Cell Biology MOOC (Part 4: Cell-to-Cell Interactions)

Course: Cell Biology Part 4: Cell-Cell Interactions
Length: 7 weeks, 4-6 hrs/wk
School/platform: MIT/edX
Instructor: Profs. Rebecca Lamason and Sebastian Lourido
Quote:

This is the final cell biology course in a four-part series…. How do we know what we know about cells at a molecular level and how can we use that knowledge to design experiments to test hypotheses in cell biology? How do you go from a single cell to trillions of cells working together? And what happens when this amazing collective is confronted with pathogens?

Short version: This was a great way to end the Cell Bio series. While proteins, receptors, and the like are still important, the context is more familiar than inner-cell machinations: the structure of tissues, growth and development of various organs, reactions to pathogens and cancerous changes.

A few years ago, I came across an article by a Bio grad student who was discovering that academic biology wasn’t what he’d become enchanted with via Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, and Steven J. Gould. He felt kind of screwed: “[W]hat do you do next when there is nothing you have been trained to do well enough except inspect a single protein or a single gene every day for six years[?]”

Sometimes, deep into some of these biology moocs, I have a glimmer of what he means. When you’re tracing down the result of inhibiting one protein in a pathway of inhibitors and activators, when I’m trying to remember which receptor goes with which ligand, or, at my basic level, whether it’s kinase or phosphatase that removes a phosphate, or, as in the prior course in this series, why actin matters at all, it’s hard to remember how fascinating cells and organisms are, how impossible it seems that bacteria, let alone people, live at all given the complexity necessary to sustain life. 

This mooc reminded me. I don’t mean to sounds hyperdramatic, but it was exciting to see bits and pieces from other moocs – anatomy, physiology, pathology, immunology – show up (I love that “Hey, I remember this!” feeling) and to in most cases take a deeper look into how topics within those fields actually work.

The first week was all about tissues. No, not the things you blow your nose into, but bodily tissues. How many kinds of tissues are there, and what’s the difference? What holds our tissues together, how are some anchored to a basement membrane, while others move around? I remember learning about the tight junctions of the blood-brain barrier, and here I not only found out how those junctions are tightened, but where else they exist and why.  And I finally found out what’s so interesting about actin and microfilaments.

Week two got into how tissues and even organs replenish themselves over time, and the importance of stem cells in doing so. One of the many mysteries of biology for me has always been, how do we start as one cell, a fertilized egg, and then turn into people with livers and kidneys and brains and skin? I’ve always found embryology mysterious, so it was interesting to get some idea of how cells differentiate. I was surprised at how interesting the intestinal epithelium can be, given how those cells regenerate so often.

Then it was on to death. Apoptosis – programmed cell death – comes up in a lot of bio courses, so it was great to see some of the mechanisms that initiate the process, and those that prevent it from starting in error. Week Four introduced salmonella and listeria,  how they differ – and how they don’t – as infective agents.

Week Five introduced the immune system, a timely topic and one pretty familiar to me since I’ve previously done Rice’s three-part immunology series – not to mention the variety of explanations of immunity and how vaccines work dispersed via Twitter and TikTok over the past year, from the professional classroom versions to the goofy-but-accurate metaphors (Seize the Forks!).

The final week gave us a look at cancer at the cellular level. The bit of information that sticks with me is that cancer cells still have features specific to the types of cells from which they developed. This turns out to be useful in figuring out how to treat different cancers. We also saw an overview of what types of changes cells undergo that allow them to not only over-replicate, but move around the body and seed themselves outside the tissue of origin. I’m not particularly interested in cancer, but this really grabbed my attention and made me wonder what else I’ve been missing.

The material followed the typical structure: each week consists of a lecture broken up into several video segments, each followed by a “Test Yourself” quiz that’s graded but allows unlimited tries. A weekly quiz follows five of the lectures.  Four of these quizzes are available to auditors; to take all five, and keep access to the course material requires a $99 verification fee.

These quizzes take the form of lab scenarios: you want to test a hypothesis about a protein so what qualities and functions of the protein do you need to keep in mind, and how might you test your hypothesis; or you predict what to expect from an experiment, and explain why something different happened. Often there are graphs representing results and interpretation is required. It’s the best part of MIT’s bio courses: these are not information retrieval questions, you can’t just look up the answers, you have to understand what’s going on. More teachers should pay attention to this, because it’s extremely effective, and a lot more fun than memorizing pathways.  And I’m guessing it better represents the experience of a bio major and/or grad student.

As with the other parts of this series, students could submit Mudslips, that is, comments and questions about the parts of the lecture that seemed muddy or unclear. Staff also answered questions on the discussion forums; students often chimed in as well.

There were some signs that COVID had interfered with production. Most MIT Bio moocs use lectures taped in live classroom settings. Here the professors were speaking directly to camera, which has a slightly less connected sense. Prof. Lamason worked in an empty classroom using those amazing movable chalkboards; Prof. Lourido worked from what looked like a narrow office, appearing in a mini-window tucked in the corner of the screen to leave room for notes and diagrams. It seemed like there were fewer animations and diagrams, and more drawings, and the animations that were used weren’t as smoothly incorporated as usual, though that’s just an impression. None of this was disruptive or problematic; it just wasn’t peak MIT presentation. Considering the circumstances, I’m impressed they were able to put together anything at all.  

I’d highly recommend this for bionerds. I remember feeling a bit disenchanted after the third part of this series, covering actin and the cytoskeleton. This course perked me back up. It made a very nice finale to an excellent series. I’ve heard they’ll be condensing the first two courses, Transport and Signaling, into one, so next year it will be a three-part series. I’m planning to take it again, this time entering material into Cerego so I have a better chance of remembering it! What can I say, I grow old, and I like it when questions pop up a year after the course has ended. Gives me another “Hey, I remember that!” moment.

Stylistics MOOC: How something is written can matter as much as what is written

Course: Stylistics: Using Linguistics to Explore Texts and Meaning
Length: 4 weeks, 4 hrs/wk
School/platform: FutureLearn/ University of Huddersfield (UK)
Instructor: Dan McIntyre, Lesley Jeffries and Louise Nuttall
Quote:
Stylistics is the study of linguistic style in texts. It helps to explain how politicians mislead; how novelists and poets move their readers; how advertisers persuade us to buy their products and how the media influence public opinion. Stylistics empowers students to become critical readers by developing rigorous techniques of linguistic analysis.

Style in this course is defined as “linguistic choices made by the producers of texts.” I write a lot about what I read, and my primary focus is how a particular story or novel affects me the way it does, so I jumped at the chance to take a mooc that might help me better understand what I’m reading, and possibly communicate my understanding of it more effectively. This was an introductory course with no particular prerequisites, so it covered a few general topics and created (hopefully) the desire to learn more.

First up was foregrounding. We looked at how unexpected word choices or even spellings can emphasize some aspect of a text, and at the use of parallelism and defamiliarization. for a similar effect. Just yesterday I posted about a story’s use of repetition and what I called “almost-anaphora” in the opening pages, and I’m still debating some phrasing regarding the narrator’s gender and what it might mean.

Week Two featured characterization, and ventured into two areas that are of particular interest to me. One is Grice’s theory of implicatures, something I first came across in a wonderful logic mooc offered by the University of Melbourne (it is, sadly, no longer available), so I was thrilled to see this topic again here. Another topic I enjoyed was subtitles, and how these sometimes have to be altered to fit in allocated time and space. This week happened to coincide with several twitter comments about the English subtitles for The Squid Game, which some viewers felt left out a great deal. We also looked at bottom-up versus top-down processing, and how conversational style gives information on characters.

The third week took a look at speech presentation. Part of this covered the range of discourse from direct speech to indirect free discourse to narration and the implications of each level. We also looked at the more real-life situations of reportage, and how even accurate quotations can be used to convey something that was not said. Anyone paying attention to what is happening to news coverage, particularly of elections and legislative agendas, has some experience with this.

Finally, we looked at corpus techniques such as key words and collocations in connection with concepts such as semantic prosody.  I confess I didn’t do much of the actual software work due to lack of time; I’d just taken the course using these techniques on Shakespearean writings, so I used what was provided rather than doing my own software runs. Nevertheless, the material included a lot of interesting tidbits, such as: the word “asked” appears quite a bit more frequently in The Wizard of Oz than would be expected, leading to the question, what might that indicate about the story?

Each week started out with a video introduction; written articles made up most of the rest of the material, except during the corpus section which included several videos on using the software. I tend to find this approach disappointing – if you’re going to do a mooc, why not use features that aren’t available in books and articles, like videos and animations – but since the course is likely to appeal to readers, it’s hard to complain about it. As with audited FutureLearn courses, there are no grades, although a brief quiz wraps up each week; I found them useful as a review of the material.

The message boards were active, and staff, particularly lead instructor Dan McIntyre, gave frequent feedback and answered questions promptly.

And, as with the mooc on Shakespeare’s Language from Lancaster that I took a couple of months ago, the discussion boards provided me the opportunity to ask a general question about the subject. That is, I asked, given that close reading usually generates the same insights that statistical examination of the text does, what is the benefit of corpus linguistics in literary analysis? I was not asking a hostile question, quite the contrary; the inquiry was generated by a nonfiction piece by Pam Houston I read in Pushcart 2019 (this is the second Houston essay that’s really given me something to bounce off of) which was in part dismissive of a corpus-based technique she referred to as distant reading. I wanted to know how to respond to such resistance, since I find the use of such analysis, as I’ve encountered it in three moocs now, to be fascinating. How does one respond, I asked, so such dismissal? Is there an example where statistical methods have changed traditional literary interpretation?

Prof. McIntyre took the time to give me a rather extensive response that included several points: evidentiary confirmation of intuition and rhetorical persuasion with evidence is no small thing in itself; and that changing interpretation is not the point, but adding greater nuance to existing interpretation is. He provided an example from his own work on Hemingway’s use of subordinate clauses (Papa H does not underuse them, as is often claimed, but uses them in direct speech rather than narration) and gave me the link to a paper using semantic prosody, one of the concepts examined in the course, to consider an alternative to irony in a particular poem.

It’s been my experience that discussion and staff participation is one of the strengths of FutureLearn. This is the second time I’ve received a detailed and specific response to a question related to, but slightly outside, the course material. It’s really quite exciting. This would be a great class for anyone who’d like to better understand how writing affects us, from how literature works to how politicians and salespeople try to influence our choices. Even those who’ve done significant prior work in literary analysis will probably find something new, particularly in the final week.

