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Teaching Literature in the Time of the MOOC (Audio)

Here is an audio capture of my part of a colloquium session for the University of British Columbia Department of English Faculty Research series, which took place in the afternoon of Friday, October 18, 2013, on “Teaching Literature in the Time of the MOOC.” I co-presented with Jon Beasley-Murray. (There are a few glitches – I inadvertently call Dave Cormier “Eric” – so I have included a script for the talk below. I truncated the long quotations when I presented. The gain on the recorder was also set a little high — my apologies for any clipping. Jon’s portion of the session can be found here.)

The past year has seen massive and radical shifts in the practice and delivery of higher education, particularly around the emergence of the MOOC, the “Massive Open Online Course,” adopted and (as of January 2013) offered for credit through many prominent North American and Australian universities. While some commentators continue to suggest that educators are over-enthusiastically caught up in surging hype around the technologizing of education, hype that will soon deteriorate into backlash, it has become clear that the MOOC represents much more than a passing trend. It signals a fundamental change in the cultural and pedagogical mission of the university – in what constitutes a university, and what constitutes university education, in our time. I, we, believe it is vitally important for academics – not just administrators, not just early adopters, not just those in the managerial echelons of an emerging knowledge economy, but particularly academics in the critical humanities – to address and to interrogate the implications of this change. Because of the velocity of these ongoing renovations to the form and substance of higher education, we need to do more than act as latecomers or followers, to be more than epigone adopters. Bluntly put, our job descriptions are changing, with or without our direct input and even our consent, and it is vital that we find the means, as both pedagogues and scholars, to contribute not only to managing but also to shaping the direction and structure of these nascent developments.

I don’t want to position myself as anything like an expert. Frankly, it’s too soon in the arc – I won’t say history, not yet – in tracing the developmental arc of media-savvy pedagogies for anyone but a few originators to lay claim to expertise, and even then there seems to me to be something endemic to these kinds of digital humanities, something inherent in what has come to be called connectivity, that wants both to exploit and to refuse cults of expertise, cults that have also largely tended to be understood as the provenance of a professoriate. I’m still under the sway, myself, of Paolo Freire’s critique of what he called the “banking model” of education, and I think I share his thorough suspicion of the cultural privilege of expertise. But rather than offer any materially rigorous critique of the economics of knowledge production and dissemination, I’m going to stick to a critique of the MOOC at the level of metaphor, something I feel like I can do with some confidence in my own method. It’s how I work, in my own field, as I understand it. But I want to be clear that I’m thinking of what I’m proposing today, briefly, as gestural and provisional, as a small contribution to a workshop rather than as a definitive or in any way exhaustive reading of the MOOC in our time, in its time.

I should offer at this point a potted history of the MOOC, although in a spirit of appearing to let shallow précis pass for knowledge, I have to defer to Wikipedia, which does a much better job than I ever could at condensing the last four or five years of MOOC history and at naming the significant names. Wikipedia – and Jon can tell you better than I can – in some very telling ways epitomizes the networked, editorial crowd-sourcing that is currently tending to replace expertise in this contemporary educational episteme, the time of the MOOC. So, go read Wikipedia, and find out something about Dave Cormier, George Siemens, cMOOCs, xMOOCs, Coursera, EdX, and the whole whelming business. In a November 2, 2012, article on Education Life, New York Times correspondent Laura Pappano dubbed 2012 “The Year of the MOOC,” lending an epochal weight to a phenomenon that is, I’m willing to argue, almost without a history, and even without history.

