Young man climbing suspension bridge

Spect-ops at Harvard: How a World-leading University Reacts to Techno-centrism

 Published on November 11, 2014 /  Written by /  Reviewed by Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris /  “watcher” by Fio; CC BY-NC 2.0 /  1

“Screens so hi-def you might as well be there, cost effective videophonic conferencing, internal Froxx CD-ROM, electronic couture, all-in-one consoles (…) Half of all metro Bostonians now work from home via some digital link. 50% of all public education disseminated through accredited encoded pulses, absorbable at home on couches (…) saying this is bad is like saying traffic is bad, or health-care surtaxes, or the hazards of annular fusion: nobody but ludditic granola-crunching freaks would call bad what no one can imagine being without.” ~ David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

As I stare at my computer screen in the comfort of my homeworker lair, I can’t help but feel awestruck by the prophetic quality of DFW’s words. In his famously unwieldy masterpiece Infinite Jest, he concocts a vision of postmodern western society that has few equals in literature, sociology or any other artistic or scholarly domain you can think of. The book itself is, in its structure, style and in the type of reading it invites, not only a compelling representation of a certain type of human condition, but an artefact which literally becomes the facts and truths it concerns itself with. The greatest trick DFW ever pulled was making a novel which is also an object, a Rubik’s Cube, a handheld device that shows as much as it tells, and invites the reader to play and mess with it like a sandbox videogame. I am not ashamed to confess that my experience with Infinite Jest was as chaotic and piecemeal as the book itself. I skimmed through pages when I felt things were dragging on and I permanently earmarked sections or underlined paragraphs which I reread obsessively, without worrying in the least about the lack of narrative resolution or linearity. Despite my messing with it, my appreciation and love for the book is undiminished. I believe that Jesse Stommel’s notion of interactive criticism applies to the sort of two-way textual engagement I am describing here. As Jesse eloquently puts it, sometimes reading is not an accomplishment over the text, but a dialogue — something we do to the text and something the text does to us.

In this article I am not going to commend the many qualities of Infinite Jest – there are very smart people who have already done it more effectively and articulately than I ever could. What I am going to do is to reflect on the quote above, which left a permanent impression on me.

DFW describes a world where digital content has become ubiquitous and pervasive; where everything from entertainment to education is available at the click of a button. In Infinite Jest’s fictional version of 21st century Boston such digital saturation has reached levels where unintended consequences begin to occur, and people are increasingly drawn to live events joining others through physicality and co-presence. DFW calls these phenomena “spect-ops”.

“Hence the new millenium’s passion for standing live witness to things. A whole sub-rosa schedule of public spectation opportunities, ‘spect-ops’, the priceless chance to be part of a live crowd.”

Right now, in the real 21st century, the seemingly unstoppable process of digitisation we are happily putting our lives through is having similar ramifications, exemplified by the rise of an artistic/cultural trend that some have called “post-digital”. Rather than advocating luddism, this trend displays a range of values and sophisticated attitudes not necessarily anti-technology, but surely critical and based on the compelling conviction that there is life beyond the screen.  I couldn’t help but notice parallels with current developments in education. The last few years in the world of higher ed have been nothing short of gripping. In 2012, MOOCs burst onto the scene with great fanfare and brandishing like a weapon the promise to revolutionise universities through digitisation and “open access”. It was all a bit exaggerated and whether the revolution is still ongoing or has already failed is a matter for another discussion. What is certain is that reactions were much polarised. The initial enthusiasm for pedagogic experimentation afforded by MOOCs was met with vocal criticism from within the learning and pedagogical community, who warned against the risks of disregarding the social and co-located dimensions of learning. In another context, I suggested that the MOOC quarrel that took place over the last couple of years was positioned within a wider debate about the role of authenticity, locality, and physicality in 21st century education. In that article I argued that massive open online education has been rhetorically construed as a tale of two opposites. That is, as “amplification” and enhancement afforded by digitisation and, in particular, by the introduction of playback options (pause/rewind/fast-forward) in the instructional process; alternatively, as de-humanised, passively experienced collection of recordings that only provides a ‘compelling testament to the value of the in-person lecture/discussion’. Following this line of inquiry, I recently turned to the interesting and overlooked case of public lectures.

What do Joss Whedon, Islamic felines, and intestinal microbes have in common?