Shakespeare’s Language: A Corpus Linguistics Approach MOOC

Course: Shakespeare’s Language: Revealing Meanings and Exploring Myths
Length: 4 weeks, 3 hrs/wk
School/platform: Lancaster University/FutureLearn
Instructor: Jonathan Culpeper, Andrew Hardie, Sean Murphy etc.
Quote:
William Shakespeare is a global phenomenon, yet there is actually relatively little work specifically devoted to his language, and even less deploying the latest techniques from linguistics.
On this course, you will explore Shakespeare’s language and, more generally, the language of his time. Over four weeks, you will be introduced to “big data” corpus methods (methods that use computers to explore large volumes of language data) which you can use for your own investigations, and will explore how words and meanings pattern across plays, characters, and more.
Along the way, you will find out why various beliefs about Shakespeare’s life and language–like that he coined an extraordinary number of new words–are actually myths.

I’ve taken several moocs on Shakespeare over the years, from the thorough reading of Young Love/Tragic Love offered by Wellesley, to the more emotional focus on individual scenes via Adelaide University’s Shakespeare Matters, to Stephen Greenblatt’s cultural and historical approach of Othello’s Story. Now add to those this linguistic examination of the language used in, primarily, the plays, with the assistance of corpus linguistics – augmented by a bit of myth-busting.

We started with a general examination of Early Modern English and the printing methodologies in use during Shakespeare’s time. That, combined with frequent use of CPQ Web to look up word frequencies and collocations, helped set the stage for the myth busting segment: Did Shakespeare really invent 1700 new words? When viewed through software including the amassed work of the period, that number seems to fall, and other possibilities (collaboration, printing-induced revisions, the difficulty of recording spoken language), it falls even more. Other sections looked at questions about Shakespeare’s vocabulary – was it more extensive than other playwrights of the day? – and his supposed lack of training in Latin.

It was great fun to explore these questions using the tools made available in the course, with the help of videos providing detailed instruction. I was surprised to find I still had a CPQ Web account from back in 2014, when I took Lancaster’s Corpus Linguistics mooc, one of the first moocs I ever took (and, I still say, one of the best designed, particularly for learners of different levels from novices like me to professional linguists and professors looking to add CL skills). All I had to do was add permissions for the Shakespeare corpora, and I was good to go.

The focus on language gave a different way of looking at Henry IV, Part I. Is the focus on Wales more about the Elizabethan view, or about an individual character? How can Falstaff’s “verbal dexterity,” or just his oaths, be examined in context? These sections were very brief, but served as introductions that made me want to know more.

The lectures were very short (generally about 6 minutes) and highly structured in the traditional manner: tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em, tell ‘em, then tell ‘em what you told ‘em. Futurelearn doesn’t do grades for auditors, but does have periodic “Check Your Knowledge” quizzes which are quite sufficient for keeping track of which points you’ve retained and which you need to review.

As a fun postscript: After I completed the material, an article came across my twitter feed (I can’t find exactly how, one of the literary/language accounts I follow must have retweeted it) titled ‘How Data Science Pinpointed the Creepiest Word in “Macbeth”’, written by Wired columnist Clive Thompson. It reports on an academic article by Jonathan Hope and Michael Witmore titled “The Language of Macbeth” on keywords in the play, in particular, an examination of the word “the” and how it contributes to the “creepiness” of the play. This is exactly the kind of thing I’d just been learning about! It’s quite exciting to come across something in the wild that relates so directly to course material.

The scheduled portion of the course was over; we were in the 10-day “catch up” period included (for those of us auditing) but I posted a comment anyway, to see if anyone else had any thoughts on this, particularly the question I didn’t really see answered in the article: how does that keyword statistic stack up against the other plays, particularly the tragedies? A student responded with the results of his investigation, which was helpful. Then, to my surprise, Prof. Andrew Hardie, who’d guided our CPQ Web adventures via video and provided discussion board feedback throughout the course, replied in detail. He put the article in context and recommended some alternate approaches using corpus linguistics combined with grammatical theory to examine the question of informational vs interpersonal interactions. It was a real treat to see this kind of response; this is what moocs can be at their best.

There’s frequently a negative bias towards data-driven analysis of literary work. I remember reacting strongly to Pam Houston’s exasperation on hearing about “distant reading” (a specific type of analysis using similar technology, as far as I can tell) in her article “What Has Irony Done For Us Lately?” from Pushcart 2019. Rather than replacing close reading – which, by the way, itself was a new technique less than a hundred years ago  according to the Yale Theory of Literature OCW – corpus linguistics and related data-driven methods offer other ways of examining questions of meaning as well as questions of literary history and development.

I’d highly recommend this course to anyone who’d like to think about Shakespeare in a way that’s perhaps different from the hushed reverent tones of traditional literary analysis, and to anyone who enjoys thinking about how language works to convey meaning. I only wish it had been more extensive; perhaps there will be other moocs that continue to explore questions like these.

Cell Biology MOOC (Part 3: The Cytoskeleton and the Cell Cycle)


Course: Cell Biology: The Cytoskeleton and the Cell Cycle
Length: 7 weeks, 4-6 hrs/wk
School/platform: MIT/edX
Instructor: Iain Cheeseman
Quote:
Do you think you know how cells grow and divide? Professor Iain Cheeseman will challenge you to see the cytoskeleton in new and beautiful ways. You will explore these structural elements of cells with an expanded toolkit to better understand the dynamic processes that generate incredible amounts of force and regulate function throughout the cell cycle.

The MIT series on cell biology continues with this third installment. Most of the segments covered actin and tubulin: how they form, what their function is, and how that function is examined and the force they generate is measured. The last segment showed how these structures fit into mitosis in the form of mitotic spindles and chromosome segregation.

I think COVID hit this course hard. Prof. Cheeseman, who was also an instructor in part 2 of the series, mentioned at the outset something about fewer people being around, and it appeared he was talking to an empty classroom (except for someone handling AV recording, presumably). I’m not sure why that would be such a confounding factor, but something was off here. Perhaps it was missing support staff, the people who do the diagrams and animations that help explain a lot of the material. I found the lectures themselves to be a paradoxical combination of low-content and confusing. Maybe there just isn’t that much to say about the cytoskeleton; things picked up a lot when we got to the cell cycle.

It could be I just am not interested in actin. I was doing a rerun of biochem at the same time (creating Cerego sets for the material, something I haven’t been doing with the MIT courses, but I think I should because it really helps) and was very into it; then I’d switch to Actin, and I still have only the vaguest idea what actin does.

Tubulin was a different matter, since it’s one of the most visually spectacular aspects of cell biology. First you have the structure, a tube of small proteins, which undergoes a process of deconstruction called catastrophe that looks like an exploding firecracker. Then you have motor proteins that quite literally walk along the tubules, dragging various substances from one part of the cell to another. If you take a look at the video Inner Life of a Cell, the animation is just amazing.

The problem wasn’t Prof. Cheeseman either. He put himself into the course 100%, telling stories of his early days in biology and how he at first thought actin was boring (I could sympathize). He brought pool noodles in to show how sister chromatids were bound together, and socks to demonstrate other chromosomal segregation patterns. Then there were the dance moves he used to demonstrate how different motor proteins “walk” along tubules in different ways.

I appreciated the cell cycle material after the fact, since I started the Molecular Biology series (all about DNA replication, repair, transcription, and regulation) just as this course was winding down, and the cell cycle is an important part of that.

So whether it was distraction, or COVID-related furloughs, or some other factor that made this course one of the less successful ones from MIT Bio, I still can’t complain; their mediocre courses are still quite good. There’s one more course to go in the series, and then I plan to take them all again, putting the material into Cerego which keeps it active in my mind as I review even months down the line. Maybe I’ll find a lot more to appreciate about actin then.

Logic in Tarski’s World MOOC

Course: The Semantics of First-Order Logic
Length: 4 weeks, 5-10 hrs/wk
School/platform: Stanford/edX
Instructor: John Etchemendy, Dave Barker-Plummer
Quote:
First-order logic is a restricted, formalized language which is particularly suited to the precise expression of ideas. The language has uses in many disciplines including computer science, mathematics, linguistics and artificial intelligence.
We will describe how to write sentences in the language, how to determine when a sentence is true in a particular situation, how to recognize important relationships between sentences, and describe some limitations of the language.

It’s been a while since I took a logic mooc. I still miss the one from the University of Melbourne, which had logic trees and subunits on linguistics, philosophy, math, and a few other things. But that disappeared when Coursera brought up their new platform in 2017. The last time I took a logic mooc from Stanford, I got so depressed I was quoting Stevie Smith on the forums (“I was too far out all  my life, not waving but drowning”).

But I really like logic, so when I saw ClassCentral’s tweet about this, I signed up.

First off, though it’s intended for beginners, I don’t think it’s the best choice for a first logic class. There’s just too much verbiage. Secondly, it’s not the best course for those who wish to audit, since there are very few exercises on this side of the paywall, and logic is, like math, something that requires practice. Third, it requires additional software; a textbook/manual is included, but it’s still not the best choice for anyone who doesn’t have a fairly high comfort level with figuring out how new programs work (since it’s part of the Computer Science curriculum, that was probably a given in the mooc design). Fourth, and I realize this sounds petty but it was somewhat serious, I  had a lot of trouble seeing some of the video material, particularly screen shots of sentences from Tarsky’s World (blurry to begin with, so enlarging only goes so far) and handwritten notes. I was working on a 17” screen; anyone working on a phone would need a microscope.  

On the plus side, the software – Tarski’s World, where all the worlds are named after philosophers – is a pretty cool way to play with and test statements. And, while the forums were dead (the only questions were technical issues, and there was no discussion of the logic at all), it was a pleasant surprise that one of the professors, Dave, was on hand to field problems (I caught some unbalanced parentheses, for instance).

A great deal of empnasis is placed on the idea of what certain statements say about the world, and what’s truth functional and what isn’t, the differences between tautologies, logical truth, tautological consequence and equivalence. This is where all the verbiage comes in. I’m not sure it’s productive, since I still don’t think I actually understand what they were trying to convey.

Still, I found the gold nugget: normal forms, and especially prenex form. But there’s a caveat: I had no idea what prenex form was from listening to the course videos, so I went hunting on Youtube and found a couple of playlists that were very helpful. Once I knew what Dave and John were talking about, I could understand what they were talking about. Since there weren’t many examples (two, in fact, one very easy and one very complicated), I’m going to need more practice, but it looks like there’s some out there. And, let me tell you, putting things into prenex form is the coolest thing since logic trees. Alas, it’s kind of a silly thing to get hooked on, since it’s a means to an end rather than an end in itself, but it is fun.

I probably sound like I didn’t care for this course at all, but that isn’t the case. The FOL-to-English translation exercises reminded me a bit of the first couple of weeks of Keith Devlin’s Intro to Mathematical Thinking (also a Stanford course), which I loved. I think, if I were to take it again, I’d want to pay the $50 so I could find out if the exercises I was doing were turning out right. But the real test is in the follow-up course, “Language, Proof, and Logic”: It seems to cover most of the same territory, but over 15 weeks. Will I dare to take yet another Stanford logic course? Maybe. I have a full plate for the moment, but we’ll see.

