Temple, Tabernacle and Medicine: a pair of medieval Jewish manuscript mini-moocs

1) The Tabernacle in Word & Image: An Italian Jewish Manuscript Revealed
2) The History of Medieval Medicine through Jewish Manuscripts
Length: self-paced, each takes about 2 hours total
School/platform: Penn/edX
Instructors: Alessandro Guetta, Y. Tzvi Langermann

1) This mini-course introduces the use of early modern manuscripts for intellectual history—that is, the history of how ideas and the communication of those ideas changes over time…. explore this manuscript, its editions, and how it opens a window into Italian Jewish intellectual life only possible by attention to the physical manuscript
2) This mini-course is a general introduction to both to medieval medicine and to the value of using manuscripts…. [Professor Y. Tzvi Langermann] will not only walk the student through the basics of medical knowledge training and practice in the Jewish Middle Ages and beyond, but he will also show how clues gleaned from the particular elements of a manuscript (such as marginal notes, mistakes, and handwriting) allow us to learn a great deal that we could not have gleaned from a pristine printed version.
(both) No previous knowledge of Jewish history, intellectual history, or manuscript studies is required.

Short version: a terrific pair of lectures for anyone interested in what historians can learn from manuscripts, or medieval Jewish history, science, and culture.

These two mini-moocs aren’t so much courses as they are highly focused single lectures, a little over an hour each, on specific documents and how they reveal not just the content of the documents, but the history and norms of the time. That may sound a bit abstract, but the details explored are fascinating: everything from the interrelations of various cultures in the late medieval period, to linguistic differences, to attitudes towards religious practice.

The first mooc examines a pair of manuscripts describing the Second Temple in Jerusalem, and the Tabernacle (a temporary and portable version used before the Temple was built, particularly during the forty years the Hebrews wandered around the Sinai). The second mooc looks at a codex with three different manuscripts on medieval medical practices, and uses these as a way to trace the flow of ideas from Galen to the Islamicate to Europe.

Now, granted, these aren’t “oooh, pretty” manuscripts, the illuminated gospels and breviaries lettered in precise calligraphy. These manuscripts are far more about content than style. But, when examined and described by those who know what to look for, they turn out to be just as interesting as those with artistic flourishes.

Both professors are historians – one of intellectual history, one of medicine – so the focus was on what the manuscripts can tell us about those areas. It isn’t a matter of “in this year so-and-so did this” but a more general history, both in terms of time and scope. For example, as the Talmud had been banned in Italy and bootleg fragments were only intermittently available, different excerpts were added to various versions of the Temple manuscript. While the medical texts list drugs, they do so in Arabic and Hebrew, so marginal notes and end-page glossaries include local dialect vocabularies for practitioners who need to buy these substances from Italian vendors.

One of my favorite segments explored the purpose of documenting the physical appearance of the Temple. The work was an attempt to synthesize a variety of sources into a single description. But why? Prof. Guetta offers three possible factors: the development of “a historical mentality”; a growing awareness of dimensional perspective due to the constant exposure to flourishing Italian architecture of the period, and a reevaluation of the textual description of the Temple in light of that development; or a religious motivation, coming primarily from a specific Protestant group that was more interested in the accurate reconstruction of the Temple as a way to bring about the Second Coming.

I also have to give al-Majusi, a Persian physician, the Bad Timing Award: his comprehensive and beautifully organized medical text, part of the Codex, was considered the ultimate authority, until the renowned physician/philosopher Avicenna came along and wrote an even better text, overshadowing Majusi’s work and pushing him into relative historic obscurity.

These mini-moocs are listed as an advanced course based on predicted audience, but that shouldn’t intimidate anyone who’s interested; the material is very accessible, and all technical and cultural concepts are explained. The medical course is archived at the moment, so the forums are inactive, but all the other material is available. Both lectures are great; the Tabernacle course is slightly more polished, with an artistic lead-in to the videos and varying camera angles, but that’s pretty minor. The lectures are well-organized into specific topics, and images of pertinent sections of the manuscript are embedded in the videos. Links to the complete digitized manuscripts from the Penn collection are hard to find, but they’re there (check the Syllabus).

Grading is based on a few multiple choice questions following each part of the lecture, plus a final covering the basics. Although the forums are inactive for the medical course, the Tabernacle course TA is very helpful and promptly replied to questions and comments. The forums are not terribly active; I’m guessing enrollment is sparse, partly because it’s a niche humanities course in a world obsessed with vocational training, and partly because it wasn’t well-publicized. I stumbled across it by happy accident, in fact.

I almost missed these offerings entirely. edX hasn’t publicized the current Tabernacle course at all (I saw it on a tweet by Class Central), and it was only through the Syllabus that I learned about the Jewish Medicine course. That’s a shame, since they’re terrific. I’ve been a bit of a snob about mini-moocs (I’ve called them “Youtube plus a quiz”) but I have to re-think that. For anyone interested in Jewish cultural history, medieval medicine, or manuscript studies, these are tiny little gems.

Demons and angels and gods, oh my! mooc

Course: Oriental Beliefs: Between Reason and Traditions
Length: self-paced; 8 weeks, 2-3 hrs/wk
School/platform: Université catholique de Louvain (Belgium)/edX
Instructor: ~24 instructors

This course takes a journey through the world of beliefs as they have developed in a great variety of cultures, ranging from Ancient Egypt, the Near East to Central Asia, India, China, and the Far East. We will discuss where these beliefs, theories and practices originated from, how they were passed on over the ages and why some are still so central to large communities of believers across the world today, whether it be amongst Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists or Shintoists.
We’ll be dealing with everything from gods and spirits, to angels and demons, to afterlife and the netherworld, as well as the great cycles of the universe and the tremendous power of lunar and solar eclipses. The interpretation of dreams and all sorts of magic and miraculous deeds will also be covered during this course.

Short version: Enjoyable survey course, covering a broad range of interesting topics with a couple of deeper dives towards the end.

I’ve said several times in the past that I tend to have trouble with survey courses, that I prefer depth to breadth. Still, while there were a few “catalog lectures” early on (this god does that, this demon does the other thing), I found many of the units quite interesting – and last three weeks were great.

It’s self-paced, with all material available at the outset. I completed it in about four weeks. The course twitter account sent messages once a week about the course and some of the material covered.

The first week opened with the usual introduction, including geographic and thematic scope and a word about interdisciplinary methods used. I was relieved to find the elephant in the room – the word “Oriental” in the title, which to me felt like fingernails scratching on a blackboard – was addressed in these introductory lessons, with an acknowledgement of the critique leveled in the Edward Said book which tarnished that word for some of us.

However it should be clear that where universities still have “Oriental Studies” as an administrative department of teaching and/or research, such as the Université catholique de Louvain, it has absolutely nothing to do with a lack of sensitivity with regard to the problem just alluded to, and even less to do with a neo-colonial attitude towards the languages and cultures under scrutiny. Instead, the survival of such departments should be understood almost entirely in terms of institutional politics, numbers of students, and budgetary considerations.
While acknowledging the historical fact that Oriental Studies as a discipline originated in these universities in times when an ethnocentric approach was a norm unchallenged by anyone, the “Oriental Beliefs” team is fully aware of the global nature of its audience and we have done our utmost to avoid any kind of “Eurocentrism”, bias or prejudice.

The material was arranged, not by culture or region as might be expected, but by topic: a week on gods, another on angels and demons, then the afterlife, astrology, and magic. I would guess the idea is to get a cross-cultural perspective on these themes. Astrology and alchemy, where so much material was passed via translations and adaptations, was particularly rich in this. I was a bit surprised gods, angels, and demons weren’t explicitly connected across cultures (the nature theme, for example), since it seemed to me there were obvious similarities and differences. I probably should have been more active on the forums to discuss these.

The roster of 24 different lecturers allowed for a great deal of diversity in what was covered and how it was presented. This approach comes with advantages and disadvantages: there’s a loss of connection, since there’s no one instructor (some of us have attachment issues, y’know?), but it also allows different approaches. I had several favorites; whether it was the material, or the presentation, I can’t be sure (that would be a cool research project for mooc learning, by the way). I found the lectures on Buddhism to be nearly incomprehensible (I stuck with my interpretation – Buddha was an agnostic who incorporated Hindu gods as a marketing tool – and moved on), but 23 out of 24 is still excellent any way you cut it.

The graded material consisted of brief quizzes (“training exercises”) at the end of some units, about five per week. Most of the questions were multiple choice; a few were matching or short-answer, one was a self-graded short-answer essay. The final exam counted for 60% of the grade; it covered all seven weeks of material, so I was very glad I used Cerego as a study aid for this course, as I was refreshing my memory on earlier material all along. The material isn’t hard, it’s just that there are a lot of different parts that interrelate, and it’s easy to get them confused.

I greatly enjoyed, somewhat to my surprise, the material on astrology and astronomy, magic, and alchemy, and, even more surprisingly, sorting out the Egyptian gods and theogony (I’ve always been distinctly uninterested in ancient Egypt, but it seems there was a way to intrigue even me). I also found the centuries-long ever-evolving story of the acheiropoieton, the miraculous portrait of Jesus “not painted by human hands”, to be of great interest. I also loved the last week, a more in-depth case study of another continuing saga of a miracle, this one from Coptic Egypt involving the moving of a mountain. Manuscripts got into the act, and, well, manuscripts, what else can I say. I feel like I finally have some understanding of Copts beyond “Egyptian Christians.” That, to me, is the real value of these types of courses: we feel more connected to places we’ll probably never go, places like the Muqattam area of Cairo, Ise in Japan, Armenia, and Georgia. These days, we need all the connection we can get.

It’s a class well worth taking for a broad overview, and a brief glimpse into what more in-depth work might involve, hinted at in the introductory remarks: “Most of the time, in fact, you will be implicitly exposed to methodologies deriving from a variety of fields, including archaeology, history in general, the history of ideas, the history of religions, the history of literature, and the branch of philology called textual criticism or (in a larger sense), textual scholarship.” Oooh, now there’s a mooc I want to take! We got a glimpse of this during the last two weeks, in the tracing of the miraculous portrait and the moving of the mountain. I hope to discover more along those lines in future moocs.

Human Rights Philosophy and Theory mooc

Course: Human Rights Theory and Philosophy
Length: 12 weeks, 8-10 hrs/wk
School/platform: Curtin University (Australia)/edX
Instructor: Dr. Caroline Fleay et al

The course commences through exploring the development of the conventional understanding of universal human rights and then moves to critiquing this concept from cultural relativist, postmodern, postcolonial and feminist perspectives. It also examines understandings of human rights from a range of cultural and religious perspectives as well as other contemporary rights issues.

