Platonic MOOC

Course: Reason and Persuasion: Thinking Through Three Dialogues By Plato
School: National University of Singapore via Coursera (free)
Instructor: John Holbo
         Why ‘Reason and Persuasion’? The title is generic, and indicates that the course will be – if this is what you are looking for – a general, introduction to philosophy, as it tends to be taught at the university level. But the title also points to a specific problem: reason without persuasion is useless; persuasion without reason is dangerous. Plato worried about it. So will we.
         The course will be of interest to a wide variety of students. There are a variety of reasons why you might want to know at least a little about what Plato thought and wrote. I will do my best to teach in a way that accommodates as wide a range of likely interests in the subject as I can manage.

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

What a roller coaster! There were times when I thought, what the hell is going on here? There were times when I put “Awesome!” markers in my notes. I wanted to say, screw the tests, screw the paper; then I found out the tests were the most educational part of the course, and I had a blast writing the paper. That’s philosophy for ya. It’s why some people prefer to sweat out ordinary differential equations. But some of us like roller coasters (or maybe we just can’t figure out ODEs).

If you just want someone to give you a traditional interpretation of Plato, check SparkNotes. But if you’re willing to take the scenic route, and can tolerate a wild ride, I recommend this highly.

The first six weeks revolved around three Platonic dialogs, specifically the Euthyphro, the Meno, and Book I of The Republic: Socratic debate about the nature of justice and virtue. In weeks 7 and 8, the focus turned to contemporary moral philosophy and psychology, specifically the works of Jonathan Haidt and Joshua Green. The course comes with a textbook available for free on ISSUU or as a PDF (as well as on paper and, eventually, Kindle if you really want to spend money). Lots of illustrations (some of which appear here). There’s a story behind those illustrations:

The cartooning? It started as a teaching method, a way of bullet-pointing without words. Because, as I learned: if you give students a bullet point in words, they will think it is the answer. That would never do in Plato’s case. I hope the cartoons are true to Plato’s better nature as a comic puppeteer, and serve the intellectual function of setting up thematic echoes across the dialogues and my discussions, without presuming to tell you exactly what the echoes mean.
                                               ~~, “About the Book”
I may be the only person in the history of the world who learned to draw because of PowerPoint. That’s right. I teach the large intro philosophy lecture and I had to have some color in my lecture slides. And clipart just doesn’t cut it. So one thing led to another …

The cartoons in the book, at least the PDF version, are black-and white. That’s ok, the slides used in class are in color. I like colors.

The eight modules, ostensibly one per week, were released in clumps so students could proceed at our own pace; it was possible to complete the entire 8 week course in 4 weeks or so. That seems to be popular in Coursera right now; I never saw it before, but am currently taking 3 courses that release all or most of the materials at the beginning. I have mixed feelings about that approach. There was a distinct benefit for me at this time: since I’m getting more and more seriously overcommitted to courses over the next few months, it let me compress this course and a couple of others so I would reduce the cumulative workload later. On the down side, yes, there’s always the option to take a module a week without accelerating, but since some people do and some don’t, it kind of breaks up the cohort, making the discussion boards less coherent. I wanted to discuss Agony Aunts before the class got that far, but by the time the class got there, I’d moved on to geometry and math, and wanted to talk about that, then later was all excited about rational dogs and emotional tails (except it’s the other way around, but I like it the way I think of it). Like I said, mixed feelings.

I got confused about the quizzes: they were “titled” rather than ordered, so the first four quizzes dealt with Euthyphro, covered in the first two lectures; the next four quizzes were about Meno, lectures 3 and 4. I got confused. I … well, ok, I assumed (yes, I know what that makes me) it was one quiz per week (I MUST start reading instructions!) so I wasn’t sure why I was still answering questions about Euthyphro when I was reading Meno. I don’t know what I was thinking, it’s not that hard: four quizzes per two-week module on each. Numbers. They’ll get me every time, even the little ones.

The content of the quizzes initially confused me, too. Here these lectures were goofy ramblings about masks and mantises and agony aunts (I’d never heard that term before, apparently it’s a whole thing) and, yeah, some Euthyphro, some virtue. I just went through Euthyphro in the Kierkegaard course, but I didn’t remember anything about mantises. Then the quizzes blindsided me with detailed logical analyses of individual passages, which was more what I’d expected but felt like the quizzes from another class got attached to these lectures by mistake.