Mountain MOOC – with a Class Central Study Group that attempts to recapture the MOOCs of old

Course: Mountains 101
Length: 12 weeks, 18 hrs total
School/platform: University of Alberta/Coursera
Instructor: Zac Robinson, David Hik
Quote:
Mountains 101­­ is a broad and integrated overview of the mountain world. This 12-lesson course covers an interdisciplinary field of study focusing on the physical, biological, and human dimensions of mountain places in Alberta, Canada, and around the world. Specifically, we’ll study the geological origins of mountains, how they’re built-up and worn-down over time; we’ll learn about their importance for biodiversity and water cycles, globally and locally; we’ll explore their cultural significance to societies around the globe, and how that relationship has evolved over time; and we’ll learn how mountains are used, how they’re protected, and how today they’re experiencing rapid change in a warming climate.
At the end of each lesson, Mountains 101 will also provide learners with some smart tricks — Tech Tips — to safely enjoy time in the high alpine environment: from how to pick the best footwear for hiking to making smart decisions in avalanche terrain.

Short version: An excellent survey course, made truly special by its inclusion in the first open Study Group run by Class Central. One of the most engaging mooc experiences I’ve had – and before this I would’ve told you I wasn’t particularly interested in mountains!

When I have two great things to write about at once, I start tripping over myself. Should I start with the class, or with the Study Group? Pick one – let’s talk about the mooc itself.

What would you think a course on mountains would include? Earth science, geology? There’s definitely a good amount of material on mountain formation, but there are also chapters on the weather and climates generated by mountains and their importance to the water cycle, on the physiological effects of altitude on people as they climb mountains or live at high altitudes, on the flora and fauna that inhabit mountains and how both plants and animals adapt, on glaciers and volcanos and avalanches and landslides and ecology – and on cultural and artistic views of mountains in various places around the world, as well as economic realities. When they say interdisciplinary, they mean it! 

If that isn’t enough, each week included a “Tech Tip” aimed at teaching mountaineering skills: from boots and clothing to camping gear, as well as more advanced advice about not getting lost or falling into the crevasse of a glacier!

And oh and by the way geography: most weeks included a “name that mountain” segment which I found useful since I’m embarrassingly ignorant of basic geography.

The mooc is set up to run over twelve weeks, but each week is fairly short, one to two hours. The quizzes are standard information-retrieval multiple choice, but then there’s that geography segment which is more interactive and engaging. It was completely free in this iteration, so quizzes were graded (yeah, none of that “go ahead and take the quiz and then pay up to see how many you got right” teasing that is both brilliant and annoying).

Now, about the Study Group…

Dhawal Shah, founder of Class Central (a great place to check out all things mooc; I follow them on Twitter to hear about interesting moocs I might want to take, but they also come up with some interesting articles about education and what various platforms are doing, or planning on doing) came up with the idea of a Study Group last year, in an effort to recapture the feeling of the early moocs as described in his April 2021 article. The features he envisioned were: a more cohesive experience with a start date and a weekly schedule; discussion boards that can handle actual discussions (don’t get me started about how Coursera took what was best about their platform and torpedoed it because some study suggested that active discussions were bad for paying customers); and instructor involvement, however limited.

He ran a few Study Groups with a small number of Class Central people as participants, to get a sense of how to best design the feature. I remember feeling quite jealous of Pat Bowden, another of my Twitter follows, when she wrote about her experiences in the beta Group taking a mooc on ancient Egyptian writing systems.

So I was delighted when Class Central announced their first open Study Group would run with the Mountains 101 mooc. It’s probably not a course I would have really jumped at by itself, but I’ve done some Earth Science in the past and I loved the idea of the Study Group. I had no idea how great it would turn out to be.

Instead of running for twelve weeks, we covered three lectures a week for four weeks, with an extra week added on to accommodate both busy people who needed to catch up (that’s called flexibility) and to welcome back one of the instructors who had been on a research project on Mount Logan in the Yukon. The Group was on its own site separate from the course; participants were free to create whatever topics we wanted. I particularly enjoyed the “Favorite Bits from Lecture X” threads, which was just a “hey, I never knew that balloonists were the first to experiment with physical effects of altitude” or “Who knew glaciers cover 10% of land area!” Sharing  articles about topics of interest was also a favorite.

The other fantastic feature of the Group was a weekly live Zoom session with one of the Instructors, David Hik. He’d bring in additional materials about the topics covered, answer questions, and share research. It was a high spot of my week – and it provided a lot of motivation to keep up, and to keep going.

The fourth live session included Zac Robinson, the other instructor, who told us about his trip to Mount Logan. The Mountains 101 Twitter Account sent out regular updates on that project, so we were primed and ready to talk with him about it. He described the process of getting to the summit (with lots of pictures), avoiding crevasses and avalanches, being very cold, and dragging equipment around. One purpose of the trip was for the ice-core scientist to take readings with ground-penetrating radar in preparation for collecting a 200-meter-long ice core next year, a huge undertaking. Another was to place equipment on the summit to both get a GPS read of the exact height of the mountain (it’s shrunk 2 meters since 1999, maybe) and to set up weather recording equipment to monitor changes. We asked the kinds of questions you’d expect: what did you eat? What kind of camera did you bring? And we heard tales of frostnip and solo-climber rescues and snow walls. It was a fascinating session. I’d already confessed that the only mountains I’d ever been on were the kind where you drive to the top in your car and visit the snack bar and souvenir shop, so I was impressed.

The best news is that Class Central, encouraged by the success of this group, will be starting three additional study groups next week for other courses about Excel, Redis, and Happiness. Visit their site to find out more and join up.

Translation MOOC

Course: Working with Translation: Theory and Practice
Length: 4 weeks, 4 hrs/wk
School/platform: Cardiff University/Futurelearn
Instructor: Loredana Polezzi et al
Quote:
Translation is one of the most fundamental of human activities, allowing us to interact with one another within and across cultures.
Drawing on the research and expertise of specialists at Cardiff University and the University of Namibia, on this course, you will discover a wealth of practical tips and knowledge about the nature of translation in an increasingly multilingual world.
You will explore translation in a global context, and observe translation in healthcare and the justice system as well as in music, manga, video games and historical romances. You may even discover your own ‘inner translator’ in the process!

Somewhat ironically – since I’ve never been able to attain anything like communicative competence, let alone fluency, in a second language – I’m fascinated by translation. In college, I had a blast working on different ways of translating Beowulf into contemporary English, while looking at various literary theories of translation. I also enjoyed learning about interpreting in the Deaf community via a couple of ASL courses I took, and at the same time learned that ASL is not simply signed English but is a separate language with a grammar, syntax, and vocabulary of its own. I still marvel at the translation of a medieval French poem that appeared in the 2014 Pushcart; while maintaining the form of the original, the language reads naturally yet is very close to the original. And then there are also those hilarious mistranslations that make their way to the internet, some courtesy of Penn’s Language Log blog which focuses on East Asian languages.

I’m sorry to say this course didn’t really do much for me. However, I am of the belief that, if you don’t care for a mooc, it’s probably because it was the wrong mooc for you in the first place. This one seems to be more about generating interest in translation as a career, possibly as a subtle advertisement for the translation program at the university. So it had very little to say about translation theory, and a lot to say about the career of translators and interpreters. It’s a fine course for that purpose.

I did find a few topics of interest to me. The first week looked at different words for translation, and what they indicate about the function. Our word translate means “to carry across” but other metaphors include narrative construction, and opening a box.

Towards the end of the  course a Polish translator discussed her work on a Nigerian novel and its prior translation into English. The book has fantasy and folk elements, so the language is somewhat nonstandard in places. In translating that, if she keeps the nonstandard language in order to remain true to the tone and sense of the original, does that seem to make the book seem poorly written? This question of how close to remain to the original is a core question of translation, and is mentioned many times in various ways.

Another interesting aspect is in translating in a medical or legal setting, where the interpreter/translator must remain neutral. A video showed a husband and wife who seem to have different ideas about the wife’s medical issues. Again, it’s an interesting idea. When I took the ASL class, we were invited to ask questions in the first class and I said that the translator seemed to be putting a great deal of energy into some signs, conveying some kind of emotion or emphasis. The interpreter refused to break role and explain, because she was working. Again, it’s the kind of boundary issue that interests me.

And of course there were some humorous translation errors. My favorite was a sign in Wales: the English portion is the typical “Truck must be under x tons to cross” but the Welsh portion said, “I will be out of the office today.” It turns out someone emailed a request for a translation, and when they got an out-of-office reply, they thought that was the translation. That it made it on to the sign itself, which must have taken considerable time and gone through many hands, says something about the lack of curiosity everyone had for Welsh.

While I didn’t learn much about technical or literary translation theory, a lot of interesting questions were raised. Just because it isn’t for me doesn’t mean it isn’t a good course for those it’s aimed at.

K-Phil MOOC: An Introduction to Korean Culture and Philosophy

Course: Introduction to Korean Philosophy and Culture
Length: approx. 12 hours total
School/platform: Sungkyunkwan University/Coursera
Instructor: So Jeong Park
Quote:
This course will give you the cultural and historical background to begin your journey into Korean philosophy, and there is no prerequisite knowledge on philosophy required. Anybody who either has an interest in Korean culture, maybe through K-Dramas or K-pop, or an interest in philosophy from a cross-cultural perspective, are all welcome….
The Korean cultural, social, and political environment has informed and transformed the intellectual assets of China and the West. You’ll explore the creative tensions that Koreans have experienced, and broaden your worldview as you discover a new philosophical approach.

I know nothing about K-Pop except that it exists (it even shows up in some Duolingo Spanish dialogs) but apparently it’s hoped that some fans will use it as a springboard to study Korean philosophy. That’s cool. Me, I just like philosophy, so when I saw this course was available, I jumped at it.

I expected there would be some carryover from Chinese philosophy, and that was very much the case. The first couple of weeks dealt with how Korea both adapted Chinese ideas, and developed its own writing system rather than using Chinese characters, via mechanisms referred to in the course as adaptive and disruptive innovation. Since I have a longstanding interest in linguistics, I found the writing system’s use of not just familiar concepts of forward and backward placement and vocal mechanisms, but of aspects of Yin and Yang as well as the Five Elements found in East Asian cultures.

History also played a role. The name of the university offering the course became a lesson, as the word Sungkyun was a Chinese loanword that, while it lost most of its meaning in China, became an educational standard in Korea, with the extra twist that it was used for the University during the Yuan dynasty as an act of rebellion. For details, you’ll have to take the course; it’s worth it.

One of the central issues with Korean philosophy – with Chinese philosophy as well – is that of connection rather than opposition. This may start with Yin and Yang, which are not seen as opposites but as feeding into each other. The course focused on reason vs emotion, which in Western philosophy are seen as opposites in conflict with each other. Much of Korean philosophy observes how the two generate and moderate each other, more as a circular spectrum than as separate ideas. We spent some time listening to students discuss the term for mind-heart, Maum, 마음. The Four-Seven debate, concering the moral emotions and the everyday feelings, made up another major philosophic topic, as did the Horak debate about whether animals have morality and if anyone can achieve sagedom. The complexity of the term Uri, 우리, the first-person pronoun, was a major topic as well, as it is not quite I and not quite we but about seeing onesself in connection with others, yet distinct. All of these topics require further investigation; this was merely an overview to introduce the ideas.