Last year, after completing two of the Louvain international law courses, I started their Human Rights mooc; I dropped it quickly because I was exhausted from all the legal reading I’d been doing. So I was very glad this course came along, a more philosophy-based approach to human rights. While the legalese was greatly reduced, it was a course that took itself seriously, possibly because it’s part of a MicroMasters program Curtin offers in Human Rights. When taken as a Verified (i.e., paying) student, can be used to apply for admission to the degree program (as well as, I believe, earning credit in that Masters program, but check the details for yourself).

Each of the 13 weekly lessons consisted of two or three academic papers, and about 45 minutes of lecture divided into two videos. The videos were mostly voice-overs covering prepared slides (available as a separate download). You could read the transcripts, download the slides, and read the articles without watching the videos at all. The lectures were well-organized and followed the slides very closely.

Grading material took two forms: discussion board posts, which counted for 20%, and two peer assessed essays, which were 30% and 50% each. Verified students had their essays graded by the ad hoc mooc professor who also covered the discussion board. The assignments were very general – basically, sum up some part of the lectures for the period covered – yet the criteria were very specific. Sample essays were provided.

As I said, this course takes itself seriously, and the assignments reflected that: I flunked both essays. That’s not a complaint; because I was taking the course for my own purposes, I wrote about what interested me rather than worrying about criteria. In a less serious course, that sometimes works, but here, not a chance. Be forewarned if you want to take it for credit or as a path to admission: take the sample essays seriously. By the way, though I fell below the 70% pass mark on both essays, the discussion points brought me just barely up to snuff in the end. Be mindful, though, that to use the course as admissions criteria, a higher score is required (80%, I believe).

Week 1 started with a general look at human rights. Week 2 got into Locke, Hobbes, Marx, and all of the usual suspects (I’ve taken several political philosophy OCWs and the same crew always shows up), negative and positive rights. Mary Wollstonecraft was included, which was nice, since all lectures included the caveat that rights, as declared by the “classic liberals”, were for white property-owning men only (Jeet Heer would approve). In Week 3 the process of drafting and approving the UN Declaration on Human Rights was covered, along with its major provisions.

Then we moved into some critiques of the UDHR: particularly from the postmodern, postcolonial, and non-Western views. This was an eye-opening part of the course for me, and while I loved the review of early philosophy, I found weeks 4, 5, and 6 most valuable in terms of ideas new to me. Weeks 7 plus looked at critiques of the Western HR narrative from various points of view: indigenous populations, feminists, LGBTQ activists, the disabled, asylum seekers, and environmental activists.

All of these held interesting material. For example, the indigenous section was taught by Carol Dowling, a professor of aboriginal descent whose twin sister Julie is an artist painting pieces that the experience of the Australian aboriginal peoples and their family specifically. The section on rights for the Disabled included a TED talk by journalist/teacher/comedian Stella Young, who I’ve seen before in several venues; she passed away in 2014. The week on asylum seekers and refugees was heart-wrenching, given the frustration level I and so many Americans feel about our current administration’s refusal to provide more assistance.

I found it a valuable course; the ideas are very much worth understanding. It was, however, a lot more academic and less companionable than some moocs, and may not be the best starting point for some. I’ve often mentioned moocs that boiled down to “Youtube and a quiz”; this was more like “a podcast and two hours of reading you sum up for academic credit.” I wonder if that’s because it has to take itself seriously, in order to be taken seriously by academia; and I wonder if that’s a paradigm that can be changed to broaden the field.

Intro to Kabbalah MOOC

Course: Introduction to Kabbalah
Length: 5 weeks, 3-5 hrs/wk
School/platform: IsraelX/edX
Instructor: Boaz Huss, Yoed Kadary

This course will introduce you to the major ideas and practices of the Kabbalah from an academic point of view.
The course will examine basic Kabbalistic themes such as the theory of the Sefirot, ecstatic and prophetic Kabbalistic techniques, reincarnation, demonology, and practical Kabbalah. It will introduce major Kabbalistic works and movements, including the Sefer ha-Zohar, Lurianic Kabbalah, Hasidism, and the contemporary revival of popular Kabbalah….
The aim of this course is to introduce students with no background in Kabbalah or Jewish thought to the major ideas and practices of the Kabbalah in their historical and cultural settings. The ideas are presented in an accessible manner without jeopardizing the course’s academic rigor.

I skipped my usual preview-of-coming-attractions post this quarter, partly because a lot of classes seem to pop up all of a sudden without a long lead time. Like this one: I found out about it via an edX email days before the course started. It was a subject that interested me, so sure, I’ll play.

I’ve been aware of Kabbalah for decades, both from its mention in popular books and movies to reading a bit more about it in general-readership books on Judaism, like The Jewish Book of Why, but I never knew any of the details, or why some Jews studied it and others didn’t. Then the Beautiful People (aka Madonna) started doing Kabbalah and felt kind of pissed off, that it was being turned into something more like Scientology than something a yeshiva bocher might want to learn when he finished the Talmud. Turns out there are different kinds of Kabbalah, and some have little or nothing to do with Judaism – or religion, or philosophy – at all.

The first few weeks of the course covered the basic components of Kabbalah: the structure of the divine, how the Sefirot came into being, and how all the parts of the divine structure interacted with other parts and with humanity. This was kept academic, as promised; there were mentions of specific practices that could be involved, but they were only general descriptions. Then we moved into a more historical survey of the different schools of Kabbalah that sprang up in the late medieval period, the Renaissance, and in the modern period, as well as contemporary approaches to Kabbalah which move away from contemplation of the nature of the divine into more of a focus on self-help.

The basic theology of it all is fascinating, as was the history of the development of different Kabbalistic practices under different leaders in different times. A fair amount of the terminology was in Hebrew (in Roman orthography; no, we didn’t have to learn to read Hebrew, that would’ve been insane). It took some time and some effort, but now terms like Sefirot, Zohar, zimzum, and En-Sof kind of roll right off my tongue. Cerego was again very helpful.

Each week included a set of lecture videos, each one followed by a short quiz, and a Reading exercise in which a passage studied in the lecture was presented with multiple choice questions. A truly comprehensive final exam finished out the course, another reason I was glad I’d used Cerego, as I was still getting relevant material daily. The first six lessons were released two per week, which was a pretty brisk pace, but the remainder over Christmas holidays released once per week which was a lot more relaxed.

I greatly enjoyed the course, and would recommend it to anyone interested in learning something about the underpinnings of Kabbalah, rather than a specific practice; even at the basic levels, it’s a fascinating subject. As a neophyte I found it well-designed for beginners, with enough repetition and visual reinforcement to help with learning the necessary terms and concepts.

Design MOOC

Course: Design Theory
Length: 6 weeks, 3-4 hrs/wk
School/platform: IsraelX/edx
Instructor: Various

The first of its kind, this course is a pioneering exploration of theories of design theory. Much of the way we interact as a society springs from design and is influenced by it.
The course offers an in‐depth exposition of prime concepts in contemporary design theory. It looks to ask and answer questions such as: What is design? How is design related to the histories of culture, economics, and the arts? What is the role of design? What is the responsibility of the designer? What is creativity and how its use in design propels the development industry and technology? How is design related to contemporary markets and industries?

I have a notoriously hard time with courses that focus on creating visual presentations, either artistic or informational. So I approached this with some trepidation. But with a couple of exceptions, this isn’t a design course; it’s a philosophy course. In fact, the final wrap-up video used Paola Antonelli’s term “interior philosophers.” That’s fine by me.

The first lecture of each week tended to be very abstract and theoretical. As in:

However, formalism classifies design as primarily an aesthetic phenomenon. It considers design as part of the aesthetics domain of reality, which accordingly should be analyzed as such. The Design Object, according to formalist philosophy of design, is mainly an aesthetic object, whose essence is an aesthetic form. Its essence is its composition and appearance, the rightness of its structure, and the way its elements are combined and related to each other. In that respect, formalism is a materialist classification of design.

~~ Lecture, Week 1

Even though philosophy is, theoretically, my comfort zone, this required some parsing. As the week moved on and more concrete examples came into play, the first lecture of the week would become more relevant. I was often surprised – pleasantly! – at the directions some of the initial lectures took. Though I might not have been sure at a few points along the road, in the end I enjoyed this course. And I think I learned something – even though art, like math, often seems like something I just never quite understand.

Some highlights:

• An interview with Professor Yarom Vardimon on his earliest artistic influences, and his work on such projects as the 50th anniversary of Yad Vashem (how do you design a celebration that the word “anniversary” implies, with the events commemorated?) and a children’s hospital: colorful lights, toy shapes lining the corridors with names of donors, a bright and open entrance. Always present in his approach was his own experience.


• Design as a way of reinforcing, or challenging, social norms and expectations. This ranged from toys (which can restrict play to what is expected by the designer, and is reflected in the parent’s choice of the toy, or can allow creativity to use the toy in unexpected ways) to water bottles, which we evaluated on various criteria (turns out, I was on board with masculine and feminine, but I seem to have no idea what erotic, expensive, cheap, or comfortable look like).


• Design not only communicates from designer to user, but from user to society. Eyeglasses have become fashionable, conveying less of “something’s wrong with his eyes” to “wow, she must be smart” or “those glasses are awesome”; why not other assistive devices? Why can’t walkers and wheelchairs come in colors, to make them look like fun gizmos instead of something old people use? Prosthetic leg coverings are available in superhero styles; eye patches can be decorated.


• Harvard mathematician George David Birkhoff came up with ways to quantify aesthetics, both visual and linguistic. I have a lot of knee-jerk issues with this, but it’s an intriguing idea. For all our protestations that aesthetics is separate from rationality, it might not be quite so cut-and-dried (no, do NOT tell me about the golden mean and the Parthenon, I’ve been successfully inoculated against that by the best mathematicians around).


• Philosopher Walter Benjamin. What made this a highlight of the course was the purely coincidental and near-simultaneous appearance of a short story I was reading from the Pushcart Prize volume that rather overtly used Walter Benjamin’s aesthetic theories (and Hegel’s, though he didn’t show up in the course). There’s a reason I keep taking these courses. When I run across simulacra and grey-eyed goddesses in short stories, I have some idea what to make of them.

In addition to lecture videos, the course used a variety of participatory materials. Each week, a poll question started things off, a sort of priming mechanism that touched upon some aspect of the concepts to be covered. Short quizzes followed lecture sequences. Activities like the water bottle evaluation, and associated discussion questions, also contributed grades. The final week included a quiz that turned out to be a comprehensive final exam; I was a bit taken by surprise since it was embedded in the week 6 material (it was labeled “Final Exam” so I need to pay better attention). It was somewhat more difficult than the shorter weekly quizzes sometimes requiring making fine distinctions between elements of a theory, but once my pulse rate went down I found it to be an excellent summary of the material.

