Architectural MOOC

Course: The Architectural Imagination
Length: 10 weeks, 3-5 hours/week
School/platform: Harvard/edX
Instructors: K. Michael Hays et al
Quote:

Architecture is not just about the need for shelter or the need for a functional building. In some ways, it’s just what exceeds necessity that is architecture. And it’s the opening onto that excess that makes architecture fundamentally a human endeavor….
Architecture is one of the most complexly negotiated cultural practices there is. And a single instant involves all of the aesthetic, technological, economic, political issues of social production itself. And indeed, in some ways, architecture, as we’ll see, helps articulate history itself. These are all big claims. And we’ll need big ideas to address these claims. And we’ll also need very specific, concrete examples of architectural projects and events from history. Welcome to The Architectural Imagination, an online introduction to the history and theory of architecture.

Every so often, maybe once a decade, I look at a book on architecture to see if I still don’t get it. To me, architecture is about making sure the building doesn’t fall down, but I kept running into either technical explanations of perspective or grand statements about the historical impact of the arch that I can read but not understand. The above excerpt from the introductory lecture – architecture as “what exceeds necessity” – makes more sense than anything I’ve encountered so far. That isn’t to say I was able to go much further with it, but I got a sense of what is meant by the word, anyway, and why my prior conceptualization didn’t work.

I greatly enjoyed the breadth of scope presented: yes, there was some technical work on perspective (and it turned out to be completely understandable and very interesting in relation to some ideas about subject and object), and some of the more artistic concepts eluded me, but there was also history and philosophy and literature. It was quite marvelous.

I ended up taking it as a recreational mooc, partly because I was overloaded with other courses, and partly because, somewhere around Week 5, I just sort of lost the thread of what was happening. I did get back into the groove in the last three weeks, first through utopian cities, and then was greatly moved by the final week’s stunning examination of Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The course was worth it for that lecture alone: the refusal of forgive and forget, the depth of the wound, the erasure of names, comparisons with the Prague and Mount of Olives burial sites. Another mooc that made me cry.

The course was divided into three modules of three to four weeks each: Form & History, The Technology Effect, and Representation & Context. A different major work was the focus for each week – Italian villas, the Pompidou Center in Paris, German factories, even Utopian city designs that were never built – with additional works brought in as supported the material. Although Dr. Hays did most of the lectures, several other instructors appeared for individual weeks.

The material was based on beautifully produced weekly lectures of about 30 to 40 minutes, broken up into five or six segments, with a substantial reading selection available via pdf for about half of the weeks. Exercises were varied: some required drawing, some were multiple-choice or identification questions about the lecture or reading, some were self-graded short essay questions ranging from outlining the presented material to applying concepts to a new project.

I didn’t really use the forums. It seemed to me there were a lot of more advanced students and I was intimidated and didn’t want to clutter things up, plus they were oddly formatted (I wish mooc designers would realize that pinning more than two or three threads is self-defeating). One comment went unnoticed, perhaps because of the forum setup, perhaps because it was too naïve for the rest of the class. This didn’t help with the intimidation factor, but that’s my problem.

I was quite proud of a couple of the written answers I gave. One asked for an analysis of perspective as seen in a medieval cathedral. The other: analyze the Behrens turbine factory according to Semper’s theoretic structure. I was surprised by my response to this. While the building itself seemed to me like any other factory, I had a great time creating a little story based on conceptual images for hearth, container, framework, and wrap. I also had rather a fun time with the Barcelona Pavilion; I’m sure I missed the mark entirely, but since I come from a land of narratives, I again came up with a story of the posts pushing themselves up from the ground and being restrained from overreaching. I was a bit shocked to be reminded of this in the last week with the Berlin monument: again, a sense of reaching up from the ground, but a far more somber, and important, sense and purpose.

However, I must admit most of my answers were mediocre at best. In the first week of the course, we were to give a sort of pre-course descriptive comparison of two buildings, paying attention to various general aspects: the relationship to the ground, the openings from inside to outside, that sort of thing. I wrote extensively about a very white building on a very green lawn, pegging it as some kind of high-tech research lab for genetic engineering or microcircuitry; it turned out, I discovered later, to be a world-famous house by Corbusier designed to provide a “democratic space” under the private space, and to allow great freedom of movement and vision. Could’ve fooled me. Did fool me.

Part of my problem is that I seem to be lacking any visual artistic sensibility. One building was described as having panes of glass “tilted slightly away from the base, tilted inward toward the building”; this gives “visual weight to the column” and “puts the glass plane on display as a plane.” At least, they tell me it does. Am I supposed to be able to sense that when I look at the pictures? Is this something that requires development, by looking at lots of buildings? If so, if it’s an acquired taste, doesn’t that make it artificial, something learned rather than a natural property, something about the physical structure that triggers brain activity in a certain way that means “weight”, in somewhat the same way that we know which end of an object is closer based on size differentials?

Yes, I really am this clueless, and it’s why I’m frustrated by every art-related course I take. I keep trying, though, and I’m grateful for courses like this one that let me see what is possible, even if I can’t join in.

Advertisements

Another Medieval Manuscript MOOC

14th C manuscript, Royal Library of the Monastery of San Lorenzo del Escorial, Madrid, Spain

14th C manuscript, Royal Library of the Monastery of San Lorenzo del Escorial, Madrid, Spain

Course: Deciphering Secrets: The Illuminated Manuscripts of Medieval Europe
Length: 7 weeks
School/platform: University of Colorado and Universidad Complutense Madrid; Coursera
Instructors: Dr. Roger Louis Martínez-Dávila, Dr. Ana B. Sanchez-Prieto
Quote:

Perhaps no other relic of the European Middle Ages captures our imagination more than illuminated medieval manuscripts, or those documents decorated with images and colored pigments. Serving as windows unto a lost world of kings, ladies, faith, war, and culture, they communicate complex visual and textual narratives of Europe’s collective cultural heritage and patrimony. In this fashion, illuminated manuscripts are dynamic messages from our communal past that are still relevant today in fields like graphic design and typography.
In this seven-week course, students will explore the material creation, content, and historical context of illuminated medieval European manuscripts. Students will acquire an introductory knowledge of their distinguishing characteristics, their cataloguing and periodization (when they were created), the methods utilized to produce them, and their historical context and value.

A couple of years ago, I took Stanford’s manuscript course, “Digging Deeper,” as a recreational mooc: no notes, just watched the videos and poked at the assignments. I still got something out of it, and hoped I’d get the chance to do more someday. Guess what: Someday came.

I had a few complaints about this course, but about halfway through, the fun overtook the complaints and I ended up having a great time. There was nothing recreational about my approach this time around: I went all in, doing everything there was to do (plus some additional explorations), which meant twice as much as was required for a certificate I had no use for, let alone for the audit course.

If that sounds confusing – well, yes, it is, and that’s one of my complaints. The basic path through the course is confusing, with multiple options. I think they’re trying to be accommodating to different interests and needs, which is admirable, but to me, the course didn’t always feel integrated. Once I stopped reading instructions and just did stuff, I was a lot happier.

The first six of the seven weeks had both history and manuscript studies sections. Each week of the history section included a brief introductory video and four to seven readings. The weeks proceeded chronologically, if very briefly, from the fall of the Roman empire to the Spanish Reconquest before giving a nod to paleography – except… well, we never looked at actual writing, just translated content, so maybe I’m misunderstanding the use of the term. Then came the Global Middle Ages project, a cross-disciplinary, multiuniversity exploration of various aspects of medieval life. They’re extremely proud of this, and I feel bad because I missed the point; it just seems like a website to me. A website with a lot of interesting sections, but why it’s such a big deal, and what game-developers had to do with Virtual Plascenia, went by me. Still, it was interesting to discover that DNA evidence indicates a Native American woman must’ve travelled to Iceland sometime around the year 1000 CE, and her descendents still live there.

The Manuscript Studies portion made a lot more sense to me. Each week included about an hour of video lecture divided into sections, and progressed along a more familiar functional path: writing substrates, inks, page layout and preparation, scripts and hands, decoration, bindings. Both sections offered weekly quizzes, but only one was required. The presentation was a little flat, but that happens sometimes. I’ll never understand how people who so obviously love their field and very much want to share it with as many others as possible stick to a “stand in front of a camera and read a lecture” approach, which so often sucks the oxygen out of the room. Plenty of optional further written resources were provided. Some are available online, and I checked one of the recommended books out from my local library.

The Manuscript section included two options for peer-assessed projects that ran the length of the course, and again, only one was required. I did both, because how am I supposed to know before I do it what will be more beneficial? As it turns out, both of the peer-assessed projects were extremely beneficial, though in very different ways; I’m very glad I did them both.

The first option was a “pinboard” project: for every week, find five examples (photos, usually) of the concepts discussed in the lectures. For example, in Week 2, the idea was to find and present examples of such things as various writing substrates and tools of manufacture, parchment defects/repairs, contrasts between the two sides of parchment, and the like. Every week, five more pins would be added, along with five pins pertaining to prior weeks’ topics. I started out thinking this was kind of dumb, but by the end of the course, I’d collected some more general articles that covered wider topic ranges, and discovered some wonderful manuscript lore and resources. If you’re curious, my board is here, but it’s the process, not the result, that was productive.

The other project option was to make a reasonable approximation of a medieval manuscript, within practical limits of budget, material availability, time, and skill. In other words, we weren’t expected to skin a cow to make parchment, nor were we expected to create beauty (a lot of my classmates did so anyway) but only to demonstrate that we understood the procedures and knew the difference between authentic techniques and our shortcuts. Again, I was quite cynical at first, since we started by staining one side of our writing support with coffee to simulate the difference between the flesh and hair side of parchment (the Middle Ages were not for the squeamish) but I ended up putting a lot of thought and work into making quires, designing page layout and prepping, writing, illustrating, and binding my manuscript. It’s pretty much refrigerator art, but it’s MY refrigerator art, and dammit, I’m proud of myself for having managed to get it done at all. In fact… I’ve started working on a second one. I know how to avoid a few pitfalls now, so I hope it will look better.

Some of my favorite discoveries:

I added to my “casual educational” material. I’ve been following the Bodleian Rare Books twitter feed from Oxford since the Stanford mooc, but they don’t really tweet pretty pictures as much as they used to. Just before taking this course, I somehow discovered Penn medievalist Emily Steiner (@PiersatPenn) and her feed just delights me every day: lovely images, often with clever captions (sometimes relating to current events). Through the course itself, I’ve discovered Erik Kwakkel (@erik_kwakkel), book historian at Leiden University (I took an anatomy mooc from them last year); he also runs several blogs, all of which provided lots of detailed information for my Pinboard project. And just in the last week, I stumbled across Damien Kempf (@DamienKempf ), medievalist from Liverpool University and another great tweeter. I’ve been trying to include more art, poetry, beauty, and joy in my twitter feed, and less political news; while that isn’t the point of the course, the more exposure I have to pertinent materials, the better. I’ve even begun to recognize some manuscripts – the Lindsfarne Gospels, the Black Hours.

Through the History material, I fell in love with The Cantigas de Santa Maria, a series of poems with musical notation celebrating Mary. Not only is the idea that these songs can be interpreted and performed from 13th century notation, but there’s one fascinating story about a guy who just wants to find a safe place to put his ring while he plays baseball, and ends up engaged to Mary so has to leave his wedding bed for a monastery. And yes, the illustration of the ball game is quite recognizable as American baseball, though nobody’s sure of the medieval rules and many depictions seem to include two balls in the air at the same time.

Through the pinboard project, I found a rather drab-looking page that turned out to be fascinating: it’s an oath sworn by a woman, a midwife, that she will return the book or die. And I thought my library was uptight about interlibrary loans. Beyond the humor, this gives a little window on medieval life: there were libraries, women borrowed books (this one is a poetic bestiary), and, for that matter, women could read. I thought only monks and church people could read at that point. And by the way, other pages in Der naturen bloeme (The Flower of Nature) include floating illustrations that are lovely and often whimsical – like the elephant carried upside down on the trunks of two of his friends.