So what does a MOOC have to do with time? I want to gesture at two key aspects of generalized MOOC temporality, both of them catachrestic: packeting and velocity. As one among many formations in the current digitalization (as opposed to the digitization) of knowledge, MOOCs imply a mediated phenomenology, a specific set of experiential markers keyed to time management – or to a common figure in MOOC syllabi, a figure that I’m going to suggest manifests as generic course content around learning outcomes a technological latency, the data packet. For example, Jennifer Shoop’s current syllabus for “English 402: The Poetry of John Milton,” a MOOC from saylor.org, has a detailed segment on “Time Commitment,” which is distinctive to on-line pedagogy:

Time Commitment: This course should take you a total of approximately 73.25 hours to complete. Each unit includes a time advisory that lists the amount of time you are expected to spend on each subunit. These advisories should help you plan your time accordingly. It may be useful to take a look at these time advisories and to determine how much time you have over the next few weeks to complete each unit, and then to set goals for yourself. For example, Unit 1 should take 6.5 hours to complete. Perhaps you can sit down with your calendar and decide to complete subunits 1.1 and 1.2 (a total of 3hours) on Monday night; subunits 1.3 and 1.4 (a total of 6.5 hours) on Tuesday night; etc.

The precision suggests an empirically obsessive scientism, but also a desire to lay out student commitments with as much transparency and accuracy as possible. Al Filreis’s “ModPo,” a “fast-paced” and much more loosely orchestrated MOOC from UPenn on “Modern & Contemporary American Poetry,” still lays out participant time commitments (“Workload: 5-9 hours/week”) and offers some proleptic feedback in an FAQ on course velocity:

You say the course is “fast paced.” Will it move too fast for me?
ModPo is “fast paced” because we will not spend long on any one poet. This is a “survey” course — covering many poets with the objective of conveying a sense of poetic movements and trends. We will study only a few poets in any depth (Dickinson, Williams, Gertrude Stein, John Ashbery) but otherwise during each week we will typically talk about poems by three or four or even five different poets.

A sense of depth is sacrificed for coverage, and the learning outcomes are accordingly adjusted, offering gestalt in lieu of detail. Finally, the extensive course matter around Gregory Nagy’s HarvardX MOOC on the Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours explains at some length how pace and segmentation interconnect, a pedagogical strategy as well as a gesture at the temporality of his subject-matter, particularly the Homeric epic. Indeed, of all of the MOOC syllabi I have tried to encounter so far, Nagy’s is the most reflexively sophisticated, and conveniently provides me with something of a test-case for an informed critique of the humanities MOOC.

In an article from The New Yorker earlier this year, Nathan Heller seems to think so too, spending considerable column-length on Nagy’s HarvardX course, and its time-demands:

Nagy has been experimenting with online add-ons to his course for years. When he began planning his mooc, his idea was to break down his lectures into twenty-four lessons of less than an hour each. He subdivided every lesson into smaller segments, because people don’t watch an hour-long discussion on their screens as they might sit through an hour of lecture. (They get distracted.) He thought about each segment as a short film, and tried to figure out how to dramatize the instruction. He says that crumbling up the course like this forced him to study his own teaching more than he had at the lectern.

Presuppositions about attention span and attentiveness push Nagy to “crumble up” and parcel out his material, but I’d like to assert that what’s happening here isn’t so much an effect of his students’ shrinking cognitive capacities, but rather the impact of the structural informatics of media-dense teaching. He’s creating analogues on his students’ screens to the data packets – as distinct, though not entirely so, from the packaging or commodification of information – into which his texts and videos must be divided in order to disseminate efficiently across a network. Data packets are essentially arbitrary segments (blocks, cells) of bits and bytes, of data, into which a text, for instance, must be materially fractured if it is to be transmitted effectively. The process of packet-switching involves a horizontal leveling of parceled information to facilitate exchange across a dimensional (as opposed to linear) network; in a way, you could imagine one of Nagy’s students ranging in an anti-linear fashion through the welter of text, video and assessment tools that make up his MOOC, although that movement is still governed by a broadly linear rhetoric – at least a rhetoric, if not a teleology – of progress and completion, of sectional and totalized learning outcomes.