For me, the course was a great success. I was worried that, because I’m not in the field of design and am hampered by my art-blindness, I wasn’t “getting it”, but the final video, a casual discussion amongst three of the instructors, reassured me:

You know what I would like? That people who were finishing this class, this course, that maybe they go outside now to the world and start looking at those signs, and cars, and buildings, and spaces, and suddenly start thinking about what meaning they have in their lives, and how they are interacting with all these environments in a very interesting way, in a very intense way, something that maybe was a natural thing, transparent almost. It suddenly becomes more visible.
And more reliable. So also understanding that the objects that we use are not separate from us, and the technologies that we use are not separate from the way that we think of ourselves. And they actually in many ways construct our psychology and our self-perception as human beings, as we saw, and as individuals. So it’s extremely important that we understand what actually constructs our identity, if we are to preserve any type of agency, in a world that is technologically enhanced.

Turns out, I got it just fine. In fact, this extends my prior interest in advertising imagery to pretty much everything constructed by people: why was it made the way it was made? What is it trying to tell me? Do I have to listen? Do I want to? I can’t tell if I don’t hear it in the first place, and this course is an excellent way to start hearing what objects are saying.

Global History of Architecture mooc

Course: A Global History of Architecture
Length: 12 weeks, 8 hrs/wk
School/platform: MIT/edX
Instructor: Mark Jarzombek

How do we understand architecture? One way of answering this question is by looking through the lens of history, beginning with First Societies and extending to the 16th century. This course in architectural history is not intended as a linear narrative, but rather aims to provide a more global view, by focusing on different architectural “moments”….
…Why study the history of architecture? Architecture stages cultural dramas. Buildings, in that sense, are active, designed to do something. Different buildings activate their surroundings in different ways. We go to history to see how these experiments were done.

To call this course “The History of Architecture” does it a disservice, since it’s a history of so much more – of cultures, religions, trade and commerce, and, as we go from the first indications of human modifications of the environment, from the 70,000-year-old ochre and beads of Blombos Cave in South Africa, to the pre-Holocene peoples of Europe, Asia, and the Pacific Rim, through the Bronze and Iron ages to Classical civilizations, across the innovations of Chinese, Indian, and Middle Eastern peoples reaching the European Gothic and Renaissance periods via trade, to the exploitation of New World peoples by Old World commerce, the history of our brilliance, our goodness, our stupidity and cruelty, our human-ness. It’s really quite amazing, how much is packed into these twelve weeks.

I’ll admit, I was a bit confused at first – I never expected lemurs to lead off an architecture course – and I wondered if it had simply been mistitled, and should be Archeology or Anthropology. But that was ok, too, it was interesting whatever it was, and eventually I caught on to the point: our skyscrapers, our political systems, our religious belief and the way we furnish our houses, all that proceeded from that paleolithic cave. Somewhere in the last four weeks, the quote above about cultural dramas and activating surroundings appeared, and I fully realized the value of this approach. I do think an introductory video would be a big help, however.

I’m beginning to understand that the term “architecture” encompasses more than buildings. The arrangement of places for various activities – sleeping, eating, burials, ceremonies – was prevalent in some of the early discussions of First Societies, the earliest examples of people living in groups, today exemplified by the !Kung (or San: yes, like the guy from The Gods Must Be Crazy). Yet many of their customs are still with us: eating together, forming circles, rituals for coming of age and hunting (or, as we’d put it, going to work). Prof. Jarzombek is a specialist in First Societies, so we spent a fair amount of time with the Gravettians and the Magdalenians, noting the differences between the two.

I’ve taken world history courses that didn’t cover history as well as this course, in terms of the big picture. Where were the most active population centers, and why? What beliefs, available materials, and situational needs motivated the culture and thus the architectures? Climate changes and environmental upheaval such as earthquakes changed trade routes, motivated invasions and migrations, and offered or shut down trade. It was all fascinating, one long story of people moving around, adapting to new conditions. Yet some major world history events were ignored: The Crusades, for example, are not mentioned. Sometimes the timeline got a little blurred, since there was necessarily some back-and-forth as the focus switched geographical areas (and I assume there’s a “Part 2” course that picks up where we left off, but that hasn’t made it to moocland yet). I felt like I understood the general flow of human history much better by the end of this course, and once I got used to the presentation style (it took a couple of weeks), I had a great time.

And then of course there were buildings, plenty of buildings. Stonehenge, pyramids, Angkor Wat, the basilica of St. Peter, the Hagia Sofia and Dome of the Rock were all featured, but there was a great deal besides: the coastal villages of the Haida, the Maasai in Kenya and the Hammer in Ethiopia, Maltese cave temples, the roof-accessible houses of the early city at Çatal Hüyük (now Turkey), the city of Cahokia – the Native American metropolis that was larger than the London of its time, and remained the largest city in what is now the US until Philadelphia of the early 19th century – steppes, caves, shores, mountains, forests… well,I could go on, but you get the idea. From the adjoining square houses of Turkey, accessible only from the roof, to the amazing rock-cut temples in India, the beautiful mosques with fantastic arches and domes to Hindu and Buddhist shrines and Greek temples and Christian basilicas and Gothic cathedrals to Versailles, it was just amazing to see what people come up with no matter what their level of technology.

The final lecture was a fascinating look at buildings over time, a subject mentioned several times during the course but really brought to fruition at the end. Some buildings, like Greek and Roman temples, weren’t meant to be expanded; new buildings were added later on. The Egyptians, on the other hand, were happy to expand the temple at Karnak over the years, and the same happened with Christian churches and Muslim mosques. Buildings that were originally pagan temples became churches, mosques, synagogues as populations changed. Then we looked at issues of restoration and preservation. Interesting questions about authenticity came up. And then there’s the amazing approach of Jorge Otero-Pailos, who, among other things, removes layers of dirt from buildings using a special rubber compound, then displays those layers in sequence, in a kind of archaeology of soot. Without the course preceding this lecture, would it have affected me so deeply? I suspect not.

I’m pretty sure this was a pre-existing OCW recycled as a mooc. Sometimes this repackaging works, sometimes it doesn’t; here, I think it did, although I have to admit the content had far more to do with my enthusiasm than the presentation. The ‘live” in-class lecture approach is a bit less polished than a multiple-take video, but I still prefer it, as read-to-camera so often comes off as stilted and nervous. The professor’s enthusiasm and off-the-cuff commentary more than made up for image quality and occasionally confusing syntax.

I did have a hard time finding a good image of the professor for this post. I always try to find a snip that is representative of the course, visually interesting on its own, and reasonably flattering. In this case, where most of the videos were shot in the dark with the prof wandering in and out of projector light, I had to make some compromises, but I don’t think that sort of thing weighs heavily on anyone’s decision to take the course or not.

The lectures were basically slide shows accompanied by narratives about a period, or descriptions of the architecture under consideration.The visuals were sometimes hard to see, but most of them are available online elsewhere, with the exception of maps drawn on Google Earth scenes, which were… pretty messy, to be honest, and not intuitive. But I understand his point about maps showing current nation boundaries being useless in this context; his maps did contain useful information about migration patterns and available resources. They’re worth getting used to.

Each week includes two lectures, both about 90 minutes. They estimate 8 hours a week is required for the course; that sounds reasonable to me, though it took me longer because of the way I do things (and I’m slow). A free online textbook was provided; it’s huge, and I found it difficult to use, but I’m not that comfy with online books; someone more used to Kindles and such might find it much easier. A print version is available; it’s pricey, but if I were a freshman humanities student, I’d invest in it. For that matter, if I could find a used copy for $15, I’d buy it.

Grading was based on “homework” – a few multiple-choice questions following most of the lectures – and on four exams given at regular intervals. The homework doesn’t count for much; the exams are weighted far more heavily; view the homework as practice for the exams, and as extra credit. The exam questions are half multiple choice, half labeling or identifying; no surprises, all information retrieval, though once in a while a topic not explicitly covered in the lectures (but presumably in the text) will show up.

I found Cerego invaluable here; there was just too much stuff to remember it all without constant reinforcement. While it’s time-consuming to enter important points from each lecture into a quiz set, it serves as studying, and it was very much worth it when the exams rolled around. And it’s still nice to see the early material cropping up, reminding me of the rest of the lecture around key points. Makes me smile.

The discussion boards were very active with “official” threads for topics Staff set up; I didn’t participate so I can’t speak to the quality of discussions or staff presence. I personally dislike overdirected commentary, but it does provide structure, so it’s really a matter of preference.

I’d highly recommend the course for its broad approach and fascinating content, with the caveat that the presentation isn’t as “slick” as some courses made for moocs. I’m more than willing to make that tradeoff. I feel like I know the world better as a result of this course, and that’s as good as education gets.

The Greek Hero in 24 Hours mooc

Course: The Ancient Greek Hero

Length: 15 weeks, 5-8 hrs/wk
School/platform: Harvard/edX
Instructor: Gregory Nagy & his Board of Readers

Explore what it means to be human today by studying what it meant to be a hero in ancient Greek times.
In this introduction to ancient Greek culture and literature, learners will experience, in English translation, some of the most beautiful works of ancient Greek literature and song-making spanning over a thousand years from the 8th century BCE through the 3rd century CE: the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey; tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides; songs of Sappho and Pindar; dialogues of Plato, and On Heroes by Philostratus….
No previous knowledge of Greek history, literature, or language is required. This is a project for students of any age, culture, and geographic location, and its profoundly humanistic message can be easily received without previous acquaintance with Western Classical literature.

Short version: An outstanding class, focusing on thematic elements of Greek literature, particularly by use of detailed examination of language. It’s a massive class in length, depth, and complexity, but it’s one of those “if you get half of it, you’ve accomplished a lot” things.

The course was set up as a series of “hours”; in most weeks, two of these hours were covered. The presentations varied: often, Prof. Nagy would discuss some element with a student, postdoc, or fellow professor, each of whom might have different specialities. In the early weeks, outside materials were covered frequently: films (several Blade Runner clips in particular– “Like tears in rain. Time to die” – were discussed in detail), ballet, songs and rituals from a variety of cultures – Maori, Slavic, Korean, Ethiopian – and more contemporary literature, showing how elements of Greek song culture persists today.

Each hour focused on eight to fifteen core passages, often from several works, using one or two Greek words as a basis for the thematic topic: kleos, akhos/penthos, therapon, sema, psūkhē, dikē, and so on. These words and the intricacies of their meanings in different contexts and eras formed a backbone around which the discussion grew. From there things mushroomed into a huge treasure chest of philosophy, history, artistic interpretation, linguistics, and literary theory. It’s quite an experience, but one I find hard to describe from outside the course.

For example, in the early weeks we covered Achilles’ decision-making process on whether to return to Greece or continue fighting. His mother told him if he left, he would live a long, safe, unheralded life, but if he stayed, he would die but would receive glory (kleos) forever – which has special resonance since we’re reading these words written a few thousand years ago, recited hundreds of years before that. Then, in one of the last hours, we see Plato rewrite Achilles so his decision is not based on a desire for fame but on justice. Is this legal? What does it mean, to edit the story this way?