The University of Harvard has been at the forefront of the MOOC venture, being one of the founding members of the EdX platform and trailblazing the whole “massively open” model with successful online courses like Introduction to Computer Science CS50 – one I took myself but, like many others, didn’t manage to complete. Famously, more people signed up for Harvard’s MOOCs in 2013 than have otherwise “attended” the university in its entire 377-year history.

At the same time, Harvard (as many others prestigious institutions) has a very long tradition of public lectures, seminars, and other scholarly events which are largely open – most of them free or requiring a small entrance fee. The long-running Harvard Gazette with its handy online calendar offers a glimpse into this vibrant and, as I will demonstrate, very much alive tradition. The events are attached to faculties’ research programmes or run by individual scholars, often guests from other universities, interested in disseminating their work through public engagement.

So here are the questions that piqued my interest: have the recent developments in massive online open education had any impact on Harvard’s honourable tradition of public lectures? Why would an institution like Harvard keep providing resources and venues to support public lectures, when the same content could be put online and thus made available to a much larger audience? It could be argued that assuming a relationship between Harvard’s public lectures and the MOOC phenomenon is fallacious as I am not comparing like for like. After all, Harvard’s open access offerings target a global audience that, by definition, lacks the privileged opportunities to attend lectures in Cambridge, MA. While this is true to an extent, my point is that open-access education is just one facet of the grand digital migration of recent years, where culture and knowledge are increasingly turned into “content” packaged and streamed through an internet connection. Assuming our lives in the 21st century are utterly mediated — lived in media and fragmented by media — what happens to established traditions of co-located academic discourse; what happens to that often neglected component of scholarship: the public lecture?

In an attempt to explore this question I trawled through Harvard’s online calendar, collecting additional data about past events no longer listed online from the Print Gazette archives — luckily also available online as a PDF repository. I put everything in a corpus analysis software and started running some tests. Each entry in the analysis tool was limited to the lecture title and the brief description that generally accompanies it, omitting unnecessary information like venues, times, contact names and phone numbers.

Example entries are:

The Little Platoons of Society’: Equality and Obligation in American Social Thought in the 1970s and 1980s. 


Bose-Einstein Condensation or the Coolest Atoms in the Universe, and Its Relatives.

My aim was to look at trends in the calendar, focusing on quantitative as well as qualitative patterns. To avoid overreaching and being overwhelmed by large amounts of unnecessary data I decided to focus only on public lectures, ignoring the plethora of other listed events like concerts, theatre performances, classes, morning prayers, and tea drinking sessions.

For the purpose of this article I compared the same three-month period (March, April and May) in 2009 and 2014. The analysis is not as comprehensive as I would have liked owing to the lack of data for protracted periods during which, presumably, the calendar was migrating from the printed gazette to various iterations of the current online version. In one of the busiest months I logged for my analysis (April 2009), the calendar took 10 pages of the 32-page printed issue. The June–July 2009 issue was the last with a full printed calendar.

The main reason for focusing on the same springtime period in 2009 and 2014 is fairly straightforward: the Harvard events calendar unsurprisingly comes into full bloom during spring, as people re-emerge from their lairs and return to the outdoors after the harsh Massachusetts winter. Also, Harvard’s foray into the open education business officially started in May 2012 when EdX launched; hence focusing on the differences between 2009 and 2014 should be enough to establish whether variations occurred during the turbulent inception years of massive open online education.

A brief glance at the overall numbers immediately reveals a 10.4% increase in 2014 compared with the same period in 2009. Although by no means massive, it is also far from being negligible.
















However, a tangible increase in the number of public lectures is not even half the story. A more in-depth analysis of the lectures’ titles and descriptions opened a window into a vibrant world of mainstream as well as leftfield academic pursuits. A quick word list provided an initial, if rather crude, snapshot of the public lectures’ main themes in 2009 and 2014.  Comparing the frequency of some words proved a rather interesting exercise.




























Whilst some words have kept fairly constant or have seen negligible changes, more marked variations suggest shifting priorities in the elite US academic discourse. Two highlights stand out for me: the rise of the word “European” from 8 to 22 and the rise of the word “climate” from 2 to 13. The former is surely related to higher levels of US concern for the global ramifications of the turbulent Eurozone crisis and recent instabilities at the Russian border; the latter seems to suggest a growing interest in environmental matters and climate change in particular.  This was confirmed by a quick collocation analysis, which revealed interesting relations between the words.  In 2014 the word “future” (23 instances) is often in close proximity (three positions before or after) to the words “energy” (5 instances) and “climate” (4 instances).

