Academic Theater (Reflections on TED & TEDxNYED)

This past weekend’s TEDxNYED event in New York took place in the theater of a school just off Broadway. I couldn’t help thinking about the symbolism of that location during the day’s proceedings. TEDx, a spinoff regional program of the billionaires-and-brains edutainment summit in California, TED, pushes speakers like me towards theatrics.

TEDxNYED was enjoyable and I greatly appreciated the opportunity to rub elbows with some digital luminaries and some very smart educators who are doing all the hard work in the trenches while I sit here in the ivory tower blogging. Whatever criticisms may be leveled, TEDxNYED was incredibly well-run and engaging. Before you read my thoughts below, you should first read the wrap-up from Dave Bill, the TEDxNYED “curator,” who gets it exactly right. I’m enormously appreciative of Dave’s hard work and the hard work of his TEDxNYED colleagues.

Back to Broadway: among other things, TEDxNYED gave me a chance to think more about the academic lecture as theater. (It also gave me a welcome chance to summon the vaudevillian genes of my New York Jewish heritage, the effectiveness of which you will be able to assess when the video is posted to the TEDx channel on YouTube in a couple of weeks.)

Take Larry Lessig, the de facto headliner of TEDxNYED. He’s clearly a first-rate legal scholar and influential activist. But after viewing him live, I realized more than ever that he’s also a rather talented performance artist, with crack comedic timing. (Here’s his talk; judge for yourself.)

We professors don’t like to admit it, but comedy and performance are important ingredients in most successful academic lectures, and can spur the pursuit of knowledge and action far better than serious monograph or article. When I was in college nearly everyone interested in history—from any era or place—took Stephen Cohen’s class on Soviet history, mostly because he was entertaining. He even had one lecture consisting entirely of jokes. Sure, it was gimmicky. But I also know several of my classmates who went into careers in diplomacy and history because of the inspiration.

Of course, academic theater can also lead to problems. TED talks are limited to 18 minutes, inevitably leading to reductionism. As I quipped in my talk on the 6,000 year history of π, “Portions have been condensed.” The humanities particularly suffer from this condensation. For instance, as hugely entertaining as Lessig’s talk was, if you watch it I’m sure you’ll pick up that it conflates, quite problematically, two kinds of conservatism: religious conservatism and libertarianism. Just because the Cato Institute can imagine a role for remixes doesn’t mean that those who attend free church potlucks can. Modern conservatism is an extraordinarily complex mix; one need only look at the tension between libertarian and evangelical views of homosexuality. Gina Bianchini, the CEO of Ning, a network of social networks, presented her work as “the joy of connecting optimists from around the world,” leaving out the fact that the history of Ning is far more interesting: it started out as an engine for making web apps, only later turning toward social networking. That’s actually a fascinating, complex business history that I would have liked to hear more about.

TED’s tagline is the catchy “Ideas Worth Spreading.” I’m an intellectual historian and appreciate the emphasis on ideas; as an educator I’m in favor of spreading knowledge. But in my later years I’ve also come to realize that while ideas are important, execution is probably more important. Lessig and Bianchini also know this—Lessig is now working on methods of more effective lobbying and Bianchini is obviously a talented CEO—and it would have helped TEDxNYED if they had explained to the audience the nitty-gritty details of making real change and progress. It doesn’t come from clever sound bites.

The TED spotlight-on-the-stage format also encourages the audience to perceive the speakers as isolated geniuses, coming out to impart wisdom. The host who introduced me credited me as being the solitary creator of several projects and works, all of which were actually broad collaborations. Again, collaboration is more complex than the format allows. Jeff Jarvis decided to blow up the format by getting up on stage with the lights on and ranting about the insanities and inanities of modern education. This was effective in a Lenny Bruce sort of way, but like Bruce, it was the exception that proved the rule that we speakers were bound to a certain form of academic theater. Inspired by Jarvis, I broke the fourth wall and interacted with the audience a couple of times during my talk, but it was perhaps a little superficial.

Regardless of these criticisms—which I give, again, entirely in recognition of the success of the event and with an eye toward improvement for next year—I enjoyed the challenge of doing a TED talk. I’m working on a much more formal Big Lecture at Cambridge University, and TEDxNYED helpfully made me think about the problems with that format as well. Indeed, I’m not blaming TED for the problems of academic theater. I actually believe the fault lies with academics themselves, who have ceded the ground of public intellectualism in the past generation or two, leaving a vacuum that TED and TEDx are happy to fill.

Hopefully—and judging by the tweets and blog posts this is true—the attendees took away more of the advantages than the disadvantages of the format, and will go on from thought to action.

[photo credit: Kevin Jarrett]


There is some irony in that someone like Chris Lehmann teaches at a school where “the lecture” is all but non-existant, and yet he spoke to us in that form.