The materials insist the class is suitable, even intended, for those without any prior exposure to ancient Greek literature. It’s absurd for me to second-guess these guys – the course has been part of the Harvard curriculum for decades (one of my mooc buddies took it when she was an undergrad there), it was one of the earliest moocs on edX, and hell, even Oprah took it, or at least took parts of it, since she mentioned it in the 2013 commencement speech she delivered at Harvard – but I wouldn’t have wanted it to have been my first classics course. The focus is not on plot or traditional interpretation – you’re expected to read the works and get that on your own – but on how heroic elements are conveyed and how these run through different genres and ages of literature.

While there’s a wealth of material on all of the covered works (I found The Rugged Pyrrhus to be useful for brief traditional summaries, while Overly Sarcastic Productions is the Mad Magazine of hilarious classics/history interpretation) I’m not sure I could’ve done all the work required if I hadn’t already taken coursework on these plays and poems. Actually, I am sure: I’d never read the entire Iliad as a single work before (and still haven’t read the Catalog of Ships or the details of most of the battles, though a lot of that was covered in the class) and it was an intense four weeks; sustaining that for 14 weeks would’ve been absurd. But, everyone’s different.

Graded material was minimal: a few multiple choice questions and a set of text-interpretation questions at the end of each hour. The questions were surprisingly difficult, with subtle shades of meaning or levels of detail frequently distinguishing one answer from another. Or maybe I’m just stupid; although I “passed”, I did fairly poorly on the graded material, and often felt perplexed as to why. But since my purpose has nothing to do with grades, I did the best I could to understand what was being asked, versus what I thought was required.

Also part of the grading was the discussion forum. I really hate forced discussions, so I skipped this entirely. For this class, discussion was held on an outside site which required separate login permission. At the time I started, I was kind of annoyed by this, as well as by the requirement to post; I’ve signed up for these in other courses, and it annoys me to have so many logins and hand out my email to so many systems I’m only going to use once (and makes me a little nervous in this time of electronic insecurity). So I didn’t request a login/password. I came to regret that about halfway through since I found I had questions and observations I would have liked to have shared. Every week a status email would introduce the new material and give a link for obtaining the necessary permissions, so I could have changed my mind at any point, but I didn’t.

I used Cerego as a study aid, creating a “memory set” for the course, and I’m quite glad I did. It was useful during the course itself, to keep track of words and concepts and characters (who was Eëtion again, what does lugros mean?) since there was so much to remember, but it’s also nice to have it as a reminder afterwards, to retain more than I otherwise would have. And it’s fun to be reminded of things down the road, when the timed recall goes to weeks and then months.

A free textbook is part of the course; this can be downloaded as a PDF or purchased as an e-book, or just read online. It includes significant introductory details on the video material; I found that I had a much better grasp of things when I spent the time to go through the text before the videos, than when I skipped it for lack of time. Many of the quiz questions I found puzzling were, in fact, in this introductory material, though it took an embarrassingly long time to realize that: details of motivations and deeper levels of interpretation. It’s fascinating reading.

Our project is about heroes— not the way we may understand them when we first hear the word, but the way the ancient Greeks understood them in the context of ancient Greek civilization. I’m arguing that if you understand what the ancient Greek hero is, you simultaneously will understand far better what ancient Greek civilization is….
And I guarantee you, if you get through especially the Iliad and the Odyssey and the seven tragedies and the two dialogues of Plato, you will really feel the way Herodotus says you should feel: that you’ve had a civilizing experience.
…we’re trying to do it all at once in translation, with key words embedded in the translation so that you don’t get tempted to read into the text. You keep reading out of the text, because these key words are some of the basic words of Greek civilization. I can go away saying that you, if you participated in this, you are civilized by the standards of ancient Greek civilization. We are essentially making an attempt to engage with all of Greek civilization, even if we start with specific things that we hope will inspire people to go even further.

~ Prof. Gregory Nagy

I think of this course as “Modpo for classics” – a kind of “spend as much time as you have” thing, where you can probably zip through it and get the basics (the key points are repeated many times), or you can spend all your free time exploring depths and asides. And, it’s apparently a course a lot of people take more than once, just to get more out of it.

I knew about this a couple of years ago, but I didn’t want to bother with the Iliad; to me, it was all about battles and war. I’m very glad that I now understand it’s about far more than that.

Justice MOOC

Course: Justice
Length: 12 weeks, 2-4 hrs/wk (self-paced, open 6 months)
School/platform: Harvard via edX
Instructor: Michael J. Sandel

Justice explores critical analysis of classical and contemporary theories of justice, including discussion of present-day applications.…The course invites learners to subject their own views on these controversies to critical examination.
The principal readings for the course are texts by Aristotle, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, and John Rawls. Other assigned readings include writings by contemporary philosophers, court cases, and articles about political controversies that raise philosophical questions.
What you’ll learn
• The fundamentals of political philosophy
• An understanding of social justice and criminal justice, and the roles they play in the modern justice system
• A deeper sense of the philosophy that underlies modern issues such as affirmative action, same sex marriage, and equality
• The ability to better articulate and evaluate philosophical arguments and ask philosophical questions

Back in the late 80s, PBS ran a series called “Ethics in America” (available online, because Youtube) led by a Harvard law school professor. He’d present a fairly straightforward situation to a panel made up of a variety of professionals – former government officials, educators, lawyers, doctors, journalists, it varied depending on the theme of the week – and ask, “What would you do, and why?” Then he’d complicate the situation, and complicate it again in a different way.

Michael Sandel has been teaching the Justice course at Harvard, the basis for this mooc, for thirty years, and it operates along the same lines as the PBS series. There may well be some organic connection, given the timing and similarity.

I remember watching the series as ethical principles were edited, sometimes abandoned. Sometimes it was because, they’d admit, they simply weren’t up to what their ethical belief required of them. But my take-away was that no one system of ethics works 100% of the time, that we mostly operate in a kind of ethical relativism (oh, that dirty word), evaluating each situation and determining priorities of principles. Funny thing is, just within the past few years I’ve been learning a lot about Jonathan Haidt and system 1/system 2 decision making: the theory is, we make decisions, including ethical decisions, almost instantaneously by gut instinct, then search for a logical reason to defend those decisions. I kept that in mind as I worked through the course.

Sandel’s book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do is an optional companion volume to the mooc; several chapters are included in the online readings. I’ve ordered it, just to have everything in one place.

I took a different approach to this course: because it was evident it was a back-and-forth discussion live-taped with a (very large) in-person class, I decided to forego my usual saving of video transcripts and readings. I just winged it. I’ve taken just about every philosophy course offered by both Coursera and edX, as well as a couple of Yale OCWs on political philosophy, so the material presented was familiar. A hypothetical case served as a starting point for discovering the limits of utilitarianism, libertarianism, and all the other -isms.

I heard a new context for Locke’s property rights in relation to the appropriation of native American land by colonial, and later, American, forces; I got a better understanding of Kant’s Categorical Imperative; and even though I will forever mis-refer to John Rawls as Lou Rawls (I just will; yes, I know the difference between the philosopher and the musician, so shut up) I’m glad I got more opportunity to look at his ideas beyond the veil of ignorance.

Each of the mooc’s 24 modules began with a Moral Dilemma poll (with a few exceptions), followed by a half-hour live-taped class session with 1000 students in the beautiful Sanders Hall. But don’t let the number put you off: the sessions have a remarkably intimate feel, as individual students answer “What would you do” questions and defend their choices, sometimes using philosophical language, sometimes just speaking off the cuff and allowing Sandel to guide them to a more formal statement of guiding principle. He asks the name of every student, and seems to remember it later on. Differences are viewed less as arguments than as multiple ways of approaching an issue. It’s really quite something to watch.

In terms of grades, the multiple-choice final exam is extra-weighted (70%). Unit quizzes and the Moral Dilemma polls make up the rest. The polls are graded on participation only; a situation is presented, and a choice between two or three options is allowed, along with a chance to write as much or as little as you like to defend your choice, and a chance to change your mind upon reading other opinions. I’d be very curious to know how many people changed their position; I suspect more than a few changed their rationale (I did several times, since others worded it more clearly) but I don’t think I changed sides at all. This in itself led to some self-reflection: am I closed to other ideas, or have I simply thought things through carefully?

For me, grades had little to do with this. I considered it a highly successful class, albeit one I zipped through, partly because it was so enjoyable, and partly because I was comfortable with the territory. I’m going to enjoy revisiting it all when I read the book.

The Great War: Philosophy MOOC

Course: The Great War and Modern Philosophy
Length: 8 weeks
School/platform: KULeuven/edX
Instructor: Nicolas de Warren

In the celebrated words of the American diplomat George Kennan, the First World War was the ‘original catastrophe of the 20th century’, a catastrophe that, arguably, left no aspect of European civilization unchanged. But in what sense was the First World War the original catastrophe of modern philosophy, of philosophy in the twentieth century?
One of the most remarkable aspects of the war is the way in which philosophers in various belligerent nations felt the need to speak about the war, to address the war in philosophical terms. There was a sense in which something was philosophically at stake in the war which required philosophers to mobilize their concepts and arguments towards this understanding.
In this course, we’re interested in pursuing different ways in which philosophers during the First World War responded and thought about the war.

On April 2, 1917, the United States entered WWI with a declaration of war against Germany. My local historical society is just wrapping up an exhibit on the impact of the war in Maine, so I’ve been seeing posters and documents displayed in the windows nearly every day as I walk down Congress Street. The timing of this course coincides with the anniversary, but this was its second run; the first was almost two years ago.

I have mixed feelings about the course. On the plus side, I encountered a huge swath of philosophy from thinkers I hadn’t read before. On the down side, the swath was too huge; most weeks required hours of dense reading, yet I was only able to get a very general sense of the major points through lectures far to brief to cover the material in any depth. I noticed this was an adjunct to an in-person course, so maybe that’s why it had the feel of a supplement to a “real” class. It’s the kind of material that, for me at least, would require far more time, and guidance, to absorb.

It was, I will say, an outstandingly produced course. The lecture videos were cinematic, with carefully chosen locations and introductory music that began as a low, ominous hum under the spoken words, then crescendoed at a well-chosen break point to develop into a melancholic theme overlaid by old-style film cuts complete with blotches, pops and crackles. Tremendous work and care must’ve gone into the timing and graphics of these lectures. Some videos were “conversations” with a verité feel, filmed in a coffee shop – again, with a nicely composed introduction of umbrella’d arrival and cappuccino artistry. The production values were extraordinarily high, the material engrossing and moving; I just wish the lectures had been twice as long, at least, with more explicit commentary.

