There has been a really interesting discussion this week between ModPo’s leaders, Al Filreis and Julia Bloch, about the progress of this year’s ModPo course. For me the fact that they continually reflect on what works and what doesn’t work in ModPo is a model of good practice in teaching and learning. The added bonus is that they openly share this, so that other educators can learn from it too.
In this discussion they discuss the first ModPo assignment (the 500 word essay on Emily Dickinson), peer reviews, some notable discussions in the forums, what is coming up in Week 5 and what is the value of ‘massive’ participation (30000 +) in ModPo.
I particularly enjoyed the discussion about assignment writing and peer review.
This is the third time ModPo has run, and over this time Al and Julia have come to see the limitations and risks of the assignment review rubric and how a rubric can dampen the potential for a good assignment. They say that they noted how a rubric wasn’t able to cover some of the fabulous close reading of poetry that was/is being done in ModPo. I can relate to this having in the past marked assignments that are clearly much better than the rubric that is being used to mark them. I can also relate to their discussion because I know from experience that the first time an assignment is given, it is unlikely to be completely ‘fit for purpose’ and will need ‘tweeking’ for the second, if not the third, use. Eventually it becomes a good assignment which both tutors and learners understand and which allows learners to reach their full potential. I always used to worry about the first run of an assignment and whether it would be fair on the students.
Al and Julia also have a wonderful discussion about the meaning of the word essay. Julia points out that the word ‘essay’ comes from the old French word ‘assai’ , or ‘essayer’ meaning ‘to try’, ‘to examine’, ‘to test’ . So an essay is a practice, not the final word. At this point their poetic selves take over and they describe an essay as a finger exercise, an etude, a venture, a fugue, an unfolding dialogue; people riff, expand, post variations, in call and response mode.
Discussion of the word ‘essay’ led naturally into a discussion about what Al called ‘the dance of peer review’. A person ‘assays’ forth, someone pulls back, then comes forward and meets you half way, there’s a bit of a dance, a fugue, a give and take.
‘It’s not that you learn and then I judge whether you learned, but rather you ventured forth and I came to you, and we’re together trying to figure out how this works. You are allowed to change my mind.’ (Al Filreis)
Al pointed out that this type of peer review is possible because the course is ungraded, non-credit bearing, free and open and that through this, improvement of the course is a communal activity. The course gets better as people learn how to respond. Al and Julia have seen better assignments this year as a result of this ongoing, iteratively reflective process.
I think this is all about feeding forward, rather than feeding back.
Al Filreis’ Modern and Contemporary American Poetry (ModPo) open course/Coursera MOOC has started again today. This is the third iteration of this course. I didn’t catch it first time around, but I did complete the course last year (2013).
I have just listened to the introductory video, which I realize is the same one that was posted in 2013, but it has still had the same motivating effect on me as it did last year, although it is interesting how this time, now knowing the poets that are being talked about, I have heard different messages.
If you have not participated in ModPo before, then I can recommend it. I know very little about poetry, little more than what I learned in this course last year. I have some poetry books on my bookshelf and I like to hear others talk about and read poetry, but I don’t seek it out for myself. So why would I return to ModPo a second time?
My work and real interest is in how people learn. What I find so fascinating about ModPo is how much of what happens in this course resonates with my own personal interest in how people learn. There is so much to learn from the way in which the poets use language for meaning making.
So what is it that makes ModPo (for me) such an effective learning environment?
A lot of my work and research focuses on open and emergent learning. A Coursera MOOC is, by my definition, not 100% open. For example, I can’t research the learning that takes place in the ModPo discussion forums. That data belongs to Coursera. I cannot assume that the resources within ModPo are openly available (although some of them are). I have to check copyright. I cannot take the ModPo syllabus and remix and repurpose it for my own ends – not that I want to. I am just making the point that ModPo does not fulfill some of criteria for openness that from my research need to be present for emergent learning. But it must fulfil enough, as there is plenty of evidence of emergent and even transformational learning in ModPo.
How does ModPo do this? What is it that makes the environment/course special?
I think a number of factors contribute to this. Here are some that have occurred to me, in no particular order of preference and of course, other ModPoers will have different perspectives. That’s what ModPo is all about.
– A very vibrant community has formed around ModPo with a Facebook site that remains active between courses and an active Twitter stream. This community is full of people who are passionate about poetry.
– ModPo has an energetic, charismatic and very well informed (his expertise shines through) leader in Al Filreis, who is also passionate about poetry and about teaching. I don’t think the importance of this can be underestimated. In addition, he has a group of 10 teaching assistants (TAs) who are with him in his videos. These TAs (past students) are also very knowledgeable and add great depth to the discussions about poetry through their alternative perspectives. They also offer office hours on the course, which means that we can contact them directly with specific questions.
– Al has also established a group of ‘alumni’ (community TAs) to help out with moderation in the discussion forums. They are worth their weight in gold, because the forums are overloaded with discussion – so much so, that for me it is too much. Last year one of the community TAs, Carol Stephen, did help me out and interact with me briefly, which I appreciated given the huge number of people in the course (30000+ already this year, on the first day of the course). I didn’t join the forums last year, and I will only be dipping into them this year – but this does mean no certificate, even if you do all the assignments, quizzes and peer reviews – as I did last year. The requirement is a weekly post to the discussion forums. For me, it’s enough to follow along and learn. On reflection I have realised that it is enough for me to connect with the ideas. ‘Noisy’ forums and me just don’t go together – although I might lurk! I’m more of a one to one person.
