Wildly over the top, but charming and fascinating: http://bit.ly/Oijddm. ModPo will change the world, she says. I'm heartened by what she says about class, and by this: “Granting access to knowledge to everyone, anywhere in the world, no matter their level of education, or motives for learning, is downright revolutionary” and “I’d call it one of the greatest humanitarian efforts we’ve seen. So when class starts just a few hours from now, Indeed my world will change forever.”
[From a commentary published in Psychology Today:]
Yes it's true I have studied modern poetry before — in the normal small-class setting. Cappucinos and berets optional. At Bennington, at Boston University and Breadloaf. But I've never taken a course taught by a UPenn professor, with a class size of 28,000. And counting.
The class I am about to take, it starts on Monday, is one that is offered by Coursera. And what is Coursera? Coursera is the new world baby. It's an online college (kind of) offering free classes to anyone anywhere. (coursera.com) Classes taught at Stanford, Duke, and obviously UPenn. Top of the line. FOR FREE. That's right. The best things in life are free. If only Abbie Hoffman were still alive to see this. He'd be grinning ear to bearded ear. So would Walt Whitman for that matter. I guess you can tell I'm excited.
I'm not the only one champing at the bit for Coursera’s Modern Poetry class (or ModPo as dubbed by its professor, Al Filreis). Turns out there are over 3000 of us tweeting on Twitter, and getting responses from our teacher! And he's stoked too. A life of the mind has never seemed so connected to the world. I get to read Emily Dickinson and yes Walt Whitman and even John Cage and I get to write essays and takes quizzes and if it all goes well I will get a certificate of completion. It's too soon to say but I'm saying it anyway. This may be the solution for anyone who wants a do-over on choosing a major, or has finally found the time to dig into something they love but could never fit into a “required” courseload, or it may be the solution for those of us who never wanted college to end. Maybe the answer is never finish. Never stop learning. Turn your life into a growing patchwork quilt of classes taken, certificates earned. And who knows? Maybe Coursera will find a way to give out degrees. Crazy? So is talking to your iPhone and getting a response.
This talk was presented in response to a request for a manifesto to conclude a four-day conference on new writing practices. The conference took place in February 2010 at the Banff Centre for the Arts, Banff, Alberta.
My dicta are four in total. In sum they are:
1) Writing isn’t the only thing that is changing or needs to change. 2) The other kinds of changes might demand an attention very different in kind from our usual. 3) Deep down, most of us do not really want these other changes to come. 4) The ideal site might be where things happen rather than get presented or taught.
Now I will elaborate a little on each:
1) If all this talk about true modal changes caused by (or aided by) writing in new media is going to be more than just talk, then we must also seek, or at least encourage, major changes in the institutions that were and are organized to assure the continuation of the old mode. Which is to say: if publishers and universities and art centers as organizations (with budgets, staff hierarchies, physical spaces, customs of credentialing) are set up assuming these binarisms:
I write/you read I talk/you listen I have/you want I am/you aren’t yet I have language/you need my language I produce/you consume & purchase
--and if the relationship I write/you read is in the process of really changing (and indeed most of us here do our work on the assumption that it has already changed)--then all other aspects of the relationship must also be subject to that change. We cannot expect the traditional I write/you read binarism to disintegrate and then just hope that everything else in the writer/reader (and publisher/consumer, teacher/learner) relationship will similarly wither away, for there are actual forces maintaining it.
2) So the most obvious thing one can say is that the conversations we have been having this weekend are not just about writing. We should think every bit as innovatively about the institutions and organizations that rose up around the technology of the book as we have in conceiving the writing that goes on inside or near or astride these institutions. (Complete separation from them is a nice dream, but only as nice and dreamy as other separatisms.)