Much of the material was quite depressing (hey, whaddya want, it’s about a particularly grisly war), partly because it’s a bit alarming to study the breakup of Old Europe when the breakup of new Europe may be in progress. Reading the German idealist and nationalist materials brought to mind American exceptionalism and MAGA, both of which feel catastrophic to me at the moment. The poetry was heartbreaking, the art devastating. But I think it’s important that we not lose touch, in this era of drones and air assaults launched from hundreds of miles away from the targets, in a time when most American families do not have anyone in the military, of the real pain that war entails, of the real sight, sound, and feel of death and destruction, so maybe we won’t be so eager to chant war slogans from the safety of our living rooms and offices when our pride is the only thing wounded.

Hey, I warned you it was depressing.

Grading was based primarily on self-evaluation of discussion board contributions. I had a pretty good conversation with one student about German idealism, and made a few other substantial posts. A few multiple choice quizzes, and one peer-assessment assignment, rounded out the graded material.

Somehow I felt like I just missed the boat somewhere along the line, in spite of the artistry and the emotionality. Maybe it’s because I was overwhelmed with too many courses for the first six weeks; maybe it’s a side effect of the current moment, or maybe I was just missing out on some historical subtext. I wish there had been more, but I don’t know exactly what. Still, I’m glad to have some idea of the flow of ideas through the period, and I hope I can expand upon it more in the future.

Architectural MOOC

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

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.

Religion + cogscience + psych + soc + anthro + digital humanities = MOOC

Course: The Science of Religion
Length: 6 weeks
School/platform: UBC/edX
Instructors: Edward Slingerland, Azim Shariff
What is religion? Are we wired to believe? Does science have the answers?…Drawing on new scientific advances, this religion course examines foundational questions about the nature of religious belief and practice.
Topics to be covered will include traditional and contemporary theories of religion, with a special emphasis on cultural evolutionary models.

I’ve always felt one of the factors religion had going for it was its ubiquity in human history and, for that matter, prehistory. This course helped me understand why that might be the case – and a lot of other things besides.

Because I’d already taken the Chinese Thought moocs with Dr. Slingerland, I expected this to include a lot of cognitive and psychological science; I wasn’t disappointed. I discovered a technique of breaking down religion into cognitive units, of tracing religion through history and language, and of studying religious texts, new and old, through the digital humanities technique I’ve previously seen described as corpus linguistics. I even got the verdict on remote prayer (spoiler alert: contrary to that episode of The West Wing, it’s not scientifically verifiable). The material only grazed the surface of most of these questions, but there’s only so much you can do in six weeks and they went for breadth rather than depth. I found it fascinating.

The course setup was standard mooc: a set of lectures, a couple of ungraded “knowledge checks” after each, and a weekly graded multiple-choice information retrieval quiz that comprised the final grade. Each instructor did a week or two as a unit, switching a couple of times during the course. Along with numerous guest experts they look at religion (all religion, from Brazilian simpatias to Polynesian sects to the ancient Chinese to those more common to most of us) from a variety of angles. Do we have some cognitive structure that makes religion as natural as language, and if so, is it intentional, or a side effect, so to speak, of another structure with a more practical evolutionary value? What cognitive elements do religions have in common? What are the psychological benefits to religion? How does religion affect communities? Can we study religious development by examining religious texts of the past? Can we design models to predict religious development? What about atheism, how does that fit in? What is most likely to happen to religion in the future?

Each week featured several optional extended interviews with the guest experts, as well as publicly-available videos featuring Baba Brinkman and Jordan Peterson relating to the topics at hand. A final improv video discussing popular topics and hot debates from the message boards ended each week, and if you still hadn’t had enough, every lecture segment ended with a long list of references for further reading. And to my delight, as in the Chinese Thought course, a weekly “blooper reel” brought the funny. Neither of the instructors comes across as pedantic or stuffy – quite the contrary – but it’s still nice to know even seriously smart people screw up. Sometimes repeatedly. And they manage to maintain a sense of humor about it.

I encountered a couple of things I’d never seen before in a mooc. First, while some introductory material was available immediately, the course content could only be accessed after acknowledging the discussion forum rules. The rules were standard (no threatening, no ridiculing) and are included somewhere in every mooc, but the prominence was interesting, and probably a good idea given the subject matter. The forums were very active and interesting, well-covered by staff, and I didn’t notice any problems at all; I’ve seen hotter tempers in math moocs.

Another new (to me) twist, one which disappointed me, was the inclusion of a fairly common “live hangout” session – but only for Verified, that is, paying, students. More and more, edX courses are finding ways to tuck course material behind paywalls. It wasn’t lack of access to the material that bothered me – I rarely participate in hangouts, though I like to watch them, but here there was more than enough material to keep me very busy – as much as the harbinger of things to come. I have no idea what kind of incentives or restrictions are part of the package these days for course presenters, but I’m guessing it’s persuasive.

Bottom line: I found the course well worth the time invested, and made several connections to other areas of interest that invite further follow-up.

Questioning Reality MOOC

Course: Question Reality! Science, philosophy, and the search for meaning
Length: 6 weeks, 2-4 hrs/wk
School/platform: Dartmouth/edX
Instructors: Marcelo Gleiser

How much can we know of the physical world? Can we know everything? Or are there fundamental limits to how much we can explain? If there are limits, to what extent can we explain the nature of physical reality? RealityX investigates the limits of knowledge and what we can and cannot know of the world and ourselves.
We will trace the evolution of ideas about the nature of reality in philosophy and the natural sciences through the ages. Starting with the philosophers of Ancient Greece and ending with cutting edge theories about the universe, quantum physics, and the nature of consciousness.

Current events have a lot of us questioning reality these days. Different type of questions, though. The main questions in this course are outlined above: how do we know things, and how much is it possible for us to ever know? The course combines philosophical and scientific explorations, and proceeds chronologically from the pre-Socratics to the Renaissance to Einstein to the present day. Prof. Gleiser is a theoretical physicist specializing in particle cosmology, and the course roughly follows his book The Island of Knowledge, written for the general science reader.

I’ve taken three or four of these science/philosophy courses, and each time I get a little more comfortable. This one is pretty introductory, and it hits all the “ooooh, cool” spots (How would we know if we’re brains in vats? Why should we care about Schrodinger’s cats?) without requiring reading anything beyond Gleisner’s NPR blog articles. I have to say I found his explanation of electron orbits to be the most helpful one I’ve encountered, though it’s possible I’m just now at the point where I’m ready to start understanding things like what standing waves have to do with quantum theory.

Each week started with a great feature: an ungraded What Do You Know pretest, full of questions that range from factual (T/F: Violet light has more energy than red light) to conceptual opinion (Agree/disagree: Mathematics is something we invent; Reality only exists in our minds). These questions are repeated at the end of the week, offering concrete evidence that something was, indeed, learned, even if only a better definition of “reality”. Material also included a video lecture and several interviews with other philosophers and scientists on the topics covered. A few graded multiple-choice questions were scattered through the material, along with several short written assignments in the form of posts, journal entries, and short self-graded essays. A Reddit AMA with Prof. Gleiser finished off the week.

The discussion forums were active and I got into some excellent discussions along the way. I also enjoyed a project from the first week: understanding a pendulum’s motion. Now, I took the easy route and used the available online pendulum simulator, because I’m a klutz, but it was an interesting way to play around with the topic of observation and experiment.

I was often slightly confused by the logistics of the course, so I just plugged away at whatever looked interesting, be it posting on a discussion or self-grading an essay or answering questions (though I never did find the Learning Journal). I say that a lot, don’t I. In this case, the multiple evaluation options were complicated by a bilingual approach: the course was offered in Portuguese as well as English, with all written material in both languages so everything appeared twice. I wholeheartedly support broadening the appeal to include more people worldwide, and I would rather deal with my befuddlement than restrict the audience. It’s a tough problem, and I applaud them for taking it on. I got used to the double-entries after just a few weeks; if more courses took this approach, we’d all get used to it, and it’s a small price to pay for inclusion of those who would otherwise be unable to participate.

One of the great discoveries for me in the course was another book, mentioned in Week 3: Steven Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern . I’ve only gone through 80 pages, but it’s wonderful: Poggio, Medieval Book-Raider, goes among the monks to rediscover Lucretius and atomism as Europe turned towards renaissance. Manuscripts, history, philosophy, science, the classics, all packaged in a wonderfully told story: who could ask for more.

Humblebragging: Intellectual Humility MOOC

Course: Intellectual Humility: Theory
Length: 3 weeks 2-8 hrs/wk
School/platform: University of Edinburgh/Coursera
Instructors: Various

Faced with difficult questions people often tend to dismiss and marginalize dissent. Political and moral disagreements can be incredibly polarizing, and sometimes even dangerous. And whether it’s Christian fundamentalism, Islamic extremism, or militant atheism, religious dialogue remains tinted by arrogance, dogma, and ignorance. The world needs more people who are sensitive to reasons both for and against their beliefs, and are willing to consider the possibility that their political, religious and moral beliefs might be mistaken. The world needs more intellectual humility.

I’d never heard of a subfield of philosophy called Intellectual Humility before about two weeks ago; then, in the space of two days, I heard of it twice from two different sources. I’m sure that was just confirmation bias (see, I haven’t been doing all this for nothing); I’d probably hear the term before but didn’t remember it until I signed up for a mooc about it.

I haven’t been paying much attention to Coursera since they went with this new platform. But I do follow professors and departments from past moocs, and since I’ve taken a couple of Edinburgh philosophy courses, a series of cute tweets about Icarus and intellectual humility came across my feed and made me curious.

All material was released at once, so I ended up finishing in about 2 weeks. A few technical glitches, typical of first-run courses and not likely to recur, started things off: the course didn’t open properly, and since that was scheduled on a Friday, there was no staff to fix it until Monday; a couple of lecture videos and transcripts were out of place. The lectures themselves were clear; a couple of them had some minor issues – “place illustration here” instead of the illustration, for example, but they were easy to follow and visually appealing. Grading was done on the basis of multiple-choice information-retrieval tests of the take-as-many-times-as-you-want variety. Many academic articles were provided, mostly as draft versions of journal articles, which is a great compromise between open and closed access.

As is usual with Edinburgh courses, I found the overall course structure a bit confusing. They admirably try to accommodate different levels of interest and experience by dividing each week into Learn, Engage, and Go Further sections, but there are tradeoffs. It’s kind of hard to tell, but only the Learn part is required to “pass” if a certificate is all that’s desired. It’s pretty disconcerting when a notice suddenly pops up: “You’ve passed Week 2” – or worse, “You’ve passed the course!” – when half of the items on the task list were still undone. It’s not exactly conducive to covering the “Go Further” material.

I was startled, and absolutely delighted, to see an article incorporating Edward Slingerman’s Trying Not To Try, the supplementary text from the UBC Chinese philosophy course, as a starting point. I can see the point: can you try to develop humility? Doesn’t that lead to being arrogant about being humble? I haven’t fully digested the article, but it looks at anti-individualism, which is another topic I’ve been running into a lot lately.