The format was what I call “Youtube plus a quiz”: several lecture videos, and sometimes a student Q&A, made up each module, with an information-retrieval test of ten questions at the end. The graded final exam of 25 questions is paywalled; you can see the questions but not submit for grading (or find out if you got the questions right, which is a brilliant way of encouraging the competitive among us to shell out $49.00 for a certificate).

A four-week course can only cover so much, of course, but now that I’m reviewing the material to write this post, I’m surprised at how much was included. The course was designed for absolute beginners in both Korean culture and in philosophy in general, so there’s a lot of unexplored depth, but it still conveyed a substantial introduction. I was quite pleased.

Switching it Up: Instead of Biochem, let’s try Chemical Biology MOOC

Course: Chemical Biology
Length: 6 units, total approx. 21 hours
School/platform: University of Geneva/Coursera
Instructor: Robbie Loewith, Marcus J. C. Long, et al
Quote:
…[C]hemical biology straddles a nexus between chemistry, biology, and physics. Thus, chemical biology can harness rapid chemistry to observe or perturb biological processes, that are in turn reported using physical assays, all in an otherwise unperturbed living entity.
…We will discuss fluorescence as a general language used to read out biological phenomena as diverse as protein localization, membrane tension, surface phenomena, and enzyme activity. We will proceed to discuss protein labeling strategies and fusion protein design. Then we will discuss larger and larger scale chemical biology mechanism and screening efforts. Highlights include a large amount of new data, tailored in the lab videos, and a large number of skilled presenters.

I’ve often said that one of the drawbacks of moocs is that classes in a sequence can be separated by months or even years. A student enrolled in a biology program at an on-the-ground university would be taking bio and chem classes all the time, allowing for more reiteration and keeping the ideas in active brain storage; if six months elapse between bio classes, I forget what PCR is and have no idea what the RAS pathway is. And suddenly it occurred to me: I can do something about that! Wow, revelation. So instead of waiting around for the next in MIT’s cell biology series, or their continuation of general chemistry, I went looking for related classes. Though I had a couple of retakes in mind, I stumbled across this, and thought it might be interesting. Is there a difference between biochemistry and chemical biology? Turns out, yeah, but it’s a matter of emphasis: in biochem, it’s finding the result; in chembio, it’s figuring out how to get there.

I knew from the start this would be over my head, and boy, it sure was. A couple of lectures were just rivers of words floating by. But that’s one of the benefits of moocs: you can take a class that’s a little beyond your grasp, take away as much as you can, and save the rest as aspirational motivation.

I learned the difference between fluorescence and phosphorescence and all about the Jablonsky diagrams that spelled it out; I learned about membrane tension and the pathway that detects and adjusts for it; I got a good refresh on the properties of amino acids and things like the catalytic triad; and in more general terms, I dealt with assays at a level of detail that was scary. Oh, and plasmids, I’d forgotten everything I ever knew about plasmids. So it was very much worth it, though I often missed entire swaths of material. And, by the way, I passed, which should give someone pause about the utility of passing scores on moocs: I didn’t deserve to pass, yet I did. I put in the work, to be sure – I spent 51 hours on site rather than the 21 hours predicted – but a lot of my answers were the result of test-taking skills,  guessing, and perseverance rather than knowledge.

The more aspirational material, saved for a later time, was fascinating. I’m still reeling at the different ways biological molecules and processes can be examined, both in vivo and in vitro. There’s the SNIFIT which generates one ratio of fluorescent colors when closed, and another in the presence of target molecules which open it. And photocaging, which keeps a molecule inert until activated by light, allowing precise targeting of the process under study. I’m a lot hazier on TREX, GREX and barcoded libraries, but even with minimal understanding they’re fascinating. Then there were uses of my old friends from the MIT Biomoocs SDS-PAGE and Western blots, which now seem a lot simpler.

Besides video lectures by several different professors, there were also several lab segments showing fancy machines and the people who operate them (these mostly went by me), and short Readings explaining individual concepts. Several Practice Quizzes showed up during each module; these required the 80% to pass, but didn’t count in the eventual overall score. They displayed what was right and what was wrong, and could be taken over and over until the desired score was obtained (the “choose all that apply” questions were kind of tricky); I ended up getting 100% on all, not to get the score, but to make sure I had the correct information. Each module also had a Final Quiz, which partly drew on those Practice Quizzes. The Final Quizes displayed nothing except a score for the first three modules; the last three modules displayed whether a question was right or wrong. These could only be re-taken after 72 hours.  I had to retake a couple of them to get to the 80% passing score. And as I’ve said, that was mostly unearned, so I’m not putting any feathers in my cap.

For someone with a better chem baseline than I, this would probably be a great class for looking at these techniques in depth. For me, it was still a great class, just not in the way the instructors probably intended it. But some day I’m going to run across something like barcode libraries again, and I’ll be a little better prepared to understand it, now that I have some idea of where it’s going.

And now I’m going to take some additional chem and bio courses to keep me primed for the new moocs this summer; but now that I’ve had a stretch, I’m going to find something more within my level. Because stretching is great – once in a while.

Chem 1 MOOC (MIT)

Course: General Chemistry I: Atoms, Molecules, and Bonding
Length: 15 weeks, 10-12 hrs/wk
School/platform: MIT/edX
Instructor: Sylvia Ceyer, Mei Hong, Patti Christie, Alisa Krishtal
Quote:
This course is designed to build core skills in chemistry, including drawing chemical structures and predicting molecular properties and reactivities, as well as to gain the necessary fundamental knowledge for advanced courses….
This chemistry course is the first in a series of two courses that together cover first-year, University-level chemistry. In this course, you will uncover the principles of chemical bonding, in the way it historically occurred: starting from the first experiments that revealed the fundamental dual wave-particle nature of energy and matter.

Short version: a great, if challenging, way to get back into chemistry.

Here’s the problem with chemistry as a subject: It sounds really cool. We all remember the baking soda volcanos from elementary school, and a lot of us would like to know just what all those ingredients in our shampoo are doing there. Not to mention fireworks and medicines and all kinds of other interesting stuff. But when you come to chemistry class, you get… math. Icky math. Equations with symbols you’ve never seen before, not to mention really complicated radicals and exponents. And sigfigs. Chemistry is obsessed with sigfigs.

But that’s what’s required. Here, the mathy stuff – about half the course – was handled very smoothly, with gradual introductions of more and more complicated elements and recitations (thank Zeus for those recitations) that went step by step through problems to make sure you’ve got it straight. It’s all about energy, speed, distances, and the *#@% Ideal Gas Law, all of which are quantitative. They deliberately avoided requiring calculus, so it’s only algebra; it’s just nasty. But that’s why God made Wolfram Alpha. It’s hard, and there are  some aspects I think I need to go over again, but it’s not out of reach. Prof. Ceyer’s simple-to-complex approach was perfect for me; as time went on, I became more and more appreciative of her, and by the end of the class, I adored her.

I had more trouble with the qualitative material — types of bonds, orbitals, periodic table trends —  much to my surprise. I think part of that was Prof. Hong’s more off-the-cuff lecture style, though I suspect more advanced students would be perfectly fine with it. However, the material is pretty standard and is easily available on Youtube, plus I’d covered most of it in earlier moocs, so it was manageable. If the instructors had been reversed – if Prof. Hong had handled the math and Prof. Ceyer the bonds – I would’ve been sunk.

A Module 0 containing basics of high school science and chemistry was provided; I spent way too much time on that, and so was behind for most of the course. In retrospect, I probably could have skipped the review entirely, but there was no way to know that in advance.  

The course page lists this as an Intermediate course. In spite of the Module 0 material, unless you were really good in high school chemistry, it’s probably not the place to start. But for that, there are other options, like the University of Kentucky chem mooc I took (twice) several years ago. Now that I think about it, I never did take the second part of that mooc; maybe I should, because MIT will be releasing a second part to this course sometime this year. I’m looking forward to it, but I’d like to be prepared. And I’m still hoping they’ll come up with an orgo course one of these years.

Cell Biology MOOC (Part 2: Signaling)

Course: Cell Biology: Signaling
Length: 5 weeks, 4-6 hrs/wk
School/platform: MIT/edX
Instructor: Iain Cheeseman, Frank Solomon
Quote:
This is the second cell biology course in a four-part series…. these cell biology courses transition to a comprehensive discussion of biology at an experimental level. How do we know what we know about cells at a molecular level and how can we use that knowledge to design experiments to test hypotheses in cell biology?
….You will embark on a lively journey through cellular signaling mechanisms, regulation, and specific examples and learn how to apply key concepts and themes of this dynamic experimental science to understand the fundamental workings of cells.

Short version: Another great bio class from MIT.

I took the first part of this unfolding four-part series last summer, covering transport within the cell. I wish I’d thought to review it before starting this part, because, while it isn’t essential, there was enough overlap that some refreshing would have been helpful, particularly when it came to assays. But no matter, I’m probably going to take the entire sequence over when it’s complete. For that matter, I’m probably going to take the entire MIT Bio curriculum again, since I feel like I’d do a lot better, and get a lot more out of, the earlier courses now that I’m beginning to feel more familiar with cellular processes and lab techniques. Repetition truly is everything. In a normal university setting, I’d be in these classes all the time, but with moocs, they end up spread out months, years apart, so the accumulation process is slower.

Primarily the course covers various signaling pathways: G-proteins, which send second messengers out to start cascades;  various pathways that use dimerization and autophosphorylation to start a signal; and a few more specific paths, like insulin, epinephrine, and RTKs, and some general cell reactions like the Unfolded Protein Response. As with all MIT bio courses, the emphasis is on experimentation, both historical and contemporary, to discover how pathways work and to confirm or discard hypotheses, rather than on memorizing individual players in each pathway. Thought questions — “how might you verify that X is necessary or sufficient?” — show up frequently, since the idea is to generate the skill of thinking as a scientist. A couple of the features introduced in Part 1 were repeated here (see that course for details): “Neat Experiments” showing how certain features were initially discovered; and Mudslips (a forum for  clarifying points that seemed unclear in the lectures). The forums were active and well-covered by staff, presumably grad students.

The course is labeled as Advanced, but don’t let that intimidate you. I wouldn’t consider myself an Advanced bio student by any means, and while parts of it were difficult, it was at a good level for me. It wouldn’t be the best first bio course; if you’re not comfortable with concepts like ligands, receptors, domains, and the compartments of a cell, it might be better to pick that up first. Since there’s an emphasis on experiments, some familiarity with common procedures — blots, gels, that sort of thing — is assumed. Some review material in experimental design and processes is included, including a very helpful tutorial on Western Blot. While there’s no substitute for actual lab experience – which of course moocs can’t provide – they do a pretty good job of conveying the thought process behind various procedures.

