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One Class, 36,000 Students

Can a MOOC teach poetry?
Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Lyn Hejinian, Countee Cullen

I took one poetry class when I was an undergraduate. I still have the copy of The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson that I earnestly marked up that semester. In the margins of poem number 754, “My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—,” the 19-year-old me wrote, “gun= poetry?” Perhaps it’s not surprising that I became a fiction writer and not a poet. But I’ve always regretted not studying more poetry. Then, through Twitter, I heard about a free, online modern American poetry class; friends raved about the professor, University of Pennsylvania’s Al Filreis, so I signed up. I wasn’t alone. By the time the class started in September, 33,000 people had joined in—from South Africa to California—including Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin. (Two months later, enrollment had reached more than 36,000.)

These “massive open online courses” (MOOCs) have exploded on the American educational scene. The Washington Post dubbed them “elite education for the masses,” with universities like Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton offering free classes. Coursera, the for-profit company that offered Filreis’s poetry class among many others, is less than a year old and counts more than 1.7 million as students. Many of the courses offer certificates of completion, so while a degree from these schools may still cost upward of $100,000, you can theoretically—and that’s a big “theoretically”—get the education for nothing.

I was skeptical. What I always loved about literature classes was the intimate discussion of books: a small group assembled around a seminar table, reading closely, interpreting texts. How could that be replicated online?

Week 1

My inbox began to fill with notifications from Modern Poetry, but, distracted by other writing assignments, I paid little attention. It’s easy to ignore a class when you don’t have to face the professor in person. When I finally logged in to the site, two weeks after the course began, I realized how much I’d already missed. I had flashbacks to my college days, when I was often playing catch-up in a caffeinated panic. Gnawed by stress, I was tempted to bag the whole thing. But then I clicked on the first video discussion, about Emily Dickinson’s “I dwell in Possibility.”

In the videos—there is one for each poem on the syllabus—Filreis and his band of TAs sit around a seminar table in the Kelly Writers House at Penn and read each poem closely. I’m not in the room with them, but I feel like I am. I like Al’s teaching style: he never lectures, but leads a lively, intellectually rigorous discussion. He initiates a collective close reading, assigning individual words to his teaching assistants for analysis. “Molly,” he says to one TA, “you get the word ‘this,’ which is not only the most important word in Dickinson, but possibly in the whole English language.”

This is the first time I’ve examined Whitman and Dickinson as examples of “alternative poetic radicalisms,” as Filreis puts it. They were both formally inventive—in different ways—and their influence is still seen in contemporary poetry. We read three poems by Dickinson—“I dwell in Possibility,” “tell All the Truth but tell it Slant,” and “The Brain within its Groove” —and many excerpts of Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” Al asks the TAs if they prefer the Dickinsonian or Whitmanian mode, and I’m surprised by how strongly I identify with the Dickinsonians. I like the cerebral quality of Dickinson. I like how hard she makes us work to enter her “house of Possibility.” Al Filreis encourages metapoetic readings and I get excited. I start fantasizing about getting a PhD in English.

Week 2

We read Allen Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California,” a poem I’ve always loved for its wistful tone. “Where are we going, Walt Whitman?” asks the speaker, who aimlessly follows Whitman’s incarnation—a homeless man—through the alienating suburbs so far from the collective America that Whitman imagined. It’s not hard to see Whitman’s influence on Ginsberg, but I’m surprised to learn that William Carlos Williams is a Whitmanian, too. I memorized “The Red Wheelbarrow” in eighth or ninth grade as an example of the objective description of images, but in a ModPo discussion of Williams’s “Smell!” and “Danse Russe,” all his Whitmanian appetites—the wild, unconstrained “yawp” of humanity—are revealed. In the Dickinsonian tradition, we read two poets I knew nothing about: Lorine Niedecker and Rae Armantrout, whose postmodern collage poem “The Way” combines fragments of found language with a memory: the speaker’s first exposure to the power of imagination. Armantrout writes:

As a child,
I was abandoned

in a story
made of trees.

“Me too!” I say aloud. And although no one can hear me, I do not feel alone.

Al and the TAs are like reality-show TV contestants: regular people who suddenly have a huge audience. They don’t seem to be aware of the camera, of the more than 30,000 people watching them discuss poems. The TAs are young (in their 20s, it seems), and the one named Emily—whom Filreis has referred to as a genius on at least one occasion—intrigues me. She often wears a disdainful expression—she has probably never drunk the Kool-Aid in any situation—but she has the ability, in a few sculpted words, to change the way I think about a particular poem. She seems as hard to please as the discriminating subject of Dickinson’s poems. I immediately like her.

Week 3

William Carlos Williams, doctor by day, wrote his poetry after work and on weekends. His famous “This Is Just to Say” is basically a refrigerator note: the sort that busy spouses leave each other all the time. I think about him as I read through ModPo coursework at odd hours. I work from home, so I can set my own schedule, but I know there are people with salaried office jobs—doctors, lawyers, editors, Dick Durbin—and I wonder how they are fitting ModPo into their lives. Are these students cramming late at night, while snacking on fruit they know their partners were saving for breakfast? Are they leaving halfhearted apologies on their refrigerators? Williams writes, “Forgive me, they were delicious / so sweet / and so cold,” and I can’t help but think he’s talking about poems as well as plums.

Week 4

I’m moved by the video discussion of Gertrude Stein’s “Let Us Describe,” a prose poem that is a fractured elegy: its coherence breaks down to reflect the disorienting quality of loss. Emily, my favorite TA, points out that the poem “refuses to make sense” because loss makes no sense. There is so much I want to add to this conversation—loss, and the way we struggle to articulate it, is something I think about a lot in terms of my own writing—but the truth is, the online forums don’t satisfy me the way a live discussion would.