Efficiency, as a hallmark of good tech, of vibrant network and of functional pedagogy, is tied to velocity or pace, the re-assemblage and the intake of cultural knowledge – in Nagy’s case, of Homeric epic and Sophoklean drama. The trick to success in his course in particular, he suggests, is learning to manage and to adjust your rate of reading, to accelerate and decelerate modes of critical attention. There is, frankly, way too much material on Nagy’s syllabus, as there is on Filreis’s. I have to confess that I signed up for the Nagy MOOC – drawn by the promise of some sort of close-ish link to the cult of expertise that accretes around Nagy’s work on Homer. And I flunked it, mostly because I just didn’t have time to do the reading or to complete the multiple-choice and short-answer assignments. It’s reading, of course that I have done before, for the most part, so that shouldn’t have been a problem, but there is a density of information – something keyed to what I’d like to think of, analogically again, as bit-rate compression – that was frankly overwhelming, particularly as spare-time or extra-to-load reading. Nagy insists in the descriptive matter he writes about how to take up his assigned coursework, that students need to learn different velocities of reading, from fast to slow; the second is privileged, as a mode of close attention that Nagy develops from his own take on Friedrich Nietzsche’s Homeric philology. (I hope you’ll pardon the extensive quotation.)

So what do I mean when I say slow reading and fast reading? Let me explain briefly, starting with slow reading in §5A and then moving on to fast reading in §5B. For the reading of the following paragraph, §5A, you will have to slow down and take more time. For the reading of the paragraphs after that, §5B, §6, §7, §8, and the Appendix, I hope you will feel free to speed up again.
§4a. So here is the paragraph that needs to slow you down until you have finished reading it (and this paragraph includes the moderately long quotation that you see ahead). Please give yourself about five minutes. That said, let me delve into it. When you do slow reading in this course, you have to slow down and give yourself time to stop and think about what you are reading. You have to do this even if you feel at first that you simply do not have the time to do this. You have to develop a sense for feeling that you really do have the time to stop your reading and to think about what you have just read, allowing yourself to make connections with what you have read earlier. Some people think that philology is the “art” of such slow reading. Friedrich Nietzsche was one of these people, and he compared the “art” of this “philology” to the art of the goldsmith:
“Philology is that venerable art which demands of its votaries one thing above all: to go aside, to take time, to become still, to become slow – it is a goldsmith’s art and connoisseurship of the word which has nothing but delicate cautious work to do and achieves nothing if it does not achieve it lento. But for precisely this reason it is more necessary than ever today; by precisely this means does it entice and enchant us the most, in the midst of an age of “work,” that is to say, of hurry, of indecent and perspiring haste, which wants to “get everything done” at once, including every old or new book: – this art does not easily get anything done, it teaches to read well, that is to say, to read slowly, deeply, looking cautiously before and aft, with reservations, with doors left open, with delicate fingers and eyes.”
In closing, let me highlight one big change I made in the translation I just quoted: the translator had written “with delicate eyes and fingers,” but Nietzsche in the original German text mentions fingers first and eyes second – in order to drive home his comparison of philology with the art of the goldsmith: when you read slowly, you read with a sense of touch – with “delicate fingers and eyes” (mit zarten Fingern und Augen). We see here an example of reading out of the text instead of reading into the text (I will define these terms in §8).
Now that I am finished with this paragraph, please feel free to go back into a mode of fast reading.

Such Nietzschean tactility feels anathematic to a largely tactless and intangible internet. The manual control of the eye, its kinesis across the liminal surface of a screen, seems to be a transplanted version of formalism or of the deconstructive “slow reading” practiced, or so he says, by J. Hillis Miller. Nietzsche, it sounds like, wants you to run your finger over the paper, tracing each line. But the tactility of translucent fonts is both metaphorical and – despite the existence of the touch-screen and the new Windows touch, say – at best a feint. Stopping to think, rewinding a video, going back over a passage are all embodied reactions, all reading tactics, that have nothing inherently to do with electronic media. Rather, Nagy is cautiously attempting to return something of the material character of the book – of the manuscript, of “hand-writing,” in fact – to a multifunctional medium that fractures, compresses and accelerates. Yet rewinding, as Laura Mulvey reminds us, is a temporal trait – a gestural inversion of what Vladimir Jankélévitch characterizes as time’s essential irreversibility – that remains specific to cinematic media, from videotapes and DVDs to the YouTube videos. The time of the MOOC – that is, broadly understood, its temporal episteme – has everything to do with shaping and managing these recursions and inversions, with stopping and starting, with packet-switching and shifting velocities. In 1993, Paul Virilio asserted with dire conviction that