Grading follows the usual combination of after-video questions, unit quizzes, and tests. The audit track (that is, free of charge) includes two tests, as well as after-video questions and weekly quizzes; the third test is for those on the Verified track only ($99).

Someone pointed out in the forums that it can be difficult to understand the pathways one of the professors is outlining, since his lecture style is somewhat erratic due to his enthusiasm (I suspect he’s beloved by in-person students). As compensation, online students have access to Youtube, which covers the pathways mentioned, even if not in the same terms. I found it much easier understand – and enjoy – the lectures about UPR, for instance, once I’d found a couple of Youtube videos that were more straightforward about the actual steps. By the way, this problem is not unique to this course; it comes up in most team-teaching courses, and I suspect it’s deliberate to pair instructors with different styles since some students will gravitate towards each. It’s quite possible more advanced students would prefer a more effusive style, since they’re already on board with the basics.

I’m really psyched about the next installment, coming this summer, covering the Cell Cycle. In every mitosis lecture, there are a couple of checkpoints where “the cell checks to see if everything’s ok before going on to the next step” but I’ve never seen an explanation how it knows whether everything’s ok. Now I get to find out! 

Renaissance Travel Manuscript MOOC: Geographic Discoveries and New Worlds through the Eyes of a Renaissance Jewish Scholar

Course: Changing Minds: Geographic Discoveries and New Worlds through the Eyes of a Renaissance Jewish Scholar
Length: 5 weeks, 1-2 hrs/wk (a 90 minute lecture divided into six modules)
School/platform: Penn/edX
Instructor: Fabrizio Lelli, Associate Professor of Hebrew Language and Literature. University of Salento (Lecce, Italy).
Quote:
This course will explore the world of the Jewish renaissance scholar Abraham ben Mordecai Fairissol and his manuscript A Letter on the Paths of the World ( Iggeret Orhot ‘Olam ). Farissol, a product of the northern Italian Renaissance, wrote this geographical treatise about a world seen anew through advances in science, exploration, and trade. The manuscript gives us insight into the place of Jews in the northern Italian Renaissance and demonstrates the ways they were at once deeply embedded in the changing intellectual landscape of the day, but also striving to assert distinctive Jewish belonging in this vibrant intellectual world. Among other things, this text is the first mention in Hebrew of the discovery of the Americas.

For the third time, Penn offers a wonderful mini-mooc on a particular Jewish manuscript from the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies (my experience with the prior two can be found here).  I heard about it, as I’ve heard of so many courses, via Class Central’s Twitter feed: if you like moocs, they’re very worth following.

This manuscript, Iggeret Orhot ‘Olam (A Letter on the Paths of the World) is considered particularly significant in that it includes the first reference to the New World found in a Hebrew book:

“It is now an established fact that the Spanish Ships which were sent on an expedition by the King of Spain almost gave up hope of ever returning. But divine providence had decreed for them a kinder fate than death amid sea. Those at the topmost mast discerned a strip of land. When they had sailed along its shores, and saw its exceedingly large size, they called it because of its great length and breadth, ‘The New World’. The land is rich in natural resources. They have an abundance of fish, large forests teeming with large and small beasts of prey, and serpents as large as beams. The sand along the shores of the rivers contain pure gold, precious stones, and mother of pearl.”
Abraham Fairissol: Iggeret Orhot ‘Olam, Ch. 29 (translation)

The material covers a broad array of topics, showing how the manuscript fits into the time and culture in which it was written, as well as its content. First we find out some basic information about the author, Abraham ben Mordecai Farissol, and Northern Italy of the 16th century, particularly the role of Jews, who had arrived in large numbers following the Spanish expulsion: they were welcomed and could be found in many industries, professions, the arts, and scholarship. Lelli shows how Jewish life was represented positively in visual and written arts.

Lelli discusses the fascination with nature at the time, which was seen in religious terms, as evidence of God’s power. There’s a reference to cameleopards in Fairissol’s manuscript, and there’s evidence he had been to visit the Medici Giraffe, which I first learned about last year when I read the wonderful historico-theologico-fantasy, Lent by Jo Walton, one of those books I read in front of my computer so I could look up things like the Medici Giraffe. Travel and far-off lands were also viewed through a religious lens during this initial age of exploration and trade. One of the themes of Fairissol’s work was to indicate that these lands were mentioned in the Bible. Lelli tells us:

Farissol’s first aim was that of drawing inspiration from the Bible, as it appears from the choice of the title. Indeed, Orhot ‘Olam, “the paths of the world”, is a quotation from the Book of Job, where the Hebrew phrase is endowed with a profoundly different meaning than what we would expect from Farissol’s introductory words. In the standardized English version of the Bible, the verse reads “Will you keep to the old path that the wicked have trod?” Farissol changes this plain meaning of the biblical text, giving it a new interpretation. The orhot ‘olam of Job are certainly not the ways of the New World, the itineraries a modern traveler should follow, nor are they the paths of wickedness as in Job, but are rather those of the valued tradition that should not be abandoned even in new worlds. Farissol walks between the old paths of Jewish tradition and the new paths of the recently discovered lands and new knowledge.

The manuscript refers to a number of interesting individuals in connection with travel, from the legendary Prester John (another recent discovery of mine via Eco’s Serendipities), to “messianic activist” David ha-Reubeni. The last two segments include technical information about the sources of Fairissol’s manuscript, and the various copies that exist today and how they differ from the one in the Penn collection in content and script.

These aren’t moocs so much as they are individual lectures about specific manuscripts reformated into mooc form. In this case, the module review questions were paywalled ($29) but while it would have been nice to have seen what points were considered most important, the lecture stands on its own just fine. A list of interesting discussion questions in the wrap-up material serves the same purpose.

It’s listed as an Advanced course. While the lecture isn’t difficult to follow, it does assume some passing familiarity with the northern Italian renaissance and general European history of the time. But don’t be intimidated: A willingness to look up unfamiliar terms (or to tolerate some uncertainty) will do just fine. A generous glossary and list of additional sources found at the end of the lecture provides additional support.

While the description lists it as a five week course of one hour per week, it’s probably best enjoyed in a more condensed format. Each module’s lecture is about 15 minutes, and while they are information-dense (particularly for those of us who need to do a little extra work to understand the references), I found that viewing several in one longer session provided better momentum.

It isn’t likely to become a super-popular course – it’s not one of the “fun” moocs like the Science of Beer, or something that’s likely to boost your resume like business or computer courses –  but courses like this offer a unique perspective on history, and a chance to see ways in which manuscripts can be valuable outside of their artistic beauty. I’m a big fan of the “oooh, pretty” class of manuscripts, but it’s nice to have a chance to see how scholars view specific content as well. Niche courses are wonderful for those who appreciate the niche, and they cover topics not likely to be found elsewhere.   

Contemporary Chinese Literature mooc

Course: ChinaX Book Club: Five Authors, Five Books, Five Views of China
Length: 5 weeks, 1-2 hrs/wk
School/platform: HarvardX/edX
Instructor: David Wang
Quote:

How can literature and literary analysis allow us to understand the dynamics of contemporary China?
China’s historical and cultural transformations, and its imaginary and actual engagements in everyday life are vividly dramatized by five Chinese authors featured in this course…. This course will employ the tools of close reading, discussion, and analysis to explore issues that concern the Chinese people, and ponder the power (and limitations) of literature in imagining China anew.

I started Harvard’s ChinaX series a couple of years ago; I loved the first couple of segments, but lost interest as we moved into the medieval period and never completed it. Recently I saw this offered as another part of the series. I’m way too intimidated to read Chinese literature on my own, so I thought it might be an interesting way to get some kind of glimpse into what I was missing.

To my surprise, I had read two of the authors discussed. An excerpt of Mo Yan’s novel POW! appeared in TNY right after he won his Nobel Prize, and I read Ha Jin’s story collection A Good Fall a long time ago and made a mess of it (I’m embarrassed every time I see those posts come up, since I had no idea what I was doing). Neither of those works was involved in this course, however.

The works that were discussed were:
∘ China in 10 Words by Yu Hua
∘ Red Sorghum: A Novel of China by Mo Yan
∘ Lenin’s Kisses by Yan Lianke
∘ Waiting by Ha Jin
∘ The Song of Everlasting Sorrow by Wang Anyi

I took this as a “recreational mooc” and thus didn’t read the works. Each week focused on one author/book. After an introduction of the author, with some reference to the specific book, a passage from the book (usually about 10 pages) was presented with numerous detailed instructor notes and questions. This was an annotation exercise, the idea being to respond to the instructor material or add your own notations. I found the instructor notes very helpful, and also a bit intimidating: they pointed out things I never would have considered if I’d been reading the book. Some of this is just a more analytical way of reading – a discussion of free indirect discourse, for example – and some was in references to Chinese culture and history that’s outside my knowledge. Of course, reading books is a great way to get that knowledge, but it helps when they’re highlighted and explicitly explained.

Other material for each week included an interview with the author (these were in a Chinese dialect – I’m assuming Mandarin, but how would I know – with English subtitles and transcripts), and discussions between the instructor and a couple of PhD students. A set of “reader’s guide” style questions was provided for each book, giving further guidance to personal reading. All grading was in self-reporting; I skipped that entirely.

Yu Hua’s China in 10 Words, the only nonfiction covered in the course, served as both an entry into the class, and a wrap-up, as the course is situated within a series about understanding China. An entry survey asked us to come up with ten words we connect with China, prior to reading the works or taking the course. Given the coincidence of taking this during a pandemic that began in China, and living in a country with a leader whose racism is front and center, it was a bit disconcerting [Note: I took this course in the Spring; this post has just been sitting in my notes document since then, but I… well, I forgot about it until I saw it the other day]. I connect China with the philosophies of the Warring States period, with the poetry of the Tang (or is it Song, I get them confused) dynasty, and with bits and pieces I’ve encountered in other moocs. At the end of the course, the instructor and his grad students came up with their own list of ten words to summarize contemporary China; they of course know a lot more than I do about it.

Initially, I thought Lenin’s Kisses by Yan Lianke would be the book I’d be most likely to read on my own, just based on the description: a satiric novel about a kind of travelling circus of disabled people from a poor village who turn to entertainment for economic survival. From the excerpt included, I get the impression there are important nuances that I couldn’t follow, so I’m not sure it’s where I would start.

By the end of the course, Ha Jin’s Waiting seemed like the best entry point: a novel about a man trying, for twenty years, to divorce his wife so he can marry the woman he loves. Yet I would be reluctant based on my past inability to connect with Ha’s stories in A Good Fall. Perhaps I’ve learned a little about reading since then? The author has an interesting story: he was in the US as a student when the Tiananmen massacre occurred, and he decided then he would write only in English from then on and never return to China.

