Ah, the poetry MOOCs are coming — the exciting world of online education is spreading beyond the STEM disciplines and into the humanities! Let’s investigate.

Elisa New of Harvard is offering one on Poetry in America. It appears that the course is quite consciously Harvard-centric:

“I wanted to do this course using all of the resources of Harvard, its libraries, archives, museums, its students on camera, experimenting with making this a course that uses what the University offers, but for a reason — and that reason is that the history of American poetry and Harvard’s history are so completely intertwined,” she said.

“There are some major poets who didn’t spend time at Harvard, but the list of major American poets who did spend time at Harvard is very, very long. We have their manuscripts. They taught here. Buildings are named after them. So this is a perfect place as a base for the course.”

“There are some major poets who didn’t spend time at Harvard.” Some.  

I’m just going to set that aside.

So what’s this course going to be like? Well, um, “The course is broken down into modules.” Right: modules. “The course combines interactivity, video, traveling, and an element of surprise, said New.” The “traveling” seems to be done by New:

“We filmed here at Harvard, in Cambridge, on Cape Cod,” she said. “I’ll be filming in Washington, D.C., Manhattan, California, even Vermont to talk about [Robert] Frost.”

Also, New filmed Michael Pollan reading a poem about corn. “I’m drawing in teachers and students in a variety of ways.” But this is not all about celebrity poetry readings:

Communication will be essential, New said. “This is a course about conversation between people about poetry. It’s not just about me lecturing. It’s about how you can huddle around a poem with a bunch of other people and get to know them, and the poem better. For me, that’s the center of what humanistic inquiry is,” she said.  

Hmmm. “Huddle around a poem with a bunch of other people and get to know them, and the poem better” — those environments used to be called classrooms, didn’t they?

As far as I can tell, it’s impossible to discover either from the article I’ve been quoting or from HarvardX’s page about the course what any of this means: interactivity, traveling, huddling, conversation, “drawing in teachers and students in a variety of ways.” One might think that HarvardX would inform people of what the course expectations are in inviting them to register, especially since registrants are asked to decide whether they want to “Simply Audit This Course” or “Try for a Certificate,” but no: you are merely told that if you “participate in all of the course’s activities and abide by the edX Honor Code” and “if your work is satisfactory, you’ll receive a personalized certificate to showcase your achievement.”

So what is this “Honor Code Certificate”? Following some links, I get this: “An Honor Code Certificate of Achievement certifies that you have successfully completed a course, but does not verify your identity. Honor Code certificates are currently free.” But that’s all. I even signed up for an edX account to see if by registering for the course I would learn what the expectations are for the course, but nothing is available.

Now this seems rather curious: If an institution tells people that they can either audit a course or take it for an “Honor Code Certificate,” shouldn’t that institution offer some information up front about what the difference is? What the expectations are? That no such information is offered tells us, I think, just how seriously we are to think of the educational value of this kind of “course”: it has none. Basically, people will watch a few videos. It’s telling that the course page says that it will last four weeks and that the “estimated effort” is “1-3 hours per week,” which suggests that they’re not even expecting genuine conversations to develop. As little as four hours’ investment in the entire (Harvard-based) history of American poetry?

I’m not sure this qualifies even as a joke. Now, advocates for MOOCs might say that this is but an experiment, an early essay in the craft. But with some poetry websites and an email listserv I could create something more educationally interesting and ambitious than this, though the entertaining spectacle of Michael Pollan reading a poem about corn would, sadly, be lacking. With Harvard’s resources, this is what they come up with?

UPDATE: Robert Ghrist on Twitter reminds me — can’t believe I forgot this — that Al Filreis at Penn has been doing something like this for quite a while, but Al’s course is more demanding: there are actual papers to write, quizzes to take, investments in the work of others. I don’t know how well it works, or how Al might compare it to an on-campus course at Penn, but it looks like some real effort has been put in to making it meaningful.


  1. I haven't taken Al Filreis's MOOC (or Elisa New's, obviously), but it's worth noting that one of the reasons that Al's course looks so different from many other MOOCs is that he's been doing large-scale digital-media courses on modern lit and poetry for years before MOOCs came along. And before that, he was working on hard on turning lecture-sized courses into discussion-based investigations of close reading. In other words, the success of a course will always depend on its leader. If that leader is someone who's been engaged in thinking through radical ways of teaching, that's what you'll get. If that leader is someone invested in the glories of Harvard, well….

  2. Hi, like thousands of people all over the world, I have taken both Al Filreis' MOOC (Modern and Contemporary Poetry) and Elisa New's Poetry of New England. The author of this article does not seem to have taken either, so I miss the point of blogging about something you have not experienced yourself. I am not here to compare the two classes as they are both JEWELS. I agree with Sarah that it is obvious that Al Filreis is an innovative teacher who has seriously thought about alternative ways of teaching. Now, I do not see a problem with Elisa New's class being Harvard-centered. The course is called Poetry of Early New England, which is where the Puritans lived and composed their poetry. By taking her class, students around the world had the privilege of listening to early american poetry from the inside of the first church in New England. The first poet published in the americans lived a few blocks from Harvard Univ. These are valid reasons for the class to be the way it is. Alan Jacobs, if you take the classes you will understand.

  3. Marcela Madrid: New's course — as both the article I cited and the HarvardX pages make clear — is called Poetry in America. "Poetry of Early New England" is only the first module; New says that the entire course is to be Harvard-centered, as you'll see if you read the interview with her.

    See, this is precisely why I have my doubts about the whole enterprise.

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