With acceleration there is no more here and there, only the mental confusion of near and far, present and future, real and unreal – a mix of history, stories, and the hallucinatory utopia of communication technologies. (The Art of the Motor 35)

I want to start to claim here, pace Virilio’s warning, that we need to think carefully about how the anxieties around mass connectivity and the knowledge economy, anxieties that are for me essentially temporal in character, don’t so much impel us to withdraw nostalgically into a world of letters and paper, but help motivate is to address (say, through a more careful interrogation of something as seemingly incidental as metaphor) what it means to teach literature, and what literature and reading might become, in an era when something like a MOOC is even conceivable, let alone a cultural and educational destiny.

Audio: A Lecture on Kathleen Jamie’s “Fever” and “Surgeons’ Hall”

Here is an audio capture of a lecture I gave on Wednesday, October 16, 2013, at the University of British Columbia, on two essays by Kathleen Jamie: “Fever” and “Surgeons’ Hall.” Both come from her 2005 collection Findings, which I’m using in my section of English 111, a first-year introduction to the study of nonfiction, to provide a set of thematic and conceptual anchor-points for the course. In the lecture, I focus on Jamie’s sense of the limits of language, of the intersections of body and text, on the concept of intersubjectivity, and on trying to understand the page as a porous membrane.

Improvisation, Text and Media: Research Questions

At the final meetings of the research team for the “Improvisation, Community and Social Practice” research initiative, held on Monday September 2, 2013, at the University of Guelph, we had an opportunity to divide into our various research streams and interest groups, and to reflect on achievements and outcomes over the past six years of the grant, around the establishment of the interdisciplinary field of Improvisation Studies. (Co-ordinators for each of the seven clusters were invited to present at a panel during the upcoming colloquium, on Wednesday morning.) Rather than catalogue books, performances, courses, etc., what many of us elected to do — to reflect the on-going and open-ended aspect of research on and around improvisation — was to produce and hone a set of research questions that had come to inform the work being done by our group.


Here are some of the questions we collectively arrived at, in the “Improvisation, Text and Media” stream, for which I have served as co-ordinator.

How do improvisatory practices affect the production, dissemination and reception of new media art?

What are the impacts of electronic and social media on poetry, literature and other textual practices? How is the study of print culture impacted by a critical emphasis on improvisation?

How can methods and approaches that have emerged from improvisation studies be deployed to assess the velocity of information, and the pace of the transformation of the human archive? What are the emerging temporalities of writing?

How do new media offer a means to investigate the permeability of the academic and non-academic worlds?

What are the key tropes around which inquiry into text and media in improvisation takes place? (Some of the tropes we mentioned included membrane, network, fractal, pod, articulation, mix, polyphony, voice, texture, ear.)

How does improvisation both expose and re-instantiate inherent social power structures, especially around concepts of authority and expertise?

How do social and electronic media influence reading and reception?

How do text and media studies articulate with improvisational pedagogy across the disciplines?

What does the study of improvisation, text and media bring to the understanding of canon, of expertise, genius and orthodoxy? How are we to accept or to resist the tendencies for improvisational tactics to becomes orthodoxies or ideologies?

How are practices of appropriation, borrowing, imitation, representation and revision managed through improvisation?

Our hope was that these questions, and others, might serve as contingent focal points, both to understand the work that has been ongoing in this sub-field and to provoke and urge the development of new work.


Mais, qu’est-ce que c’est donc un noir?  Et d’abord, c’est de quelle couleur? (Jean Genet, “Pour Jouer Les ‘Nègres’” [1959])

Yesterday I heard El Jones on the radio. The community activist and current poet laureate of Halifax was speaking with Jian Ghomeshi on Q about an emerging controversy surrounding an upcoming concert by Chris Brown, and the building opposition in the city to his appearance there, because of his history of domestic violence. One of the key points she made, both eloquently and forcefully, was that this discussion had much to do with current debates around race and identity, particularly in Halifax, where the cultural politics and the cultural history of blackness has played a significant role in shaping the character of the city and its district (Dartmouth, Bedford and other linked communities).