After making a comment in one of the forums, I receive an email every time someone adds to that discussion. Rather than being confined to a seminar room one or two days a week, the class spreads like mold. I love watching the video discussions with Filreis, but the rapidly multiplying emails—they arrive at all hours—make me resentful and reluctant to join a discussion forum again. This is the drawback of online education: on the one hand, you can fit the coursework into whatever space you have in your life; on the other hand, the course will follow you into all the other spaces, so you never really have a break.

Week 5

The fast pace of this week, which covers four chapters—communist poets of the 1930s, the Harlem Renaissance, Robert Frost, and the formalism of the 1950s—overwhelms me, particularly because I have other deadlines looming. I’d love to be a full-time student of literature, but I’m having trouble balancing my real life with ModPo. I’m falling behind again. I missed the deadline for the first essay assignment (the essays are peer-reviewed; Filreis obviously can’t grade thousands of written assignments). And yet I feel ModPo’s influence. I think about the class in the context of my fiction. Some of the video discussions prompt story ideas for me. Among the Harlem Renaissance poems we read is Countee Cullen’s “Yet Do I Marvel,” a Shakespearean sonnet with a modern referential quality. Cullen is aware of the connotations and context of this traditional form: by using it, he highlights his double consciousness. I think about the fact that all writers (including me) have a double consciousness: an awareness of literary context inevitably informs our work.

Week 6

In his examination of the phenomenon of MOOCs in MIT Technology Review, Nicholas Carr writes:

Critics point to the earlier correspondence-course mania as a cautionary tale.… In a lecture at Oxford in 1928, the eminent American educator Abraham Flexner delivered a withering indictment of correspondence study, claiming that it promoted “participation” at the expense of educational rigor. By the 1930s, once-eager faculty and administrators had lost interest in teaching by mail. The craze fizzled.

I sympathize with this argument. As much as I love Filreis and the course material, I am less motivated than I would be if I were in the classroom. I resign myself to the fact that I won’t have time to write any of the essays, and I feel guilty about not completing the coursework. I realize that I’ll never feel like anything but an auditor in an online class. And yet, this is, without question, the best literature class I’ve ever taken. I still can’t believe that I have access to all this incredible material for free. In Robert Creeley’s famous “I Know a Man,” the speaker wonders: "the darkness sur- /rounds us, what // can we do against / it…”

The speaker of the poem is asking these existential questions from behind the wheel of a car, and as Emily the TA says in the video discussion, the punch line is that “he’s wondering what to deploy against the sadness, the uncertainty, but he’s already deployed it, hasn’t he? He’s in the car, he’s driving. And so by asking those questions, he incapacitates himself from actually finding the answers.”

“Oh, you went big right away,” Al replies with an appreciative laugh.

Week 7

I start seeing poetry everywhere. As Hurricane Sandy ravages the East Coast, a number of friends—none of whom are taking ModPo—post William Carlos Williams’s “The Hurricane” on Facebook. It’s interesting that in big emotional moments—weddings, funerals, natural disasters—we turn to poetry, not prose. Even people who aren’t particularly (forgive the pun) well versed rely on poems when they can’t find other words. In a discussion forum called “How has ModPo impacted you personally?,” a psychologist notes that since taking ModPo, she’s starting to pay close attention to the form (not just the content) of her patients’ narratives. A psychiatric nurse in a state hospital writes, “I have found myself doing close readings of the delusions of my patients. I've known some of these patients for years and find myself hearing them in a new way. I've also memorized several poems by Emily Dickinson and have recited the poems to certain patients and have been delighted to find some who are enthralled with her.”

Weeks 8, 9, 10

As the end of ModPo draws near, we consider Language poets such as Ron Silliman and Lyn Hejinian, whose wonderful My Life contains lines like “Losing its balance on the low horizon lay the vanishing vernal day” and “Sipping Shirley Temples wearing my Mary Janes.” Al says that My Life—a series of prose poems, each 37 lines long, and based on the author’s life when she was 37—can be read as a piece about American girlhood. It’s an alternative to traditional memoir. I hadn’t read Hejinian before, but My Life is now one of my favorite books. I love writing that is about memory itself (“writing is an aid to memory,” as Hejinian put it)—and I love the way the poem wrestles with the recording of time. Postmodernists like Hejinian owe a lot to modernists like Stein, but Al says that My Life is a “collagish assembling of the American life, both particular to the individual and also kind of generalized to culture at that time.” And when he says that, I realize that it’s a very smart way of describing what I was intuitively trying to do in my own book. Once again, I find my mind blown by Al Filreis. I’m sad that ModPo is nearly over.

I’m relieved to receive an email that says the course materials will be available online until next September. I’ll have a full year to catch up on the video discussions I missed and to reread the poems closely. (Confession: In the 10th week of the course, I’m still working my way through the material from the seventh week.) When I missed a class in college, there was no way to catch up on the lectures or discussion. I’m not sure MOOCs can replace traditional university education, but they can certainly complement it.

“Poems are words,” Al said early in the course. It’s the way I feel about writing. I build stories out of words. I follow sounds. Language makes meaning. “Language is restless,” Hejinian says, and I’m so glad it is.


Correction, December 5: Dick Durbin is the Majority Whip, not the Minority Whip, as the article originally stated.

  • Elliott Holt's first novel You Are One Of Them will be published by The Penguin Press in June 2013. Her short fiction has appeared in The Pushcart Prize XXXV (2011 anthology) among other places. Follow her on twitter @elliottholt.


One Class, 36,000 Students

Can a MOOC teach poetry?
  • Elliott Holt's first novel You Are One Of Them will be published by The Penguin Press in June 2013. Her short fiction has appeared in The Pushcart Prize XXXV (2011 anthology) among other places. Follow her on twitter @elliottholt.

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