On the spectacle of learning…

On the day of the opening ceremony for the summer school that I am attending in Olympia, we were greeted by a professional photographer as we entered building that contained the lecture hall. Thinking nothing of it, as if it was obvious that the person was there to serve some PR remit for the academy, I awkwardly hid my face and stood in the background, avoiding any permanent record of anybody seeing me in a dress.

He followed us through the process, through the opening speech from the school’s dean, through the ‘olympic anthem’ (for which we all had to stand through) and to the outdoor ceremony were wreaths were laid on the memorial on the person who established the modern olympic games, pierre de Coubertin. 

He followed us to the lecture theatre, taking pictures of people looking studious, like what we are suppose to look like when we are being delivered a class on ancient greek mythology – he followed us to the ruins of ancient olympia, snapping as we watched on as our guide explain the origins of the olympic torch. He joined us when we walked alone around the site, taking our own pictures – and joined us as we walked back to the campus, snapping as he went.


Of course, this was before I found out that he would be selling these images back to us for 2EUR a time. And that they were available to anybody on the campus to buy (there are several groups here.) There were candid shots of individuals, of couples, of groups – but all remained his unless we coughed up for the individual print. I’m certainly not going to buy mine, so I do wonder what he will do with my face in the meantime (shred it possibly)

But of course, this has not been new to me on the trip. I’ve had my photograph taken, some deliberately, some by accident, multiple times since I have arrived. I’ve been snapped in the background, whilst I wasn’t looking, on video, tagged on facebook, shared across multiple platforms – and whilst I am usually ok with it, I’m wondering about the spectacle of being here may outweight the real value of the educational benefits.

It wasn’t until I noticed that there were some taking their own photographs of them studying in the library did I click on the spectacle in such microforms – a meta spectacle in a school designed around a mega spectacle. I am used to citizen reporting, to amping my shit, to writing every monotonous thought down on the internet, but for some reason I am uncomfortable with some of the capturing. 

For instance, I attended a cultural night this evening (briefly) where I was subjected to the ceremonial reading of a wikipedia entry, a collection of upbeat youtube videos on the egyptian revolution (with some romantic background music) followed by a quiz on the facts about the arab spring. I know I should be lighter of heart with this stuff, as it is a chance for people to show of their culture that they are so obviously proud of – but at the same time, I was curious (and worried) by the enforcement of national stereotypes and group pressure to conform. And being seen to support, reaffirm an attempt to clarify a ‘global’ ‘safe’ ‘fun’ position on such an idea.

This has been reinforced through a somewhat crash course in the classics, after a week of working with professors from the university of california and some of their graduate students. Everything we are lectured on in class is about the (mis)interpretation of history and evidence, about power and control and about the use of the spectacle. It has been enlightening as I could never image even a few years ago being able to take on a subject of this nature and find myself relating to some of the key concepts. Of course, it is hard work as an english native, so I can’t image what it must feel like for those who speak english as a second language – or are not PhD students but work in the sports industry, nevertheless, I am intrigued by watching how people act in the class (especially with the use of the camera – and the reaction to some of the questions I’ve asked in typical, final year grad student stylee) and the emphasis on the performance of national identities. 

I’m guilty of it sometimes. We all are. It is easier to slip into a role of being the Scot “hullo hen”than it is to constantly explaining your critical position on the Olympics – to those who wish to only hear ideas that they can use to help their country win more medals. And that is why it is probably easier to treat this space as a space to meet other people and to take time out from work.

The eye opener for me is that the academic work is taking the backseat over the spectacle – I mean, I’ve had an insane amount of media coverage for my university because the press release had ‘olympics’ in the title. I’ve done/wrote greater things in my short time in academia than the paper I wrote for this seminar (which I will be re-writing for my presentation next week – needs more critique now I’ve through the doors) that does not translate in the way that olympic research can achieve – and although I appear grumpy or negative or challenging through my tweets, I am actually incredibly grateful to be afforded the opportunity to spend time with senior researchers (which I’ve grabbed by the horns, despite being ill for the last 3 days.) I can also see where my work compares on the spectrum – and I’ve definitely found myself becoming more confident to speak out about the things that I am interested about and to form useful and challenging questions.

I have not, however, taken any pictures of speakers, or of others working. Perhaps I might have done if I was at a conference – or if I was ‘liveblogging’ something. I’ve not felt like I’ve needed to – and as if at previous events,  I found myself slipping into that role to avoid some of the tougher circumstances/challenges that come with academic research/career. This has been a big thing for me – to move from going through the motions of something because it feels like the right thing to do -like when you go to a museum to look at things, but dont really pay attention to what those things are, you go to so you can say you’ve been to the museum – to actually really learning something, where you can engage with the materials to the point where you can take them on in your own way and in your own explanations.

It’s like a move from the spectacle of learning to the experience of learning. I don’t need to spend 2EUR on a picture of me listening to a lecture, when I actually feel like I’ve learnt a great deal just for simply being here, listening and asking questions & rolling with whatever is put in front of me. This is quite a nice development.