It seems some parchment was sometimes was damaged in the curing-stretching-drying process, as it was repeatedly scraped to remove hair and flesh (not for the squeamish, this manuscript stuff). Modern repairs could be quite lovely, but sometimes the original scribes took matters into their own hands an incorporated holes into the writing of the books (images from Erik Kwakkel’s tumblr and one of his several blogs.

In spite of the few drawbacks, this course was very much worthwhile, and I’m glad I signed up. I’m going to miss it! To fill the void, I’m taking one of the sequels, in fact: Deciphering Secrets: Unlocking the Manuscripts of Medieval Burgos (oddly, it’s on edX instead of Coursera), which, as I understand it, focuses on history via manuscripts and includes more of what I thought paleography was: the reading and transcription of manuscripts for interpretation. So it’s an extension of the History portion, rather than the Manuscripts, but who knows, great stuff lurks everywhere.

Around the World in 77 Days With 13 Writers: World Literature MOOC

Calicut: Civitates orbis terrarum, 1572

Calicut: Civitates orbis terrarum, 1572

Course: Masterpieces of World Literature
Length: 13 weeks, 5-7 hours/week
School/platform: Harvard/edX
Instructors: David Damrosch, Martin Puchner
Quote:

This literature course explores how great writers refract their world and how their works are transformed when they intervene in our global cultural landscape today.
No national literature has ever grown up in isolation from the cultures around it; from the earliest periods, great works of literature have probed the tensions, conflicts, and connections among neighboring cultures and often more distant regions as well.

Feels like a really good time to celebrate cross-cultural exchange and the global community, eh?

If you’re interested in studying any of these individual works in detail, this probably isn’t the best place to do it. After all, how can anyone possibly cover a dozen works, some of them pretty massive, in twelve weeks? The course is more of an exploration of the development, purpose, and effect of this thing called “world literature” which is more than just a collection of books written in different countries. It’s a type of literature that relates the writer’s native culture to the world at large and/or examines how that culture is affected by, or affects, the world. Issues of cross-cultural translation, colonialism, cultural imitation, and national literary ethos of various eras and places predominate, as interpreted through various authors’ experiences of living in one, two, or multiple countries.

It’s a much more generalized viewpoint, at least in this mooc version, than most literature courses would be. I was mostly unaware of the existence of “world literature” as an academic discipline; I found it a highly useful introduction to the field.

I chose to take this as a “recreational mooc” and thus didn’t read much beyond a page or two of the works I hadn’t already read. Fortunately, I’d encountered most of them before. I also didn’t participate in the forums, though they were active and well-covered by staff. A multiple-choice information-retrieval style graded quiz finished off each week and constituted the grading for the course. I found the questions were well-selected to emphasize the main points of the interviews and discussions, and beyond covering the works themselves also covered the discovery and translation of older works, to authorial biography with more contemporary authors when those details impacted upon the literary outlook.

Each week involved about an hour of video material, both discussions between the two instructors about a certain time period, author, and work, plus an interview with a specialist in the particular writer – and in one case (Pamuk), an interview with the writer himself. The introductory week on Goethe, who the instructors consider the discoverer, or perhaps midwife would be a better term (in their words, “…we know that the birth of world literature took place in the afternoon of January 31, 1827 at Goethe’s house”) featured a walk-through of the garden house in Weimar where he spent a good part of his writing career, as well as a walk through other areas connected with his work. During the week of The Odyssey, Prof. Puchner generously braved sailing the Aegean Sea 😉 to demonstrate Homer’s settings. Most interesting to me, we saw a lot of Istanbul during the week covering Orhan Pamuk; I’ll say more about this presently.

As is natural, I preferred some weeks to others. Each week offered some new insight, of course, but in general I’d say the material covering works I had less familiarity with were the most interesting to me. I found the Odyssey and Borges material, works I’m quite familiar with, to be the most disappointing, though I did greatly enjoy the comparison of worldviews of The Lusiads to the Odyssey. We looked at several works from east Asia, and I was thrilled to recognize some concepts, a familiarity I would not have experienced just a few short months ago before this year’s China binge: the “testing system” of China, the classical emphasis on “rectifying names”, the interaction of Chinese philosophy and Buddhism.

I greatly enjoyed learning about Wole Soyinka through his Death of a Horseman. Since I’m not only unfamiliar with the work, but also unfamiliar with drama as a genre, and even more unfamiliar with the Nigerian rituals he incorporates into his work alongside British ritual, this was all new discovery. How fitting that during the course, Soyinka, who was once exiled from Nigeria for criticizing the government, who has held professorships at Cornell, Emory, and various other American universities, and has lectured at Harvard, Yale, etc etc., destroyed his green card and vowed never to return after November’s election. The man knows repressive authoritarianism when he sees it.

Another particularly insightful week covered Orhan Pamuk’s works. Again, I plead ignorance (I seem to need to beef up my reading of Nobel Prize winners) coming into the course, but I’m fascinated by the foundations of the two works discussed. In My Name is Red he uses the 16th century Ottoman Empire as a setting for a story about painting, and the transition from Persian miniatures, which use a top-of-the-minaret point of view and idealized style, to Venetian realism as a vehicle for discussing the change in Turkish culture in the 20th century after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire at the end of WWI. I hadn’t realized the secularization and modernization of the “Young Turks” had included changing the alphabet; that’s quite a lot to deal with. Here in the US we’ve never been able to adjust to the metric system, I can’t imagine if someone tried to change the alphabet on us.

The other Pamuk work discussed, Museum of Innocence, was particularly interesting as it comes complete with an actual museum Pamuk prepared as he wrote the book, filled with 50s and 60s Turkish kitch and everyday doodads just as in the book, where the narrative is a tour of the museum of his beloved. An interview with Pamuk, the only author interview in the course, showed him to have a great sense of humor, and this comes through in his willingness to play with structure. I’m very fond of unusual structures that reinforce the theme of a work (actually, I’m fond of structural play for any reason, but it’s extra special when it’s thematically significant) so I‘m going to have to read these books. They’re the only new-to-me works from the course that I have a real desire to explore further. I’m intimidated, however; I’m not sure I’m up to such masterworks. We’ll see.

And today, as I write this post, I’m hearing the news, sketchy at best, of a bomb exploding outside a stadium in Istanbul. Last week, Istanbul was just the name of a place. Because of this course, it’s now a very real place to me, and I feel for the people there. Maybe that’s the whole point of studying world literature: to make them, us, not just to feel compassion and unity, but to understand, as through Soyinka, that whatever it is, it really could happen here. Not a very popular viewpoint right now, but maybe that’s why it’s important.

Overall it was a successful course, if in an unexpected way. If you’re looking for detailed textual analysis, this probably isn’t the place to get it, but I think it’s valuable for the broader view taken, and as such I’d recommend it highly.

Young & Tragic Love MOOC: Shakespeare

Course: Shakespeare On the Page and in Performance: Young Love & Tragic Love
School/platform: Wellesley (edX)
Instructors: Yu Jin Ko, Diego Arciniegas
Quote:

As we explore the genius of the plays on the page, we will also study the lives of the plays in performance, from Shakespeare’s own theatre to the stages and screens across the globe today. To help us further, actors will occasionally join our effort to demonstrate ways of bringing the text alive as living theatre.

I’ve enrolled in two prior Shakespeare MOOCs, but this is the first one that didn’t start with the assumption that I knew the plays very well and was ready to discuss various performances I’d seen, or my favorite actors and lines. While I had already read the plays, it was a long time ago and I just don’t remember much beyond the major characters, the general themes, and the broadest strokes of plot. So I was very happy to finally find a course that started with reading the plays, and focused on relatively detailed analysis of language, plot, character, and dramatic elements.

The “Young Love” segment covered Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, while “Tragic Love” took on Othello and King Lear; both had an identical introductory unit on Shakespearean theatre, including drama professor Diego Arciniegas’ lectures on interpretation, staging, and delivery. Most of the videos were of classroom lectures and discussions, with some surprises mixed in: several casual student performances of individual scenes, a highly spirited outdoor exploration of the “woods” scene from Midsummer, and Prof. Ko reading passages from Acts 4 and 5 of Lear on the cliffs of Dover. Clips from various performances and movie versions – from Olivier and Ian McKellen to Akira Kurosawa’s Ran and Baz Luhrmann’s R&J to a Korean dance performance of Midsummer – rounded out the material and allowed illustration of the reasons behind choices made in each production, related to the text.

The lectures were great, filling me in on small details I’d never noticed before as well as fleshing out the major themes in various turns of phrase and providing background from Renaissance studies of various disciplines. I found the discussion of kairos – the fullness of time – for example, to be of particular interest in relation to a concurrent course on Chinese natural philosophy, as well as pertinent to Lear and Gloucester’s personal journeys. Discussion was brisk, particularly in the Young Love course, with questions posed as prompts throughout each week. I generally dislike what I call “forced posting” – a requirement to respond to some question – but between the ideas raised in the lectures and the nature of the prompts, it worked out better than usual here. Beyond the required posts, a series of simple multiple choice question made up most of the graded material.

I was very happy with these two courses and greatly expanded my understanding of these four plays, but I admit, I’m probably weaker than most English majors in Shakespeare; for those who’ve spent a lot more time than I have studying these plays already, it might be too basic a course. I, however, appreciated the solid foundational material, and can recommend it as such.

e-Lit MOOC

Course: Electronic Literature
School: Davidson College via edX
Instructors: Dr. Mark Sample
Quote:

Imagine a computer game played by millions made of only text on a screen. Imagine a poem 13 billion stanzas long. Imagine a play written by a computer in 1963. Imagine a love story between a printed page and a computer screen, played out in the space between the two of them. Welcome to the weird, wonderful world of electronic literature. Experimental, evocative, and often puzzling, e-lit has nonetheless had a profound influence on mainstream culture….
We’ll study major and marginal works of electronic literature in this course, and learn what separates them from more traditional works of literature. We’ll also develop strategies for reading and understanding works that challenge our assumptions– assumptions about literature, about authorship, about originality, about creativity, and even about meaning itself.

Modpo gave me the first peek at poetry that went beyond lines of text printed on a page; now this course took me further out from the mainstream. But while it’s a lot of gee whiz fun, there is academic theory underlying it all – and a technical element as well.

We started off with the familiar – books on paper. This gave us a comfortable jumping off place, as well as a framework for looking at how e-lit shares qualities with traditional lit, and also moves beyond it. From Matthew Kirschenbaum’s distinction between the affordances of books vs e-lit, to Peter Rabinowitz’s rules of reading, we also examined e-lit in terms of Janet Murray’s four properties and Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s five elements of e-lit. This gave the course a structure and theoretical underpinning I greatly appreciated. I had no idea this was an actual academic discipline; that means great things for e-lit, and makes Christopher Strachey’s love letter generator something like Gilgamesh.

We spent some time looking at works of e-lit that fit certain characteristics – works that used dysfunction, for example (Geogoo is amazing; it makes no sense, but it’s mesmerizing to watch) or the sublime, in the Burkean sense, or literary fragments. These raised issues of expectations of the aesthetic experience of “literature” in a broad sense – for me, questions about control of the aesthetic work. The books on my shelf are the same every time I read them. Must that be the case of literature, of art? I’ve often noted, as I read BASS or Pushcart, that stories often don’t go where I expect them to go, or use settings I may particularly like or dislike, and how that affects my experience; what if the story never ends, or the story is created randomly? What if the story is just a hint, and I need to fill in the rest? What if the story is made from bits and pieces of other stories?