Wang Anyi also has an interesting story, and her The Song of Everlasting Sorrow reflects it alongside the history of Shanghai: a woman struggling against prohibitions, coming into her own voice. This turned out to be the most easily readable for me (at least, of the excerpts in translation that were provided), so that makes it tempting as well. Red Sorghum by Mo Yan, a “native soil” novel about peasant China (their word, not mine) rounded out the field.

I’m not sure I’m ready to take on any of these works; I’ve read very little translated fiction. At some point I’ll read something someone’s written about one of these books, or maybe another Chinese novel, and that will spark me into action. I’m glad this class gave me an overview to find some footing.

Physics for Poets MOOC

Course: How Things Work: An Introduction to Physics
Length: total ~14 hours
School/platform: UVA/Coursera
Instructor: Louis A. Bloomfield
Quote:

An introduction to physics in the context of everyday objects: It’s essentially case study physics, an introduction to physics in the context of everyday objects and activities. My goal is to make physics useful, and to help you understand and manage the physical world around you.

In the 1994 Law & Order episode “Big Bang,” ADAs Ben Stone and Claire Kincaid are investigating a physics professor whose defense involves serious particle physics. In private, Stone confesses to Kincaid: “You know what I took for my science requirement? Physics for Poets.” Kincaid confesses back: “Elementary Geology. Rocks for Jocks.” This course is essentially Physics for Poets: general concepts peeled down to their simplified forms, presented via concrete examples with minimal math.

It’s one of the oldest classes on Coursera’s roster, making its debut back in 2013, and I’ve been thinking about taking it since about then. But stubbornly, I kept trying the “real’ physics courses and quitting by week 3 when I still couldn’t keep joules, newtons, and watts straight. Now that I finally cried Uncle and got here, I wish I’d done it sooner.

Each of the six weeks focuses on an object that demonstrates a related group of concepts. Skateboarding, for example, introduces force, inertia, and acceleration. I’d never considered weight as a force before (it’s usually ignored in favor of mass), but it makes a lot of sense in this context. And by spending a couple of weeks focusing on force – that is, newtons – I was much better able to grasp the idea of joules when we got to energy later on. For me, that alone was worth taking the course.

The other objects are falling balls, ramps, seesaws, wheels, and bumper cars. I can say I saw a lot of things more clearly, such as what’s a force and what isn’t, and what properties are conserved. By comparing linear velocity and momentum to angular velocity and momentum, the course helped me keep a lot more organized. I’m still a little confused about some stuff, but it’s not a total jumble.

The professor is very hands-on – and feet-on and butt-on – as he skateboards, rolls on a cart, tosses balls out of windows and across rooms, tips small levers and puts TAs on seesaws, pulls wagons around, plays air hockey to simulate bumper cars, and does everything he can to demonstrate various kinds of forces and accelerations while also showing off the UVA campus. There is some math, but very little, and it’s of the a=b*c variety, very simple even for me. In fact, after I finished the course, I went back and dragged out the formulas that tended to get buried in the long runs of explanation. This also was a very worthwhile process for me.

The course starts with a Preliminary Assessment before any teaching takes place. This is graded; for those of us who don’t sign up for the “Certificate Experience” (I guess they gave up on verification), this is the only grade you’ll see. There are ungraded (but very useful) questions embedded in the videos. Each week ends with a quiz that you can take if you’re auditing, but you can’t find out what you got right or wrong (unless you’re determined and creative, in which case you might discover students from years before have left a trail of breadcrumbs some of us might find useful. And some of us might find, for those intending to earn a grade for this, to be cheating, if relatively worthless cheating). A final exam similar (at times identical) to the Preliminary Assessment finishes things off in Week Seven.

There are some tricky concepts, but it’s basic mechanics presented in such a way as to give students more of a sense of what is actually happening than the equations they’ll see in a more typical physics course. I’m going to take another stab at a physics course, and see how much of a difference this made. I’m hopeful.

Happiness is a Chinese Philosophy MOOC

Course: The Path to Happiness: What Chinese Philosophy Teaches us about the Good Life
Length: 13 weeks, 1-2 hrs/wk
School/platform: Harvard/edX
Instructor: Michael Puett
Quote:

Today, finding happiness is about mindfulness and discovering your true self. You may have heard that happiness is found by looking within. Ancient Chinese philosophy challenges all of these modern assumptions. From Confucianism to Daoism, the philosophies developed over two thousand years ago are among the most powerful in human history.
This course brings voices from the past into modern contexts to explore the path to a good life today. The philosophical concepts discussed provide tools to change your life and increase personal happiness by focusing on your actions, the power of ritual, and the importance of sensing the world around you.

The world is full of wonders, and one of them is that just as I, determined anti-self-helpist, started reading a self-help-disguised-as-American-philosophy book about William James, Class Central tweeted about a self-help-disguised-as-Chinese-philosophy mooc. I couldn’t let a Chinese philosophy mooc pass me by, self-help or no. Especially when the instructor is Michael Puett.

I first discovered Michael Puett through Harvard’s ChinaX series when I took the first few parts of it about four years ago. I’m not sure what it is that makes him such a wonderful speaker: he’s not dynamic, or funny, or even particularly attractive (hey, we all go there sometimes), at least in ways we usually think of in terms of great speakers. But I sometimes just look for videos on youtube where he’s explaining something, even something I don’t understand (Chinese history, rather than philosophy, is his academic area, though the two aren’t all that separable). In this particular course, he has a somewhat Mr. Rogers vibe, and it’s mesmerizing. And soothing. ASMR for philosophy geeks.

And of course it’s even better that he’s talking about Confucius. And Mencius. And Zhuangzi. And Mozi and Laozi and Xunzi and Hanfeizi and how they all relate to one another, how they’ve all developed ways of going through life.

Only a very narrow slice of the scholars’ works is under discussion. There are other courses go into broader and deeper views, but the point here is to present one aspect of a philosopher’s work that can be turned into thought or action for contemporary day-to-day living. I think it would play just fine for those without any prior exposure to Chinese thought, and as someone who’s had some prior exposure to the basics of Chinese thought, I liked it as a quick review of the high points. The lectures seemed a bit repetitive, but for someone encountering the material for the first time, I suspect that would be a plus.

The time estimation of 13 weeks seems wildly excessive to me, but that’s fine, I suppose you could stretch it out; I went through it in about a week, doing maybe 90 minutes a day (hey, I like this stuff). The graded parts of the course – quizzes after each lecture – are unavailable to audit students; the Verified track costs $99. But in a course like this, grades aren’t really the point.

The self-help aspect of the course is actually quite useful as a pedagogical tool: a Self-Reflection diary follows each video segment and stores the student’s input as a PDF that can be downloaded complete at the end of the course. It starts from the beginning – what habits do you have? – and shows up after each lecture video. What patterns do you notice in others close to you? What can you identify in your life that could become a ritual space? What activities would you like to do spontaneously? These questions stem from the content of the lecture (habits, patterns, ritual spaces, spontaneity) and help emphasize the meanings of those terms in the context of the philosopher under discussion. For example, the dinner table or a business meeting can become a ritual space; playing a musical instrument or a sport can, after a lot of focused practice, become spontaneous. So it, too, serves as reinforcement for the particular vocabulary.

Whether you want to take the life advice or just learn something about Chinese philosophy, it’s an informative and pleasant way to do it. And soothing.

Cell Biology MOOC (Part 1: Transport)

Course: Cell Biology: Transport
Length: 4 weeks, 4-6 hrs/wk
School/platform: MIT/edX
Instructor: Rebecca Lamason, Frank Solomon
Quote:

This is the first cell biology course in a four-part series. Building upon the concepts from biochemistry, genetics, and molecular biology from our 7.00x Introductory Biology and 7.05x Biochemistry MOOCs, these cell biology courses transition to a comprehensive discussion of biology at an experimental level. How do we know what we know about cells at a molecular level and how can we use that knowledge to design experiments to test hypotheses in cell biology?…You will embark on a lively journey through cellular transport mechanisms and learn how to apply key concepts and themes of this dynamic experimental science to understand the fundamental workings of cells.

I’ve said many times how much I like the way MIT does bio courses, so I was thrilled when I saw they had a new one. And this is Part 1, with three more parts to follow!

I wasn’t sure what Transport was going to cover. Turns out, it’s how proteins (mostly) get from one compartment of a cell to another: from ribosomes that form them to the endoplasmic reticulum, the Golgi, or maybe to vesicles that will transport them somewhere else; and how stuff gets in and out of the nucleus. So there’s a lot about signal sequences, about channels and pores, and about enzymes, chaperones, and all kinds of supporting players. I’m still amazed every time I get even a peek at how complicated it is to keep us alive.

These videos must have been recorded quite recently – this calendar year – because COVID-19 came up twice, once in connection with how an RNA virus moves its genome out of the nucleus (a student asked if viral infection was being covered because of the pandemic; no, it was a routine part of the course) and once in conjunction with the lab technique of using detergent to destabilize a cell’s bilayer lipid membrane to solubilize transmembrane proteins – just like washing our hands destroys the outer coating of the virus.

For me, the material was a bit easier because there was less quantitative work as there was with biochemistry: no worrying about pH or equilibrium, no MATLAB. Yet I found the lectures themselves a bit more disjointed than expected. Part of this might be that there were two instructors; I also felt that the videos themselves were a bit more cut-and-paste (it’s not unusual for individual videos to show edits, removing classroom issues for instance), thought that’s just an impression. We started off with lectures on experiments, and with little context, I had no idea what it was we were experimenting on. Once the more process-oriented material started I was able to catch on, but it was a tough few hours there. Then again, I have the disadvantage of having never been in a lab, so I’m always a little behind the eight ball when lab work is the topic. I’m beginning to get it, though: biochem mashes things up and assays for products; genetics creates mutations and assays for function; and cell biology often uses microscopy, including some very cool fluorescing techniques.

Each video is followed by a set of “check” questions; these count in grading, but in most cases have unlimited attempts so are pretty much free points. Three quizzes make up the bulk of the grades, and these are, of course, more difficult and in most cases only offer one attempt. The Audit version of the course does not allow access to the third quiz; that requires paying for Verified access. But the Check questions and the first two quizzes give a pretty good idea of how well you’re understanding the material.

I thought I was moving along pretty quickly through the course, but kept discovering the deadlines coming up fast. I have always found the time estimates to be on the skimpy side for these courses, this one included though it wasn’t as pronounced a gap since there was less quantitative material.

