventually branch out into Near-Eastern and Latin literature. The philosophy videos always seem to get quite a bit of attention on YouTube, too, so it would be worthwhile to make an extended series on Plato.
Watch one of John Henry’s videos below or visit Foxwede History for the full set.