I love questions like this, like my favorite question from my mesostic period – “Who wrote this?” when it comes to a lot of these works. Did Stephen LaPorte and Mahmoud Hashemi write Listening to Wikipedia when they wrote the code? What about those random people updating Wiki at any given moment, unaware they are providing data that is creating an aesthetic experience (and, why is someone updating “Monster Energy”, or Madras, Oregon, or swimming records on the Saturday afternoon after Thanksgiving – what even is the story)? What about the writers of the articles being updated? The subjects of those articles, whose names may appear? And who wrote Sea and Spar Between – Nick Montford and Stephanie Strickland, who wrote the code that presents the text? Melville, who wrote the original text in different form? The reader, who re-interprets words? What does it mean, that the work can’t be “read” as a whole – what does it mean to our closure-driven psyches when a work of e-lit never ends?

The unit on preservation was also surprisingly intriguing to me: How does rewriting a work to make it compatible with modern technology affect the work – is PacMan on the latest iPhone the same as PacMan played on a refrigerator-sized machine in a smoky bar the 70s? How much of the message is the medium, anyway?

Yep, I had a lot of fun with this.

I will say, however, that the last two or three weeks of the course exceeded my technical limitations, or at least my willingness to stretch my technical ability. As the course moved deeper and deeper into how these works operate, and how they are created, I lost interest. A more technically-focused person than I would probably experience the opposite pattern, perhaps becoming more and more involved as time went on. And any geek would love the opportunities afforded us to create and share original work. I’d recommend it to anyone who finds any of the above intriguing and is willing to explore.

Despite being listed as self-paced, the material was released week-to-week and Dr. Sample was very active in the course, both in the forums and by holding online hangouts and interviews with academics and artists. The course Twitter account, as well as Dr. Sample’s feed, also provided real-time information. The grading was mostly on the basis of self-reported participation in polls, forum discussions, creative and writing assignments, with a few peer assessments as well. Assignment deadlines were generous, and were extended past the end of class, to allow more time for students to prepare and share creative efforts, both bots and Twine stories.

I was constantly surprised, which itself was a surprise, since I had no idea what to expect. Like Modpo, and its patron saint Emily Dickinson, the course dwells in possibilities, and in the best Modponian tradition, the course aims to create a community beyond itself to continue exploration.

A few months with Dante: vines, hyperspheres, and forgiveness

Domenico di Michelino, “La Divina Commedia di Dante” (1465)

Six months, 1600+ pages of translation/commentary, approximately 60 hours of video lectures later, I can say I’ve read Dante’s Commedia. It’s something I’ve always wanted to read, given its importance in so much Western literature, but I’ve always been intimidated. An unusual concatenation of disparate events finally got me going. You never know when a project’s going to crop up. But one of my life truths is: never question a healthy impulse.

One of those events was the announcement of a series of three Georgetown MOOCs covering the Commedia as well as La Vita Nuova. Since I described my experience of the Inferno course earlier, I’ll skip over most of that. I will say that I may be the only person who found Inferno to be the least interesting of the three Divine Comedy canticles. Granted, part of that may have been because I was distracted by the material in the MOOC, which I found more oppressive than educational. For “Purgatorio” and “Paradiso”, I focused on the Hollander translations and commentary, along with the Yale Open Course lectures by Giuseppe Mazzotta. I still used the Georgetown material, but to a far lesser degree, and more as a supplement than a focus. And I do love how they incorporated art into the text. For me, it worked much better this way.

I was surprised at how attached I became to Virgil along the way. I was never crazy about Aeneas’ dismissive treatment of Dido when he decided to move on to fortune and glory, and that alone colored my impression of the entire Aeneid. I was downright resentful of what I referred to (to the amusement of some of my fellow students) as Dante’s cultural bias – come on, Brutus and Cassius as Judas’ compatriots in the mouth of Satan? Seriously? – particularly his depiction of Ulysses as one of the most execrable sinners, a transgressor of boundaries, as theologically sound as that might be in the context of the poem, while Aeneas was a hero. But Virgil grew on me. His understated departure from the poem, again a structural and thematic necessity, was devastating, and I was surprised to find myself in tears. I did not react well to Beatrice’s abrupt and harsh treatment of Dante at that point, and apparently I’m not alone: Prof. Mazzotta mentioned one of Jorge Luis Borges’ Nine Dantesque Essays complains about that exactly. I was doubly displeased when Georgetown focused on the importance of the transfer and the meaning. No one wants to let anyone mourn any more. Well, I mourned for Virgil. And I still think he got a raw deal, being sent like an errand boy to guide Dante around, only to be dismissed without any acknowledgement, locked out of the heaven to which he guided others. On the plus side, his home in Limbo among the Virtuous Heathen, surrounded by Plato and Aristotle and Homer, struck me as a better place for him than the Paradise where there’s nothing left to say.

I should reiterate – although it’s probably evident by now – that while I was intensely religious in my tweens and early teens, and have always been interested in the study of religion through history, sociology, and philosophy, I’m more of a secular humanist than a theist. Fact is, I don’t have any beliefs rigid enough to label, though I see possibilities everywhere. But those more heathen than I have found much to enjoy in Dante. Obviously, I’m not going to “review” the poem – that would be ridiculous, given my lack of background in the dozens of areas necessary to fully explore all that’s there – but I will recount some of my experience, which is all I do here anyway.

I’ll start with where the primary impetus to read at this point in time this started: with the hypersphere.

Hypersphere

Another of the events that sent me down this path was, of all things, a math MOOC from last summer. Not only did one of my favorite fellow students use the name “Purgatorio,” but it turned out the instructor was, among other things, a Dante fan, and had given a lecture in another venue which referenced Dante’s view of the universe in Paradiso as a hypersphere (the pertinent part of the lecture begins at about the 14 minute mark, but the whole thing is worth watching). I read Dante almost heading towards that scene in my head. I still don’t know enough about hyperspheres to really “get” it, though I found an animation featuring a kind of “flipping of pages” which makes sense in this context. I have no way of knowing how accurate that is, but any representation of a hypersphere is going to be approximate.

But two things really grabbed me about the scene: first, Beatrice’s explanation, in medieval Italian which, of course, I don’t read – “Da quel punto depende il cielo e tutta la natura” – that gets translated into “From that point depend the heavens and all nature.” That ties in with the four-dimensional hypersphere, as I understand it: there’s a point at which, in three dimensions, everything turns inside out on itself. That’s the point where the pages are flipping in that animation, the point in the lecture at the 19:30 mark) where we “flip past an equator” to discover concentricity around a different pole. And, as I tend to do, I get carried away, and my mind went straight to William Carlos Williams’ red wheelbarrow, a humbler point from which, all the same, so much depends. And if I haven’t blasphemed poetics enough, let me add that the drunken angels of Canto 30 brought to mind Emily and her liquor never brewed, leaning against the sun.

And finally, to cap off this hypersphere obsession, I discovered something wonderful in the Yale OCW lecture by Giuseppe Mazzotta (about the 41:00 mark): a little rebus in which the words “When” and “la” or “Latona” cross at the word “hemisphere”, describing, as he puts it, the universe as two hemispheres (the caveat being that the poem did not drop nicely typeset from the sky). He’s referring more to creation, but there’s also this hypersphere Dante experiences when he turns and sees the point and what is ahead is suddenly behind and inside out.

So lest it seem like some of us are going off into an unrelated hyperspace on this hypersphere notion, none less than Robert Hollander also provides a modern structural reference to Canto 27, line 109 – though he includes a caveat to “temper an enthusiasm for such “premodern physics” on Dante’s part” with consideration of Bonaventure’s Itinerarium mentis, V, something else it seems I need to read. Every time I read something, I find something else I need to read…

Forgiveness and “cheap grace”

Purgatory showed the sweat behind seeking forgiveness. I think we’ve lost this idea in society, if we ever truly held it. We look for, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words, cheap grace. We want to drink our little wine and eat our little cracker and feel cleansed without ever thinking about what might need cleansing. We want to take down a single flag and declare the whole 450 years of racism even. We want to cry on tv and earn the compassion of everyone who’s ever made a mistake. What we don’t want to do is change. Reading Purgatorio, seeing the souls carrying out their penance in a spirit of eagerness rather than resentfulness (this is fiction, after all), was a good reminder: Absolution should cost something, involve work.

I had a harder time with the idea of giving forgiveness. The example in the canto was of the martyr Stephen forgiving his murderers even as they stoned him. I think the point was not that they no longer were guilty of their crime, but that he was relieved of a burden of hate and rage. But I wonder: is such forgiveness possible in real life? Shortly after I read that section, some of the families of nine people murdered in Charleston, SC proclaimed their forgiveness for the racist shooter. A lot of thoughtful people I respect had a great deal of trouble with that; it seems another burden placed on one already burdened community that isn’t expected from others. But the point is: we need to forgive for our own sake, not for the sake of those who wrong us. And, I believe, one can forgive, and still seek justice, because those are two separate things.

But if I was a bit shaky on forgiveness, I found I could far more readily understand faith, though probably not in the way Dante intended.

The Faith of a Vine

Three cantos in Paradiso are devoted to Dante’s oral exams prior to his graduation to the Empyrean. Really, they’re overtly based on the medieval process for obtaining academic degrees, which, as I understand it (having never gone through the process) persists to this day in the oral exams and dissertation defenses of even the most secular academic institutions: a process of close questioning by faculty who just keep digging until they’re convinced the candidate isn’t just repeating words but understands the meaning of his profession. In the case of Paradiso, these oral exams are on the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, given by saints most associated with those qualities: Peter, James, and John, respectively.

While Peter questioned the protagonist Dante (as distinct from the poet Dante) about faith, I discovered faith in a different way. It’s my habit to do my reading at a back window of my apartment, where there’s a broad sill to use as a standing desk, in part so I can work out the kinks from hunching over a computer for hours. The view from the window is less than inspiring – a parking garage – but I usually find something of interest out there anyway: the tree that aligns with my window, squirrels or birds in that tree or on a railing or even, rarely, on the outside ledge of my window. Maybe just the contrast of sky and brick as I look out at the buildings in the distance. It may not be the view I’d choose, but it’s the view I have, so I do what I can with it.

As I read Dante’s defense of his thesis on faith in P.Canto [23], I noticed something new in my view: a vine poking its way a few inches up the window, sticking off into empty space as it left the bricks that anchored it to the wall. I don’t typically see the back side of my building, but when I looked later, it does appear that I am now the closest I will ever get to the Ivy Leagues: vines cover part of the back wall. And one vine, on some mission to spread, was growing out into nothing. Eventually, it grew long enough to sag under its own weight and found the bricks at the bottom of the window sash.

That’s faith. It doesn’t know if it will find anything, but it grows because it must grow, and faith has to be at the core of that growth; otherwise it would stay in the safety of the known. Faith is coded into the DNA of this vine, so that it reaches out, for something it can cling to. This has been a particularly bleak time for many of us, as we watch bluster preferred over wisdom, greed over cooperation, anger and fear over everything. But we have to keep growing, in the faith that there’s something worth growing towards.

I highly value Dante’s exquisitely constructed defense of faith, and the learned lectures of the professors from Georgetown and Yale on the theology and poetics, and feel nothing but admiration and respect for more contemporary artists who fold Dante into their work. But that vine growing on a brick wall behind a parking lot made faith more real to me.

For a heathen, I got a lot out of this reading, but of course, it’s the kind of massive work that requires multiple re-readings. I want to let things settle a little, maybe pick up a little more background in some of the key references. But I definitely plan to read it again, using a different translation/commentary as a primary guide. I’m interested to see what reads differently in another time. And what reads the same.

