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Once More Around the MOOC

Reading yet another essay on MOOCs that doesn’t get us any further in understanding what’s happening than we are already, I think:

I do a good deal of lecturing in my classes, but most of my lectures are to some degree improvised and circumstantial. When I walk into a classroom where students have just read a work of literature that’s new to them, most of my excitement comes not from the opportunity to tell them what I know but from curiosity: What do they want to know?

Maybe the coolest thing about being a teacher is just this: Everything that’s worn and familiar to me is new to my students. I’ve been through the ins and outs of Ulysses dozens of times, which is precisely what makes it fun to be in a room with thirty people who are encountering it for the first time. It’s easy for me to forget that experience — to forget all the ways that book can disorient (and even delight) a reader — unless I make a point not of explaining but of asking: What confused you? Where did you run aground? Was there a point when you were tempted to give up? (And no, I won’t ask you whether you yielded to that temptation.) What do you make of this passage? What about that one?

And it’s wonderful to see how some people discover that they were confused by something they didn’t even realize they were confused by until someone else raised a question — how a question from one student generates quite another question from a different student, how nodes of puzzlement — or excitement, or understanding — form during a class session. I lecture all right, but my lectures arise from where I discover that my students are situated in relation to a text.

When I think about turning all this into a MOOC, my first thought is: How easy that would be. Just write out a lecture and deliver it? Piece of cake — especially in comparison to the hard work of trying to learn a book and its contexts well enough to be ready when people ask those questions you didn’t expect, offer thoughts you hadn’t thought. And those questions and thoughts can change the course not just of a single class session but of the whole semester, as different ways of connecting various works come into play in response to what students want to know.

And my second thought about teaching a MOOC is: How shockingly boring that would be. To stand up there and recite what you’ve prepared beforehand in complete ignorance of and indifferent to the needs, thoughts, and questions of the people in the room before you, and the hundreds or thousands of other people who are watching and listening on their computers — not my idea of a good time.

Of course, many people lecture in just that way. As Nathan Heller comments in the essay I linked to above,

Lecturing can seem a rote endeavor even at its best — so much so that one wonders why the system has survived so long. Actors, musicians, and even standup comedians record their best performances for broadcast and posterity. Why shouldn’t college teachers do the same? Vladimir Nabokov, a man as uncomfortable with extemporaneity as he was enamored of the public record, once suggested that his lessons at Cornell be recorded and played each term, freeing him for other activities. The basis of a reliable education, it would seem, is quality control, not circumstance; it certainly is not a new thought that effective teaching transcends time and place. Correspondence courses cropped up in the nineteenth century. Educational radio appeared in the twenties and the thirties. The U.K.’s Open University, which used television to transmit lessons to students, enrolled its first students in 1971.

And if you think of lecturing as Nabokov did, why not make a MOOC? But for me it would be a savage diminishment of what I love about teaching. I’d rather find a new line of work.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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