Her remarks had me think back to the beginnings of my own engagements with the discourse and history of race in this country, how this trajectory of my education was set in motion. I was taught Canadian History in my last year of high school in Truro, Nova Scotia (about an hour’s drive from Halifax), by Wayne Foster, who had designed his course around what must have then been a risky and innovative principle in 1981: the first term presented the emergence of the nation filtered through the perspectives of a number of First Nations, while the second term focused on African-Canadian history. I know we had a textbook, although much of what Mr. Foster discussed came from his own research, and I know that he had us reading on our own, too: finding source material for ourselves, if we were able. But I’m sure I had no idea at the time how atypical and how genuinely provocative this class could prove to be. I’m sure he wanted us to think about the ways in which our own history, the history of our place, had been shaped, about how perspective mattered, and about how the recovery of racially-inflected – that is to say, non-Anglo-Celtic – viewpoints had the potential to radically shake up our senses of the given, of what we were told had really happened as our country was being formed, confederated. And I knew next to nothing about the history of the Black community in my own town. Looking back now, I truly admire Mr. Foster’s courage, and his willingness to take what were then substantial intellectual risks, and to invite his students to do the same: to raise consciousnesses, to make us more fully and carefully aware of who and where we were. At the time, however, as a slightly smug seventeen-year-old, I remember myself not so much being grateful as resistant. For some reason, and this is still a bit hard for me to explain to myself, I didn’t want to hear what Mr. Foster was offering us. I think I wanted to cling to a generic, comfortable and singular view of where my sense of language, place and belonging might have come from. This resistance, this recalcitrance, seems all the more peculiar to me given my reading and my taste in music at the time, which was thoroughly caught up in anti-racist punk, existential political philosophy, soul and post-Coltrane jazz. Really. Somehow, I guess I needed to keep the conceptual and the aesthetic separate from the historical, from the immediate experience of being from small-town Nova Scotia. My reading and my listening were idealized and remote from who and where I was, even though I know I identified powerfully with Miles Davis, with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, with The Clash, with Otis Redding, with Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean Genet. I now realize that, despite my rather artificial adolescent resistance, Mr. Foster’s history class has had a substantive impact on how I have come to think about race, about the collision of the aesthetic and the political, of the representational and the lived, in our social and cultural existences in this country. And I need to acknowledge and to thank him genuinely for that.

El Jones’s radio spot was one of several public interventions she has made in the past few days: she also appeared on The National on CBC television, and published, in a Huffington Post blog entry called “Protecting Canada’s Trayvon Martins,” a list of “some things Canadians can do” in the wake of the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial in Florida. Her work, here and elsewhere, voices itself – advocates – primarily in the imperative; here is the sixth of her eight calls to action:

Educate ourselves and our children about racism. Yes, it is important to tell children they can follow their dreams. But we also must give them information that protects them. This case showed us racism isn’t over, so let’s stop being scared to tell the truth to kids, leaving them vulnerable and confused. Teaching about racism also means teaching them Black Power principles. Don’t pretend race doesn’t exist for them, give them the knowledge to understand themselves.

The “Canadians” she’s addressing in entries such as this sound not like Canadians in general, but like those of us (not me) who identify as black: and maybe even more specifically as east-coast, an identity George Elliott Clarke once named “Nofaskoshan” or “Africadian.” A conceptual fracture emerges in the encounter with such an identity when we put a bit of pressure on what specific practice of education El Jones means to call for – despite the overt claim to candour and directness she makes, and even enacts stylistically in the feel of straight talk here. Educating “ourselves” can’t only mean discovering the presence of blackness in our Canadian midst, although that’s a starting point. That’s what I think happened for me thirty-odd years ago in Mr. Foster’s history class. While that discovery – that re-discovery – appears to have become a necessity again now for many, education also means going a bit further, I think. It means recognizing, and negotiating, our complicity in a general cultural and historical problematic around cultural constructions of blackness. For me, this fracture runs deep, and it’s crucial to acknowledge it and to inhabit it critically, thoughtfully.