Ten Premodern Poems by Women MOOC

Course: Ten Premodern Poems by Women
School: Stanford (via Lagunita)
Instructors: Prof. Eavan Boland
Quote:

In this course, we will read ten significant pre-modern poems by women. We have chosen each poem to give you a sense of its structure as a poem and its importance as a form in its time. But the course also seeks to reveal the roots each poem has in history, in slavery, in conventional thought and unorthodox opinion. Through the introductions to the poems, forum discussions with your fellow students, and conversations between Professor Boland and practicing poets and scholars, we will learn about how poet’s have fashioned life experience into verse, how to discuss poetry, and what poetry means for each of us today.

Anne Bradstreet, Katherine Philips, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Phillis Wheatley, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti, Julia Ward Howe, Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay. Women from 17th century Puritan New England and nineteenth century London. A slave girl, a neoclassicist scholar, a hermit, a woman disowned for marrying the wrong man. Some familiar friends, some new acquaintances. Poems about loss, love, laundry, beauty, and righteous battle. One poet, one poem, per week, presented and discussed by working poet/scholars.

I approached it as another recreational MOOC, treating it as more of a series of podcasts, fitting it into odd spaces of time, rather than focusing on it as a class per se. Each week, Prof. Boland outlined the life of the poet under discussion and examined the circumstances under which the poem under consideration was written. A poet drawn from the lecturers and fellows of the Stanford creative writing faculty offered a comparison to contemporary poetic themes and structures, often to their own poetry. At the end of the week, Prof. Boland and the contemporary poet of the week would discuss popular questions from the discussion forums in a casual conversation. The assignments consisted of forum posts and responses; I didn’t participate, but I feel like I got quite a bit out of it nonetheless.

Even though it can seem as though I don’t take these “recreational MOOCs” seriously, I do find them beneficial and enjoyable. In this case, I found my understanding of “modernism” bolstered by the comparison with pre-moderns, though that wasn’t the purpose of the course.

In the introductory lecture, Prof. Boland explained: “…one thing binds all of those poems together. And that is that these are the women finding their voice against the odds, finding their creativity, often in a time that offers powerful resistance to that creativity.” I think many of us are finding our voices aren’t heard, aren’t valued, in this time. I think it’s something of a paradox that this should be the case when, with social media, crowdfunding, and self-publishing, more avenues for self-expression exist than ever. Yet that may be the reason it’s so hard to be heard: there’s also more noise than ever, and impossibly many choices, so it’s the shocking voice, or the entertaining voice, that is heard and amplified, not necessarily the thoughtful one.

In this course I listened to, not only poet/professor Boland, but to the voices of ten thoughtful women scattered through time, and, equally enjoyable, I heard ten contemporary poets respond. It was a lovely way to spend a spare half hour a few times a week during a period that was particularly busy and, at times, stressful, and I’m very glad it was available.

Medieval Book Porn MOOC

Course: Digging Deeper (Part 1): Making Manuscripts and Digging Deeper: The Form and Function of Manuscripts
School: Stanford via Lagunita (their own OpenEdx-based platform), free
Instructors: Professor Elaine Treharne, Dr. Benjamin Albritton, Dr. Suzanne Paul, Dr. Orietta Da Rold
Quote:
 
(Part 1) You will learn major characteristics of book production, the terms and methods used by manuscript historians to describe the book, and key themes in early book history. Where were manuscripts made and who made them? What kinds of materials were used and what can those materials tell us? What kinds of texts were created and copied during these centuries? How did multilingualism matter in the medieval period? In pursuing these questions, you will study some of the most significant and beautiful books held by the university libraries of Cambridge and Stanford.
 
(Part 2) The Digging Deeper team of scholars from Stanford and Cambridge shows how to analyze the function of manuscripts, the methods by which they are conserved, and the digital means that are transforming the field of manuscript studies. We will look at the development of music, move beyond the European tradition to study non-Western manuscripts, and see how digital methods are allowing for new inquiry and posing new problems.

Rather than focusing on these as courses with a body of knowledge to be learned and/or skills to be acquired, I approached them as purely recreational MOOCs – sort of like watching Veritasium videos for whatever sticks – fitting them in wherever time permitted. The material focused on manuscripts rather than printed books, so we’re talking hand-written books from the Middle Ages, with a brief historical gloss on more ancient technologies. Book porn. For those of you who ended up here looking for porn books – sorry.

The course was in two parts of six and five weeks each. Part 1 dealt with how books were made: everything from the preparation of the substrate (vellum, parchment, paper), how it was turned into manuscript folios, scribing practices, manuscript layout design, ink production, and binding methods. Quiz questions ranged from identifying chain lines and laid lines, to scavenger hunts such as: “In Gallica, find the manuscript Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Français 1584. How many rabbits are found in the folio E recto, and who is the author of the poetry and music in the manuscript?” Answer: 3 rabbits, Guillaume de Marchaut.

Since I’m a font geek, my favorite part was the examination of various “hands” meaning how letters were formed. I also very much liked discovering the marginalia of old texts; I wish my book scribbles were as entertaining. All of it was quite wonderful. Except maybe for identifying bifolia and quires and folia, figuring out what order everything comes out in, because, counting. Not my strength. Nah, even that was a lot of fun, since in most cases, I constructed models so I could tell how the leaves were ordered when folded.

Part 2 was a magical mystery tour of various manuscripts from the Stanford and Cambridge libraries. I found this not as interesting simply because it was “so here we have this book” and several of them seemed quite ordinary, even though they were chosen for a variety of what were very significant reasons. It was still worthwhile, and I perked up considerably when we got to the Chinese scroll from the 3rd century, and the Sanskrit text written on birch bark.

I didn’t put much time into the courses, nor did I focus on “learning” anything – like I said, recreational MOOCing – though a lot of supplemental material was available for further exploration. I still found them very enjoyable, and can recommend them for anyone interested in medieval book porn. No, not medieval pornography books – I’m sure there’s a MOOC for that, or at least a website, though I haven’t run across it. Just really, really old books, how they’re made, and how we take care of them and study them.

I envy these people who play with old books all day, and spend their lives studying them. At one time, when life seemed full of choices, I wanted to be a librarian, and this is the kind of librarian I would’ve most liked to have been.

Infernal MOOC (Dante-style)

Course: The Divine Comedy: Dante’s Journey to Freedom, Part 1
School: Georgetown University via edX (free)
Instructor: Frank Ambrosio
Quote:

1. Students will become familiar with the theory and practice of “Contemplative Reading” that constitutes one of the principal structural dynamics of Liberal Arts education.
2. Students will be able to apply the general practice of “Contemplative Reading” to Dante’s Divine Comedy.
3. Students will demonstrate in-depth and relatively advanced familiarity with and knowledge of an epic poem of the highest cultural significance; in specific, Dante’s Divine Comedy.
4. Students will begin to articulate for themselves their own personal convictions in response to reflection questions about human dignity, freedom and responsibility with which the Divine Comedy inevitably confronts its readers.
5. Students will engage with the most fundamental goal of Liberal education, promoting the universal dignity of personhood.
6. Students will become acquainted with the specific contributions the Christian, Catholic and Jesuit tradition of Georgetown University bring to the promotion of human dignity.

I really just wanted to study the poem.

Make no mistake, this is a religion course, not a literature course. Yes, I was fully aware going in that Georgetown is a Jesuit Catholic university, and that the Commedia is, after all, a religious poem and steeped in allegory. I happen to enjoy studying religions, the way I enjoy studying television commercials – they tell us a lot about who we are – and I have a bookshelf full of books on a variety of religions and am just finishing up a Kierkegaard mooc I enjoyed quite a bit – but this wasn’t a religious studies course, it was a six-week come-to-Jesus sermon with pronouncements like, “Human existence is a gift from God. And the destiny of human existence is either to accept that gift or to refuse it.”

Boy, did I enroll in the wrong class.

However, I grew up amidst Pentecostals, and, once you take away the Inquisition, Catholics are amateurs compared to them. So I kept going. It was a long six weeks. Still, many students were highly enthusiastic about the course. And, of course, everything, even a tour of hell with an earnest Jesuit, has its good points.

The course took place partly on the edX site, and partly on Georgetown’s MyDante site featuring the Hollander translation of the poem, an annotation feature, and a journal for tracking our spiritual journey. Some students had trouble handling both sites initially, but this sorted itself out eventually (though I just found out there’s a “final step” of entering six codes to move participation scores from MyDante to edX, they must be entered correctly, they must be entered in order, and they cannot be corrected if entered wrong… sheesh). Things were pretty confused in general the first weeks in particular, with numerous sermonish lectures and Madonna and Andy Garcia reading Neruda poetry, for reasons I still don’t quite understand – something to do with La Vita Nuova (a great inclusion, by the way, since, though very different in tone and structure, it’s intrinsically related to the Commedia) as covered in the second week. Inferno’s cantos were covered in weeks three through six, and the course pattern eventually became more predictable.

Week Three featured the highly acclaimed Joshua Oppenheimer documentary film “The Act of Killing,” a devastating account of Indonesia’s 1960’s massacre of labor party supporters through re-enactments staged by one of the murderers. Wondering what this has to do with Dante? Apparently the objective was to give us first-hand experience at touring hell and hearing the stories of sinners, paralleling Dante’s pilgrimage. It was was an amazing movie, and extremely thought-provoking. The opening scene features dancers coming out of a huge fish, which still has me baffled, but not as much as watching people who seem to have forgotten the slaughter participating in the re-enactments. Then again, I’ve never understood why so many Americans take part in Civil War and Revolutionary War re-enactments. Not enough violence on tv, I guess. I’m still not sure the movie belonged in this course, but I’m glad I got to see it.

A great deal was made of the process of “contemplative reading.” Silly me, I thought that meant reading something, and thinking about it. When I blog stories or poetry, I tend to go off on a personal track, relating the text to something in my life or in society. I thought that’s what they had in mind. Turns out, it was more about contemplating my sins. Hey, I had a semi-psychotic stepmother whose idea of fun was to hide in a closet until I was running around in a panic, at which point she’d pop out and scream, “Did you think the Rapture came and you were left behind?” It would’ve been funny if that hadn’t been exactly what I was thinking (I was a very strange 11-year-old, which may have something to do with my being a very strange 60-year-old). I’ve contemplated my sins plenty. Amateurs, I tell you.

Once it became evident that this wasn’t the course I was hoping for, I found, via the comments of another student, a series of videos featuring Prof. Giuseppe Mazzotta on Youtube; they’re part of the Yale Open Courses. These were terrific. The interactive component of a mooc was missing, of course, but I better understood the structure and allegory of the poem, which was my objective.

I also requested a copy of the recent Hollander translation, used in the Georgetown course, from my local library; it wasn’t available until the last week of class, so I’m working on it, belatedly, now; it contains the verse-by-verse commentary I was hoping for. And of course there are other sites, like UTA’s Danteworlds and Paris Review‘s “Recapping Dante” from a year ago.

My opinion: The edX course is outstanding, if you’re interested in using the text to examine your soul by the light of Catholic theology; if you want to study the poem, there are better materials.

On the bright side, Georgetown’s MyDante features the original poem in Italian (at least, as original as possible for a work hand-written in the 14th century) along with audio recordings of each canto in Italian. I don’t read, speak, or understand Italian beyond a few operas and art songs, but I still appreciate having these elements in one handy dandy site. The Hollander translation to English, with a self-annotation feature (how long our notations will remain available to us is unclear) was set up in private and “social” formats (the better to see the annotations left by classmates).

Best of all was an extensive assortment of terrific art embedded next to the text, images that changed as the page was scrolled – I was pretty enthralled with that, seeing a blurry image gradually clear, or a figure pop out in three-dimensional movement. Props to whomever did that art. It’s the only reason I’ll sign up for the Purgatory and Paradise segments next year, if I decide to sign up – I won’t bother with the coursework at all.

I’ll probably just read the poem and watch the Yale tapes, though. I’m a big fan of personal convictions and human dignity, but I can handle my own introspection and reflection. And even amateurs can leave marks.