I only got to watch a few of them from the comfort of my couch and I can’t wait to see them all when they are online. I did find the ones I saw inspiring and I loved Lawrence Lessig’s cadence and his slide deck was mesmerizing. I caught the tail end of your talk and I can’t wait to see the entire thing. My mom’s a math teacher so I will be sharing it with her for sure. She loves talking about PI.

I was thinking that it must be unnerving as a presenter to sit through all of the other ones before you did your own. I thought it was funny to see what you wrote about that from your perspective.

Thanks for being part of such an inspiring day.

Dave Bill says:

Dan. First of all, thank you for the head nod to my post and speaking at TEDxNYED. Second, you bring up some very valid points. Execution is indeed more important than the ideas and I will make sure to put more emphasis on this in future events.

That being said, like the development of Zotero, the potential of something like TEDxNYED starts with an idea but it the collaborations that happen afterward that make it a true success.

It is not the speaker and their idea but rather the community of attendees and viewers that have continued to think about the implications of TEDxNYED.

While this version of TEDxNYED may have been more focused on ideas, it was my hope to introduce them to attendees and viewers who were not familiar with those ideas so that the community could motivate and execute in their physical and virtual communities.

Derek Bruff says:

Thanks for this thoughtful post and for contributing to TEDxNYED. I tend to agree with you that execution is often more important than ideas. I surfed the Twitter backchannel during the event, and I was disappointing to see such little interaction going on. Most of the tweets were simply spreading catchy lines delivered by the presenters. Reading Dave Bill’s comment above, I would argue that the Twitter backchannel is evidence that the goal of introducing good ideas about education to new audiences was achieved. That’s most of what was happening on the backchannel.

Back to the issue of execution, I find myself increasingly frustrated by visions of the future of education shared at conferences and online when those visions seem far away from day-to-day practice. For example, I’m always impressed by what Michael Wesch does in his teaching. However, I’m equally impressed by the challenge of helping college and university faculty members understand and implement Wesch’s teaching strategies.

[…] CV    9 March 2010 « Academic Theater (Reflections on TED & TEDxNYED) […]

Thanks for your critical reflections on this TED Talks experience.

I followed your conference and a few others from Buenos Aires-Argentina, through the web. Sporadically, I also checked Twitter -hashtag #TEDxNYED, confirming tweets may be of little help if you are interested in a holistic understanding of thinking and arguments.

There is indeed (good and bad) theatrics in academic performances, and it is peculiar to different languages and cultures (in the case of USA, for example, jokes play an almost ritual role). Those of us teaching to large audiences develop with the years a sense and a command of theatrics. There are also those who become masters in using it as a substitute to substance.

Many of us working on education and interested in educational change share your concern about excessive focus on ideas (and on norms and policies, I would add) rather than on implementation. However, we cannot assume that speakers are the ones who provide the ideas and attendees are the ones that – you hope – “will go on from thought to action”. Not all speakers are “just talkers”, and there are many in the audience who are not only doers and implementers but also thinkers, intellectuals and professionals engaged with actual practice and social transformation.

Let me take this opportunity to add what I have already asked TedTalk organizers through Twitter. Why do speakers come only (or mainly) from one part of the world – the North? Why are such talks focused on Anglophone speakers? Our world is multilingual and multicultural. We have great scientists, thinkers and doers in our countries in the South. Hopefully we start seing more global diversity and equity in the selection of TED speakers, so as to honour and reach the wide international audience, beyond the US.

Rosa Maria Torres
Researcher and international education and learning adviser

[…] Dan Cohen’s Digital Humanities Blog » Blog Archive » Academic Theater (Reflections on TED & TEDxNYED) By kcbrady Dan Cohen’s Digital Humanities Blog » Blog Archive » Academic Theater (Reflections on TED & …. […]

Bernard Lunn says:

Dan, this made me think of a great historian who I had the privilege of hearing lecture many times at Oxford. A J P Taylor, a small man without a commanding presence or a booming voice, could still a loud room full of boisterous youths by just talking. It was what he said that commanded attention. The optimist in me thinks this still hold true, whether in blogging or speaking or academic papers. Bernard

Cory says:

re: your tweet, “I think #TEDxNYED could inspire change if channeled into execution.”

I am not convinced that TED audiences or the organization are so committed to execution. I hope these talks DO lead to collaborations as Dave B. suggests.

I thought your “billionaires/edutainment” comment was accurate and not so terrible, really. Perhaps it will help.
I wish TED was more aware of their (at times) off-putting impression that it is much more interested in self-congratulations, running a modern-day salon, and encouraging investment in all things technological. Technology is suspiciously *the* answer for everything. It is ok for TED to be tech-focused, but don’t shroud the organization in open-mindedness when in fact the acceptable range of solutions to the big questions posed is quite narrow.

[…] products. Dan Cohen, meditating on “academic theater” and “edutainment” says that academics can only blame themselves for becoming too insulated and not engaging with the public.) But Lanier has nothing new to say […]

[…] can elicit ongoing attention and interest from students.  That aspect of what Dan Cohen calls academic theater is, I think, underrated–and is something that can probably be improved with […]

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