Race, in my experience, comes to name not a framework for identity but the ongoing fracturing of identities. Despite its various corporeal and historical materializations, despite its difficult tangibility, despite its challenging lived realities throughout the human world, race – in this instance, blackness, which seems to serve as a synecdoche for race as such – remains largely a cultural and historical construct, a “floating signifier” as Stuart Hall argues. To emphasize the semiotics of race (against its genetics) is not to ignore or to obscure its reality, but to try to find a means – a poetic means, I’d say – to encounter it and to counter its nascent perniciousness, the slippery slope down which race slides into racism. I’m not starting to make a case “against race,” although I find Paul Gilroy’s approach to what he calls raciology both resonant and critically provocative. The pedagogical imperative to “educate ourselves,” as I read El Jones, means learning to face those conflicts, to recognize and to work through the often dire representational fractures that discourses of race tend to frame. But not necessarily ever to be done with that work.

So the imperative, as she recurrently characterizes it, is still a need, but more specifically “the need to have difficult conversations.” (I’m lifting this phrase from one of her Facebook updates, but she uses versions of it throughout the radio spot.) It’s a hard form of language-work, a poetics. That’s not to substitute aesthetics for politics, but to return to the uneasy craft of language a tangibility, an engagement with the what matters: to politicize the aesthetic. The difficulty of conversation, in my view, gets foregrounded in Jones’s return to the rhetoric and ideology of the late 1960s. A disturbing question lurks in and behind this call: that is, shouldn’t we have been done with Black Nationalism by now, more than 40 years on? (As El Jones rightly points out, it’s more like 400 years on. And who, by the way, constitutes this “we” I’m so glibly tossing around?) Perhaps our shame – pointed up by the discursive tangle surrounding Trayvon Martin – is that in North America we clearly aren’t done, and aren’t going to be done with it. I find I can’t accept El Jones’s call to return to “Black Power principles,” because my critique of race – enabled, no doubt, by a personal history of deracinated privilege, of not having to be subject to discrimination on a daily basis – involves challenging what feels like an under-interrogated identity politics; that challenge, for me, is in fact what it means to educate ourselves. Identity politics, in my experience, tends to shut down conversations, rather than to enable them. But the fact remains that my kind of academically privileged and rarefied critique might not be especially timely, not yet. The work of consciousness raising still, still, seems to require identifications, solidarities, nationalisms and ethnocentrisms. Even now. Perhaps especially now.

So, as I position myself here, I remain at least partially excluded from those adhesions and identifications, and necessarily so. I’m still working to find my way back through the resistance I felt in that history class thirty-odd years ago. But I think that’s exactly what I ought to be doing. Exclusions and differences are part of the needful difficulty of talking about race. I’m putting more pressure on El Jones than maybe her words have invited, but I think what she has said in the past couple of days represents an important intervention, and a significant provocation to public discussion and debate. And I’d like to thank her for that, as well.

[Edit: El Jones wrote an excellent article on race, violence and Chris Brown, published in the Halifax Chronicle Herald on July 19, 2013. You can read it here.]

Video Intro for Arts One Digital

Here is a youtube video made by Jon Beasley-Murray (of Posthegemony fame) for Arts One Digital, a first year humanities program at the University of British Columbia in which I taught for the past two years. I mention, and try briefly to describe, something of the improvisational pedagogy I have been trying to develop on my own terms over the past decade. The video was taken in my UBC office on Friday, 5 July 2013. The other materials on the Arts One Digital website form an evolving digital humanities supplement to the Arts One syllabus. Two of Jon’s blog posts on MOOCs, pedagogy and electronic media appeared today re-published in The Tyee, and are well worth checking out.