Classical MOOC

Course: Greek and Roman Mythology
School: University of Pennsylvania through Coursera
Instructor: Peter Struck, PhD
Quote: We’re going to be reading in this class about monsters. We’re going to read about heroes. We’re going to read about marriages gone right, and wrong, family squabbles, massive architectonic, earth-changing wars…. But most of all what we’re going to be reading about is the question of what it means to be human. Sure gods and monsters and animals are in this, these stories. But what they’re mostly there to do is to help us focus on what Greek myths tend to be most interested in. And that is you and I, as members of a very definitive species, a unique group of organisms floating around on the surface of the earth, and trying to make our way between being born and dying. These stories give us a way to fill in all the stuff that comes between.

[Addendum: this course has been converted to the new Coursera platform; content may have changed, and the experience is likely to be very different]

I don’t know what they put in the water at Penn, but someone ought to find out: this is the third Penn MOOC I’ve taken, and they’ve all been terrific. But – and here’s the odd thing – they’re all terrific in very different ways, for very different reasons. I highly recommend this for anyone who’s interested in looking at literary, linguistic, historical, and/or anthropological aspects of mythology.

Somehow I missed the whole mythology thing most kids go through. So many gods, so many stories, and they all blend together when I tried to learn more about them on my own: I once looked up Ariadne after encountering a literary reference, got tangled up in thirty other stories related to her, found each of those tangled up in thirty more, and I still don’t know if she’s the same as Arachne or not… Even worse, I could never tell the Greeks from the Romans on Jeopardy, which is downright embarrassing.

The format of the course was pretty standard MOOC – lectures, quiz, a written assignment, and three live Hangout sessions, plus the Discussion forums – and while in some classes this can be tedious, here it really worked. I’m not exactly sure why. Maybe it’s because the lectures were terrific – they covered a broad range of topics, including details of language, literary structure and effect, historical references, sociocultural elements, and a variety of theories of myth, showing how various schools of thought (Functionalists, Structuralists, Freudians, etc.) might approach any individual work. Instructor Peter Struck brought us into the work itself by referring frequently how “we Greeks” might react to a particular theme of The Odyssey, or the experience we might have of viewing Oedipus Rex performed on the Greek stage. And, while I’d like to think I’m above being charmed by a pretty face and a pleasant manner, I suppose that played into it somewhere along the line. And if a pleasant manner sounds easy to pull off, check out how this is done – you try standing in a 3×3 box talking for 10 hours, see how engaging you are.

The other strength of the course was the discussion forums. This can vary from session to session, of course, but I think in this case, the lectures generated interesting questions and issues that led to great threads. There was the usual hysteria about the peer-assessment of the written assignment (having studied The Ikea Effect in Duke’s Irrational Behavior MOOC, I better understand why nearly everyone thinks their assignment was undergraded – except students I grade, because now I give everyone the top score unless it’s a really horrible essay, or it’s outright plagiarized, and I do my critiquing in the comments), but that’s always going to be the case. I learned a lot from the forums, from people who could answer questions about history and related literature, as well as from staff teaching assistants who could address issues of translation and origin.

The workload is a bit daunting. Early on, we’re advised to allow about five hours for reading each week; most of the time, I spent longer than that, partly from finding matching audio and written translation versions. But it paid off: Ian McKellen’s reading of the entire Odyssey, and a gripping 1957 performance of Oedipus Rex, were extraordinary. Not surprisingly those turned out to be my favorite works of the course, though I am also partial to the Homeric Hymn featuring Demeter. And Theogony was pretty cool, once I figured out what was going on thanks to a student video project I ran across on YouTube. While I appreciated Ovid far more after the lecture (being a fan of digression and all), I’m afraid the reading itself went over my head much of the time. I’d like to try it again some time, now that I have a roadmap.

I greatly enjoyed this course, I picked up some theoretical background of myth, some literary knowledge, and got to read some of the most ancient works of Western civilization. I’m probably going to take another Mythology course sometime.

And – my Jeopardy game has improved greatly. Is that any reason to take a MOOC? You bet it is.


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