Some Generalities, Whitman, and his MOOC

Some Generalities: This weekend I spent some time looking at the book recommendations that Elisa New made on our course syllabus. I like the fact that she reminded us of these books and their titles in her weekly post to us. I also like the fact that I could go on amazon and read in all four books to see which appealed to me, instead of having to try to find them in a library or purchase them, not knowing how interested I’d be in them. (None of them are required; all are recommended.)

I like the idea of a course, although the course has a student population of 13,999 and me. As a non-expert in the “field of Whitman,” it helps to have experts steering you, first, in the recommendations of reading about Whitman and his times. That way I don’t have to spend time floundering on the internet to try to find really reliable and appropriate reading.

I loved being able to read excerpts on amazon, which I did for all four books. I really liked reading  David Reynolds’s Walt Whitman’s America, so I ordered it for $4 plus shipping, and I also decided to order the somewhat dauntingly long (1,000 pages plus) of Gotham by Wallace and Burrows. It reads well, but it will take some time. However, it comes highly recommended – it’s a Pulitzer Price winning book and took the authors 20 years of research. So I ordered it – $9 plus shipping. (I like those used books!)

Whitman: what can I say thus far? I’m finding out a lot about him and his poetry. It’s great when you start at .05% knowledge of the man and knowledge of the 19th century from high school, college, study of family history, and general learning throughout the years (as well as studying 19th century German-speaking world more than the U.S.’s 19th century) – which means I will gain a much more in-depth and textured understanding of 19th century America through this course.

He’s amazing. For me that era was Longfellow and Irving. And Whitman – as they say – is so modern. I was astounded at how he took on America – and differently from the popular feelings about it today (which have to do with extreme patriotism, a lot of self-criticism, and the feeling among religious zealots and extreme liberals alike that it, along with the rest of the world, is “going to hell in a hand basket.” Whitman’s ideas about democracy, language, baseball, photography, and native American Indians will be very interesting to read about. Oh, no! I don’t think I ordered that book. (I must look and see and order, if I didn’t!)

The MOOC: Although there are 14,000 registered students and counting, I like the way Elisa New is approaching the course, and everyone in it. I realize that you have to be extremely organized and have a somewhat rigid plan, in terms of course material and assignments, as you do in any online course. Changing direction during the course most probably won’t happen. So I was wondering how flexible the course could be, how it could be tailored to the student population within it, and I am seeing how she’s doing it. She sent us a “letter” called “Greetings at the End of Week 0 by Elisa New,” and in it she addressed the student population as a whole. After having read in the discussion boards, seeing (I’m sure somewhat) who we were, and getting a sense of what we were saying, she based her comments on that understanding of who we are and what we had been doing. … And she related that to Whitman and his ideas: “we are ourselves almost a city– a great growing settlement on the internet with Walt Whitman in our midst. So many of Walt Whitman’s poems seem to address precisely the kind of assembly we are–diverse, far flung, and yet so closely connected.”

She also addresses what we are doing, steering us into an understanding of it. The fact that people start out with Whitman and that leads them off into other territory or back to their own ideas and writings does not daunt her. She acknowledges it, so people will know what they are doing, but then ties it into Whitman, that he would have reacted to it, and maybe he would have listened in on the conversation or maybe he would have wandered on.

She also addressed why she thinks he would have liked the MOOC, and how our “city” parallels in some ways all those people he was addressing: those of his time and those of the future beyond him.

All I can say is: “lovely.” There is a way to be flexible within the more constrained syllabus.

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