Less Than Fantastic: A Review of the Science Fiction MOOC from Coursera
My fifth Coursera class, Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World finished on August 19. The eleven-week course from the University of Michigan’s Eric Rabkin, Professor of English Language and Literature, interested me both as a reader and a writer. I read extensively from many genres, and I have recently started writing a little as a hobby. Feedback from my writing group tells me that my writing needs to be tightened up, and when the Science Fiction MOOC was recommended on the forum of another class I was in earlier, I hoped this course might help me. While I did get a lot out of this class, it had some serious drawbacks in the areas of peer assessment and support from the instructor and assistants.
There are no stated prerequisites for this free class and, as with all other MOOCs, you don’t have to participate in the entire course unless you want a certificate. If you want to read the books and watch the videos for your own education, then that is fine, and I think people interested in literature would get a lot out of doing that.
However, the course is aimed at advanced undergraduate students. I don’t consider myself advanced — often other students expressed a lot of enthusiasm for material that I couldn’t understand — but I did get a lot out of the class. All the reading is in English, although translated versions of the texts are available. Essays have to be written in English and are marked both on the content and on the grammar, word usage, spelling, etc. It is very difficult to get good essay grades if your English isn’t perfect. Rabkin recommends that some experience in writing and literature is desirable. Don’t be put off by the recommendations, but you need to accept that people will mark your work on that basis.
The five “Getting Started” videos establish what the course is about, its structure and how to read and write for the course. The rest of course was split into ten units, each starting on a Thursday with the release of Rabkin’s “Before you read” video. This video gave information about the particular version of the book he recommended and also some things to look out for in terms of theme or style, etc.
By the following Tuesday, students were required to read one or more books and write an essay. All the essays had to be submitted by Tuesday, after which the rest of the week’s videos were released. Each student then had five essays to review before Thursday, when the results were issued and the next “Before you read” video was released.
There was also a quiz each week in a section called “More to learn.” This did not form part of the course work but was interesting. Answering each multiple choice question, right or wrong, led to further information about the week’s reading.
Reading a book and writing an essay within such a short time frame is quite a heavy work load. As I enrolled for this course some months in advance I was aware of this large task and started reading the longer books before the class started. Most of the books are available free online and Rabkin gave links to all those available. There are only two that are not freely available (legally).
There were some complaints on the forum about the selection of books. Some people felt there should have been more contemporary authors. Others felt the selections didn’t count as either fantasy or science fiction. The entire reading list is available on the course information page, so you should check that out before signing up. For both the first run of the class and the second run, which I took, the reading list was:
- Grimm — Children’s and Household Tales (all the stories)
- Carroll — Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass (both books)
- Stoker — Dracula
- Shelley — Frankenstein
- Hawthorne & Poe — Stories and Poems (a selection of short stories and poems)
- Wells — The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man, “The Country of the Blind,” “The Star” (four stories)
- Burroughs & Gilman — A Princess of Mars & Herland (two books)
- Bradbury — The Martian Chronicles
- LeGuin — The Left Hand of Darkness
- Doctorow — Little Brother
Although I didn’t enjoy all the stories I got something out of each book. Some of them I had read before and saw though fresh eyes. I found a new author who I liked and will continue to read even though science fiction isn’t normally a genre I would choose.
Rabkin tells us that he likes to read slowly, marking and underlining text as he goes. I didn’t have time to do this and have a horror of marking books, probably passed down from my father. I read each book and stuck post-it notes into places I wanted to come back to, sometimes with some notes jotted on them.
The weekly videos lasted about 90 minutes and were split into ten or so short clips. Rabkin presented his thoughts on the week’s reading, the author, the genre and many other fascinating topics. We learned about the history of the period and other prevalent authors of the time. We learned about the changing face of fantasy and science fiction and the growth and development of pulp fiction. We heard about the history of publishing and utopianism as well as the development of young adult literature. For each story Rabkin explored the themes, meanings and symbolism. He read quotations to support his interpretation and drew our attention to aspects we might not have noticed. Very often he highlighted sexual, gender or garden symbolism. It was fascinating to listen to Rabkin’s opinions and insights and then to use these as launch pads to have our own discussions on the forums.
