Humanities seminar to explore the production and politics of knowledge

Coinciding with the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web’s public debut, Rice University’s Humanities Research Center is hosting a 2015-16 John E. Sawyer Seminar on the Comparative Study of Cultures. Titled “Platforms of Knowledge in a Wide Web of Worlds: Production, Participation and Politics,” the seminar will bring two speakers to campus this month to acquaint and engage the Rice community with the topic.

Rice's Farès el-Dahdah, Lisa Spiro and Melissa Bailar (from left) are leading the 2015-16 John E. Sawyer Seminar on the Comparative Study of Cultures. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

With its main activities — lectures and workshops — to take place during the upcoming academic year, the seminar will examine the proliferation of digital knowledge platforms such as Google, Wikipedia, edX and Coursera to understand their impact on culture and academia, said Farès el-Dahdah, center director and professor of humanities. He is leading the seminar together with Melissa Bailar, center associate director and professor in the practice of humanities, and Lisa Spiro, Fondren Library executive director of digital scholarship services. The seminar was made possible through a $175,000 award from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

“The seminar will bring about a broadly humanistic collaboration among tech innovators, visiting scholars, faculty and students,” el-Dahdah said. “The goal is to explore, critique and experience digital knowledge platforms — for example, e-learning, publishing, collaborative research or crowd-sourced — that uphold our academic mission to disseminate knowledge. These platforms enable teachers, students and researchers to discover, analyze and share information without regard to barriers of space and time and publish work widely.”

These same platforms, however, raise questions about what counts as expertise, who controls access to information, what gets lost in translation, what power is likely to shift from educational institutions to profit-seeking companies, how the privileging of quantification and metrics affects humanistic wisdom and how academic autonomy and diversity are ultimately disrupted, the organizers said. “If Web platforms are indeed transforming the ways in which we communicate, find information, make purchases and conduct research, they ought to be studied closely, especially when hard-won expertise is lost altogether,” el-Dahdah said.

Bailar echoed el-Dahdah’s call. “There has been tremendous enthusiasm over the last couple of decades in how digital platforms can open up new arenas of research and facilitate scholarly connections, but very little investigation into how they may have negative effects on research and pedagogy in higher education,” she said. “In the seminar, we will learn how some of these platforms work on a technical level so that we can better understand how they are influencing academic priorities, funding and communities, for better or for worse.”

To kick off the exploration of these issues, the center is hosting talks by two internationally renowned scholars of media and information studies: Siegfried Zielinski, a German media theorist and the chair for Media Theory: Archaeology and Variantology of the Media at Berlin University of the Arts, and Christopher Kelty, an associate professor in the departments of Information Studies and Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles and a former member of Rice’s Anthropology Department. Co-hosted by the English Department and the Center for Critical and Cultural Theory, Zielinski will speak on “Retropresentism” at 4 p.m. April 9 in the Humanities Building, Room 119. Kelty will speak on “Pirate Business Plans: Piracy, Remix, Plagiarism. Openness, Access, Participation” at 4 p.m. April 16 in Sewall Hall, Room 303. On March 26, the seminar hosted a talk by Kathleen Fitzpatrick, director of scholarly communication at the Modern Language Association, on “Open Review, the New Peer and the Future of Scholarly Communication.”
“One of the main goals (of the seminar) is to stimulate deeper conversation about the impact platforms are having on the ways in which we create and disseminate knowledge.”

“One of the main goals (of the seminar) is to stimulate deeper conversation about the impact platforms are having on the ways in which we create and disseminate knowledge,” Spiro said. “That’s really a question of core importance across the academia, so we view these speakers as a way of presenting various perspectives on these questions and helping the Rice community have this larger conversation that will really get underway most forcefully in the fall and spring of next year, but we want to lay the foundations for that now.”

In addition to organizing the lectures, the center recently selected Rex Troumbley as the Sawyer Seminar Postdoctoral Fellow. Troumbley, who received his Ph.D. from the Department of Political Science at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, researches how taboo language – cursing, swearing, profanity, obscenity and racial slurs – is managed by medical, legal and technical institutions in the United States. Most recently, his research has explored the extent to which digital technologies have been used to steer users away from undesirable behaviors, specifically interventions into the “pre-speech” of users that work to make their expressions “pre-dictable.” Troumbley’s next major project, to be launched at the center, examines how the translation of text, sound and video into digital media help determine how different knowledge is valued and condition the possibilities for a corporate monopolization of creativity.

Also participating on the seminar team will be Seth Morton, a graduate student in the Department of English, and Sean Smith, a graduate student in the Department of History, as well as two yet-to-be-determined undergraduate students.

For more information about the seminar, visit

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.