Addendum: I did enroll in the Purgatorio and Paradiso sections, but while I listened to the lectures to get a sense of the theological perspective (and again enjoyed the art that accompanied the Hollander translation), I didn’t complete any of the work. However, I used both the Hollander commentary, and the Yale tapes, as well as a variety of other sources, to do a fairly complete study of the entire poem. It was was a wonderful experience. My post on that process can be found here.

Poetry MOOC (no, not that one, a new one)

Course: The Art of Poetry
School: Boston University via edX
Instructor: Robert Pinsky
Quote:
 
Poetry lives in any reader’s voice, not necessarily in performance by the poet or a trained actor. The pleasure of actually saying a poem, or even saying it in your imagination—your mind’s ear—is essential….
The course is demanding, and based on a certain kind of intense, exigent reading, requiring prolonged— in fact, repeated— attention to specific poems.
The readings will include historical poems, as well as contemporary work. The focus will be on elements of the art such as poetry’s historical relation to courtship; techniques of sound in free verse; poetry’s relation to music; the nature of greatness—with only incidental attention to schools of poetry, categories and trends.

Poetry Foundation ran an article about this course; I wasn’t going to take it, since my experience with edX has been less than productive, but at the last minute I went for it. I’m glad I did.

Each week featured Pinsky (US Poet Laureate 1997-2000) giving brief lectures and discussing various poems with a diverse group of readers from the Favorite Poem Project. This wasn’t a technical course on poetics; it wasn’t the super-close reading of ModPo; it was more of a personal exploration of the meaning of poems to individuals.

The first few weeks looked at approaches to poetry: Difficulty/Pleasure (I was thrilled to see Frank O’Hara’s “Why I Am Not a Painter” linked to Michelangelo “To Giovanni da Pistoia When the Author Was Painting the Vault of the Sistine Chapel”), Freedom/Meaning, Form/Quality.

The middle of the course took a more thematic approach: courtship/teasing, music/poetry, humor/tribute. These were the weeks I found most engaging. I never thought I’d say that about courtship poetry, but once I realized the Courtly Love sonnets were madrigals, I felt at home, and moving on to Millay and Williams in the “teasing” segment came just in time. Then came music and poetry, featuring Pinsky reading Ben Jonson to a jazz trio. I referred to this as “slow-jamming Ben Jonson” which I hope was not taken as a sign of disrespect – I loved it! And, by the way, it’s available on YouTube.

The centerpiece of this course was writing: forum posts, weekly writing assignments, and, most notably, a personal anthology, a sort of do-it-yourself favorite poems project. This was a collection – twelve in all – of our “favorite” poems, along with a brief statement of why the poem was important to us, and any analysis we wished to make. Within a 200-word-limit per poem, which was difficult (I can’t write a 200 word grocery list) but just the process was informative: what poems should I choose? What should I say about them? Why do I so love the poems I love? Is it the poem itself, how I came across it, or what it evokes in me? I’ve appended it to this post, just because it was so much fun to do.

Initially the weekly writing assignments were peer-assessed, the first time I’ve seen that technique used on edX (it’s very common on Coursera). Problems developed; several of us received straight 0’s even on objective criteria, like word count. This may have been a technical glitch or simply a different attitude in the student base. The peer-assessed grades were dropped and “grading” such as it is for any mooc returned to the self-reported completion model (an “I did it!” button after each assignment). Good on them for flexibility; mooc grades are pretty meaningless anyway, particularly in a course such as this, where one’s personal opinion predominates over any knowledge base. I enjoyed the assignments in any case, and found the work that went into them to be productive. That’s the point, after all.

I seem to finally (after, what, 5 or 6 disasters) be getting the hang of the edX forums, as I was able to enter into several highly interesting discussions along the way. The intensity of the Coursera boards is still lacking, but communication in this session rose well above the waste of time I’ve found the edX forums to be in the past.

Two “Office Hours” segments were scheduled, which were more or less Pinsky’s responses to questions students submitted. I didn’t have the patience for them (why didn’t they have the questions arranged beforehand?) but they went well beyond course material. The course in general was run by technical staff, and TAs showed up on the discussion forums from time to time, which is how things usually work with a “name” professor (though there are exceptions).

With peer assessment and forum participation turned into self-report, multiple-choice questions provided the bulk of the “graded” material. Is there anything more antithetical to poetry than multiple choice questions? Week 3 seemed particularly bad: what was the last word of a paragraph? Who wrote “Moonlight in Vermont” (the song was mentioned in the video discussion, so it isn’t quite as absurd as it sounds, but still). I suppose it provides some evidence of participation – a live body has to answer the question – but I think the course would’ve been better off without them. At least there were only a few MCs per unit.

Minor glitches aside, I enjoyed the course quite a bit, particularly the middle weeks. I discovered some poetry I’d never heard before (though, since I’m new to poetry, that isn’t hard). I loved the Personal Anthology project; it was like writing a bunch of short blog posts, but only about poems with particular meaning to me. The writing assignments provided good opportunity for thought as well – I very much enjoyed talking about the structure of Susan Sommers-Willet’s “Tallahatchie” as well as the very different parodies of Longfellow and Kipling – and I discovered more by reading other students’ work (peer assessments were still required though the grades didn’t count, which is a great model for peer assessment generally, by the way). I had some great conversations, particularly about music (medieval English madrigals of John Dowland, Paul Simon, and Eminem – all fit into this course) and about humor.

I’m glad I signed up; this course had its charms. Like slow-jamming Ben Jonson. I can recommend it for anyone who wants a gentle introduction to poetry. Or anyone who likes to just think and write about poetry.

Favorite Poems Anthology
 
1 Haiku
Daigu Ryokan (1758-1831)

There’s more to haiku than seventeen syllables in three lines: semantics enter into it as well. A seasonal word starts things off, then there’s a “cutting word” that separates the two parts – “The two parts are sliced in half, and there’s an open space which the reader, the audience, is supposed to enter into” says Haruo Shirane. I’m not sure if “thief” was at the time of this writing considered a seasonal word – unlikely – but there’s a lovely sense of “what does this mean?” that allows me to enter into it, and write it with Ryokan, even centuries after his death.
There’s a story (several variations exist) behind this haiku: a thief entered Ryokan’s hut, but found nothing to steal. Ryokan felt so bad, he offered the man his clothes, then after the thief left, wished he could’ve given him the moon (a symbol of enlightenment) as well. There’s so much to read into this: the nature of possession, of theft, of giving, and, in this day when genes are patented and property extends from the core of the earth to the stratosphere (really, it does, look it up), who owns nature? I also like the switch in atmosphere, from the thief – oh no, what did he leave behind? apprehension – to the beauty of the moon.

 
 
2 “Song of Myself“, part 23
Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

I’ve always had a complicated relationship with math and science: they tantalize me, but -perhaps because? – they’re always slightly out of reach of my grasp. Here, Whitman, himself lacking much formal education beyond primary school, pays tribute to the other side of the room. I love his metaphor of “they are not my dwelling, I but enter by them to an area of my dwelling,” a sentiment he also touches on in “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer”. I’ve always had the sense of math as a door I couldn’t open, my nose pressed up against the glass, so I cherish this idea of Whitman entering his own dwelling – poetry – via this house, passing through but not dwelling there. Though he deals in what we might call metaphysics – throughout Song of Myself, he emphasizes the unity of all things, he is one with the grass as well as every other person past, present, and future – he begins in reality, and uses it to develop his universalist view, that even as we all turn to dust, we become again from the dust.

 
 
3 “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer
Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

For me, this works with the above selection from Song of Myself as one.

 
 

4 “Prayer to Persephone
Edna St. Vincent Millay 1892-1950

I first encountered this poem – just the last few lines, really – in a novel, Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman. In the book, an inner-city teacher is trying to get her students to think about this poem, and reads the lines; “Persephone / Taker her head upon your knee: / Say to her, “My dear, my dear, / It is not so dreadful here.” The teacher asks the class of misfits and academic disasters who might be speaking these words, and one student offers: “Maybe a teacher?” I was about 12 when I read that, and hadn’t yet learned to view school as hell. Later, when I read the entire poem, I was more taken with the notion of “She that had no need of me” and sensed a mother-child relationship, an adolescent who was in the painful process of disattaching from the nuclear family to make her way in the world, when some tragedy struck. I later found out Millay wrote this poem, a cycle of elegiac poems, in fact, for a college friend who died in the flu epidemic of 1918. What I find especially moving is not that the speaker asks Persephone to send the woman back to life, or comfort the grief, but to relieve the fear and insecurity she knows underlay the confident surface of the beloved. “She that had no need of me” has a touch of bitterness to it, but it’s saved by this selfless act of concern.

 
 
5 “I, Too
Langston Hughes 1902-1967
video with audio recorded by Langston Hughes

I’m very fond of poetic “conversations” – poems written in response to other poems. In 1860 Walt Whitman wrote “I Hear America Singing,” but he left someone out – the voices of those who were still enslaved. Hughes wrote this reply less than a century later, but while Jim Crow still reigned. He begins with “I, too, sing America” as a direct response to Whitman, and closes with a slightly different line: “I, too, am America” with both lines separated, standing singly, isolated. That closing line can be viewed several ways: an indictment, perhaps: while you’re all singing how proud you are on the Independence Day on which slave-owners announced their freedom while they simultaneously denied it to others, remember that I, too, AM America; I am what you have created, I am here to remind you that you have made tragic, hideous mistakes and you still haven’t made it right. Or it can be read as an announcement: like it or not, I am the America of which you are so proud, so stop treating me as an Other.

 
 
6 “The Woman with Two Vaginas
Denise Duhamel (1961-)

Denise Duhamel writes a lot of sexual poetry, but this particular poem, despite its title (and though it does deal, somewhat explicitly, with sex), comes from a book of poems based on Inuit mythology. As bizarre as it seems, I find this poem very moving: husband abandons wife due to custom rather than his own displeasure, she’s wailing on the ice floe, he’s weeping into the “barren palms” of his new wife, and for what? To maintain some kind of community-imposed normality? It’s as tragic a story as Heloise and Abelard, or Violetta and Alfredo, Romeo and Juliet, or any other pair of lovers who are separated by some societal demand while their love remains strong. The tercet structure interests me: why three lines? Tercets are often found in highly structured forms, like terza rima or villanelles, but here, there’s neither rhyme or a strong rhythm (many lines are pentameter, but many are not). Maybe the idea is to use a stanza associated with a structured form, then break the structure – as these people might have remained happier had they broken the structure of society? Do they symbolize the woman, the man, and the concept of “normality” which disrupts their lives? Is there some significance to the number “3” in Inuit culture? I don’t know; all I know is that I can hear her sobbing on the ice floe, and I can hear his mourning in his hut, and I wish they’d been wiser.

 
 

7 “In Colorado My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes
Eduoardo Corral (1973-)

In his video reading of this poem, Eduoardo Corral says he uses code-switching in his poetry – using Spanish words here and there, not italicized – which would normalize the English and “otherize” the Spanish. That seems like a reflection of the wish to not “otherize” Latinos, which would be even better. I like the couplet structure of the poem, since I can see two strong “duo” elements in the poem: the speaker and his father, and the two identities the speaker wrestles with. He wouldn’t have a problem with them, if one of those identities were not so hostile to the other in contemporary society. Some of the Spanish language is easy, or inferable, but some is more opaque; I didn’t realize “aguila” was the word for “eagle,” nor did I realize an eagle perched on a cactus holding a snake in its mouth is on the official national Seal of Mexico. Then the last line: “The snake is torn.” So is the speaker, whose father did so much for him, whose shirt he wears: “The gaze of the moon / stitches the buttons of his shirt to my skin” – the speaker literally takes on the mantle of his father.