The point of intellectual humility seems to be to get people to be more open minded and willing to look at facts instead of relying on things like “the people I like believe this so I do to” or “this is what my parents told me so it must be right” or “Gee, if that other thing is true, I’d have to change how I live, and I don’t want to do that so it must be false.” Good luck with that. The course results from a grant by the John Templeton Foundation, which, among other things, advocates civil discourse about matters of science and religion. Good luck with that, too. I’ve never seen the two as conflicting. No, I don’t believe the world was created in six days, but as far as I know, science can’t tell us what caused the Big Bang or what happened before, and I’m perfectly fine with the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen as long as no one tries to legislate them or teach them in science class.

I enjoyed the overview of morality, and the creation of a philosophical structure using one of four questions: What is valuable? What is a good person? What are good actions? What is a good life? with the other three questions are subordinated to the first. I rather enjoyed the week on measuring intellectual humility as well, though it seems it’s mostly in the self-report stage. I also liked that each week opened with a very brief introduction of the subject, followed by an opportunity to explore ideas without worrying about grades: short answer questions on, say, how intellectual humility could be measured.

Posting on the forums was plentiful – several interesting discussion questions were suggested, inviting but not requiring response. I tried, but found minimal interaction on points raised by lectures or applications thereof, lots of parallel monologues and opinions, and a couple of arguments. I missed the point most of the time. I don’t know if I’m clueless, if my bleak outlook is clouding my vision, or if the whole subject is truly much ado about nothing. It seems to me a lot of this belongs to the discipline of psychology.

Two additional modules, one on “practice” and one on “science”, are scheduled for 2017. I’m glad I took the course, given the minimal time investment, to get an overview, but at the moment I’m not interested enough to follow up; I suppose that may change by the time the future modules open.

Timing is everything. Edinburgh is in Scotland, of course, and the UK just went through their own upheaval last summer. I’m sure it’s pure coincidence that this course was scheduled for the period while we wait for the world’s (arguably) least intellectually humble person to take on the world’s (arguably) most important job. If anyone survives the next few years, some great research might result.

Philosophy’s greatest hits MOOC: God, Knowledge, Identity, and like that

Course: Introduction to Philosophy: God, Knowledge and Consciousness
Length: 12 weeks 5hrs/wk
School/platform: MIT/edX
Instructors: Caspar Hare

What you’ll learn
•    How to construct and analyze philosophical arguments
•    How to write clearly and communicate complicated ideas effectively
•    Arguments for and against the existence of God
•    The distinction between epistemic and practical rationality
•    Theories of Knowledge
•    Physicalist and Non-Physicalist theories of consciousness
•    Free Will and Determinism
•    Personal Identity

I very much wish I’d take this course before I took Alex Byrne’s “Minds and Machines” mooc. For one thing, it would’ve shown me the correct approach to the readings: tease out the argument being made into premise/conclusion format, or identify the premise being disproved for objections. In fact, I kind of want to take the Byrne course again; I think I’ll get a lot more out of it.

This one serves as a very good introduction to some of the foundational papers for the topics covered, from Hume, Descartes and Pascal to 20th century thinkers. I have some quibbles with presentation style, but that’s a matter of personal preference. I did finally get to see Damien, the TA from both Minds & Machines and the earlier Infinity course, as he took part in a couple of skits (and managed to nick $5 in doing so… you’ll have to take the course to find out how). And there was a rather hilarious running trope about psychotic Oprah, infected by a bacterium that causes her to attack anyone in sight.

I find the MIT courses have an odd structure in terms of how weeks, modules, and lectures are subdivided, but it boils down to lecture/quizlet/essay. The lectures are broken into short segments, and classroom discussion videos are interspersed. Most videos are followed by a couple of graded questions. Three 800 word essays round out the evaluation materials, but they’re self-graded unless you want to pay $300 for the “human-graded” (for some reason I find that phrase hilarious) option. I skipped the last essay out of sheer laziness. I’m not doing this for grades, and I’ve been rather low on motivation of all kinds since November 8.

The discussion boards were well-covered, though they included too much, since it was one of those “what do you think about this” which generated hundreds of single-post threads. This is a problem with the edX system itself, not with the course, but it’s mostly evident in courses that use this forced-posting element; no matter how many times you tell people to reply instead of starting a new post, most of them will start a new post. However, I did get a couple of questions answered (oddly, both about math – the use of the term “induction” and “identity” in math vs philosophy).

In spite of my seeming lack of enthusiasm, I think this actually works quite well as a first “serious” philosophy course. I like the use of actual papers (or translations thereof) rather than explanations accompanied by a quote or two; I also like the pursuit of a topic through argument A, refutation, counterargument, argument B, etc. And I like the focus on the logical argument being made, rather than the “gee whiz, what is the mind anyway” approach – and hey, I like that kind of thing, it’s fun and a great way to play with ideas, it’s just easy to get disorganized and end up not knowing what it is you just learned. So it’s really a pretty good class; I just wish I’d taken it a couple of years ago.

Wu-wei MOOC

Course: Chinese Thought: Ancient Wisdom Meets Modern Science – Part 1 and Part 2
Length: 9 weeks total
School/platform: University of British Columbia/edX
Instructors: Edward Slingerland

Part 1 introduces the basic philosophical, religious and scientific concepts that will be drawn upon throughout the course, and then goes on to cover early Shang and Zhou religious thought, the Analects of Confucius, the Daodejing (a Daoist text attributed to Laozi), the utilitarian thinker Mozi, the newly discovered and very exciting Guodian texts, and the momentous philosophical changes that occurred in the mid Warring States period.
Part 2 builds upon Part 1 by exploring late Warring States thinkers such as the Confucian Mencius, the Daoist Zhuangzi, and the return to externalism in the form of Xunzi—who believed Mencius betrayed the original Confucian vision—and his former student Hanfeizi, a “Legalist” thinker who helped lay the foundations for the autocratic system that unified the Warring States into China’s first empire. We will conclude with some reflections on what it means to study religious thought, and the thought of other cultures, in a modern, globalized world.
Part 2 can be taken as a stand-alone course, but will be more comprehensible and rewarding with the background provided in Part 1.

Short version: Another terrific class. Considering that prior to last May, I knew virtually nothing about China, it’s kind of amazing that I’ve now taken three tours through the philosophers of the late Zhou dynasty. What’s even more amazing is that each round took a different approach in interwoven layers, so it just kept getting better.

This course specialized in not only reviewing the tenets of each philosopher examined, but in relating those tenets to contemporary research in cognitive, behavioral, and psychological neuroscience. From the overall concept of wu-wei to Confucius’ attempt to cultivate intrinsic rewards via ritual and training to Mencius’ inborn moral sprouts to Mozi’s impartial caring, some of these ideas from more than two thousand years ago can be confirmed – or contradicted – by scientific techniques and very contemporary ethical philosophy.

Most weeks featured a guest lecturer on varying topics: generally, psychology and cognitive science, but also wide-ranging topics like music, language and literature, and the neuroscience of meditation. One of the guests, by the way, was Russell Brand reading the text and discussing his thoughts on wu-wei, Daodejing, Butcher Ding, and Confucianism. You never know who you’ll run into in a mooc. (I’ll admit I’m not sure who Russell Brand is, but he seems to be famous).

The syllabus is structured after Prof. Slingerland’s 2014 book Trying Not To Try (featured on Brainpickings), a clever capsulization of wu-wei ( 無爲 ), a key concept in several of the philosophies though the path and purpose may differ. Pertinent chapters from the book were provided in PDF format. His recent TEDx talk, featuring his experience playing “MindBall” at his local science museum, gives a general overview of the topic. The other text was Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy (Ivanhoe/Van Norden, 2001), a translation of the works of the philosophers studied; I managed to find a copy through my local library, but since the pertinent sections are fully quoted throughout the course, it wouldn’t have been a serious impediment if it wasn’t available.

The course is structured in two parts. They can be taken independently, but I’d take the final sentence in the quote above seriously. In fact, I’d consider the first part pretty foundational to the second, since a great deal of introductory work on cognitive and behavioral science takes place in the first week; of course, YMMV, but it’s great stuff – then again, I just loved the whole course and wouldn’t have wanted to miss a minute. Pssst – as a special incentive, there’s also blooper reel tucked into Part 1, the only time I’ve seen such a thing in a mooc. All of them should include one of those.

Structurally it’s your basic lecture-quiz course with excellent instructor involvement. Each week includes about 9 lecture videos, each about 10-15 minutes, but it seems like both a lot more and a lot less. A lot more, because Prof. Slingerland (who bears a strong resemblance to comedian Jon Stewart, but maybe that’s just me) talks pretty fast (there are speed controls on the videos, but while I often have used higher speeds, I find slowing things down always makes the speaker sound drugged so I just pause a lot and pre-read the lecture transcripts) and also because there’s a lot of stuff –about language, history, philosophy, contemporary neuroscience, psychological research, etc etc – and a lot less because it’s all fascinating. A couple of ungraded “test yourself” questions followed each video, with a graded quiz to finish off each week, plus a final quiz at the end of each part. The questions generally fall between information retrieval and concept application, so they keep you on your toes, but I wouldn’t say it’s hard. It is, however, a great deal of complex stuff.

Each week also featured a “Q&A” video featuring further explanation of issues raised on the discussion forums. The forums weren’t exactly rollicking, but engagement in the discussions was significant, as people posted about aspects that interested them, and others interested in the capturesame ideas joined in; staff and instructor showed up regularly. I far prefer this spontaneous system to the inane “forced post” courses, where everyone’s supposed to answer the same banal question (“What do you think about…”) and the boards end up cluttered with hundreds of single-post threads; the result is not discussion, but a whole bunch of parallel monologues. I don’t know why so many courses do that, but I’m glad this one didn’t. Each week the staff would pin a couple of threads and send an email outlining the issues, which was also a nice touch to encourage those who might not have seen the threads to jump in. It also gave the sense of a carefully tended mooc, rather than a plug-in with a start button. Treasure these while they still exist.

As you can tell from some of the images inserted, I went a little bonkers with my note taking. I’ve always been a little overly obsessed with putting everything from the moocs I take into a Word document – lecture transcripts with video images imbedded, readings, quizzes, occasional forum discussions – but here I went overboard, even for me. I put most of the quotes from the various thinkers – and there were tons of quotes – into text boxes, each with different backgrounds and fonts, depending on my impression of what might fit the philosopher best, then pasted those into my copy of the lecture transcripts. I probably added 2 hours to each week doing this kind of word processing. Hey, leave me alone, I had fun.

But wait, there’s more! Months ago, I signed up for a course titled “The Science of Religion” on spec without really paying much attention to what it included; it sounded like something I might like. Now I’ve discovered that not only is it a UBC course, but Prof. Slingerland is one of the instructors. He’s said it’s all new material, not a condensed replay of this course; I’m still not sure what it is, but I’m looking forward to it.

