Review — The Modern and the Postmodern MOOC on Coursera
This spring, I enrolled in The Modern and the Postmodern Coursera MOOC, taught by Professor Michael S. Roth of Wesleyan University (who is also the university president). With just one short week remaining in the class, I’d like to review the course design and content quality, discuss what I learned through the semester, and suggest who might benefit from this course in the future. My goal here is not to create an exhaustive critique of Professor Roth’s pedagogy; rather, I aim to help readers decide if this is an appropriate choice for their personal educational needs.
The Modern and the Postmodern is designed to replicate a thematic literature course that perhaps borders on, or borrows from, philosophy. As the title suggests, this class traces the concepts of modernity and postmodernity throughout time, place and literature. Its scope ranges from late eighteenth-century Europe to contemporary America. Organized chronologically, this course identifies how these concepts evolve and progress over a long period; thus, students get a strong historical and contextual presentation of the subject.
Professor Roth’s video lectures are knowledgeable and engaging, albeit, somewhat traditional. Each video is approximately fifteen minutes long, mixing in-class performances, some talking-head time and visual aids such as paintings, frontispieces and quotes from the texts.
Professor Roth’s energy, enthusiasm and presence make the lectures quite effective. The lectures are heavily grounded in the texts, which allows advanced readers to see an interpretation different than their own, while simultaneously helping struggling readers to identify various themes and ideas.
The readings are excellent. With that being said, however, I must also note that they are exclusively canonical Western texts. While, as I will explain shortly, the course has a comparative analysis focus, it is comparative only within a Western ideological landscape. This is by no means a fault or oversight; rather, a theme as broad as the modern and postmodern condition requires some additional framework to become a manageable, semester-long course.
The texts range from philosophical treatises, from Kant and Wittgenstein, to scientific documents, from Darwin and Freud and finally, literary works, by Flaubert and Woolf. With nearly twenty thinkers in all, the course provides a comprehensive overview of the concepts in question. The lectures help extract crucial passages from each text and discuss how these thinkers are in dialogue with one another. Many of the selected authors refer to one another in their texts, which establishes a sense of continuity throughout the course.
If you enroll in this class, be prepared to read the equivalent of one book-length text a week. Previous experience analyzing texts and writing argumentative and comparative essays is helpful, but not necessarily required.
Many of the earlier texts are linked from the Coursera platform and freely available online; however, copyright law makes some of the more recent texts difficult to obtain for free, and students are either stuck with mediocre excerpts compiled from around the web or left to their own wallets and libraries. By the end of the course, I had purchased four books, and checked out another three from the local library. (Note: this is optional, but helpful.)
Student comprehension was assessed through a series of peer-reviewed writing assignments. All eight assignments shared a common format: a comparative analysis, no more than 800 words. I found this method to be very appropriate and useful for this particular course. As we were dealing with the transforming ideas of modernity and postmodernity, it makes sense to compare one thinker’s definition of a concept to another’s idea.
Since the (still recent) beginning of MOOC education, peer-assessment has proven a challenging element, and this course was no different. Ideally, each student essay receives feedback from three peers, based on a nine-point rubric — three points each for argument, evidence and exposition. The final assignment grade is simply the average of the scores from the three peer reviewers. [editor’s note: Our occasional contributor Jonathan Haber has an extended discussion of the peer review model using this class as an example at Degree of Freedom.]
In reality, however, many essays received only one or two peer scores and meaningful feedback was rare. As peer-assessment was the only way to earn points in this particular class, there is likely to be large fluctuations in assessment levels and quality.
Peer-assessment issues aside, the essay — and more specifically, the comparative essay — was a useful and formative assignment. It allowed me to practice engaging with the texts and furthermore establish and argue for connections between thinkers that I would not have considered outside of class.
The final essay was reflective, insomuch as it required me to return many times to texts we had read weeks earlier the semester. In fact, there is still a week remaining as I write this review, and I haven’t shelved a book yet or returned even the earliest thinkers to the library. The comparative assignments have me referencing and cross-referencing texts from various historical periods and geographical regions. The course is very successful in problematizing and complicating notions of modernity and postmodernity. There is no easy answer, and professor Roth helps establish this complexity.
Overall, I found this MOOC comparable to an upper level undergraduate course in literature (which, in fact, was my undergraduate degree, so I have taken many classes quite similar to this one, varying only in theme). By the end, I attended nearly fifteen hours of lectures, read approximately a dozen full-length texts, and produced over twenty pages of essay writing.
The writing, I found, was the crux of the education. It challenged me to spend several hours with many of the texts, while at the same allowing me enough freedom to choose what sorts of connections I want to establish and between whom.
I recommend this MOOC if you are looking to practice critical reading and analysis skills or looking to fill some personal gaps in your understanding of canonical Western philosophy and literature.