 
 
8 “Self-Portrait with Exit Wounds
Ocean Vuong (1988-)
(I wrote a more extensive post on this poem last May)

The poem opens with “Instead let it be the echo to every prayer” – instead of what? And what is the “it”? I love the openness of these words, in view of the poem’s setting (a friend of Vuong’s, fellow émigré from Vietnam, possibly a lover, shot himself at age 18) it might be, Instead of the life being silenced, or Instead of the dirge of mourning, or Instead of the gunshot fading, or Instead of the war that, though long over when we were born, still poisoned our lives, or Instead of being shamed and harassed for whom we love. The poem combines so many echoes, I’ve only been able to scratch the surface, and it’s the sort of poem I might want to keep reading for years, and see how it changes. I came across it early this year in the 2014 Pushcart anthology, and liked it so much, I ordered Vuong’s chapbook, the first book of poetry I’ve purchased since I was a teenager.

 
 

9 “Ballade of the Hanged Men
Francois Villon (1431-1463) / Transl. Richard Wilbur (1921 – )
I wrote a far more extensive post on this poem – with a translation comparison chart – last June.

I’m captivated by the translation of this poem. It’s in a highly restrictive form – a Ballade Supreme – with strict rhyme and meter requirements, yet the translation works perfectly aesthetically and practically. The poet – Villon was himself condemned to death at one point, though he was pardoned – speaks for a group of hanged men in first person plural. To me, there’s an accusory tone: you may be revolted by our rotting bodies, but was it not you who executed us? So don’t judge us harshly – and then, the repeating refrain, “Pray to God that He forgive us all”. Us all, meaning the executed criminals, but also those who executed them, and those who scorn their remains and feel superior. We are all guilty; we all require forgiveness for what we’ve done here. Then there’s the use of “forgive” instead of “absolve” – I don’t know French well enough to know if that’s standard practice, if there’s a different French word for the English concept of absolution, and in theological terms, there is a difference: “absolve” changes the condition of the miscreant; “forgive” changes the condition of the forgiver. It is for God to absolve, it is for man to forgive. So though the prayer is aimed at God, it’s directed at the observer, the reader, who is also a participant in this scene. There’s a lot to think about here.

 
 
10 “The Mrs. Gets Her Ass Kicked
Tracie Morris (contemporary; no birthdate available)

This is a bit of a change-up. I discovered Tracie Morris through another poetry MOOC, and though this poem is odd – it’s sound poetry and must be performed rather than read (the link is a video) – it’s amazingly thought-provoking, uniting Doris Day, “Dancing Cheek to Cheek”, and the impact of slavery on the African American woman. Doris Day was a squeaky-clean actress in the 50s who epitomized the standard middle class dream every woman had: to meet a man who would support her. The song’s lyrics echo this “Heaven, I’m in heaven” and then the sound starts, with Tracie patting on her chest to break up the words – it reminds me of something out of a war movie where a helicopter evacuates the wounded. Then she sounds like she’s strangling, all the while singing this insane song about how happy she is. This slowly morphs into “It all started when we were brought here as slaves from Africa”, linking domestic violence against black women to the overall devaluation of human life through slavery. It’s powerful experience, unlike anything I’ve ever heard before.

 
 

11 “Musée des Beaux Arts
W. H. Auden (1907-1973)

I came across this poem in connection with a short story from The New Yorker, “Kattekoppen” in which a Breugel painting, “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” appears on a postage stamp sent to a Dutch soldier in Afghanistan. At the time I was taken with William Carlos Williams’ poem, which is very similar to Auden’s; they both make clear the “life goes on” quality, that one person’s catastrophe might not even be noticed by someone else with the routine business of living on his mind. Williams’ poem is subtler, I think, but I prefer the reflection of Auden on the wisdom of the Old Masters. There’s also an odd rhyme scheme, I’m not sure if it’s even deliberate (it must be), it’s very irregular, but noticeable. It’s interesting that these two have such a similarity with Steve Smith’s poem as well; perhaps that’s why I was drawn to them.

 
 

12 “Not Waving But Drowning
Stevie Smith 1902-1971
video with audio of Stevie Smith reading

I began this course with this poem as my “favorite poem” in the first week; since I feel very strongly about it, and since it’s ok to re-use it here, I’m including it again. Stevie Smith wrote it after she’d read a newspaper story about a man at the beach who’d drowned as his friends waved to him, not realizing he was in danger. The irony of that situation touches me, but the poem treats it beautifully by making it unclear who the speaker is in each stanza. How is a dead man moaning? Or was that before he was dead, was it another man perhaps? Who says “I was much further out…”, is that the man speaking (as a ghost), or the poet speaking metaphorically? That phrase gets repeated at the end, again with the same ambiguity about who is speaking. The middle stanza seems to be onlookers at the beach, or possibly at his funeral, absolving themselves from responsibility. But really, how could they have known – it was a mistake anyone could make, isn’t it? Or were they just having too much fun, were they too comfortable in the sun, to really pay attention? How many signals do the drowning send before they go under? Maybe we need to pay more attention to each other, make sure we see the difference between waving, and drowning.

Classical MOOC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More MOOCing: Whitmania

Allen Crawford illustration from his forthcoming Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself

Allen Crawford illustration from the forthcoming Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself

Early 2014 was Whitman season, with two almost-concurrent MOOCs focusing on the poet. I’d mention a certain Apple commercial that also started airing at about the same time – but that would upset certain academics I greatly respect.

The edX version was the second installment of their Poetry in America series (the first was “The Poetry of Early New England” late last Fall, which I quite enjoyed, as, to my surprise, I met a new friend in Anne Bradstreet, a sort of Bizarro precursor to Emily Dickinson).

Images of the entire first edition of Leaves of Grass from 1855 are available online from the Library of Congress Rare Books CollectionUnder the leadership of Dr. Elisa New, we looked at a variety of Whitman poems. I’m afraid I found the course less than satisfying, but I know a lot of people would disagree with that; I’m willing to admit I’ve got something of an attitude towards edX at this point and my opinion is not necessarily objective. It’s more than the clumsy communicative aspects of the platform. I’m beginning to suspect that the edX MOOCs, particularly those from Harvard and MIT, aren’t really MOOCs at all, but accessories to on-site courses; if other people want to drop in, that’s fine, but it’s not designed as stand-alone. This is probably the path all MOOCs will take sooner or later (I know several are already being used this way), so I suppose I’d better get used to it. I knew it was too good to last.

The poetry, of course, was lovely. I’d been earlier swept away, via ModPo, by “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” when I found a video of Ken Goldsmith’s White House reading of excerpts from Brooklyn Bridge-esque poems over time, from Whitman (who was pre-bridge, hence the ferry) to Hart Crane (“To Brooklyn Bridge”) to his own contemporary “Traffic”, so I was primed.

The first contact with each work in the form of the dreaded “annotation tool”, a notation device which worked better than it did in the earlier class but still had some bugs. It really took the fun out of the poems – highlighting all the instances of parallelism or anaphora wears thin after a while, especially when multiple literary devices crowd the page and make it a complete mess. The teaching on these devices – what they signified, why they might be used one place and not another – seemed quite limited; this was closer to rote work, and I eventually gave up on it.

The 1872 edition from the Library of Congress: a few things have changed….The large-group discussions seemed full of random opinions and impressions but lacked overall direction. I lost momentum between sessions because the material was released every two weeks instead of weekly; perhaps I should’ve countered that by imposing my own more evenly-spread schedule.

I found myself downright annoyed by an interview with Justice Elena Kagan. I’m a big fan of Supreme Court Justices with Ovaries, but I was amused and a bit dismayed when the first thing she said was something like, “I’m not sure why you want to talk to me, I don’t know much about poetry.” Turns out, they talked about the light glinting off the statue on the dome of the Capitol building, in connection with a quote Whitman didn’t write. I have a feeling this was part of the “We are Harvard, Look at the Important People We Can Talk To” approach, since it added little to my grasp of Whitman. I was delighted that Justice Kagan wasn’t pretending anything for anybody, though. Oddly, another Justice with Ovaries, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, was on the docket that week for the Yale course in Constitutional Law I happened to be taking at the same time; that conversation was included in the weekly “bonus material” and wasn’t purported to be about the specific course material at all (she spoke about her journey as a Latina from the Bronx to Princeton and Yale); I enjoyed it far more. But, as I said, I may have some attitude running here.

Cast dies used in the 1860 edition – Library of Congress collectionThe best thing about the class was a visit to a letterpress print shop “like the one Whitman worked at” (he did much of the typesetting and printing of his first edition of Leaves of Grass himself). There was some tie-in to the book – the shop where he worked did legal binding, so the first edition was printed on legal-sized sheets, something he reversed in later edition, for instance – and I’m a font geek, so I enjoyed it. I was also delighted to learn about the Poets House annual Bridgewalk, featuring an active reading of Whitman and other poets.

In the end, it’s a free class, and there is information there, so I’d have to recommend it with reservations. If they continue the series with an Emily course in the future, I might join in, but I doubt I’d bother with anything else. Not everyone clicks with every teacher or every course; I’m sure this was a terrific class for a lot of people, and to a large degree, it’s a matter of personal preference.

University of Iowa's OPEN platformI’m more unreservedly upbeat about the second Whitman course, this one from a new entrant in to the MOOC world: the University of Iowa, home of the premiere MFA program in the country for writers (so what if it was funded by the CIA in the 50s as a way to combat the Red Menace, nobody’s perfect). They offered “Every Atom” through their own private MOOC platform, OPEN. This six-week class focused specifically on “Song of Myself,” supported by the UI Whitman Web, a wonderful section-by-section recording and discussion of the poem.

Each week covered two groups of sections of the poem under various themes, from Structure and Main Characters (more craft-oriented topics) to Democracy and Science (strong themes running through the work). One of the most exciting moments came when I discovered a reading of “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer” I’d never considered before – it’s generally regarded as a repudiation of scientific analysis in favor of direct sensory experience, but the last lines can also be seen as the speaker using what he’s heard at the meeting to more fully appreciate the stars at which he now gazes. This tied in to “Song of Myself” which has strong pro-science declarations; Whitman was not highly educated in a formal sense, but he had an interest in just about everything from astronomy to phrenology (oops, well, like I’ve often said, nobody’s perfect).

One of the most interesting features of this course was the inclusion of an extensive well-organized archive of original documents relating to Whitman and this poem in the form of electronic images of notebooks, letters, photographs, etc. It’s quite a historic treasure trove, and added meaning to the text as we saw how Whitman changed his mind about phrases, words, and entire sections.

I suppose it’s hypocritical of me to say I didn’t use the message boards as much as I could have (mostly due to time constraints) but they were very active, with lots of mentor involvement. Each week featured a live webcast session to answer questions and further explore topics of high interest on the boards; while it wasn’t as alive and kicking as the ModPo webcasts, it was still quite enjoyable and informative.

Mostly, I think I just preferred the approach of studying the single work completely. We covered a lot of Whitman’s biography, as well as various thematic and technical elements, and I felt a better grasp of the elements by the end. I enthusiastically recommend the course, and I’m going to keep an eye on OPEN for other offerings.

Allen Crawford's rendition of Whitman Illuminated: Song of MyselfIn an interesting accident (or planned coincidence?) of timing: artist and illustrator Allen Crawford has been working on a hand-drawn edition of the original 1855 “Song of Myself” (Whitman revised quite a bit over the course of 40 years, and both MOOCs looked mostly at the last edition he himself edited) for over a year; that edition, featuring the header image above, will be available from Tin House Books in May. Crawford’s blog offers a look over time at the project, as well as illustrations from the work, including the one that graces this post. I know I’m going to order it; I’m not generally a big fan of “the beautiful book” (books are beautiful for their words), but this combines art and words in quite lovely ways, and it’s something I’d like to have.

