Those of us who teach know that the various cultural debates around multilingualism worm their ways into our classrooms. At the K-12 level especially, bi- and multilingual education have specific consequences for funding: the fear is that English Language Learners (ELLs) will lower schools’ test scores, resulting in a punitive drop in already meager funding. In higher ed, many universities are getting rid of foreign language requirements (although they’re still promoting study abroad as a great resumé-booster and as the ticket to success in an increasingly globalized economy). At all levels of education, of course, there are many students who are second-language (or third- or fourth-language) speakers, and students speak varieties of English other than the ones that are privileged in traditional education. Many of these students want to improve their use of Standard English, but that doesn't mean they should be made to feel as though there is an "English Only" sign on the classroom door.
It may seem a bit beside the point to bring these educational and cultural debates into a conversation about poetry, but I think that the relative openness to multilingualism that is readily visible in so many poems can serve as a helpful corrective to the transparent and univocal conception of language that reigns supreme in most educational settings.
In Richard P. Feynman’s book, A Strange Theory of Light and Matter (Princeton University Press, 1985), collecting his lectures on quantum electrodynamics, an agreement between quantum mechanics and relativity is attempted by describing interactions between light (photons) and matter (electrons), which are thought to travel to and from anywhere in the universe at any time. Like other quantum field theories of physics such as string theory, quantum electrodynamics proposes that spacetime cannot be defined by the Newtonian, Euclidian, and Aristotelian laws that once conceived of time as though it was an arrow moving through a distinct past, present, and future. Space is no longer conceived of as though its points could be connected by lines that do not exist in the natural world. A Strange Theory of Light and Matter is one of the foundational texts assigned in Rae Armantrout and Brian Keating’s breakthrough course, Poetry for Physicists, currently underway at the University of California at San Diego.
The enrollment in this free, 10-week noncredit course on modern and contemporary American poetry was 42,523 in the fall of 2012, and 38,150 in the fall of 2013 and 38,800 in the fall of 2014, 34,000 in the fall of 2015, and 21,000 in the fall of 2016. Contributions to the discussion forums were read (well, viewed) 957,000 times in 2012. Video recordings of collaborative close readings of poems were viewed nearly a half million times in ten weeks (in '12, '13 and '14 each). The course site remains open for those enrolled for another nine months after each session ends in mid-November. Here are some links:
Our first week on Williams’s Paterson we began by constructing a question gallery. First, come up with a question about some key detail of the poem. Second, come up with a question about some formal element of the poem. Third, come up with a question about a larger question raised by the poem. Once the questions have been pinned to the wall, used colored post-its to annotate, respond to, and further question the questions.
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.
A week before the 10-week ModPo course begins (current enrollment, as of this moment: 28,000 people worldwide) several thousand of those in the course are already talking in a Facebook group and on Twitter. We were discussing a poem by Emily Dickinson. People began saying things about the poem that in all my years of reading and teaching it I hadn't thought of. Then I posted this, above (apologies for the enthusiasm).
For further information about the course: link. To enroll, click here. ModPo begins on September 10, 2012, and continues for ten weeks. As of the date of this posting, 24,600 were enrolled. Roughly* half live outside North America.
* We have scant data on enrollees. Once the course begins, we will ask participants to fill out a short (obviously optional) survey and hope to learn why so many are taking the course, where they live, etc.