Entering Existentialism: A Review of Saylor.org’s Online Philosophy Class
I’ve been as eager to report on Saylor.org’s class in existential philosophy as I was excited to take it, especially since it covered a set of philosophers I’ve not yet had to study (such as Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Heidegger) as part of my Degree of Freedom project, and taught the material in a way different than has every other class I’ve taken to date.
For, as I’ve discussed previously on the Degree of Freedom blog, and as Sylvia Moessinger discusses in this rundown of “MOOCish” resources, Saylor.org’s classes are curated rather than produced like your average MOOC. So instead of having a single professor giving recorded lectures with a teaching team organizing assignments and managing discussion, a course developed by Saylor includes material pulled from the open web and organized into a set of assignments that build to the complete educational experience.
To make this concrete, their Existentialism course I completed consists of eight units, each dedicated to a specific thinker (including Blaise Pascal, Soren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus) associated in some way to the philosophical movement of Existentialism.
I say “associated” since some of these writers (notably Sartre) invented/embraced/popularized the Existentialist label while others (such as Heidegger) eschewed it. And while claiming a 17th century religious thinker like Pascal or 19th century novelist like Dostoevsky as having extolled a philosophy that didn’t become fully articulated until the 20th century would commit the “Historian’s Fallacy” of projecting backward, seeing how this early work prefigured a modern day movement that tries to find meaning in a man-centered universe (I mean human-centered, sorry Simone) was one of the most intriguing aspects of this course.
Getting back to mechanics, each unit consisted of a set of assignments that included readings (both primary and secondary sources), recorded university lectures (mostly found on YouTube and iTunes U) and podcasts from well-known open education resources in philosophy such as Philosophy Bites and Partially Examined Life. And while a dedicated student can make it through each of these units in a week, the course is asynchronous which (using my slightly eccentric definition of the term) means you can start and stop whenever you like, and take as long as you need to complete it.
[Editor’s note: For another take on the problem of applying these terms to MOOCs, see Niall Tracey’s proposal for the terms synchronous progression, synchronous participation and asynchronous in the comments section of this article.]
Now given the wealth of material available on the web, this seems an ideal way to teach a complex subject like Existential philosophy. For rather than asking one professor to do his best when lecturing on a diverse range of difficult philosophers, writers and thinkers, the Saylor curator for this course was able to “recruit” the very best talent to lecture just within his or her field of expertise.
Similarly, reading lists could be compiled from a wide range of primary and secondary sources. So in addition to wrestling with tough philosophical texts (such as Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling) and fictional work from Dostoevsky (Notes from the Underground), Sartre (No Exit) and Camus (The Stranger), there were also important secondary texts (such as entries from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) that were useful in uniting disparate material related to each writer/philosopher.
That said, such a “grab the best stuff from anywhere” strategy comes at a price, especially with regard to maintaining an overall narrative structure for a course. For when all lectures come from a single professor, material can be presented as following an overarching timeline, presentation or argument. And while the Stanford Encyclopedia’s entry on Existentialism assigned in Unit 1 helped put the whole project into some kind of context, at some point the course began to feel like a series of intellectual biographies with limited connective tissue.
Some of this has to do with the nature of curated learning, but I would also say that curators can do more to make the overall course feel cumulative. For Saylor classes are built around a unit-by-unit outline with the 8-12 assignments associated with each unit. And these assignments are grouped into batches of 1-3 items built around an instruction such as “As you review the essay, consider answering the following questions: Is total freedom compatible with intellectual pride?” (I pulled this one from the Unit 3 on Dostoevsky, BTW).
Now there’s nothing wrong with using such challenging questions as a framing device. But I don’t see why the professor couldn’t have expanded the course outline to better present a narrative that would “package” the material we were studying into a better-defined whole.
The grade for the course was based on a set of quizzes that ended each unit and a final exam that completed the course. And as with virtually all the courses I’ve taken so far this year, assessment is the weakest part of the product (if someone asks if that religious kook Soren Kierkegaard is an atheist, answer False. Oh and Camus’ Stranger pumped five bullets into his victim, not four).
Now I was initially hesitant to criticize this course in any way since (1) it was free; (2) it was a far more thorough learning experience than were other courses I’ve taken; and (3) I want Saylor to create more philosophy courses (including that course on Empiricism and Pragmatism that appeared on their TBA list earlier in the year, but which since disappeared).
If that disappearance had to do with low interest in courses like Existentialism (as far as I can tell, fewer than a hundred people have taken it), then responsibility for limited expansion to this series lies with us and not with Saylor. Which is a pity since, as I’m learning during my attempt to self curate a course on Kant (which I’ll review in a few weeks time), you really need an expert to help you navigate the contours and sources associated with a complex subject.
And despite a few areas with room for improvement, the Saylor formula works. So I hope they’ll find the time, resources and wherewithal to experiment in more areas that might have to wait to find their audience.
Editor’s note: This guest post is from Jonathan Haber at Degree of Freedom, who is tracking his progress in trying to learn in just twelve months everything he would if enrolled in a four year liberal arts BA program and using only free resources. Along the way he is writing reviews of courses he completes, some of which he generously allows us to republish here. To get all of Jonathan’s MOOC reviews, and more, be sure to sign up for the weekly Degree of Freedom Newsletter.