Confucius, Mencius, Zhuangzi et al: Ancient Chinese Thought MOOC

Course: Humanity and Nature in Chinese Thought
Length: 8 weeks
School/platform: University of Hong Kong/edX
Instructors: Chad Hansen

We make ethical or behaviour guiding right / wrong judgments all the time but have you ever wondered where Ethics comes from, what it is about and why it is important? This course provides an introduction to traditional Chinese ethical thought and focuses on the pervasive contrast in the way Chinese and Westerners think about ethical guidance or guidance concerning what is right and what is wrong, good or bad.

While I’ve greatly enjoyed many of the moocs I’ve taken over the past three years (I’ve lost count, about 70, I think), I can count on the fingers of one hand the ones that have shifted a paradigm or had a lasting impact on life-as-lived. This is one of those few.

By a happy coincidence of timing, I’d just finished the first module of Harvard’s 10-part ChinaX series covering the Period of the Warring States and the Hundred Schools of Thought. Not only did that give me at least a vague familiarity with the names, but it let me situate the philosophers in a particular time and give me something of a foundation: an understanding of the Sage Kings that had gone before, of the transition from Shang to Zhou and the legitimacy of tianming, of the chaos of the time and the period that followed. None of this background was in any way required to understand the material itself, but it did prepare the field for sowing, so it’s an approach I recommend to those as completely unfamiliar with ancient China as I was.

The course is based on Prof. Hansen’s book, A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought: A Philosophical Interpretation. We opened with an overview of philosophical approaches and fields, showing where the ancient Chinese thinkers fit compared to Western philosophers. I found this very helpful as a way to keep my conceptual bearings (and picked up a few tidbits about Western philosophy in the process). It’s always a good idea to network new ideas to old ones.

The next seven weeks each featured a school of thought: Confucius, Mozi, Mencius, Shen Dao/Laozi, and Zhuangzi, who took up two weeks. Xunzi took up most of the final week, which, though unavoidable (the history of philosophy is what it is), was perhaps the only complaint I have about the course: it ended on a real downer, particularly at this moment of time when an authoritarian anti-intellectualism seems to be sweeping the world, not to mention the US. The last couple of lectures offered a review that somewhat recaptured the feeling of the rest of the material, but I also went back to listen to some of the Zhuangzi lectures so I could personally end there, feeling enriched instead of scolded and scared.

Lecture courses can be tedious – so many wonderful professors turn into soulless automatons when plopped in front of a camera to read a script – but Prof. Hansen’s able to pull it off extremely well, and this was far superior to most “talking head” courses. During the course they released a “the making of” video which shows the kind of thought and care that went into presenting lectures. They weren’t happy with the first few attempts, so they kept changing the format until they found one that worked. As a result, the lectures seem more like story-telling, with little “cliffhangers” at the end of each one that keep the momentum going, even create a degree of suspense that’s atypical for a history of philosophy course. Part of it is Prof. Hansen’s relaxed and engaged delivery, which is probably helped by the presence of students in the room so he’s not talking direct to camera (which can kill even the most animated speaker). Little animations with sound effects add a sprinkle of fun, with the overall result being lectures that are a delight as well as clear and instructive, with enough foreshadowing, repetition, and summary to help retention of the ideas.

Each week included an introduction, about 10 lectures (roughly 10 minute each), handouts for each lecture for those who would rather read than listen, and links to ctext files for pertinent text excerpts. I was a little confused about those links for a while, but I finally got the hang of it. Lecture captioning is available in English and Chinese, by the way; while the course occasionally explains characters for various concepts, no knowledge of Chinese is needed (a good thing, since I have none). A non-graded “knowledge check” of one or two questions followed each lecture, with a graded quiz, about 10 questions, at the end of each week. Two peer-assessed essays, 300 to 500 words, were required, each comparing two philosophers on some topic.

Staff was very involved in the course throughout. Prof. Hansen and an excellent TA responded to most student posts in some way, often extending into new directions and giving additional insights; as a result, the boards were active and thought-provoking. Each week featured Prof. Hansen in an impromptu “roundup” video addressing some of the more popular topics from the forums. As moocs aim more for scalability and automation, these are features that will be lost, and they’re the features that differentiate a meh mooc – youtube plus some quiz questions – from an educational experience that will be remembered and will entice students to learn more.

Those of us who know little or nothing about China, or Chinese thought, probably know the words Confucius and Dao, but chances are we don’t really have any idea what is packed into those names. I’d always assumed Confucius was the epitome of Eastern wisdom; imagine my surprise to find that I don’t particularly agree with much of his point of view. Dao is one of those massive topics, like math or history or Liberty or Shakespeare, that tends to get shoehorned into a pithy definition that doesn’t begin to cover it all. I’m going to need to read poet Afaa Michael Weaver’s work with new eyes now; he explicitly mentions Zhuangzi in his interviews, and now that I have some idea of what that references, I’d like to reconnect to that.

For me the central moment came during lecture 6 with the “fish in water” description of how we relate to Daos: I flashed on DFW’s “This is Water” graduation speech (immortalized in brilliant video form which may or may not be on youtube at this moment). I was stunned to find DFW in Zhuangzi (or is it Zhuangzi in DFW?). The technique I call “finding my compassion” versus compassion fatigue when yet another panhandler asks for spare change? My impatience with the maintenance guy who doesn’t believe it’s necessary to find the source of a leak but just to cover up the water damage? Those are choices between daos, and often we don’t realize we’re making a choice.

This course taught me about Mozi and logic and natural philosophy, yes, but it also taught me to look for the choices I make without realizing I’m choosing – because chances are, if I were aware I was choosing, I’d choose differently. I highly recommend the experience.

Talmudic MOOC

Course: The Talmud: A Methodological Introduction
School/platform: Northwestern (Coursera)
Instructors: Barry Scott Wimpfheimer, Sarah Wolf

The Talmud is one of the richest and most complicated works of literature the world has ever known. Since being composed around 1500 years ago it has inspired not only religious reverence but significant intellectual engagement. In this course learners will be introduced to the unique characteristics of this text and the challenges that inhere in studying it while studying a chapter of the Talmud.

We’ve all read one of those books or seen one of those movies – Yentl, if nothing else – that feature a yeshiva scene where two boys argue over some obscure point of law involving the Sabbath or ox goring. Because of my long-standing interest in philosophies and religions, I’ve made some weak attempts to understand these things better, but never got very far. So I was very happy to hear about this course. It’s only six weeks, so it’s just an overview rather than in-depth study, but it gave me a very good idea of the landscape and even a few details.

It started with no expectations of prior knowledge, beyond vague familiarity with the Bible and Judaism, and went from there, explaining different works of Jewish literature, how they all fit together, and how the Talmud fits in. Beyond the general overview of historical and cultural origins of the Talmud, the focus was on the opening of one chapter of one tractate concerning edim zomemim, or false witnesses, a chapter often called “Lashes”. Just this one topic covered dozens of concepts, both legal (what is the standard of punishment? What are the exceptions? How were these arrived at?), religious (what is the difference between punishment and atonement?), and logical (how do centuries of rabbinical opinions get dovetailed in an organized, streamlined manner?). It gets a little weird at times, since we’re talking about false accusations of ox gorings or priests who’ve married divorcees – or the story of Susanna being raped and all anybody cares about is the heroic Daniel identifying false witness who named the wrong guys – but the details were absolutely fascinating.

Techniques of logical argument took center stage at one point. Now, I’ve taken four (or five, depending on how you count) courses in propositional and/or symbolic logic, but we weren’t talking modus ponens or syllogisms here, it was about logical structures like Kal Va-Homer, which turned out to be an argumentum a fortiori: extrapolation from a weaker example to a stronger example (logic is logic in all times and places: I just found out this week that Confucius, not really a logician, used modus ponens). There’s the well-known argument between rabbis from different eras, each proposing slightly different ways to approach the legal issues involved, drawing different conclusions. Again, I was fascinated, though I sometimes got lost between rabbis.

The material was presented in lecture form, with videos alternating between two instructors (and included a sprinkle of humor in the illustrations). Although the material was often challenging, explanations were clear and often went over important concepts several times in slightly different ways. The Talmud was often referenced in translation (presumably, many students who take this class would read Hebrew, but I did fine without it) and online sources. Each week included a quiz which included some information-retrieval questions and some that required more reasoning. Two peer assessed essays were required, graded more for completion than content; I found the first topic highly useful as a way of organizing my thoughts. The second essay topic seemed less relevant, but I could see what they were getting at.

Towards the middle of the course, the instructors held a live video hang-out to answer questions and provide additional commentary. It was great to see them in more natural circumstances. I’ve always wondered why so many professors use a solo lecture-to-camera approach when a more conversational setting, perhaps with a small group of students whether on or off camera, could be so much more engaging. But maybe that’s just my preference.

The big surprise was on the forums, where a couple of robust discussions broke out (these are sadly rare on the new Coursera). I’d originally signed up for the course because my MOOC buddy Richard (hi, Richard!) mentioned it to me, so we tossed a few things around and were joined by a few highly knowledgable fellow students. That’s the special thing about MOOCs: there’s an expert in every class, and here there were several who provided guidance to those of us with no background. Most particularly was Yael Shahar, who carefully explained various facets of atonement and forgiveness (a particular interest of mine; remember my months with Dante?). Turns out she is the co-author of A Damaged Mirror, a biographical narrative of a former Sonderkommando’s consultation with a rabbi, decades after Auschwitz, to see if forgiveness is possible.

Anyone who’s curious and interested in knowing a little about the Talmud would enjoy this and be able to gain something from it. If it’s completely new territory, it might be a bit challenging in places, but that’s part of the fun.

Ancient Philosophy MOOCs

Course: Ancient Philosophy: Plato & His Predecessors
and Ancient Philosophy: Aristotle and His Successors

School/Platform: Penn/Coursera
Instructors: Susan Sauvé Meyer

We begin with the Presocratic natural philosophers who were active in Ionia in the 6th century BCE and are also credited with being the first scientists. Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximines made bold proposals about the ultimate constituents of reality, while Heraclitus insisted that there is an underlying order to the changing world. Parmenides of Elea formulated a powerful objection to all these proposals, while later Greek theorists (such as Anaxagoras and the atomist Democritus) attempted to answer that objection. In fifth-century Athens, Socrates insisted on the importance of the fundamental ethical question—“How shall I live?”—and his pupil, Plato, and Plato’s pupil, Aristotle, developed elaborate philosophical systems to explain the nature of reality, knowledge, and human happiness.

If you’re looking for a very straightforward introductory philosophy course, this two-course series might fit the bill. It’s a quick sampler of ancient Greek thought from Thales through the Stoics. Most of the focus is on Plato and Aristotle, since most of their material has survived over the centuries while the sometimes prolific works of other ancients comes down to us only in pieces, reports, and refutations. Since either Plato or Aristotle could fill a year’s curriculum, the material is a light gloss over some of the main features: a few dialogues, a selection from The Republic, the Four Causes, a little Logic.

