Something unusual was going on at The Center for Book in San Francisco yesterday. In a museum devoted to the fine art of print book making, a group of 60 people, who’d never met before, gathered over their common interest in an online course.
Modern & Contemporary American Poetry (better known as “ModPo”) is an introductory poetry course, taught online by Dr. Al Filreis. The winner of numerous teaching awards, Filreis is Director of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing and Faculty Director of the Kelly Writers House at University of Pennsylvania. In 2012 he introduced the ModPo course, through Coursera, and 42,000 students showed up. Since then, he and his graduate students have offered the course every year, refining and adjusting the ways they knit together that many students, spread all over the globe.
Meet-ups like yesterday offer a perfect peek into the tools and methods they leverage to create the feeling of an intimate and personal learning experience with 42,000 people.
Invitations prior to the event went out via Twitter (@ModPotPenn), Facebook and email (once you’ve enrolled in the course, you are a member of the ModPo community). There were about 60 people in attendance, with Al and his crew who video-recorded our meet-up (for later use in the ModPo 2016 course). Before they started taping, he invited each person there (all 60 of us) to share our name and connection to the course.
What a range – high schoolers, high school teachers, physicists, office workers, software engineers, and retirees. There were two mother-daughter pairs and one dapper, older gent who came with his daughter. The daughter, Kate, took the course last year and “brought her father along, as she knew he would be interested.” When she introduced her Dad and I nearly fell off my chair – it was David Perlman. David Perlman of science journalism fame! For those of you who don’t know him, Perlman is a lauded science reporter for the SF Chronicle. He is now 94 years old and is still reporting. Turns out, before he took on the science beat, he covered the obscenity trial over Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” in 1957.
But back to the gathering. In advance of the event, Filreis had sent us all links to two poems – Joanne Kyger’s When I used to focus on the worries and Larry Eigner’s Bookshelf. We proceeded to do a “close read” of them both. This is a method that Filreis and his graduate students employ throughout the online course, delivered via video recorded sessions and, on occasion, live webcasts from the Kelly Writers House. He kicks it off with a little background on the poet and then reads the poem aloud. Then he assigns lines, words, or inflection points to particular people. Although I’ve watched this process many times, when taking the course myself, I was quite taken with the way it played out in this setting. Afterall, there were 60 of us and we aren’t graduate students! Here’s how it goes… “Becky, I’m going to ask you to talk about the first two lines in just a minute and then, after that, Carolyn, I’d like to hear what you have to say about the use of the pronoun ‘he’ in the third line, then we’ll circle over to Jack and see what he thinks of the way that stanza holds together. Ok, Becky – tell me what you think.” By doing it this way, Filreis controls the way it plays out. He also gives each person invited to share a few minutes to prepare, to think about it.
Here’s a snippet, recorded on my iPhone, to give you a feel for his approach.
Filreis clearly has a map to the poem, his own interpretation, in his head, and he nudges us through it. Line by line, word by word. When you are sharing your ideas, he’ll pull it out of you. “What about that phrase? And who does that remind you of? What does that line “there’s a different slant” make you think of?” He’ll often say something like, “that’s a really interesting interpretation – tell me more about that.” Turns out, he confessed to us, he learned this method of teaching from therapy. And once he said that, it all fell into place for me – of course. These ModPo sessions do feel amazingly similar a therapy session.
But it’s not as though there is just one interpretation he’s attempting to press us all into. There were competing ideas, not everyone agreed – discussion ensued, just as it should be.
It’s quite impressive to see how well this worked. Here we were, a big group of amateurs (some he knew, many he didn’t), and we moved our way through those two poems in the most satisfying manner. I had read them in advance, and liked them both, but I left the session with new insight and respect for both poets. Not one interpretation of them, but shades of meaning, insights into possibilities, and so much respect for the power of word choice, spacing, rhythm, and the nature of the poems.
By the end of the session, we’d all offered our thoughts, shared ideas, and there was this frisson of enthusiasm, excitement, zest for the poems (and the poets) we’d just read. Something that could have never been achieved solo (at least for me).
These close reading sessions work very well in the online course but I definitely had a richer appreciation for the process after seeing it in action face-to-face. When I enroll in ModPo ’16, I’ll have a much deeper understanding and connection to this pedagogical approach.
It’s also clear that the course development team have really learned to leverage the platform and an array of tools to provide a well functioning sandbox for community. Community and connection feel alive and well in ModPo. And the rich tapestry of the ModPo membership only serves to deepen that feeling of connection. In attendance at the meet-up was a young woman from China who happened to be on vacation in San Francisco, got the word about the event, and showed up. Could that same strength of connection arise from a course in biochemistry or law? I hope so, but there’s no denying that poetry offers a unique doorway to the exploration of the individual, relationships, values, and the connections between us.
Taking a moment here to recognize and revel in the myriad methods this course presses into service. Print and digital, synchronous and asynchronous, in person and virtual, listening and speaking, contemplating and sharing. That’s a key lesson we’re learning in this world of online education isn’t it? Hybrid works. The best of each approach, use the right tool for the job, no one right answer, blend your methods and make a custom concoction to fit the unique challenges and concepts of your material.
And only connect.