Poetry + Technology + Great Professor – Tuition = Amazing Global Learning Community

Imagine sitting in your Modern Poetry class at your Ivy League school. Your bearded professor in a tweed jacket leans forward, questioning each student in turn. What did Emily Dickinson mean by “this”? What did good ole Walt mean by the “blab of the pave”? Is William Carlos Williams’ note to his wife really poetry? What does it mean if the poet applies random chance to someone else’s words to “write” a new poem?

Your class has a spirited discussion, closely reading each poem, picking it apart, viewing it from many different angles. Agreeing and disagreeing, proposing new interpretations, discovering unintended significance.

The discussion goes 24 hours a day for 10 weeks. You pop in and out whenever you want. And it doesn’t cost a thing.

Welcome to MOOCs

Welcome to the world of MOOCs – Massive Online Open Courses. I recently finished a Modern Poetry course offered by the University of Pennsylvania through Coursera. I had 34,000 classmates, and yet I felt like I “knew” the professor, I connected with other students, and I learned a tremendous amount.

The course structure was straightforward:

  • The poetry itself – Read a poem, listen to an audio recording and/or discussion of poem when available, watch a video of the professor and a half dozen teaching assistants (TAs) discussing the poem, participate in the discussion forums as you desire (I did not do much). We covered 5-10 poems per week.
  • Quizzes – Take one multiple-choice quiz per week. Required only if you want a certificate of completion. (I skipped.)
  • Essays – Complete four essays to be peer reviewed by 3-4 other students. Again required only for a certificate of completion. (I skipped.)
  • Live webcasts – “Attend” (live or on YouTube after the fact) a weekly discussion with the professor and TAs. Participate via the discussion forums, Twitter, Facebook and live phone calls (yes, that retro technology)—or show up in Philly if you’re close enough. You wouldn’t believe the number of students from around the world who made the effort to be online live at all hours of the day and night.

Since ModPo was a free, non-credit class, people self-selected and already had an interest in the topic. Certainly we had the opportunity to pick and choose how much work to do, but this was not a lightweight class. It was estimated at 5-8 hours per week to complete all the work.

The Professor

The bearded, tweedy professor of Penn’s ModPo was Al Filreis. Al has a warm, engaging personality, and is a skilled facilitator. I liked Al from the beginning, but became a fan throughout the course.

I’ve been reading a bit about MOOCs as a result of this class. One of the criticisms is that the professor sometimes achieves “rock star” status rather than being a present, real teacher. I had to consider this criticism closely. Was I blinded by Al’s brilliance and his distant persona?

No, I don’t think so. I’m sure Al is brilliant when he lectures. But Al rarely lectured. (On the rare occasions he did “riff” on a topic, his deep expertise became apparent.) Al instead facilitated a group-learning process by carefully guiding the video conversations, asking probing questions, and disagreeing as appropriate. And this is quite honestly what I would expect of a professor at an Ivy League school.

But Al’s management of the webcasts took this course to another level. Al treated every course participant—whether TA, caller, discussion-forum participant—as a unique and special individual. He genuinely took pleasure in hearing from people, and he paid great attention to their ideas. He also did something remarkable in creating a connection with the entire group by calling out specific examples, messages and stories from individual participants. Nothing was about Al; everything was about the poetry and its impact on the class participants.

I had tears in my eyes at some point during nearly every webcast. And to me that’s what poetry is about—connecting with emotion and creating a stronger understanding of the human condition. Bravo, Al!

The Participants

The internet has already connected many previously marginalized populations by allowing them to find each other, connect and create communities. ModPo demonstrated that higher education can now achieve that as well.

Think of the people who might not otherwise have taken any poetry class, let alone one at Penn:

  • A woman with debilitating fibromyalgia.
  • A young man emerging from autism.
  • Elderly persons who could not physically travel to or sit in a classroom for any length of time.

These people can now work at their own pace around pain levels, energy levels, attention spans–and they can still interact with the professor and other students.

And of course there are the folks like me, who simply have an interest in the subject, don’t live anywhere near Philly, and need classes to fit around life’s other activities.

34,000 classmates and I didn’t feel like just one of the crowd. Amazing.


I’ve already signed up for Fantasy and Science Fiction as my next class…

NaNoWriMo Week 4 – Woo-hoo!

After Week 3’s utter disaster of near-non-writing, I had a lot of ground to make up in Week 4 if I wanted it hit my 50,000-word target by November 30. The key issue was a poor plot. I’d written myself into a boring corner and had run out of ideas to escape it.

What got me started again? Ego.

I knew I normally could only handle about 3000 words at a time before my average words per hour dropped into single digits. When I reached the critical calculation that it would take 3500 words/day for a solid week to win NaNoWriMo, I knew I couldn’t delay any longer. My ultra-competitive, Type-A genes kicked in. I was determined to finish this sucker—good, bad, or horrible.

And horrible it was. But it is done.

It’s time for a sports analogy

When I was in high school, my family went on a summer bicycling “vacation.” We weren’t alone. This was the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI), which consisted of 10,000 riders making their way from the Missouri River to the Mississippi. Did I bother to train? Nah. I rode around town, maybe did one 17-mile ride. How hard could riding a bike be? You can always coast, right?

Well, RAGBRAI averages about 70 miles per day for 7 days. And there are hills.

By the first day I was sore. By the second day I was in pain. And by the fifth day, I was sick. Couldn’t finish the ride.

I like to think I’ve gained a little wisdom with age.  In my 30s I began running. As many runners do, I found that races kept me motivated to train. I did 5Ks, 10K, 10-milers, even a half marathon. While training for the half-marathon, I did a long run of 18 miles. Holy cow! I thought. If I can do 18 miles, I can do 26.2! But I’d better get a training plan in place to make sure I’m ready.

So I talked to my runner friends who could recommend training regimens, and I started training. I executed my plan and successfully completed my (one and only) marathon: the California International Marathon (CIM).

Despite the fact that I finished, NaNoWriMo felt a lot more like RAGBRAI than CIM.

The obligatory “Lessons Learned”

  • It’s possible to write a novel with a bad plot. The video course on story structure that I mentioned in Week 3’s post helped me create some structure—even with a marginal plot. I made some arbitrary decisions, made some changes that might require significant revisions, and then charged forward.
  • I need to learn more about the writing craft. I’ve been reading for a long time. I know when something is good and I know when something is bad. Sometimes I can even say why. But I haven’t spent time analyzing or studying how to write compelling characters or complex worlds.
  • I can write more than I thought. I wasn’t sure if I could write a novel. Now I know I can. Just think what could happen if I had a decent plot and and developed characters. 🙂

Thanks for all the comments and likes on my NaNoWriMo posts—it helps to know there are supporters (and commiserators) out there. Thanks to my friends who sent me creative thoughts during the month, and especially to my writing buds Linda and Wendy. Last but not least, thanks to my husband for enthusiastic cheerleading (you look great in that skirt, George!).

I’ll see you at the next marathon–oops, I mean NaNoWriMo–with training plan in hand…