– The course is also full of resources and content – a huge diversity of resources. PennSound , Jacket 2 magazine and Al Filreis’ website. Resources are also created by participants who share their own poetry and close readings.
– It is a challenging course. To complete it you have to work hard and put in the hours. If you complete it you feel that you have achieved something, not least what it means to do a close reading of a poem. For me a close reading of a poem gives me an insight of what it might mean to close read a book or a journal paper.
– But what really makes this course special for me is the sense of place that it creates. Al Filreis runs his course from a physical location – the Kelly Writer’s House, which last year he took us round by video. We go into the different rooms and meet the students and teaching assistants and see who they are talking to, where they are sitting, what they are eating. When Al does his videoed close reading of the poems we read, all his teaching assistants are around him (Al’s Pals as he calls them), each voicing their own thoughts and modelling what it means to do a close reading. We, as online participants, feel that we get to know these teaching assistants and that we are in the room. I think this aspect of the course must be unique. I haven’t come across it anywhere else. There is also a weekly live streamed meet up in the Kelly Writer’s House, which anyone physically in the area can drop in to and some ModPoers do.
Last year after I had listened to the introductory video, the poem by John Yau caught my attention and I ended up writing this post.
This year, when the teaching assistants, introduced themselves by talking about their favourite poems, I was able to listen more carefully to what they were saying, because I knew the poets and poems from last year. All the teaching assistants are great and if I could, I would link here to all their introductions to themselves on the Coursera site – but as I mentioned above Coursera is a closed site, so I can’t do that, although I have found this link which lists them all, including the community TAs.
As it is – I’m going to just record here the comments that stood out for me from this video.
Dave Poplar recommended Jackson Mac Low’s poetry – which he said challenges us to read differently and think differently. I aspire to that.
Kristen Martin recommended Lyn Hejinian’s poem ‘My Life’ and said that this poet shows us that life isn’t lived linearly and you should not have to write about it in a linear fashion. This comment immediately resonated with my recent reading of Deleuze and Guattari’s work (A Thousand Plateaus) and their concept of the rhizome and ideas around starting in the middle.
Finally Al Filreis finishes off with John Yau’s poem, saying
The how of what they [the poets] are doing is the what
How you say what you say is what you say
How you say what you say is more important than what you say
The how of what you say is what you say
Form is content
We are going to read – that is interpret – form
In this course we will learn how to undo the way we learn to read
Take this course because you’ve spent too much time thinking of language as a utility and not enough time thinking of language as self-making – the selves you will meet in these poets are languaged selves… it’s time for us to focus on the how of our language.
Al Filreis’ MOOC, Modern & Contemporary American Poetry has started today. This is the second run of this MOOC. It has a ‘big’ reputation as being a very successful MOOC which has managed to create a community of ‘ModPoers’, dedicated to poetry and Al Filreis!
I’m not new to MOOCs, but first impressions are that this will be a challenging course, maybe because I know nothing about poetry, although I do recognize the names of some of the poets who Al Filreis mentions in his introductory video.
But I wasn’t aware of John Yau and have never before heard the poem that Al Filreis read in the introductory video.
“830 Fireplace Road” John Yau (Variations on a sentence by Jackson Pollock)
“When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing”
When aware of what I am in my painting, I’m not aware
When I am my painting, I’m not aware of what I am
When what, what when, what of, when in, I’m not painting my I
When painting, I am in what I’m doing, not doing what I am
When doing what I am, I’m not in my painting
When I am of my painting, I’m not aware of when, of what
Of what I’m doing, I am not aware, I’m painting
Of what, when, my, I, painting, in painting
When of, of what, in when, in what painting
Not aware, not in, not of, not doing, I’m in my I
In my am, not am in my, not of when I am, of what
Painting “what” when I am, of when I am, doing, painting.
When painting, I’m not doing. I am in my doing. I am painting.
Jackson Pollock wrote: “When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It’s only after a sort of ‘get acquainted’ period that I see what I have been about. I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own.”
A Pollock is a sonnet whose first line is a quotation. The remaining lines are comprised solely of words and punctuation found in the first line.
Whilst I haven’t before heard of John Yau, I do know Jackson Pollock’s work, so straight away I have a point of connection with the poem. For me the poem is about identity and immediately brought to mind Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on Flow and Education. http://www.ppc.sas.upenn.edu/csikszentmihalyipowerpoint.pdf
Another thought is that Jackson Pollock for me is an artist who embraces embodied learning. This is something that my colleagues Roy Williams, Simone Gumtau and I have tentatively been exploring – we have a paper in press with the Leonardo Journal
Williams, R., Gumtau, S. & Mackness, J. (2014).Synesthesia: from cross-modality to modality-free learning and knowledge. (Accepted for publication in Leonardo Journal)
So a question I will be thinking about during ModPo is, to what extent is reading/writing poetry a cross-modal and embodied learning experience.