Still MOOCing: CogPo (FutureLearn)

How to Read… A Mind
Offered by University of Nottingham, UK via FutureLearn
Instructor: Dr. Peter Stockwell
How can it be that sometimes we are drawn into the world of the fiction almost as if it’s real? How can we be so immersed in that imaginary world that we can be emotionally affected by what goes on in there?… Simply, [Cognitive Poetics] is a discipline that draws on linguistics and cognitive science to provide explanations for literary reading. The beauty of cognitive poetics is that it addresses questions that are interesting and familiar to all readers, not just professional academics, literary critics and theorists. And it is based on some simple principles so that the journey from introduction to complex understanding is actually very short.

I skipped over the FutureLearn listing of this course several times, a bit put off by the title (and, shallow as it seems, the image); I’d assumed it was some kind of pop psychology thing, maybe body language, or interpersonal communication. Then I saw some fellow students in Corpus Linguistics mention it as a study of literary reading; the mind being referred to was, in fact, the mind of a character. That grabbed me, and in spite of having already overcommitted myself to MOOCs for Spring 2014, I signed up – surely I can squeeze in another three hours a week, for only two weeks, right? Which is how I got so overcommitted in the first place… and I seem to lack the “auditing gene”.

The content was indeed fascinating. I’d never heard of the field of cognitive poetics (CogPo, not to be confused with ModPo – so many Po’s, so little time). That’ll teach me to make snap judgments based on quick glances at five words and a picture.

Week 1 introduced us to the Theory of Mind from cognitive science: the process by which we, as very young children, develop the ability to see past our own minds, and figure out that other people have different needs, wants, and motivations – different mental states – than we do. We begin to interpret those mental states – to read minds – from both assumptions about how we might react to a situation, and from behaviors we see. This extends into the literary domain as we become readers, and see fictional characters as having mental states, as well. How many times have you been surprised by a character’s actions, revised your opinion of him, as the plot progressed? Have you ever thought, “Oh, this is wrong, she would never do this!” or been disappointed that she didn’t take an opportunity, or felt a wish that you could communicate with her, tell her what you as the reader know, either through personal experience or through narrative technique? Cognitive poetics looks to implications of the Theory of Mind to explore that.

In Week 2, we looked at a series of questions – what does it look like to read? What is the interplay between text, and our own experience? Does a character take on a life of her own, seem to go on after the last page? (This quality of portability seems related to what I’ve been clumsily calling “projecting into the future”, a quality of a very good story.) We discussed a particular character we considered portable – I chose Gregor Samsa – and speculated about what made him so real to us (for me, the arc of interaction with his sister). This also came up during a talk writer Rebecca Makkai gave about her wonderful book The Borrower; readers expressed concern about Ian, and wanted to know how he “turned out” (Makkai indicated she might put a line about him in a future work, but it would have to be after an appropriate time interval since he’s 11 years old in the present of the book). We talked about resistance to a character; I used David Lurie from Coetzee’s Disgrace as my own example.

I had several solid, if necessarily short, conversations with other students about some of these ideas, particularly about the notion that our physical environment affects how we read. I was reminded of my Zoetrope buddy Richard Osgood’s collection of reading chairs, a different chair with a different view for different authors. As cool as his idea seemed to me at the time, I never realized it had a basis in cognitive science!

I found that Week 1 was a bit too front-loaded for my taste, kicking off with a highly academic article on Theory of Mind; this diminished my enjoyment, as it seemed like a “here’s an article, read it” approach to teaching. I’ll admit, it’s quite possible my own heavy workload at the time added to that. Had the course been longer than two weeks, I probably would’ve dropped it at that point. I’m very glad I didn’t; a fellow student provided a link to a more general-readership article on the topic, which made the academic article far more readable. Week 2 was completely delightful, and well worth sticking around for; I’d recommend the course to anyone with an interest in a cognitive view of the act of reading fiction.

This course was the first in a series of “How to Read…” courses forthcoming from the linguistics people at the University of Nottingham in the UK. The next one scheduled at this point is How to Read Your Boss, an application of linguistic techniques to business communication. I think I’ll pass on that, but I’m interested to see what else they come up with in the future.

MOOC season: Hamlet

Is it possible to MOOC yourself to death? I may have an answer to that question in the next three weeks.

I didn’t intend to take eight concurrent classes (which will become nine only nine days from now). They all just looked so good! How can you resist Hamlet, Whitman, Irrational Behavior, corpus Linguistics, Constitutional Law, and, oh, by the way, four math courses, which is just plain ridiculous. True, two of those four are repeats, but I’m repeating them for a reason.

That’s the nice thing about MOOCs: you can retake courses without stigma. And, of course, without cost.

I just finished the six-week Hamlet course taught by Michael Dobson of the University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon (for a touch of authenticity), and offered on FutureLearn, the UK’s answer to Coursera. It wasn’t quite the course I was expecting; rather than a discussion of the play as literature, there was an emphasis on the theatre aspect, including detailed history of the various versions of the play and the Elizabethan theatre. In retrospect, I probably should’ve seen that coming. Since I’ve never seen a live performance of Hamlet, and since I’m not entirely up on the details of the play, I was behind the eight-ball from the start; I should’ve put in more preparation, but I expected the course to cover the play itself. Still, it was worthwhile, well-presented, and for people with more interest in theatre than literature, I’d highly recommend it.

I’m quite impressed with the FutureLearn platform. While there are a few additions I’d like to see to the communicative aspect, in my opinion they’re miles ahead of EdX, where I continue to struggle to find my own comments, let alone another person.

Since I’ll be in a serious time crunch over the next three or four weeks, I’m going to temporarily cut back my posting schedule to a Pushcart poem, and – maybe – one prose piece. I could drop some of the courses I’m taking, I suppose, and take them later, but I’m enjoying them; even the ones I have quibbles about are worthwhile, and later on there will be other courses I’ll want to take (I’ve already got four scheduled for September).

I want to keep better track of my impressions by blogging about the courses, so I’ll be back with more details as each ends. If I survive.

ModPo: Playing with Emily Dickinson

Collage Portrait by John Morse

Collage Portrait by John Morse

I taste a liquor never brewed —
From Tankards scooped in Pearl —
Not all the Vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an Alcohol!

Inebriate of Air — am I —
And Debauchee of Dew —
Reeling — thro endless summer days —
From inns of Molten Blue —

When “Landlords” turn the drunken Bee
Out of the Foxglove’s door —
When Butterflies — renounce their “drams”
I shall but drink the more!

Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats —
And Saints — to windows run —
To see the little Tippler
Leaning against the — Sun —

–Emily Dickinson

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

It may seem I’ve been slacking off on reading and blogging lately, since I only managed one post last week. I’ve been reading like crazy, but I’ve also been flat-out at Coursera. I’ll be back to talk about the other courses I’m taking, but right now, it’s all about ModPo.

ModPo is the universally recognized (in some circles at least) affectionate diminutive for Modern & Contemporary American Poetry taught, (or, more accurately, facilitated) by Professor Al Filreis out of the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania. Yes, I’m taking another course from another heavyweight at another Ivy League university. For free. I love MOOCs.

I’ve been long moaning about my lack of poetic grasp. For Pushcart XXXVI (2012), my second cover-to-cover Pushcart read and the first time I dared to blog about the poetry (albeit cramming them all into one post, rather than taking one at a time, as I do with the fiction), I was surprised at how accessible the poems were, but wondered what I was missing. For XXXVIII (2013), I found some help, but I admitted freely I’m still in the stage of not knowing a “great” poem from a “good” poem from teenage dreck. I want to know the difference. I want to know how it works.

I’d heard some great things about ModPo in other courses. In fact, the discussion boards for most course would include a thread “For ModPo Graduates.” (I confess that I got confused, as usual, and signed up for “The Modern and Postmodern” – an approach to history through philosophy and literature – by mistake, but that’s turning out to be a great class too. But more about that later.)

I can now see why past ModPo students were enthusiastic. The videos, which are in other classes lectures, are here discussion sessions with Al (it’s strange how so many of these hotshot professors end up as first names; if anyone tries to tell you MOOCs are impersonal, send them to me and I’ll tell them a few things) and four to six students at the Kelly Writers Center doing close readings of the poems for the week. And by “close readings,” I mean word-by-word, comma-by-comma, dissections. I live for this stuff.

In addition to the videos, there are weekly live webcasts. They’ve got Twitter going, they’ve got phone lines (the other night, we got calls from Ecuador, Israel, all over the world) and they’ve got people showing up in person right there in Philadelphia: former students, other teachers, poets, Penn students, passers-by who wondered what going on, for all I know. It’s a world-wide electronic town hall of poetry! These webcasts are, by the way, made available afterwards on YouTube.

The class (now going into Week 3) has started with Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman as the progenitors of two branches of modernism. I’ll admit, I’ve never been a Dickinson fan, other than a couple of stray poems (like “I’m Nobody” – you knew I’d like that one, didn’t you?). I used to like “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” but it was ruined for me when someone told me all the poems of Emily Dickinson could be sung to “Yellow Rose of Texas.” I haven’t been so devastated since Duncan Nelson sang “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” to the tune of “Hernando’s Hideaway.” You can ruin people for life with this stuff, y’know? But I think I’m getting Emily back, thanks to this course (yes, the poets are all first names, too).

Where there is reading, there must be writing. Our first assignment: a close reading of the above poem – in 500 words. Five hundred words? I can’t write a grocery list in 500 words; my tombstone will say TLTR. I pared 1000 words down to 750, then to 500-something, close enough. The 750-word version appears below. By the way, if you’re doing a peer evaluation and arrived here via a plagiarism checker, it’s ok, I’m the one who submitted it. If I were going to plagiarise, I’d pick something far more impressive.

I’m beginning to see how poetry really works. This isn’t a bunch of lectures on the different types of meter and rhyme schemes and forms. Those are things I can look up (and I have; I just don’t really remember them for very long, though I know I love a good villanelle and there’s a lot more to haiku than counting syllables). This is different, though. This is finding meaning in everything on the page, from words to a comma to white space. This is about playing with poetry.

Let’s play:

Emily goes Whitmanian (the 750-word version)

The narrative line can be summarized from its four stanzas: I’ve got some great booze – I’m drunk – I’m gonna stay drunk – Forever. Her imagery fluctuates between extremes: Nature, and the Bowery.

The first stanza praises the specialness of her special intoxicant; in the second stanza, we find out it’s not a specific liquor at all, but the products of Nature: air, dew (maybe; but I’ll get to that). Instead of staggering around the town inn, it’s the skies “of Molten Blue” that make up her drinking hall. Skies stretch over the entire world; this brings to mind the same universality of the “gambrels of the sky” from “I Dwell in Possibility.”

In the third stanza the expansiveness continues with her intent: Emily is going to drink the creatures of nature themselves under the table. This worries me a bit, as it embodies the “Humanity masters nature” attitude that has brought us so close to disaster in the 21st century. Emily would have had no way of knowing, of course, the grim turn our mastery of nature would take.

But wait, there’s more: On the surface, Nature seems the obvious inebriant. I could live with that. But, given her penchant for writing poems about poetry, and the penchant of the class these two weeks for focusing on the self-referent quality of modern poetry, I wonder if there’s more: could she also be drunk on writing poetry?

She ends the poem, expansive to the last: she intends to remain in this condition all her life, and into the afterlife. I particularly like this stanza for its imagery:

“The Seraphs swing their snowy caps” evokes just from the phrasing “snow-capped mountains” even as she describes angels. The snowy caps could be those mountains, could be clouds, could be halos – for that matter, the snowy cap also evokes the head on a glass of beer, and swinging a cap to a wild drunken gesture, keeping the base imagery going even after we’ve left the mortal coil.