3) The honest truth is that most of us associated with such organizations - again I mostly mean universities and publishers and art centers, but also humanities institutes and foundations supporting artists – probably don't want the rest of the changes to follow from the disintegration of I write/you read exclusivity. This is especially true of I talk/you listen. (I make noise and you listen silently. I am producing something; you for the moment are unproductive.) Like the poetry reading, the lecture--being an ideology as well as an artifact of a certain phase of technology--is not something most people here are ready to give up. But I'm certain we will all be better off when we’ve put an end to the lecture; and anyway an alternative mode is among the main implications of what we do. So what is truly interactive? How many of us have been promised that such-and-such a gathering would be “interactive” only to find out that what people really want to give--but rarely to receive--is a series of monologues?
4) I do not believe what I'm saying is to come about virtually. It is very much a matter of physical design, of planning (and, incidentally, of planning to stay), of working with brick and mortar. We need to build spaces that are unconducive to what I'm doing right now.
Back in the mid-1970s, when he was promoting “oral poetry” as an alternative to the traditional presentation of writing, Jerome Rothenberg said the following: "As for poetry 'belonging' in the classroom, it's like the way they taught us sex in those old hygiene classes: not performance but semiotics. If I had taken Hygiene 71 seriously, I would have become a monk; & if I had taken college English seriously, I would have been an accountant." Yet Rothenberg did teach poetry in the classroom, and so admitted to a realization I very much admire and have myself used as a guiding principle: “the classroom [can] become a substitute for those places (coffee shop or kiva) where poetry actually happens & where it can be ‘learned’ (not ‘taught’) in action.”
As pre-digital as the metaphor of the kiva is, I still like it. I like it because it pushes the distinction between teaching and learning, and because it imagines spaces where “poetry actually happens” rather than where it is presented as if it’s not there and thus must be talked about.
In March of 1957, the Nation magazine ran a feature called "The Careful Young Men," with this subtitle: "Tomorrow's Leaders Analyzed by Today's Teachers." They sought contributions from English professors--all men as it turned out, not surprisingly--at mostly elite universities, soliciting comments on what students were thinking, writing and reading. These students, "tomorrow's leaders" per the subtitle, and the "careful young men" per the title, befit--lo and behold!--the general notion of Nation articles and editorials of this period: the Fifties were pretty much uniformly a time of quietude, caution and rising orthodoxy. That the late fifties was a time of extraordinary experimentation is nowhere indicated, not even marginally, not even in one sentence in one of the entries--not even as a hint or premonition. Of course I see the names of the contributors (Carlos Baker at Princeton, Stanley Kunitz of Queens College, Wallace Stegner at Stanford) and understand that a major problem here is the narrow choice of respondents. The obvious irony is that these male literary academics, for the most part lamenting the aesthetic conservatism of their students, evince no sense of the intellectual diversity--to mention only one form of diversity--that might be required to see the resistance and experimentation at the edges of their classrooms or perhaps outside their office windows or at the fringes of campus (or indeed far down the academic road, at places like Black Mountain). It may be that these gentlemen are writing in 1957 but thinking of their students of 1950-1954, the cowed McCarthyite generation recently graduated. Or it may be that the freer spirits on campus had stopped taking lit courses, or kept quiet whilst Stegner and Baker were lecturing at them, or saved their heterodoxy for the sloppy garrett and cheap coffee shop six blocks from campus.
Anyway, Kunitz notes that the students don't seem to have culture heroes who are themselves young, and seem to be stuck with Jung, Mann, Yeats and Eliot. Stegner claims that "only Eliot seems to arouse enthusiasm in students." (He's talking about a San Francisco-area campus in 1957! Can that generalization really hold even for students on the conservative Stanford campus of that time? I doubt it, but of course I'll need to do a little digging to confirm my hunch that he's wrong.) J. A. Bryant of the University of the South notes that the Hemingway these young men love is not the unallegiant expatriate Hem but the Hem who "symbolizes the virility and essential goodness of the American male and is identifiable with the warrior [and] the athlete." R. J. Kaufmann says that his students "like Joyce's Portrait very well up to the point in which he works out his elaborate aesthetic." John Willingham of Centenary College says there's no rebellion in these students at all--that they "envy the undergraduate of the twenties" [sic - not "the thirties"].
