Before Coursera, There Were the ‘Great Courses’

arenachapelHave any of you watched any of the videos produced for The Great Courses series? We’re pretty big fans of these in our house as sources of enrichment and edutainment. My mathematically-inclined son has watched  a number of them (along with his dad), including The Joy of Mathematics, Zero to Infinity: A History of Numbers, An Introduction to Number Theory, and Discrete Mathematics — as well as some music ones, including (aptly, for him) How Music and Mathematics Relate. My husband and I are currently watching A History of European Art, which I chose as a birthday gift because I’ve strolled through too many museums feeling I don’t really know enough about what I’m looking at.

I’m enjoying the course a lot. The lecturer, William Kloss, is not only erudite but endearingly enamored of his subject: he seems to stay pretty much on script, but every so often he gets this little extra glimmer in his eye or urgency in his voice and you know he just can’t help himself — he has to share how he feels about something. He has a lot of ground to cover in just 48 lectures and as a result has to skip along quite briskly (we got to peer closely at only three works by Michelangelo, for instance) — but that said, I think both members of this Teeny-tiny Open Offline Course would have been happy with a little less attention to medieval altarpieces, however revealing the distinctions between their various reworkings of the identical scriptural scenes.

It’s been impossible to sit through these lectures without thinking about their much larger cousins, the MOOCs. MOOCs, after all, are built around recorded lectures by eminent specialists. I discovered that the booklets accompanying our DVD set include some review questions, so if we were so inclined, we could take that extra step or two to help with comprehension and retention. Of course, we can’t ask Professor Kloss to check our answers (but then, that can’t happen in MOOCs either) — but we’d have each other, and I feel confident our ‘peer evaluation’ would be pretty rigorous. We’re not doing the fairly dull provided questions, though: we’re just watching the videos.


And yet we do have a lot of questions about what we’re seeing. They aren’t usually of the “reiterate the main distinction between Romanesque and Gothic architecture” kind but are, more typically, challenges to Professor Kloss’s conclusions or effusions. For one thing, we find the vocabulary of art criticism — or, perhaps more justly, his vocabulary — kind of impressionistic, if you’ll forgive the pun, and sometimes his rhapsodies about the wondrous unforgettable quality of one piece or another strike us as special pleading more than reasoned analysis. It would be nice to be able to  press him on just what he means, now and then. We often wonder about details of the paintings that he doesn’t choose to comment on, but of course he carries on quite impervious to our curiosity. Sometimes there are technical issues we’d like to understand better, or additional materials we’d love to see. In a MOOC, we’d have forums where I suppose we could crowd-source these questions, and even now if we really cared we could do some research of our own to see if they’re addressed anywhere. But there are at least two advantages to having a real live instructor: one would be our trust in the answers we got, and the other would be the efficiency of talking to someone who can filter the noise for us, rather than trying to create our own expertise on the fly. Here’s a third, actually: that real live instructor can help us reframe our questions too, which itself, in an unfamiliar field, is not easy (as anyone who has ever had students create discussion questions for class can attest), and in that back-and-forth too there is learning.

I do feel I am learning from my Great Course. I would be learning even more if I were doing more than watching it fairly passively, and I would be learning more still if I were actually taking the course in person, face to face. I don’t think there’s anyone who is claiming that MOOCs are as pedagogically effective (never mind as socially engaging) as actual classroom instruction. What’s odd is how much hype there is around them as if we haven’t already, for decades, had similar options. Our TOOC* lacks the online infrastructure, but otherwise, in its essentials, it’s about the same: you watch and listen, and then you decide how involved you want to be. That’s OK for us, because our only stake in this experience is personal, our only goal some extra enlightenment. It’s not OK if you imagine this activity as part of a deliberate process of intellectual and academic development.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a date with Hieronymous Bosch: tonight it’s Lecture 25: Netherlandish Art in the 16th Century.


*Technically it’s not entirely “open” since the DVDs aren’t free (but if you keep an eye out for sales, as we do, they aren’t expensive either) — but they could be borrowed from libraries, I expect.

This Week In My Classes: Information and Education

cranfordWe’re starting new books in both of my classes this week (well, weather permitting, we are, anyway!): The Road in Introduction to Literature and Cranford in 19th-Century Fiction. What makes this a particularly exciting but also daunting prospect for me is that they aren’t just the next books on our syllabus but they are also both novels that I have not taught before, in any course. So: no lecture notes, worksheets, handouts, discussion questions, slides, or other materials lurk in my archive of teaching materials. Also, I have no experience of, and therefore no expectations for, what ‘works’ or ‘doesn’t work’ about these books for students: what will be the sticking points? what will get them fired up? what will I discover, as we go along, that I need to know more about?