It’s one of those “I’m going to read a textbook and you will answer multiple-choice questions to show you’ve paid attention” courses, with a series of lecture videos, each including one or two “are you paying attention” questions in mid-stream which repeats the sentence just said in questions form, a quiz at the end of each section (multiple attempts are permitted; there’s really no excuse for a score less than 100%, even if you don’t watch the lectures at all) and a peer-assessed essay, with a choice of prompts, at the end of each of the two separate courses. One of the prompts was quite interesting: rewrite Euthyphro (or maybe it was the Meno, I don’t remember) so that it comes out differently. I’ve always felt that Socrates gets away with murder in these dialogs, that anyone truly engaged in the conversation would not so willingly be led to the gallows of his argument. But I took the easier route and wrote a “summarize the material” essay, so shame on me.

To spice things up (well, as much as you can spice things up when you’re talking about Plato etc.) I supplemented the course with podcasts from History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, a very cool and ever-expanding site that does indeed attempt to cover philosophy without… well, you know. I also found a couple of the Yale OCW videos from their Political Philosophy course to be valuable vis-à-vis The Republic. Since the Coursera class has no academic rigor to it at all, these resources might be more useful to anyone intending to actually study philosophy, as opposed to collecting “certificates” (which seems to be the business Coursera is in now). But I found the lectures quite pleasant (I love this stuff), and as an introduction it serves the purpose – but Sophie’s World does it so much better.

Conscious MOOC

Course: The Conscious Mind – A Philosophical Road Trip
School/platform: Trinity College/edX
Instructors: Dan Lloyd

You will explore your own mind and the minds of others in a new way, using a philosophical approach known as phenomenology. You’ll encounter some of the main ideas of the phenomenological tradition, through short readings by Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Their ideas are provocative and will animate the online and offline conversation as we proceed. But the main approach of the course will be experiential and experimental. You’ll learn phenomenology by doing it and journeying among the structures and elements of your own conscious experience.

And now for the other side of the coin. Where Minds & Machines was rigorous and technical, this was more of a thought-fest. There’s room for both approaches in MOOCdom, and I got some interesting tidbits out of this.

Again, I can’t really describe what the course was “about” other than the description above. One of the stated goals was to introduce students to reading “difficult” writing, and short readings included Husserl and Merleau-Ponty (neither of whom I’d ever read before), Sartre, Heidegger, and De Beauvoir. I’m not sure the course did much to promote attaining this goal, since by week 3, quiz questions were along the lines of “Who is the author of this quote” rather than anything requiring understanding.

In any case, the focus was on experiencing phenomenology, rather than reading about it. The introduction to Heidegger, for example, involved tools to notice how readiness-to-hand can become obtrusiveness when the tools don’t work, and “Hey, Jude” demonstrated Husserl’s notion of the three divisions of time. One video of a small group discussion looked at “otherness”, privilege and target identities, a particularly pertinent topic that was pretty tepid in realization (one person’s “otherness” was wearing glasses, for pete’s sake; how privileged do you have to be to consider that a targeted trait?). The intent was there, though the execution left something to be desired.

The final project – a fancy word for a short essay to be peer-assessed – was for me the most interesting part of the course, and I quite enjoyed working on it. We were to choose from a selection of brief videos, and explain how one embodied a concept from the course, and another referenced a specific quote in one of the readings. I had a lot of fun with this; length was unrestricted, and the instructions permitted bringing in any material from outside the course, as long as the required course material was included, so I ended up referencing a recent Veritasium video among other things (and it wasn’t nearly as long as I’d expected, given my tendency to verbosity). Peer assessments are always risky, from a “grades” standpoint, but this one went well.

The discussion boards were a major disappointment. I wish instructors would realize that no matter how well-intentioned they are when they require people to post responses to a question or idea, what they will get is a stream of single-post threads, some of which will have replies on the order of “I agree” (which also satisfies the posting requirement). A couple of us tried to have a conversation, and while there was some activity, I think we were on different wavelengths, because it never took off. At least we tried, though.

This was, I think, intended as not the classroom-equivalent that Minds & Machines was, nor even the multiple-tracks-pick-your-level that Critical Thinking was (all three claimed to consider themselves introductory philosophy courses). It was instead more the very-light-introduction-with-lots-of-stoned-bullshitting-late-into-the-night sort of course. As I’ve said, some MOOCs work for some people but not others. This didn’t quite work for me. I’m not sure why; it’s like a joke that falls flat, or a weekend trip that just isn’t fun for no identifiable reason. Part of it, I believe, was the posting requirement above. Why nothing materialized outside of that, however, I don’t really understand. Maybe it’s that each concept was posted as standalone, without anything to contrast it with; the Objections approach used in Minds & Machines really forced us to understand the implications of a theory.

But that’s just my opinion; I’m sure lots of students found it a great, gentle introduction to some of the more ephemeral issues of philosophy. It might be fun to take with a group, to stir more productive discussions including some objections. I was happy with what I got out of it proportional to the time I spent on it; I enjoyed both encountering two new thinkers, and I had a good time writing the essay, so I’m glad I took it.


Course: Minds & Machines
School/Platform: MIT/edX
Instructors: Alex Byrne

What is the relationship between the mind and the body? Can computers think? Do we perceive reality as it is? Can there be a science of consciousness?
This course explores these questions and others. It is a thorough, rigorous introduction to contemporary philosophy of mind.
According to many scientists and philosophers, explaining the nature of consciousness is the deepest intellectual challenge of all. If you find consciousness at all puzzling, this is a great place to start learning more.
What you’ll learn:
-The basics of argumentation
-Some central arguments for and against the view that a sufficiently powerful computer can think (AI)
-The main theories of mental states and their relations to physical states
-Some central arguments for and against the view that the world is not as we perceive it to be
-What the “hard problem of consciousness” is

This was one of three “killer MOOCs” I had the bad timing to take concurrently, and thus one-third of the reason I had to forego Pushcart for a few weeks. While I very much enjoyed and got a lot out of some aspects of this course, I was less enthusiastic about other aspects. The main problem was that I didn’t approach it correctly, and that’s my bad. I may take it again, do it right next time, and I think I’ll get a lot more out of it. Because although I did manage to “pass”, a great deal of it went by me, and I fear I won’t retain much. Still, it was perspective-shifting and horizon-expanding, and so the time and effort are well worth it.

What I liked was the general subject matter. These are fascinating topics: can computers think? What is it that we see when we see blue? Do we exist apart from our bodies – that is, how much of my physical body can you remove, and still leave “me” intact? There were fascinating thought experiments: if it were possible to create an atom-for-atom duplicate of a person, would that person have the same thoughts as the original? If your nerves are reporting pain, and you aren’t feeling pain, is there pain? Can we ever understand what it’s like to be a bat? These are the sorts of questions some people tend to sneer at as being high-falutin’ nonsense since nothing is ever answered but only raises more questions, but all of those questions go to the heart of reality, of humanity: what constitutes “me”? What seems simple and straightforward becomes a little fuzzier when all the implications are included. And although these topics can seem diverse, they all relate to each other.

Yet, for all the high-falutin’ nonsense, it was a rigorous course. It wasn’t a sit-around-the-dorm-getting-stoned-and-bullshitting-into-the-night sort of thing (though I wouldn’t know, having never been a residential student); the course consisted of looking at structured arguments for each –ism, and then looking at the objections raised to different parts of those arguments. This is what I wished I’d outlined from the beginning.

My favorite moment of the course came from the TA, Damien Rochford. He was the TA in the earlier course on Paradox & Infinity; I felt sorry for him, one person to cover the myriad of questions raised both on material and on process. In a discussion of whether, in a world where blue swans are possible, if the proposition that there could have been blue swans was possible (hey, it’s fun, lighten up), Damien came up with what is at this time my favorite philosophical statement: “It is a matter of some dispute whether, whenever something is possibly possible, it is possible. My view is that it is not.” I don’t understand why Republicans hate philosophy, do you? Bertrand Russell even said outright: “The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty.”

And that’s a good thing, because I’m still uncertain about much that transpired. The course was subdivided into 5 units: Minds and Computers; Dualism to Functionalism; Minds and Brains; Perception; and Consciousness. Most units lasted two weeks and included a series of lecture videos filmed in the actual classroom, broken up into very short segments (3 to 6 minutes) often followed by an ungraded question or two. Some lectures covered a paper. Some lectures covered a topic. Some brought in basics of argument. I had a hard time figuring out just what I should be focusing on. Part of that may be time limitations, which is something I need to keep in mind (less is indeed more). But part of it is that I didn’t realize from the beginning what the course was, at its heart, about.

This became evident with the first graded assignments. Having read the papers, paid attention to the videos, taken notes, considered what I thought were the important points, and done fine with the ungraded questions, the first Argument Analysis took me by surprise. I “passed” it, but missing one question out of five took its toll. I always thought I was fairly adept at the basics of logical argument. Not so much, it seems: the second argument analysis was disastrous – yet it covered a topic I thought I’d understood fairly well.

Then there were the exams. On the midterm, I was doing very poorly on a series of True/False questions, so I stopped for the evening and picked it up the next day. Things went far better. I’m not sure if I was more rested or focused or whatever, or if the questions were in fact easier. The final section was a series of questions on a previously unread paper, and to my surprise, I did very well at picking out the arguments and objections. I began to wonder if listening to the lectures (which often included somewhat tortuous syntax, repetition of the trivial and non-explanation of the significant) was a mistake. I do think, however, that the paper in question was far easier to follow than the primary papers in the syllabus, with a lot more “guide words”, and the questions asked were both simpler and included significant hints, so that probably explains it. The final exam, it seemed to me, had a number of “easy” questions strewn throughout, designed to give a break to those of us who got something out of the material, though perhaps not the level of an MIT student. And then it had… other questions.

I wish I’d approached the course entirely different, that I had gone through the papers and outlined the argument that was being made, or the objections that were being raised to an earlier argument, as a primary means of study, then outlined the “ism of the week” with reference to those arguments. I think this would’ve helped keep me on track. Unfortunately, I didn’t think of it until week 9 or 10 of 12.

And yes, there’s that: this was a long course, stretching over a full MIT semester. For some reason, I thought it was much shorter, and I kept thinking the course was almost over. When I finally figured out, in mid-January, that it actually ran into March, I got pretty discouraged, since I felt I wasn’t really getting all I could out of it. I wonder if the in-person class was as worn-out as I was by the end, since it seemed the students moved farther and farther back in the rows of seats, possibly because the numbers were shrinking. Then again, these are MIT students. Maybe they don’t need silly thing like lectures to ace their courses.

But now that I have a better idea of what the topic is, I just might run through it again some time. Because it really is fascinating material.