I should note that Leo Marx (then at Minnesota) wrote an exceptional piece for this feature, and so, to some degree, did Alan Swallow, whom we think of now as primarily a great publisher but who had then recently left the University of Denver but was in any case never really comfortable in the academy the way Stegner, Baker and Kunitz were.
I make a comment on Joan Didion's early sense of the failure of the American educational socialization to narrative. She described the experience as a breakdown, and sought to experience, in writing, the "breaking down" of writing. And then I ask her to read a passage on this same topic from the book she wrote about the death of her husband many years later.
The site called Mashable / Social Media ran a story a while back with the news of "hotseat," which is being adopted at universities such as Purdue. I quote:
Students at Purdue University are experimenting with a new application developed at the school called Hotseat that integrates Facebook, Twitter, and text messaging to help students “backchannel” during class. People who have attended technology conferences in the past several years are already familiar with this phenomenon, where social media is leveraged to allow the participants in a session or panel to comment and exchange questions and ideas in real-time. At Purdue, Hotseat is used to allow students to comment on the class as it proceeds, with everyone in the class including the professor able to see the messaging as it happens. The Hotseat software allows students to use either Facebook, Twitter, Myspace (MySpace), or SMS to post messages during classes, or they can simply log in to the web site to post to and view the ongoing backchannel. Right now it’s only being pilot tested in two courses, but has already become a fast favorite for both teachers and students. Professor Sugato Chakravarty, whose personal finance course is one of the pilot tests, said, “I’m seeing students interact more with the course and ask relevant questions.” And although it’s been optional for students to participate, so far 73% of the 600 or so in the pilot classes have used the software. We’ve seen Twitter become mandatory for journalism students at Australia (Australia)’s Griffith University to some negative reaction, but this is a less structured implementation which may perhaps account for its more favorable reception. As Chakravarty goes on to note, though, the application is called “Hotseat” for a reason — and professors will have to be resilient enough to take any potential criticism or even corrections from students in real-time. Nevertheless, he cites it as a “valuable tool for enhancing learning. The students are engaged in the discussions and, for the most part, they are asking relevant questions.”
My first response was extremely negative: just another use of so-called social media to enable universities to continue rostering huge courses (which is obviously a money-saver). I certainly won't celebrate yet another reason why class size will continue to grow and the distance between faculty and student will increase. But then I realize that the distance I'm thinking of is physical. Programs like Hotseat will tend to make the lecture impossible to maintain, if (for instance) students are not understanding the material, if they have questions they feel the need to pose but can't otherwise break into the competent super-confident flow of a lecture. So this might shake up some lecturers a bit, might cause them to revise their yellowed lecture notes, and to look up at the tweetflow on the monitor behind them. Well, then, back to skepticism. Do we really need students' tweets projected in the front of the classroom? Can't we all learn, even in large classes, to ask questions, encourage students to speak, lead a real discussion? If a Hotseat-enabled tweet from the otherwise reticent student in row 26 then makes possible an interaction "outside" the social media--if this system becomes a prompt--then I'm fine with it. If it's just another excuse for pedagogical impersonality (not to mention I know/you don't antagonism between teacher and learners), then I'll sit this one out. I'll just repeat what I've written in this blog any number of times. My pedagogy is saturated with uses of digital media and IT (I'm downright gaga about it all), but my classroom itself--the space for our meetings--is for the most part pre-tech: the students and I in the space. Not always, but often, my classroom is the only tech-free experience my students and I will have all day.
This essay on modernist poetry at the end of the lecture is now available through the Selected Works site. Many thanks to Peter Middleton and Nicky Marsh for commissioning it and for fabulous editorial and other advice along the way. Thanks also to Julia Bloch, whose class session on the sounds of Amiri Baraka was inspirational.
Penn's student newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian, ran a story in this morning's paper about our efforts at the Writers House to find talented writers among high-school student candidates for admission to the university. Click on the title of this post for a larger view.