The Iliad and Higher Ed’s MOOCish Future

Botticelli's Athena educates recalcitrant student

Botticelli’s Athena reaches a recalcitrant student

I’ve just read a Nathan Heller article in The New Yorker (May 20, 2013) on the future of higher education, especially with regard to MOOCs. MOOC is an acronym for Massive Open On-Line Course, and the article begins by describing how Harvard Greek professor Gregory Nagy has turned his popular course on The Iliad into a MOOC. With the cost of a collegiate education skyrocketing, colleges are looking for ways to cut costs, and some argue that access to high quality MOOCs like Professor Nagy’s will save students thousands of dollars that they would otherwise spend at schools like—well, like my own St. Mary’s College of Maryland. (And as far as small liberal arts colleges go, we’re one of the cheaper ones.)

But the article is also good at outlining the limitations of MOOCs, especially when they teach the humanities. Reading over Nagy’s description of the multiple choice tests he gives (such tests being necessary once one teaches hundreds—or thousands—of students), I see questions designed to judge only how well people have grasped his lectures. They don’t address individual problems that students may have when engaging with The Iliad in the first place.

I can’t emphasize enough how individualized is each student’s reading of a work of literature. In a class of 25 students, people may enter a particular work in 10-15 different ways. For instance, I never anticipated that a freshman lacrosse player would identify with the wedding guest in Rime of the Ancient Mariner (see Monday’s post), but that point of entry led to a powerful reading. I’m able to see individual response through our seminar discussions and through the individual journals the students write on each work. In addition, I can push them especially deeply in the essays they write for me.

But look at how individual a process essay writing is. For the essays, I first have the students write short proposals, which allow me to anticipate certain problems they will encounter. The proposals, however, are often tangled affairs, so I have to read them closely and look for what I call “energy points,” which are the early seeds of a significant idea. But I don’t always recognize the most promising idea that lies hidden in such proposals–I can be mistaken–and in the subsequent essay the student may go in a different direction. Not uncommonly, the essay also comes up short of the central idea’s potential. So I allow revision and suggest an individual conference, and it is at that point at which a student often makes a quantum learning leap. Suddenly I start seeing ideas that are interesting enough to share with readers of this blog.

I haven’t taught The Iliad in years but I could imagine students relating to egotistical fights (Achilles vs. Agamemnon) or deep friendship (Achilles and Patroclus) or vengeful vendettas (Achilles vs. Hector) or grieving the loss of loved ones (Priam over Hector) or any number of other points. Such emotional connections can open the students to profound historical or psychological or philosophical or literary insights. Good teachers listen for the points of entry and push them, bringing in relevant information along the way.

Note how MOOCs don’t allow any of this. I must say that I myself would be very interested in Professor Nagy’s lectures on The Iliad. I would devour the deep insights he has to impart. But that’s because I already know how to engage with the work. If one doesn’t know how to develop one’s own framework, then it’s not altogether helpful just to import the framework of another, especially if that person comes from an entirely different frame of reference (in this instance, a middle-aged white male Harvard professor).

I do see one advantage of MOOCs that is mentioned in the New Yorker article. Certain lecture courses can be “flipped,” which is to say students can watch the lecture for their homework and do their homework in class, where they have the benefit of professors, tutors, group work, and the like.

But flipped classes don’t have much to offer literature teachers. That’s because we’ve already flipped our classes—which is to say, we ask our students to read the works outside the classroom and then use the seminar to comprehend what we’ve read. Incidentally, I teach my film classes the same way, regarding it as a waste of time to watch in class a film that students can watch during their own time. But MOOCs for, say, large introductory biology lecture classes might make sense.

Of course, not all literature seminars are taught as well as they could be, and if teachers use their class time only to steer the students to their own interpretations of the works, then they might as well have their students watch a MOOC. But in a seminar taught as it should be, the students find ways to make connection with the work and practice the process of interpretation. The thinking skills they develop apply to tasks beyond reading literature and serve them for the rest of their lives.

It is because of this intensive approach that a college such as Amherst (so the New Yorker article reports) has turned its back on MOOCs. Schools like Amherst offer some of the best education in the world and their students graduate with deep levels of understanding and are very successful. But then again, as the New Yorker article points out, most college students in America do not go to schools like Amherst, which is why we’re talking about MOOCs.

I add that my own college, which is a public honors college (there are only a few of us), tries to use its public status to keep costs down while delivering an Amherst-quality education. But it’s very hard because, while we’re cheap by private liberal arts standards, we’re expensive by public college standards, which is depressing our admissions numbers in ways that are alarming. Really good education is inevitably expensive—even when one tries to deliver it at public prices—and there are inevitable trade-offs. Unfortunately, one of the trade-offs is that students with wealthy parents and a few lower income scholarship students may get the best that college education can offer while everyone else must settle for second or third best.

MOOCs, even when taught by Harvard professors, are second or third best. They may be financially necessary. But don’t think that they can ever make up for lack of individual attention.

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