“And Saints — to windows run -” Because of the religious connotation of “saints” I immediately think of stained glass when I get to “windows”. Are these windows the windows of heaven? The sky? But more than anything, the line, especially ending in a dash, leaves the reader with the question: Why are they running? What is it that has the angels saluting and the saints rushing towards?

It’s Emily, the poet! “To see the little Tippler”. The sly self-deprecation, proud humility really, makes me smile. Here we have the contrast of glorious Seraphs and venerated Saints – huge images, very noble and austere – all rushing to see the “little” poet in her drunken state. She has amazed the court of God himself, and she’s being a bit playful about it: “What, li’l ole me?” She’s armed, after all, with poetry; to reverse Joyce Kilmer, “Maybe God can make a tree, but hey, only a poet can write poetry.” It seems that’s enough to impress the Seraphs and Saints.

And what is it they see the little Tippler doing: “Leaning against the — Sun –” One of the connotations of “sacred” is “separate”: God is separate from humanity, from our world, and thus is holy. This is further emblemized in some religions – Judaism, for example – by the notion of separation: the gartel separates the sacred from the profane parts of the body, and many of the rules of Kashrut (Kosher) were intended to separate the Israelites from the Canaanites, to prevent them from intermingling and thus becoming assimilated into other cultures. This notion of separation seems dramatically emphasized here by setting off “Sun” from the rest of the poem with dashes, not just after, but before. Leaning against the separate – the sacred – God? The seraphs and saints are jealous, perhaps, at how he supports her in her drunken state; he approves of her intoxication on nature. However, this rubs up against a simultaneous image, one much less noble, of the drunk leaning against the lamppost.

While the expansive imagery (everything under the sky from now until kingdom come), the openness of the metaphor (is she talking about Nature or Poetry – or the Universe or Art or… or… or…?) and the dual imagery (drunkenness, nature and the heavenly host) are handy Dickinsonian tools, I wonder if the inclusiveness and uniting of the sacred and profane isn’t a bit more Whitmanian. I think Walt would’ve been proud.

Oh, the Humanities!

“Literature” by James Koehnline (2007)

Continue reading

My Secret Life as a Fourth Grader

[addendum: this course is no longer available on Coursera]

Quite by accident, I found myself taking a Freshman Comp course.

How does one do that by accident? I noticed a tweet by one of the behind-the-scenes guys from my Calculus course, promoting his latest project: WexMOOC, the system attached to Coursera’s “Writing II: Rhetorical Composing” class. I didn’t realize it was the second half of Freshman Comp (I thought it was the actual study of rhetorical devices), but since I spent 15 weeks in Calculus whining “I’m a words person, not a numbers person,” I figured it was only fair I put up or shut up. I was also very curious about just how a computer would evaluate the writing of 25,000 students, and the only way to really find out was to take the course – to let it evaluate mine.

This generated a great deal of anxiety: what if I flunk? It’s one thing to risk a fail at calculus. Flunking writing is a whole different matter, ego-wise.

I do lots of things that aren’t acceptable in Freshman Comp. For instance, I digress, which is capital-b Bad unless you’re David Foster Wallace. But it’s how I think; it’s what makes writing feel like flying, and clipping my wings for writing class becomes like the last time I tried to sing, which is also like flying, in a choir, which is also like clipping my wings: most of the music was terrific, but after a while the director got on my case about my vibrato, and suddenly I couldn’t wait to get home from choir practice so I could sing and fly in my living room, which defeats the purpose of singing in a choir. But choir directors – and Freshman Comp teachers – don’t care about flying. Digressions = Bad.

I also nest parentheticals (one of the reasons I love Vi Hart is, she nests all over the place [sometimes dual nests, one on the audio, one on the video] and not only does she not apologize for it, it’s become – along with digression – one of her trademarks). However, in Freshman Comp, parentheticals, especially nested parentheticals, are Evil.

Punctuation is another mode of flight Freshman Comp teachers don’t like, unless they’ve changed since I last took a Freshman Comp course, which was, admittedly, some time ago. Back when the USSR was still the Evil Empire, in fact. Semicolons seem to be a bad thing, though I don’t understand why; they’re perfect when you want a little break in rhythm somewhere between a period and a comma. Em-dashes make teachers – and editors and online workshoppers – sad. In fact, most punctuation aside from periods, commas, and quotation marks, are quite stigmatized. You can use one exclamation point per 10,000 words (or 5,000 or page, the point is, they’re rationed, and that’s why I love Zin). Colons precede lists and lists alone, and only if you have a very good reason for a list. And speaking of lists, the Oxford comma makes Freshman Comp people downright surly, even though it’s functional, occasionally necessary, and historically proper.

Screw that. I want to fly. But I also wanted to see how WexMOOC works. One must sacrifice sometimes for Knowledge.

After poking around WexMOOC a while, I realized the computer is more of an organizer than an evaluator in this course. It would store our assignments, and manage the horrendous logistics of peer-evaluation, a mainstay of MOOC humanities courses. It would make sure each essay was read and evaluated anonymously by a set of other students from a range of experience and ability levels, and thus be a lot better than a message board rating system where, just like in high school, some people end up more popular than others and it has nothing to do with quality.

At least, that’s what I thought – until WexMOOC told me I write like a fourth-grader.*

The first assignment, which would not be peer-evaluated unless we re-posted it elsewhere, was a wide-open invitation to discuss how we felt about some aspect of writing or literacy. Since I’d just had a crisis of confidence following the Initial Course Survey (yes, basic demographic stuff is terrifying when it includes rating yourself as a writer from weak to strong), I used that experience as the core of my 800-to-1000 word essay (which follows).

Then I discovered the part of WexMOOC called “Analytics.”

It’s based on the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Scale which I keep calling the Jamaica Kincaid scale, much to my embarrassment. And not-Jamaica-Kincaid thinks I write like a fourth grader.

Now, I know I took this too seriously (it has nothing to do with the “grade” for this non-credit class which really has no grades) and far too personally. But when someone, even a software someone like WexMOOC, tells me I write like a nine-year-old, I take it seriously. And personally.

I vaguely recalled from my linguistics days that pretty much every American news magazine, such as Time, has about an eighth-grade readability level, and there’s a fourth-grade poet in this year’s Pushcart volume, so I wasn’t too upset. Just upset enough.

The internet contains numerous Flesch-Kincaid utilities, so I used two of them on some of the Pushcart essays available online. Maybe Time sticks to eighth-graders, but Pushcart writers go for high school sophomores, juniors even.

I was very depressed.

When I’m depressed, I listen to music, in this case, my YouTube Likes to cheer me up (I have a Wallow playlist for wallowing, but in this case, I wanted to snap out of it). One of the videos was Vi Hart’s Ted Carpenter commentary about audiences. I hadn’t listened to this in quite some time, and it was just what I needed to hear: all this talk about writing to your audience is fine but there’s value in talking out loud, too, which is what Vi Hart does. And pretty much what I do. That video also ended up as the backbone of my Project Runway recap, since one of the season-long conflicts there was about artistry vs. commerce. They could’ve had a bang-up season with that kind of theme if they hadn’t cheapened it with male strippers and fake drama. But that’s more digression.

Feeling cheered by Vi, I did more research. I put my own essay into one of the online Flesch-Kincaid. It should, of course, have returned more or less the same results as WexMOOC (minor variations always occur). But it didn’t. I’d been promoted to 9th grade. Seems my sentence count went from 129 in WexMOOC to 47 in both online Flesch-Kincaid utilities. That is not a minor variation.

I felt a lot better. The fault, dear writer, lies not in my prose, but in the computer that I am nine years old. I’m still worried I might flunk Freshman Comp, but at least I’ll do so as a teenager.

On Encountering the Participation Survey Question: “How would you characterize yourself as a writer (very weak/weak/average/strong/very strong)?”

Am I a writer?

I suppose it depends on your definition. If “a writer” is one who writes, then of course I am; most people are. Most of us write something, at some point. Maybe it’s a business letter to a client reporting on the progress of an evolving deal. Or maybe it’s just a line to personalize the Hallmark birthday card for Aunt Helen so she won’t feel like her family has relegated her milestone to perfunctory duty, or, more prosaically, a shopping list (produce first, since that’s where the entrance to the grocery is, then deli, then canned goods, pastas, pet foods, paper products and cleaning supplies, finally ending up with dairy and frozen foods before heading to the register).

But that isn’t what’s really meant by “a writer,” is it? No matter what the emotion, real or contrived, is conveyed to Aunt Helen, regardless of the organization and planning – the narrative, really, predicting the little tale of a journey through the supermarket – that goes into a shopping list, “a writer” is typically someone who writes for someone other than his family, or for herself, and for purposes other than necessities of daily living.

So am I a writer, or not?

About once a decade, I jump again into fiction writing, just to see if I’m still really bad at it: I recently learned, oh yes, I am. Maybe I’m just not good at storytelling. Maybe I’d rather explain or inform or enthuse than narrate. Maybe I’d rather say what I want to say than figure out how to configure characters and plots and symbolism to do it for me. My publications have been so few, and in such unmemorable venues (you mean you haven’t heard of Diddle Dog, Forge, or that 80’s classic, Camera Shopper?) they don’t even count as publications. I don’t even have an e-book on Amazon. I know sixth graders who have e-books on Amazon.

I do have a blog, subtitled “I’m Writing and I Can’t Shut Up,” but it’s in a dusty corner of the internet where few bother to tread. I like it that way. If I thought anyone were actually paying attention to me, I’d be paralyzed.

But here’s the thing: I think – I process the world – by writing. I’m processing this class, this assignment, these very thoughts right now, by writing.

When I read a story I love, I write about it. I explain to some imaginary blog reader who may live only in my head what I thought of when I read the story, where it took me, what I remembered that I hadn’t thought of in a long, long time. When I read a story I hate, I write about that, too, and say exactly why I hate it, often using those same tools of memory and association, perhaps to claim it didn’t take me where it should have (in my own opinion) or that it took me somewhere that offered me nothing. Or maybe that it refused to take me anywhere. I’ve even come to the point where I’m willing to post these observations on a blog, to publicly say, “I loved this” or “I thought this was stupid” and let others judge me, or not, for literary comprehension.

If someone breaks my heart, or if I’m yearning after something I can’t have, when I fail, I write about it. These writings usually remain private, but they’re a necessary part of recovery from the emotional spills of life. Sometimes I’ll be unable to sleep – all this stuff bouncing around in my head – until I’ve pounded out a page or two, at which point it organizes itself and becomes manageable: Oh, I see, I’m feeling rejected (or ignored or unappreciated or frustrated or or or…). Oh, I remember, I’ve felt this way before. Oh, it’s ok, I got over that then, and I’ll get over this now.

When I get terrific news, or fall in love, or conquer some mountain that once towered above me, somehow it isn’t real until I write about it. Often this writing remains private as well. It’s hard to brag in public, not only because it’s obnoxious, but because there may be those out there waiting to tell me that my joys are trivial, or, even worse, are interfering with their misery.

And that’s where the Participation Survey for this course comes in.

I spent a long time looking at two of those questions – “How would you characterize yourself as a writer/reader?” I know it’s not a trap. They’re meant to be guidelines for data analysis, to allow collation of statistics showing how people feel about their writing before and after the course, with the goal being to increase self-perceived ability. With tens of thousands of students signing up for these courses, they have nothing to do with someone looking askance at my evaluation of myself: “Really? That’s what you think of yourself, is it? We’ll just see about that.” They have nothing to do with the universe punishing hubris.

I hope.

Because, after spending most of the last 58 years writing, reading, reading about writing, writing about reading, thinking by writing, I finally found the courage to say: I’m a strong reader. I’m a strong writer.

I am a writer.

*The Flesch-Kincaid scale measures readability, not writing level; so while it indicates one must have fourth-grade reading ability to read, it does not actually place an evaluation on the level of writing. It just feels that way.