It wasn’t until later that I made the amazing discovery that the answers to the quiz questions, and a detailed analysis of exactly why each answer was right or wrong, was provided from the start. If nothing else, this course will teach me to read instructions, I swear. But that changed the game, because the given analysis of the answers was fantastic. I didn’t even “cheat” though I suppose it’s not cheating if the answers are pre-supplied – hey, you get 100 chances on a multiple choice quiz with 4 or 5 options, and the incorrect answers marked, why cheat – but going through them afterwards was the perfect feedback. Sometimes I got one right for the wrong reason. Sometimes I had the right idea, but had the poles reversed (I have a lot of trouble with “pick the incorrect answer” in general, more of my we-don’t-need-no-stinkin’-instructions obsession). But after I discovered the answers, the quizzes went from scary to an adventure. I didn’t improve at getting questions right as time went on, but I loved figuring out what I did wrong. I loved those quizzes. I wanted more quizzes.

I only half-participated in the forums. That’s about the most I can do in a “thought” class; I typically get intimidated by those who start throwing around thinkers and theories I’ve never heard of, and I’m scared of people who know everything (or at least post as if they do). Whereas in math I can throw myself on the mercy of the nerds and someone will come down to my level, that doesn’t work so well in philosophy or history or literature since I can’t even formulate a question like “I don’t understand where the 6.3 came from”. Most of my reactions to philosophy forum posts are along the lines of, “What the hell are you talking about?” Sometimes I found a quiet corner where some of us slow kids gathered and tried to figure things out, but either I’d say something stupid and slink away feeling all inadequate, or someone would come along to “help” us and it all turned into the message-board equivalent of the Charlie Brown teacher “WAH-Wah-wah.” So my participation, while fun and productive, was intermittent and encapsulated. Admission: I could’ve spent more time trying. I give great credit to John Holbo for keeping an active, if intermittent, presence on the board, and raising topics for discussion; that’s getting ever more rare in MOOCs, but I think it’s an important element, especially when there’s no other staff or CTAs. It’s nice to know someone cares enough about a course to keep an eye on things.

A peer assessment paper was included in the course, though the grading was structured so that it wasn’t strictly required for a Certificate of accomplishment or whatever the hell it’s called; it was necessary for the Distinction thing. Since I still don’t understand the value of a certificate (can you tell?) I wasn’t going to do it, but then I thought, hey, don’t be lazy, you finished the readings, lectures, and quizzes (I loved those quizzes!) and you have time before high tide hits, go for it. And dang, I had fun with it. I intentionally write these commentaries before grading, since peer assessment is always unpredictable and no matter how much I say it doesn’t matter, it kinda hurts to get slammed (it’s also embarrassing to be given an unearned high score, by the way) and I don’t want my impression of the course colored by hurt feelings. And I will get slammed: I ignored the rubric, the five-part paper thing (I did my time writing five-part academic papers; at my age, I’m in this to learn something or to have fun). The paper was an application of the course material, rather than a recitation of it, which I appreciated, so I went for it. It wasn’t a paper I’m particularly proud of, but it did provide a way for me to review some of the material, and it was a lot of fun to write. So though I rode it off the rails, I did wave out the window at the points of the course material as I passed, yelling, “Helloooooooo there!”

What surprised me most about the course was seeing myself in a mirror. I bow to no one in my love for digressions, regressions, multiple metaphors, and goofiness, but in the first few weeks of lectures, I was screaming “WOULD YOU GET TO THE POINT!” at my computer screen. Now I see why I drive people crazy. However, it got better as time went on – or maybe I just got used to it. I even came to enjoy it – and the last two weeks of lectures absolutely rocked. John Holbo can get more out of an elephant (or a mantis, or doggie caryatids – see, I did learn something) than anyone has a right to expect.

I had a good time, once I relaxed and let it be what it was. I learned some thing about Plato, and I learned some additional things about System 1 and System 2 (which I’d encountered before, though I forgot until I read the Haidt paper) and I saw some additional ways contemporary thinkers are framing morality, like the Tragedy of the Commons – hey, I see that on the news every day. Great course. And – I do like colors.


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