I’m not just going to show up, book in hand, of course. I’ve read them both before, and reread them both last week (and will reread them again in the assigned installments as we go along in class). For The Road, I’ve been collecting background information from books and scholarly articles as well as from online resources such as the website of the Cormac McCarthy Society or Oprah’s Book Club guide to The Road (which, just by the way, has some pretty good stuff, including these bits on ‘Fiction and Science’ in the novel and clips from McCarthy’s apparently very rare interview with Oprah). I’ve got some of my own materials on Gaskell, but they focus on Mary Barton and North and South, both of which I’ve taught fairly often, so though I don’t need to look up much general background, I’ve been surveying academic sources specific to Cranford (which are not nearly as abundant as for her social-problem fiction — something we’ll talk about in class, actually) and, again, peering around online for things to help get me thinking. One stimulating source is one of my long-time favorite bloggers, Amateur Reader, whose posts on Cranford at Wuthering Expectations are models of insightful brevity: here, for instance, on ‘Cranford and the Strong Female Character‘, or here on the trickier-than-she-seems narrator, Mary Smith.

This process of class preparation has had me thinking (not for the first time!) of the odd way our work as professors is often characterized. Recently, to give just one example, Melonie Fullick tweeted a link to an article proclaiming that recent developments in online education signal “the coming end of the monopoly of information held by professors in classrooms.” If it were true that professors believed they held some kind of monopoly on information, and that suddenly there was an unprecedented challenge to that monopoly because of the internet, a lot of the end-of-the-university-as-we-know-it rhetoric would ring true — but there have always been abundant sources of information outside of classrooms, and outside of universities altogether. It’s true that some of what I’ll be doing is passing along to my students information that they could get for themselves somewhere else — if they knew where to look, and, more important, if they knew what to choose from the flood of information out there. One of the things I’m doing is filtering information for them: for our purposes, here are the kinds of things we need to know, or know enough about that we can follow up in other venues. Another thing I’m doing is framing that information: what are our purposes, after all? what do we want to be able to do with these texts? And I’m synthesizing and shaping it for them, and looking for new directions it could send us in — and here’s where it gets more idiosyncratic, because the ways I will do this are not exactly the same as someone else would do it, because I am who I am — and because they are who they are, and so I’ll be responding to them as we go along. Information transfer is part of my job, but it’s silly and reductive to imagine that it’s a straightforward part of my job, or that students new to this material, and beginners in this discipline, could effectively (never mind efficiently) conduct the process of finding, sorting, and making meaning from available information without any guidance. Also, that transfer of information is only the beginning of what we will do together, because ultimately my goal is not for them to memorize facts about Elizabeth Gaskell or Cormac McCarthy but for them to become better readers and critics, which means they have to engage independently with the texts, framing their own questions and trying out their own answers. They can get a lot of information from Wikipedia (I get some of mine there, too), and if that was all our classroom time was about, then sure, that’s the beginning of the end. But that’s not education: not really. I strongly agree with Melonie’s characterization of education in her post “Can education be sold?“:

My friend Dr. Alex Sevigny has an analogy that I think works much better: education is like a fitness program. Yes, you can pay for access to a gym with top-of-the-line facilities. You can pay for a trainer to take you through the best possible individualized regimen. You can buy the shoes and expensive gym clothes. But ultimately if you don’t get yourself to the gym, multiple days a week, and push yourself to get fit–there’s no benefit in any of it.

Education works in much the same way: it is a process, one in which the student plays a necessary part, and an experience, in which the student plays a major role in the “outcome”. In fact every student actually receives a different “education”, with different outcomes, even if they’re all paying the same amount. What you pay for with tuition money is not “education”, but access to resources–libraries, expert staff, teaching and mentorship, even social contact–and access to a formal credential. Even the credential isn’t guaranteed, since students must complete academic requirements in addition to paying tuition and fees.

Another common way to dismiss what happens in ‘traditional’ classrooms is to scoff at the ‘sage on the stage’ model. I don’t agree that there’s never a good time, or a good way, to lecture. In addition to offering information, lecturing can model ways to argue, or, in my field, ways to build and support an interpretation. Even when transferring information, as I’ve said, there’s a process of filtering and framing that makes a thoughtful lecture something more than a list of facts or claims. Passivity in the face of information, though, is never the point, the process, or the purpose. It’s the interaction between a thinking person and information that really matters, and that we aim to promote, ultimately, in our students. Professors don’t have a monopoly on that process either, but it’s what we train for, it’s what we stand for, and it looks like it’s also what we’re going to have to fight for, as the pressure mounts for ways to automate, commodify, and depersonalize our classrooms. It’s frustrating to see how often the arguments for a revolution in higher education turn on reductive stereotypes of the work we actually do.