This series includes several fun features. Wiltrout Questions, named for one of the off-screen professors, are open-ended “What do you think about this” questions that invite students to figure out how something might work, to “encourage active engagement in thinking about cell biology and a deepened understanding of a specific concept or approach”. After each unit, students are invited to submit Mudslips indicating “the muddiest, or least clear aspect of that class period.” Then there were the “Neat Experiments” videos, detailed and carefully animated explanations of historically important lab work in cell biology that nailed down a principle or used a new technique. These aren’t new features, of course; questions in both directions have always been part of these courses (Journal Club in another course, for example), and experiments have always been central in these courses. But it’s a nice touch to formalize them.

Another fun aspect was the naming of the proteins. One set was named Mens, Manus, and Cor; it turns out the MIT motto is the first two, “mind and hand”; the “heart” was added because, well, it’s about time (and there was a third protein that needed naming). Another set was named after Greek muses or fates or something, I don’t remember. Each of these courses has little personalizing details like this; it isn’t as though there’s strong pedagogical impact, but they’re part of what makes these courses so engaging.

I have no idea what the other three parts of Cell Biology will cover – I had no idea what Transport would cover until I took it – but I’m looking forward to them!

Balinese Music: Gamelan mooc

Course: World Music: Balinese Rhythms
Length: 10? weeks, 6-7? hrs/wk
School/platform: edX/MIT
Instructor: Evan Ziporyn, Dewa Alit
Quote:

This course provides an introduction to Balinese music, and the role of music in Balinese culture. Students will have the opportunity to both learn about and watch Balinese performances, as well as start to learn and practice the rhythms and techniques of Balinese gamelan online, using the “Jamelan” game. The “Jamelan” game, developed by MIT Professor of the Practice Eran Egozy, consists of rhythm recognition software similar to that used in ‘rhythm-based’ video games such as Guitar Hero and Rock Band, which Egozy also developed. Using the Jamelan, learners’ progress is tracked and measured so that they can play along, hearing their accuracy audibly, but also having that accuracy measured digitally. By merging hands-on pedagogical tools based on traditional Balinese teaching methods, with new digital tools based on the gaming industry, the resulting learning experience is potent.

What, you never heard of Balinese gamelan music? Yeah, neither had I, and I’m still trying to process that MIT has a music department – and a music department deep enough to have a world music section, one that’s willing to put on a mooc, to boot.

It’s one of those courses that just drifted irresistibly across my feed, whispering enroll, you know you want to. I was a little daunted by the “10 weeks, 6-7 hours/week” time estimation, but I figured, what’s the worst that could happen, I don’t finish. In retrospect, I’m not sure where they got those numbers from. All the material is released at once; it’s a six-lecture course, with one or two videos totaling about 20 minutes, and two or three jamelan exercises each. The jamelan will take a while to get used to, and I found it helpful to repeat the exercises every day or so. Still, I would consider the time estimate wildly inflated: I finished it all in a little more than a week, a couple of hours a day at most.

Gamelan turns out to be a type of music involving predominantly percussion instruments, particularly various kinds of metal or bamboo marimba-like instruments. Sometimes dance is involved, either solo or group. There’s a small subset of gamelan that’s used to accompany shadow puppet plays. The music can have religious or secular purposes.

One of the most interesting aspects, and the one emphasized by the design of the mooc, is the way new musicians are taught. There’s no musical notation. Musicians might play their instruments, particularly the mid-size iron gangsa we used, with their very young children on their laps. Later, a student will sit across from a gangsa and imitate the instructor’s movements: the rhythms, the notes, and damping techniques to keep the sound crisp. For the purposes of this mooc, they created a digital gangsa (designed by the Guitar Hero guy, I discovered) dubbed the Jamelan for us to learn a few parts by imitating Dewa Alit, master gamelan musician and MIT Artist-in-Residence for the past decade. It was great fun. At times my aging fingers failed me, but it was still quite an experience.

Lectures were provided by Prof. Evan Ziporyn, who in 1993, founded Gamelan Galak Tika (get it? Say it fast), MIT’s gamelan ensemble. Yeah, here I go again, MIT has a gamelan ensemble and has had one for twenty-seven years?? I’ve got to get out more. He described some of the traditional and modern uses of gamelan, as well as musical elements such as the structure of interlocking parts and the importance of damping.

I struggled a bit with the lingo. It’s not just that it’s in an unfamiliar language; I found it hard to organize it all: this is a type of music, this is an instrument, this is a subset of that type. I posted a question on the discussion board, along with a crude outline of what I thought the divisions were, and received a prompt and helpful reply the next morning. My biggest confusion was about the word “gamelan” itself: is it a type of music, or a type of instrument? Turns out it’s sort of both, similar to how Western music might use the term “string quartet” to describe a type of music with a certain structure played by certain instruments. That helped a lot.

One of the extraordinary benefits of moocs – and one overlooked in the age of “get skills and a certificate to improve your job prospects” – is the ability to check out things you’ve never heard of before and might never have otherwise heard of. This mooc succeeds wildly on this dimension. It was one of those completely unexpected moocs that sometimes crop up, one of the best aspects of moocdom. I wouldn’t say it was the best mooc I’d taken, but you know what, teaching music is hard, putting up moocs is hard, and teaching music in asynchronous mode to people from all over with a wide range of musical experience is really hard. I love that they did this, and I love that they have other courses in the works.

Another Biochem mooc (MIT version)

Course: Biochemistry: Biomolecules, Methods, and Mechanisms
Length: 12? weeks, 3-6? hrs/wk
School/platform: MIT/edX
Instructor: Michael Yaffe
Quote:

We developed 7.05x Biochemistry with an emphasis on:
• Developing your scientific thinking skills including articulating hypotheses, performing thought experiments, interpreting data, and designing experiments.
• Using data based on real scientific experiments and highlighting the scientific process.
• Asserting that biology is an active field that changes daily through examples of MIT (and other current) research, not static information in a textbook.
• Visualizing real molecular structures with PyMOL to better understand function and mechanism.
• Appreciating the quantitative aspects of biochemistry and practicing this quantitation with MATLAB.
• Translating topics in biochemistry to diseases and medicine.
• Conveying the authentic MIT firehose experience.
• Implementing the science of learning in the course design.

I started to take this course a couple of years ago, and ran away screaming when I saw it started with “Buffers and pH.” For some reason I felt more up to it at this point, though I haven’t done any additional work on those topics. Predictably, I did quite poorly on that unit – and a couple of other units – but it was still very worthwhile.

MIT’s biology department emphasis is always on the practical approach. That is, they go through a pathway or a process in detail, give you a couple of general questions to see if you’ve got the idea, then throw you into a story set in a lab and make you figure out the setup: what assay do you need, what product are you looking for, what reactants do you need, what would you expect to see, what does this result – graph, gel image, whatever – mean. This is, after all, what biochemists are training for, not memorizing reactions. Something I discovered late in the course: the names of the fictional lab team in the Problem Set questions are the names of biochemists. They don’t have the distinct (and amusing) personalities of those in the Molecular Bio lab scenarios, but it’s still a great approach.

The home page emphasize some prior biology is needed to succeed. As usual, I needed more (any?) organic chem in some places; they do provide a nice set of review materials on pertinent topics – orbitals, thermodynamics, functional groups – and that helped.

The material is broken down into eight modules, one released every week, but the due dates allow a week of extra time for all modules. I wish I had the chops to spend just 3 to 6 hours as predicted on the home page; for me, it was more like 10 – 12 hours, though I do a lot of extra work basically copying the whole course into a Word document for future reference. Each module consists of a set of between ten and twenty video lectures; these are each followed by a short quiz that allows unlimited attempts for each question. The module is capped off by a Problem Set, where the number of attempts are more restricted and the lab scenario is usually prominent. As you might expect, the Problem Sets count for a lot more than the Test Yourself quizzes. Some weeks have far more material than others, but it might be they seemed harder to me because they hammered my weaknesses.

Some of the Problem Sets included questions that required the use of MatLab; you can connect for free through the course (in fact I still had an account from a prior course, to my surprise). I skipped these entirely. Maybe another time. Optional PyMol assignments were also included. I used PyMol in another course, and liked it a lot, but I didn’t mess with it this time; I had too much to deal with already.

Then there’s the “final”, in the form of what they call a Competency Exam (paywalled; $150). Don’t worry if you can’t or don’t want to pay the fee; there’s plenty of testing throughout to make sure you’ve got the salient points. I’m perfectly happy with the free material available, even if I do have a score of only 26% to show for my trouble. The bright side is, the maximum could only be 30%, so if I look at it one way, I got a score of 86%. I suspect the Competency Exam is significantly harder (they call it a challenge), it’s timed (oh no…), and it would have required a review of all the material (and I was pretty much done by the time I finished the last problem set) so I’m fine with not paying $150 for the work and likely humiliation.

I’m a big fan of MIT’s approach, even though I’ll never set foot in a bio lab or work on an actual science degree. The Harvard Biochem mooc is, after the thermodynamic component, more about specific pathways, particularly the generation, metabolism, and regulation of major elements, and the testing is far more information-retrieval. I might take that again, because that’s fun, too. And I feel more up to the thermodynamics and kinetics material, thanks to this course.

Daniel Chamovitz: What a Plant Knows (Scientific American/FSG, 2012) with BONUS MOOC!

We are utterly dependent on plants. We wake up in houses made of wood from the forests of Maine, pour a cup of coffee brewed from coffee beans grown in Brazil, throw on a T-shirt made of Egyptian cotton, print out a report on paper, and drive our kids to school in cars with tires made of rubber that was grown in Africa and fueled by gasoline derived from cycads that died millions of years ago…. And plants continue to inspire and amaze us: the mighty sequoias are the largest singular, independent organisms on earth, algae are some of the smallest, and roses definitely make anyone smile.
Knowing what plants do for us, why not take a moment to find out more about what scientists have found out about them ?

I’ve lived a relatively plant-oblivious life – until about six months ago. And now I’ll talk about my plants (not even interesting ones, basic beginner stuff) like old ladies talk about their bunions.

It’s all @drunkphyto’s fault.

I was minding my own business when someone retweeted her tweet into my feed last September: “The smell of cut grass is the grass releasing a wounding compound into the air to warn other plants that they were injured. You are smelling their screams.” I immediately thought of Seth Fried’s “Animacula”, a short story in the form of a lab report about organisms with strange properties, including screaming. Oh, and Liz Ziemska’s “The Mushroom Queen” which acquainted me with the interconnectedness of fungi via mycelia.

I emailed @DrunkPhyto to tell her how excited I was about all this (yeah, I know) and, to my surprise, she gave me a friendly reply rather than a restraining order. She recommended a number of books, one of which was Chamovitz. So it ended up on my reading list. And I started eyeing the plant stand in the supermarket, until I finally brought home a tiny philodendron, then an ivy, and an oxalis, and various flowers….

