Revolutionary MOOC (the French Revolution, that is)

Pierre-Antoine Demachy: 'Celebration of Unity,  Destroying the emblems of monarchy,'  Place de la Concorde, 10 August 1793

Pierre-Antoine Demachy: ‘Celebration of Unity, Destroying the emblems of monarchy,’ Place de la Concorde, 10 August 1793

Course: The French Revolution
School: University of Melbourne, Australia; through Coursera (free).
Instructor: Peter McPhee

The French Revolution continues to fascinate us, to inspire us, at times to horrify us. Never before had the people of a large and populous country sought to remake their society on the basis of the principles of liberty and equality. The drama, success and tragedy of their project has attracted students to it for more than two centuries. Its importance and fascination for us are undiminished as we try to understand revolutions in our own times.

This subject examines the history of the French Revolution from its origins to 1799.

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

I’ve always been confused by the French Revolution: the good guys and the bad guys keep changing. I now understand it a little better, and I understand my confusion a lot better: the good guys and the bad guys do, indeed, keep changing. It’s what happens when a good idea goes very, very wrong.

The first thing I noticed about the course was the high degree of organization. Not only were weeks set up with a page listing the videos, readings, and assignments, but a Study Guide and Facebook Group was all prepared; later, when peer-assessed writing assignments came due, a “How to Write an Academic Paper” video was released. Because MOOCs are, true to the acronym, open, some students have advanced degrees, while others have had little, or poor-quality, formal schooling. It’s always nice to see a course where the staff is aware of that, and provides options.

The material was typical for a history course: a look at what led up to the Revolution, the key players, the sides, the social, political, and economic forces, and, in one case, an interesting look into historical research techniques: rather than rely on “People were reading Enlightenment literature”, lists of books in libraries, and records from legal encounters with dealers in contraband materials, were examined to see what books different categories of people actually possessed or showed interest in possessing. It’s a little like looking at Amazon’s sales records, instead of publishing figures. Which, of course, is routine marketing today, but I was interested in the notion of methodology. By the way, in 500 private libraries, only one copy of Rousseau’s Social Contract was found; in the records of contraband book manufacturers selling cheap knock-offs, Diderot’s Encyclopedie was far more common – but satirical porn ridiculing Louis XVI was everywhere.

The only grades given for the course were through peer assessment of two written papers; this isn’t unheard of for a humanities course, though it’s not common. It raised some anxiety for the first paper,but less for the second; I don’t know if the worriers dropped out, or if most people were satisfied with their grades and trusted the system. For the record, I felt like I was given a higher grade than I deserved on the first paper (the second paper was graded exactly what I would have given it myself). But it’s always luck of the draw. I overgraded the papers I assessed; I always do, spending my evaluation time on concrete suggestions and/or specific props rather than deciding between one number and another on multiple axes.

The forums were very active, with lots of targeted discussion on questions suggested by the lectures and reading materials. Each week, we were to answer one discussion question, and post it in the forums; I rarely did, since adding a 62nd post saying the same thing as 24 of the preceding posts didn’t seem beneficial to anyone, but some good commentary arose.

It was a good course; I do wish there had been more emphasis on source material. It’s listed as eight weeks, but the last two were entirely given over to the peer evaluation phase; this struck me as a little much, but it was structured to allow an initial evaluation, followed by the release of an “instructor’s suggested response” and potential re-evaluation. Again, some students may never have written a college paper, even a MOOC college paper, before, so I suppose this is supportive, if a bit much. Then again, it was quite nice to have a break.

I’ll admit, I wasn’t particularly inspired by the course, but that’s me; everyone has different tastes and interests (and differing amounts of time to devote to a class). I learned what I hoped to learn, and others were very happy overall, so I’d recommend it to anyone interested in the subject matter. Inspiration is as inspiration does.


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