If the lack of posts recently doesn’t demonstrate this for itself, let me just say that I’ve been busy lately between teaching, auditing, and reading for comps. So busy, in fact, that I have had to sadly let my participation in Coursera’s “Modern American Poetry” class fall by the wayside. As I indicated in my previous post, however, I did hang around long enough to complete the first unit, submit an essay, and give and receive peer feedback.
As I predicted in my last post, my essay’s reading of Dickinson’s poem was more typically “academic” than many of the other responses, and my readers didn’t seem to particularly know what to do with it, though the responses were earnest and respectful. It was also significantly longer than most of the essays submitted despite its (I thought) relatively modest five-paragraph length.
I will say that one aspect of Coursera’s format that I did like is that—after submission and an initial peer response—the essay and the peer response were placed in a forum viewable to all members of the course. I like the idea of students being able to view the work of the rest of the class; in fact, part of me is attracted to the idea of having my own students upload their work in Blackboard in a manner that all class members can view it, not just me, but I worry that this might be an overly-intimidating prospect for some students.
As for the essays I responded to from other members of the course, I can declare unequivocally that they were a joy to read. Sometimes the readings of the poem were good, sometimes they were off-the-wall, and sometimes the author really just summarized the poem. However, the essays also provided a space for writers to express ideas and sentiments that we usually exclude from academic writing: personal and affective responses to the poem, confessions of anxiety about writing on a work of literature, and even (in one instance) a parodic version of the poem that reflected on the course itself.
For me, part of the pleasure of reading these essays was precisely that they were so unlike the essays I usually write and read. They were essays written by students who would be receiving no meaningful “grade” on the essay or “credit” for the course, but who had chosen—for pleasure or self-development or both—to take the time to sit down to write about a poem. For many of them, this was the first time they’d ever written anything about a piece of literature.
Which leads me to wonder if the question we should be asking of humanities MOOCs is not whether they can teach the same skills that we teach in traditional classrooms, but whether they can provide a space for the experiences of art and literature that we often (and sometimes necessarily) exclude from our classrooms? If they can do that, then it would seem that they have a legitimate role to play—though it’s unclear if that role should have anything to do with the “future of the humanities” in an academic or institutional sense. (I’m inclined to think that the answer to that pesky question may have more to do with a return of the “public intellectual”—a return to a willingness on the part of humanists to talk clearly and non-reductively about what we do—than it does with simply utilizing new technology, but that’s for another post.)