I was in for another surprise. As I started reading, I realized I’d taken all these moocs on biology, physiology, biochem, anatomy, and other sciency topics, and while I’d encountered cell respiration and the Michaelis-Menten equation multiple times, I’d never learned anything specific to plant biology. I didn’t even know how photosynthesis worked! So I checked edX for any moocs on plant bio, and found little beyond agricultural ecology. Ah, but on Coursera, I found… Understanding Plants: What a Plant Knows , taught by Daniel Chamovitz! So of course I signed up. It follows the book very closely, and includes very helpful diagrams the book lacks. Double bonus: He has a second course, Understanding Plants: Fundamentals of Plant Biology , which I will take as soon as I finish up the biochem I’m struggling with.

How way leads on to way…

Plants must be aware of the dynamic visual environment around them in order to survive. They need to know the direction, amount, duration, and color of light to do so. ….Plants don’t have a nervous system that translates light signals into pictures. Instead, they translate light signals into different cues for growth. Plants don’t have eyes, just as we don’t have leaves.
But we can both detect light.

The book’s approach is to examine how plants sense their environment, through chapters like What a Plant Sees, What a Plant Feels, How a Plant Knows Where It Is, What a Plant Remembers. For each sense, the approach is to look at the human equivalent – say, sight – and break it down to its fundamental quality – sensing light – while pointing out key differences between the human version and the plant version – plants don’t have brains to interpret light signals into pictures – and presenting experimental evidence and theories for ecological significance of the sense.

There’s a fair amount of technical detail for a general readership book. The basics of electrochemical conduction, for example, and the regulation of water through ion transport to cause movement; gene expression and epigenetics; receptors and phytochromes. The experiments that revealed various processes and qualities are described in detail. I have to admit, I was surprised that Darwin was such a plant buff, proving that plants sense light in the tips of shoots. One of the most ingenious experiments was by Thomas Andrew Knight, a 19th century gentleman (rather than a scientist) who concocted a kind of water wheel to create centrifugal force to understand the role of gravity in plant growth, the International Space Shuttle being a couple of centuries in the future.

One of the most interesting chapters was What a Plant Hears, for several reasons. Caution: Spoiler ahead! First, it was a negative finding, and, as Chamovitz points out in his mooc, “one of the other problems in scientific research is that you can’t publish negative results.” This is particularly pertinent to this chapter, since a poorly-designed study in the 60s, coupled with a pop-science (in the worst sense of the phrase) book, had everyone convinced that plants like to be talked to, and they prefer classical music to rock. I’ll admit, I thought this was the case until I read this chapter; I had no idea the study was flawed and the hypotheses invalid. But because no one wants to publish negative results, failures to replicate the study weren’t anywhere near as publicized as the original work.

Even more interesting, the mooc contains a post-production video updating the hearing lecture, since later experiments have shown that plants do show responses to low frequency sounds, possibly via touch sensors (which is, fundamentally, what hearing is), and this may be related to sending roots in the direction of water. As Chamovitz says, “Science is a self-correcting system,” and new research leads to new theories.

Our dictionary’s definition of smell excludes plants from discussion. They are removed from our traditional understandings of the olfactory world because they do not have a nervous system, and olfaction for a plant is obviously a nose-less process. But let’s say we tweak this definition to “the ability to perceive odor or scent through stimuli.” Plants are indeed more than remedial smellers. What odors does a plant perceive, and how do smells influence a plant’s behavior?

The chapter on smell was also particularly interesting. Just like us, plants have receptors for volatile chemical molecules, which are the basis of smell. Anyone who has sped up the ripening of a peach or avocado by placing it in a paper bag with a ripe banana has used this sense: ethylene is given off by ripe fruits and signals other fruits to ripen. I learned this practice goes back many centuries, though it used other means: incense in China, for example.

And here’s where the book’s approach really works for me: given that this is the case, why would this happen? What’s the evolutionary advantage to having one ripe peach encourage others to ripen as well?

From an ecological perspective, this has an advantage in ensuring seed dispersal as well. Animals are attracted to ready-to-eat fruits like peaches and berries. A full display of soft fruits brought on by the ethylene-induced wave guarantees an easily identifiable market for animals, which then disperse the seeds as they go about their daily business.

So it isn’t that peach trees thought it would be a good idea if they did this; it’s that those plants that had this facility, however it was acquired (by mutation?) would have better reproductive success than those that didn’t. This is evolution in a nutshell. This is also my own musing, not a point made explicitly in the book, so if I’m off-base, tell me.

It’s this sense of smell that @DrunkPhyto was (slyly) referring to with “smelling their screams”. This exact point comes up when considering that an injured leaf will release a volatile chemical, and other leaves, on the plant and on other plants, will respond to it with self-protective measures:

While the phenomenon of plants being influenced by their neighbors through airborne chemical signals is now an accepted scientific paradigm, the question remains: are plants truly communicating with each other (in other words, purposely warning each other of approaching danger), or are the healthy ones just eavesdropping on a soliloquy by the infested plants, which do not intend to be heard?

There’s no real answer to this question, but again resorting to evolutionary advantage, plants that warn their own leaves to defend against intruders would likely survive more than plants that didn’t. How the “altruism” of warning other plants comes into it is murkier, though it’s scientifically doubted.

We don’t typically think of memory in connection with plants, but it turns out we can. Again, Chamovitz breaks down memory into its essential parts – storage, encoding, and retrieval – and shows how this works in an organism with no brain, no hippocampus. The Venus Flytrap serves as an excellent example of short-term memory: about 20 seconds. Plants that want to bloom or seed at specific times of the year keep track of the length of the day via genetic suppression or expression; this serves as a kind of medium-range memory. And the most interesting memory of all, long-term memory, spans generations via epigenetics, a topic I know far too little about:

…Not only do the stressed plants make new combinations of DNA but their offspring also make the new combinations, even though they themselves had never been directly exposed to any stress. The stress in the parents caused a stable heritable change that was passed on to all their offspring: the plants behaved as if they had been stressed.… In other words, stressed parents give rise to offspring that grew better under harsh conditions compared with regular plants.

Human experience tells a different story, since human offspring are subjected to other inputs beyond genetic inheritance. But it’s an amazing paragraph: what doesn’t kill a plant, makes the species stronger.

A look at awareness – consciousness – ends the book; it’s not as far-fetched as you might think. I myself hold two conflicting instincts about this sort of thing. I’ve always found it impossible to understand how a plant could “know” it’s time to bloom or seed, or for that matter how a red blood cell knows to pick up oxygen in the lungs and drop it off in the tissues. The biochem mooc I’m taking just did a wonderful lesson on that process, in fact, and it helped to clarify that it’s all about osmosis, competing pressures, and electrical charges repelling and attracting each other. But you could say the same thing about our brains: maybe all the art, belief, and knowledge is just a matter of manipulating matter and energy, no matter how much it feels like we control it with our will. On the other hand, I find it troubling when anyone declares some ethereal quality – like art, or religion, or emotion – is what makes people special, and when it turns out bees dance and whales communicate, the goalposts get moved to keep humans unique. I don’t try to reconcile these two ideas. Like Whitman, very well, I contradict myself; I am large, I contain multitudes.

Granted I have little to compare it to, but I don’t think I could have picked a better entrée to plant biology than this book. It combines a hint of romanticism with solid scientific evidence, and bounces off my prior learning (if unorthodox, via moocs and youtube) in biology and neuroscience to bridge the gap between human and botanical. Finding a mooc attached to it was a super-deluxe Easter egg.

For readers who’d rather not bother with the technical details, there’s still plenty to enjoy. And who knows, you might just come away with curiosity about something you always thought was way over there somewhere. Way does lead on to way, after all.

Japanese Books MOOC: From Manuscript to Print


Course: Japanese Books: From Manuscript to Print
Length: 9 (?) weeks, 1-2 hrs/wk
School/platform: Harvard/edX
Instructor: Melissa McCormick
Quote:

This course expands the definition of the “book” to include scrolls and albums, focusing on the reading experience of a variety of formats in Japan. You will begin by examining rare and beautifully preserved manuscripts in the Harvard Art Museums in an introduction exploring the material properties of Japanese books and scrolls, binding techniques, and important terminology. An examination of the illustrated scroll comes next, through a unit on the short story and visual storytelling in premodern Japan. The course concludes with The Tale of Genji, an overview of how this celebrated epic from the eleventh century was read and illustrated in every conceivable format, from scroll, to album, to printed book, into the modern era.

One of the unexpected effects of lockdown for me has been my return to moocs. It’s not that I have more time or am bored; my daily routine is much the same, and I had to put a couple of ongoing projects on hold to make time for new classes. And it’s not that I haven’t been paying attention to moocs all along; it’s just that I’ve fallen into a pattern of watching a lecture or two, then deciding I’m not interested enough to continue. Let’s face it, I’ve taken pretty much all the moocs I was interested in already, and the new ones lean heavily towards vocational/technical instruction rather than academics.

So what happened? I think it’s more that there’s so much mooc promotion going on right now, what with everyone learning online, I’ve just felt more inclined to put in the effort.

This one interested me because, of course, manuscripts! I’ve taken several moocs on European manuscripts, and had a slight introduction to Islamic works, but there isn’t much out there on other cultures which of course were producing their own works. I’ve had a very quick introduction to some Japanese work in the Japanese art mooc I took a couple of years ago, and The Tale of Genji was discussed in the World Literature mooc from the year before, but that’s about it. That turned out to be fine, since the course is geared towards novices.

One note: while the course description gives a duration of 9 weeks, that must be a misprint. There are three modules, released weekly, and each is well within the two-hour guideline. Durations are something of a moot point anyway, since nearly all moocs are self-paced; this one is open until March 2021, for those who want to take their time.

The first module looks at a 13th century sculpture of the 7th century Prince Shōtoku, which was filled with various small items: ordination promises, pieces of scripture, tokens. About a hundred of these exist now, and they were something like Buddhist time capsules. Curator and Professor Rachel Saunders went through the items, indicating their purpose, symbolism, and construction, including various forms of the books inserted into the sculpture and the kinds of paper decorations. I’d never heard of this before. A creative assignment rounded out the videos and questions: how would you design a time capsule of similar meaning?

The second module examined what was referred to as the short story scroll, right up my alley. Two stories served as examples of the ways text and art were combined, the variety of materials used, and the themes and purposes of these works. These tales are what today might be called magical realism or fantasy: gentlemen suitors who become other things, for good or evil.

Last comes the Tale of Genji, which could probably be a course in itself. We started with the various forms in which this was published, and the legend of its inspiration (it was written by a woman self-isolated in a monastary). Then, in an interesting twist, the Fraudulent Murasaki’s Rustic Genji was presented. This is something between a pastiche and fan fiction, requiring its own style.

I greatly enjoyed this material, so different from European works of the same period. The care put into the scrolls and books is amazing: paper is decorated with rock dust or ink swirls, various techniques are used to bring the reader into the story (illustrations using the same house from different angles, for instance), and calligraphic techniques that vary depending on the work. Both form and content of the works is discussed, with an emphasis on how one affects the other.

It was a very satisfying return to moocs; I’d recommend it to anyone interested in literature or art, and particularly in ways the two intersect.