In the fall term of 1897, a young man in precarious health enrolled in
an experimental psychology course with Professor Hugo Münsterberg.
Although the contents of those lectures and discussions are forever
lost in a sea of memories, we know the student, Robert Frost, would
later call it his “greatest inspiration.” Now, technology provides us
the technical means to preserve those life-changing classes offered at
In our University, just like in contemporary American
society, media is everywhere. It is a safe bet that every undergraduate
has at least a class or section in a room equipped with a projector,
speakers, and a media hub, in addition to any laptops, plasma TVs, and
increasingly, personal media players like the video iPod or Microsoft’s
However, our Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) has displayed
a shocking lack of long-term vision in its treatment of media
information on campus; instead of the current policy of junking
information—or failing to record it in the first place—FAS should
follow Google’s steps and digitally preserve this incredibly valuable
information. Although books have historically been the best way to
store knowledge, they are by no means the only means, and FAS should
take full advantage of the potential of digitalized media. After all,
discussions and lectures by our professors are at least as important as
our courses’ reading lists.
To the benefit of many students’ schedules, podcasts and
class lecture videos are now available for a growing number of classes.
From Bits to Ec10, students can go beyond classmate notes and get a
real taste of the real thing. Nevertheless, after the classes are done,
the videos are usually deleted to save server storage and reduce costs.
At best, the decision is left to the professor of the course. Moreover,
filmed classes, due to fear of students not attending and the cost of
filming, are still the exception rather than the rule.
This haphazard and erratic media storage should change; we
should create a server with Harvard Professors’ lectures saved for
posterity, a 21st century Widener. Rather than deleting them and
restricting access, FAS should keep media information (primarily videos
of classes) permanently, thus providing future generations with live
images of our current faculty.
Admittedly, the cost of recording and storing these videos
would be high. But it can be managed. According to FAS Assistant Dean
Robert G. Doyle, three different steps are needed get a class online:
preparation, recording, and editing. Considering all human capital,
virtual storage, and technical cost, a one-hour lecture costs around 75
dollars. At this point in time, it seems prohibitively expensive to
record all classes; nevertheless, we can still do better than the
status quo. Until costs become small enough to record everything, we
should rely on CUE guide ratings and even departmental discretion to
choose the best courses to be preserved.
Despite the fact that FAS is already emulating the American
federal government in its growing deficit, preserving the available
videos today and promoting more filming in the future would show a
commitment to the long-term benefits of education and to our
breathtaking faculty. Moreover, this will only become more possible
with time. When FAS acquired its first terabyte server in 1997, it cost
over a million dollars. Today, prototype laptops have that capacity.
Although recording and storage will undoubtably become cheaper over
time, there is no time to lose. Had we started before, philosophy
students could open video players with Robert Nozick and John Rawls and
gauge their ideas in real time.
Upon arrival at Harvard, I was told that I would leave this
place wishing that I could have taken more classes. Creating a database
of class videos, the “new Widener,” would benefit both undergrads on
campus and alumni all over the world. It could even open lucrative new
revenue streams—possibly even subsidizing the program itself—if we sell
access to the database a la iTunes. Regardless of the means chosen, the
ends would be to create a parallel endowment not measured in dollars in
foreign investment funds, but in our professors’ wealth of knowledge.
And we might even be able to trace our next Frost’s inspiration right
to the source: that early Tuesday morning lecture by Münsterberg that
rocked his world. But the diverging roads between preservation and
oblivion require a fast and brave decision from FAS. We have to start
Pierpaolo Barbieri ’09, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Thayer Hall.