More MOOCing: Whitmania

Allen Crawford illustration from his forthcoming Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself

Allen Crawford illustration from the forthcoming Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself

Early 2014 was Whitman season, with two almost-concurrent MOOCs focusing on the poet. I’d mention a certain Apple commercial that also started airing at about the same time – but that would upset certain academics I greatly respect.

The edX version was the second installment of their Poetry in America series (the first was “The Poetry of Early New England” late last Fall, which I quite enjoyed, as, to my surprise, I met a new friend in Anne Bradstreet, a sort of Bizarro precursor to Emily Dickinson).

Images of the entire first edition of Leaves of Grass from 1855 are available online from the Library of Congress Rare Books CollectionUnder the leadership of Dr. Elisa New, we looked at a variety of Whitman poems. I’m afraid I found the course less than satisfying, but I know a lot of people would disagree with that; I’m willing to admit I’ve got something of an attitude towards edX at this point and my opinion is not necessarily objective. It’s more than the clumsy communicative aspects of the platform. I’m beginning to suspect that the edX MOOCs, particularly those from Harvard and MIT, aren’t really MOOCs at all, but accessories to on-site courses; if other people want to drop in, that’s fine, but it’s not designed as stand-alone. This is probably the path all MOOCs will take sooner or later (I know several are already being used this way), so I suppose I’d better get used to it. I knew it was too good to last.

The poetry, of course, was lovely. I’d been earlier swept away, via ModPo, by “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” when I found a video of Ken Goldsmith’s White House reading of excerpts from Brooklyn Bridge-esque poems over time, from Whitman (who was pre-bridge, hence the ferry) to Hart Crane (“To Brooklyn Bridge”) to his own contemporary “Traffic”, so I was primed.

The first contact with each work in the form of the dreaded “annotation tool”, a notation device which worked better than it did in the earlier class but still had some bugs. It really took the fun out of the poems – highlighting all the instances of parallelism or anaphora wears thin after a while, especially when multiple literary devices crowd the page and make it a complete mess. The teaching on these devices – what they signified, why they might be used one place and not another – seemed quite limited; this was closer to rote work, and I eventually gave up on it.

The 1872 edition from the Library of Congress: a few things have changed….The large-group discussions seemed full of random opinions and impressions but lacked overall direction. I lost momentum between sessions because the material was released every two weeks instead of weekly; perhaps I should’ve countered that by imposing my own more evenly-spread schedule.

I found myself downright annoyed by an interview with Justice Elena Kagan. I’m a big fan of Supreme Court Justices with Ovaries, but I was amused and a bit dismayed when the first thing she said was something like, “I’m not sure why you want to talk to me, I don’t know much about poetry.” Turns out, they talked about the light glinting off the statue on the dome of the Capitol building, in connection with a quote Whitman didn’t write. I have a feeling this was part of the “We are Harvard, Look at the Important People We Can Talk To” approach, since it added little to my grasp of Whitman. I was delighted that Justice Kagan wasn’t pretending anything for anybody, though. Oddly, another Justice with Ovaries, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, was on the docket that week for the Yale course in Constitutional Law I happened to be taking at the same time; that conversation was included in the weekly “bonus material” and wasn’t purported to be about the specific course material at all (she spoke about her journey as a Latina from the Bronx to Princeton and Yale); I enjoyed it far more. But, as I said, I may have some attitude running here.

Cast dies used in the 1860 edition – Library of Congress collectionThe best thing about the class was a visit to a letterpress print shop “like the one Whitman worked at” (he did much of the typesetting and printing of his first edition of Leaves of Grass himself). There was some tie-in to the book – the shop where he worked did legal binding, so the first edition was printed on legal-sized sheets, something he reversed in later edition, for instance – and I’m a font geek, so I enjoyed it. I was also delighted to learn about the Poets House annual Bridgewalk, featuring an active reading of Whitman and other poets.

In the end, it’s a free class, and there is information there, so I’d have to recommend it with reservations. If they continue the series with an Emily course in the future, I might join in, but I doubt I’d bother with anything else. Not everyone clicks with every teacher or every course; I’m sure this was a terrific class for a lot of people, and to a large degree, it’s a matter of personal preference.

University of Iowa's OPEN platformI’m more unreservedly upbeat about the second Whitman course, this one from a new entrant in to the MOOC world: the University of Iowa, home of the premiere MFA program in the country for writers (so what if it was funded by the CIA in the 50s as a way to combat the Red Menace, nobody’s perfect). They offered “Every Atom” through their own private MOOC platform, OPEN. This six-week class focused specifically on “Song of Myself,” supported by the UI Whitman Web, a wonderful section-by-section recording and discussion of the poem.

Each week covered two groups of sections of the poem under various themes, from Structure and Main Characters (more craft-oriented topics) to Democracy and Science (strong themes running through the work). One of the most exciting moments came when I discovered a reading of “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer” I’d never considered before – it’s generally regarded as a repudiation of scientific analysis in favor of direct sensory experience, but the last lines can also be seen as the speaker using what he’s heard at the meeting to more fully appreciate the stars at which he now gazes. This tied in to “Song of Myself” which has strong pro-science declarations; Whitman was not highly educated in a formal sense, but he had an interest in just about everything from astronomy to phrenology (oops, well, like I’ve often said, nobody’s perfect).

One of the most interesting features of this course was the inclusion of an extensive well-organized archive of original documents relating to Whitman and this poem in the form of electronic images of notebooks, letters, photographs, etc. It’s quite a historic treasure trove, and added meaning to the text as we saw how Whitman changed his mind about phrases, words, and entire sections.

I suppose it’s hypocritical of me to say I didn’t use the message boards as much as I could have (mostly due to time constraints) but they were very active, with lots of mentor involvement. Each week featured a live webcast session to answer questions and further explore topics of high interest on the boards; while it wasn’t as alive and kicking as the ModPo webcasts, it was still quite enjoyable and informative.

Mostly, I think I just preferred the approach of studying the single work completely. We covered a lot of Whitman’s biography, as well as various thematic and technical elements, and I felt a better grasp of the elements by the end. I enthusiastically recommend the course, and I’m going to keep an eye on OPEN for other offerings.

Allen Crawford's rendition of Whitman Illuminated: Song of MyselfIn an interesting accident (or planned coincidence?) of timing: artist and illustrator Allen Crawford has been working on a hand-drawn edition of the original 1855 “Song of Myself” (Whitman revised quite a bit over the course of 40 years, and both MOOCs looked mostly at the last edition he himself edited) for over a year; that edition, featuring the header image above, will be available from Tin House Books in May. Crawford’s blog offers a look over time at the project, as well as illustrations from the work, including the one that graces this post. I know I’m going to order it; I’m not generally a big fan of “the beautiful book” (books are beautiful for their words), but this combines art and words in quite lovely ways, and it’s something I’d like to have.

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