Hope through Existentialism mooc

Course: HOPE: Human Odyssey to Political Existentialism
Length: 10 weeks, 3-4 hrs/wk
School/platform: Princeton/edX
Instructor: Uriel Abulof
Quote:

Human Odyssey to Political Existentialism (HOPE) is a journey into the human condition and its politics, turning to existentialism for guidance. The course explores, on both individual and political levels, the following themes: Human / nature, identity & authenticity, freedom, reflection, happiness, death & dread, meaning, morality & ethics, truth & trust, God & religion, alienation & love, and finally – hope.”

HOPE is a richly interdisciplinary course: anchored in political science and philosophy, it also draws on history, sociology, psychology, and economy – synthesizing theoretical insights with empirical findings; both vintage and novel. HOPE shows that science and art can create a wonderful synergy when studying – indeed foregrounding – our humanity.

When I signed up for this course, I figured it would be one of the “light” philosophy moocs: less about reading Sartre, and more about “how do you feel about X”. That’s ok, that can be useful. Then, a few weeks before the start date, Princeton sent out a unique preview video that made me – can I say it? – hopeful that the course might be quite interesting.

There wasn’t any reading Sartre, it’s true, and rather than reading chapters of Kierkegaard or Nietzsche, there were nutshell versions of pertinent ideas. But a great deal of work went into putting together a course that showed applications and consequences of those ideas in the form of film, literature, and music. And, yes, discussion questions.

Each of eight content weeks (plus an introductory week) focused on a topic – say, identity, or freedom, or happiness. Material included a warm-up exercise, perhaps a poll on what quality makes humans different from animals, or a discussion question like “Is a happy virtual reality better than a miserable reality?” Lecture videos tended to run longer than the canonical 6-minutes, but usually included film clips and/or music videos pertinent to the topic. Clips varied from 1984 to more obscure European films; the music videos were mostly alternative/progressive rock: Pink Floyd, REM, Radiohead. This sounds minor, but trust me, while permission is almost always granted for this sort of thing, the process – even if it’s just putting up a credits list of public domain items – still requires significant work. A lot of care went into this course.

Specific discussion questions followed each video – and, by the way, this is the only course I’ve taken that has figured out how to solve the problem of “what part of ‘Reply, don’t start a new thread’ do you not understand”. Unfortunately, it was difficult to follow up, since only direct replies were notified, but that’s true no matter what. Brief multiple choice quizzes with several attempts were also included, as well as a “Gallery Assignment” – basically a discussion question plus art, which ended up offsite on a Princeton board. Grading was a complicated mixture of these elements, but basically required self-reported participation in discussions and the Gallery as well as quiz scores to earn a passing grade.

I was psyched at the beginning, but I have to admit, I got a little tired of it as time went on; I more or less skipped the last two weeks. That isn’t the fault of the course, which is imaginative and carefully designed and executed. I just have a preference for the dry, straight lectures and reading assignments so many people take courses like this to avoid. I knew what it was going in, and I’m glad I had the opportunity to try something a little different. And for those who would rather bypass the dry lectures and voluminous reading, it offers an experiential way to encounter some of the basic ideas of existentialism.

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