About halfway through the course Rabkin discussed what he terms “The Eden Complex”. He considers that science fiction very often represents Adam and Eve’s banishment from the Garden of Eden. It was a very interesting premise, and students came back to this theme often in the forums.
By the end of the course some people said that we were so busy reading into the stories that we were seeing things that weren’t there. Often someone would mention an Eden Complex or sexual symbol that others couldn’t see. It was a lot of fun to see what others read into and out of the stories. As one person on the forum said “to a literature critic, everything looks like the fall.”
The videos were created for the first running of this course, and there were some small errors in them such as referencing a character by the wrong name. These were minor faults, but I hope that they will correct these errors for future courses. In some instances, students claimed the professor had made errors of fact on points of science or history, and one of the drawbacks of this format versus an in-person class is that these questions don’t get clarified.
The essays were the most difficult part of this course for me. The instructions were the same every week.:
“Please write an essay that aims to enrich the reading of a fellow student who is both intelligent and attentive to the readings and to the course. Each essay should be between 270 and 320 words.”
My first difficulty was choosing a subject. Very often, when reading several themes or other aspects would come to mind. It is quite a challenge to enrich the reading of students in so few words. If I wanted to tighten my writing skills then this was certainly the right course. My initial essays started out at between 500 and 1,000 words. This was something I really had to work hard on to keep what was really pertinent and get rid of the rest. The essay still had to be readable, get the point across and cite proofs where necessary. Under the submission box for the essay there was a box to submit “Works Cited” that allowed for another 100 words or so.
The standards for the essays was very high, and it was difficult to get that elusive 6 – the highest mark available. None of my work achieved it. Some who did posted their essays to the forum, and they were excellent. They were normally beautifully written with no faults and of a far more intellectual content than my own.
Peer review, forum and course support
As mentioned above, this class used peer review for assessment. Each student reviewed five essays, and you could review more if you wished. The essays were graded for form and for content on a scale of one to three. The lowest mark you could receive therefore was two and the highest six. Along with that grade, peers were encouraged to write between 30 and 150 words about their judgement.
I had experienced some superb peer reviews in a previous course where my fellow learners took time to explain how the essay could be improved and what they liked and didn’t like about my essay. However, the peer review process in this MOOC was disappointing and even plagued by troll comments. I’m going to go into more detail about this in a separate essay, but for now suffice it to say that, much like the class Adam Heidebrink discussed in an earlier essay, the Fantasy and Science Fiction MOOC is not an example of peer-assessment working well.
Nor was there a good response to this and other problems by the course support staff on the discussion forums. Whilst I understand that universities do not have endless resources to dedicate to their MOOCs, there has been far more support and participation from the instructors and assistants in other courses I have taken. Most of the comments about trolling in the peer review and on the forum itself, along with questions about technical issues, went unanswered. It appears there were four support staff, but I counted only a handful of replies between them. Similarly, it appears that some of the “in response” videos posted by the instructor weren’t responses to our questions but were recycled from a previous class. When this was discovered, many people felt demoralized and cheated.
Trolls aside, most of the students contributing to the forums were wonderfully supportive. People disappointed with their peer reviews would post their essays and receive some further comments. Discussion about the books and the themes was very lively and there were a lot of very interesting threads. Many people suggested some of their favorite books as well.
The website contained a lot of useful information about the syllabus and work expectations and had links to the Coursera Student Support Center and Student Meetup planner. There is a course wiki with an essay evaluation guide, online writing laboratory and a portfolio of student essays. Certainly a little searching around the website provided answers to most questions, and reading previous essays was very rewarding.
I got a lot out of the Fantasy and Science Fiction MOOC. I enjoyed analyzing the stories, even those that I didn’t enjoy reading very much. Rabkin explained the stories and put them in context very well. He highlighted things I would never have considered and showed me a new way of looking at literature. My writing improved and became tighter and more concise. I was also very impressed with other students’ insights and how they managed to give convincing argument in only a few words.
This course was good but it could have been excellent with just a little more staff involvement. Rabkin should not have abandoned everyone to their own devices without telling us to expect it. Also, I didn’t appreciate him saying he was addressing our questions on the forum when the videos (and most of the emails and announcements) appeared to be from a previous course.