After an hour or so of more in-depth “qualitative”analysis the feeling was mainly one of wonderment, as I was gliding through a dataset that looked like a hybrid between a very serious conference program and the colourful brochure for a renaissance faire. Going through the listings proved entertaining in its own right. Here are some examples:

  • Condoms, Community, and Karmic Congee: Faith-based Social Service in Contemporary China.

  • Did Darwin Meet Wagner? On Evolution, Education, and Becoming.

  • Joss Whedon: Cultural Humanist.

  • Existence is Resistance: The Roles of Art and Gender as Experienced by a Palestinian Drag Queen.

  • In the Loop with Poop: Intestinal Microbes in Health and Immunity.

  • Governments Pwn the Web: A Constitutional Right to IT-Security?

  • Popcorn and Politics: Film and Politics Discussion with Mike Nichols.

  • Felines in Islamic Art and Culture.

  • How to Cater a Roman Orgy: A Discussion with Merry “Corky” White, author of “Cooking for Crowds”.

  • Sylphs, an Emerald Tablet and the Kabbalah; or, Where did the Enlightenment Come From.

Interpreting the findings

I believe the brief analysis attempted here allows two possible interpretations. A rather critical reading of the findings is that Harvard, like presumably other elite institutions in the global north, is steadfast on its own trajectory and travelling at its own speed. Conforming to a long-honoured tradition Harvard is reinforcing its role as a walled garden of academic excellence, and those lucky/privileged enough to gravitate around its orbit enjoy exclusive opportunities to physically take part in a wonderfully diverse range of intellectual pursuits. All this happens while the institution as a whole reaps the (albeit still vaguely defined) benefits of open access in terms of brand enhancement, and freely experiments with the various business models that are emerging around digital academic content. As we move along the spectrum of academic elitism until we reach universities in the global south, we then appreciate the stark contrast of institutions struggling with shrinking resources and ever fiercer global competition. Research shows that disadvantaged students from developing countries are poorly served by MOOCs, and that the model of hegemonic Western knowledge being propagated from the core to the periphery is likely to cause the further entrenchment of historical inequalities.  On the “other side” there is a widening gap between scholarly opportunity (broadly understood) and what technological access and digitisation can actually offer to students and staff.

A less gloomy interpretation draws once more on David Foster Wallace’s humanist — or perhaps post-humanist- worldview exemplified by the quote at the beginning of this article. One recurrent theme in Infinite Jest is indeed the idiosyncratic nature of human beings. There is a sombre, ironic optimism running through the book which often translates into a “celebration” (for lack of a better word) of people’s capacity to reassert their humanity in the face of the dehumanising, addictive forces of modernity: technology, escapism, drugs, alienation and depression. As suggested by the American literary critic Paul Giles, DFW often uses sentimentality and compassion to subvert rigid technocratic patterns.  As such the Harvard events calendar, with all its vibrancy and idiosyncrasy, represents a compelling proof that a constructive response to the techno-centrism of our digital obsessions is possible, and that this response is unavoidably physical, spatial and geographical. It is about real places and real people coming together moved by curiosity and shared interests.  Shame that, as is often the case, the very possibility of such a response seems to go hand in hand with privilege and elitism.

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1 Response
  1. “Rather than advocating luddism, …” Shame to see further use of “Luddite” in the pejorative. Critical pedagogues need to set a better example.

    “…the very possibility of such a response seems to go hand in hand with privilege and elitism.” Yes, the problem with the argument in this post is that, in a sense, it looks at an oppressive regime and considers only how the elite oppressors are managing to escape the worst effects of the oppression. Some taking their cue from the original Luddite uprising might want to see that, for instance, the workers at the Foxconn factory are also enjoying “the rise of an artistic/cultural trend that some have called ‘post-digital'”, and that those made unemployed in a society which is avoid the issue of post-employment are enjoying “the rise of an artistic/cultural trend that some have called ‘post-digital'”, and that animals in digitally enhanced abattoirs are also enjoying “the rise of an artistic/cultural trend that some have called ‘post-digital'” – relishing the new enthusiasm for coming together in the open air instead of being isolated in fattening pens.

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