Monday, February 11, 2013

Coursera Modern Poetry Course Really Better?

I wrote a lot about the Science Fiction and Fantasy course I took through Coursera but never took the time to write about the Modern Poetry course I took.  Naturally, I will fall into writing about both courses because that is simply unavoidable.

There were a few things I found highly disturbing about the SF&F course.  What I found most remarkable about the ModPo course is that none of these issues were evident or, if they were, they were nipped in the bud fairly early.  It only makes sense to begin there.

Apparently there was one essay where the commenter suggested that the essay was plagiarized.  I did not receive a one, myself, and I actually evaluated more than the required number of submissions plus I read quite a few more.   In fact, the issue of plagiarism came up as a subject in essays towards the end of the course when we began looking at “chance” or “found poetry, where the poets piece together elements of what they see out there in the world.  If everything that can be said has already been said, it’s merely a matter of representing it in a new or different way.  Kenneth Goldsmith does this in Day, a book that was referenced in but not part of the course. 

In the end, the issue of plagiarism became more a subject of interest than it did a bone of contention.  Unlike in the SF&F course, it did not become a topic of endless discussion nor did the discussion ever degenerate to abusive attacks.  Which brings me to the next issue.

I was understandably alarmed at how hostile the forums in the SF&F course became.  Towards the end of the course, I simply refused to look.  In fact, I hesitated to look at the forums for the ModPo course and had difficulty motivating myself to participate in the discussions there, even though I soon saw that they were not falling apart to the same degree.  Why I could not do this is not the issue at hand.  Of more interest to me is the question why?  Why was ModPo capable of succeeding where SF&F failed some utterly?

The answer is simple:  the professor cared. 

Al Filreis’ presence and participation throughout the course was evident from day one.  His enthusiasm for seeing this experiment be a success is undeniable and infectious.  When someone expressed a concern, he more often than not responded with compassion mixed with honesty. 

The option to post anonymously was still there but when you know that someone with authority—a professor and/or his TAs—is reading what you write, I think some people think twice before being rude or crude.  After all, we all know that whether one does something anonymously online or not, there are means of finding out the true source. 

I have little to no doubt that his responding to things posted kept people from getting too belligerent.  In fact, when one person dared to criticize the hemming and hawing that was part of the videos, the professor stepped in to defend his TAs and the person, who never posted anonymously, immediately engaged in an intelligent manner.  There was no defensiveness or sophomoric nonsense.   Which brings me to the next point.

Peer Evaluations
After the essays were assigned and submitted, a peer review rubric was provided through which we could filter our reading of the essay. 

  • Does the essay discuss (whatever)? 
  • Does the essay writer mention (something or other)? 
  • What else does the essayist have to say about the poem?
The clarity of expectations made the evaluation process over all a more positive one.  But my experience alone cannot suffice so I went to the forums in search of complaints fully expecting to find some.  I am thrilled to say that it was nearly impossible to do so.  The one and only post I could find that was especially critical of the peer review process was responded to by the professor himself.  (May I interject, I don’t know how he found the time!)  The original poster complained that the critiques received were unfair but the professor said that only one was inadequate. 

The truth is I received a rather unhelpful peer evaluation the first week.  I immediately contacted the professor and did not expect a response.  After all, Dr. Rabkin, when he was confronted with an issue with the course, sent a statement to the students saying that he was not to be contacted and all future issues should be addressed on the forums. 

Imagine my surprise when the professor responded within an hour.  More remarkably, I wrote very early in the morning and received his response before business hours.  I don’t know what time this man gets into his office but Al Filreis was there before 7am.  And his response was enough to keep me from dropping the course.  He agreed that the evaluation had not addressed the questions outlined in the rubric and trusted that the other peer reviews I received would be more helpful.

They were. 

Also helpful to the overall peer review experience was the absence of a point system.  Unlike the SF&F course where the peer reviewers were expected to not only write a response but also give a numeric assessment.  But without a clear rubric, the number scale evaluations were all over the place.  In fact, some students thought that 1 a higher grade than a 3 and great essays were given the lowest score possible as a result.  Because the ModPo professor took the time to not only provide a rubric but was not reductive enough to try to apply numbers to a highly subjective matter as an essay, he allowed the peer review process to be a more positive experience than it would have been otherwise.

But wait, there’s more!

The essays we submitted were not as anonymous as I would have liked.  Here is how the process went in both courses:

  • Essays submitted anonymously.
  • A day or two later, essays distributed to other students for peer evaluations.
  • The peer evaluation is submitted.
  • A day or two later, the essay writer receives the peer reviews.
All of this was done anonymously and the students never knew who wrote nor read the essays nor who wrote the peer reviews unless they chose to reveal themselves. 

Now, in the ModPo course there was a slight difference.  When the essays were submitted, they would “go live” on the forums as well.  And on the forums the essays were not anonymous.  So anyone who wanted to know who wrote the essay they were about to peer review could find out who the essayist was. 

While this sort of blew away the whole promise of anonymity, the peer reviews remained anonymous.  When submitted, the peer reviews would manifest on the forums with the essay they were evaluating.  I’m glad that they managed to keep some of the anonymity.   And this brings me to the next point.

Public Peer Review Responses
While remaining anonymous, I believe there was some value in having them available on the forums not only for the essayist receiving them.  For those so inclined, one could conceivably go to see what others said about the essay you yourself had evaluated.  You could compare your response to those given by others and, presumably (even hopefully) adjust your efforts accordingly. 

This could explain why there were so few complaints about the peer reviews after the first essay.  I only found the one and, as I mentioned above, the professor was on top of it.  That we could see how others were responding to the essays and not simply our own, we could be more objective about our own work.  Truth is, it’s hard to objectively evaluate feedback given on something you yourself wrote.  But when reading how you assessed someone else’s writing and then comparing what you wrote to what someone else wrote is less likely to create a knee-jerk defensiveness. 

These are some of the reasons I think that the Modern Poetry course offered on Coursera is superior to the Science Fiction and Fantasy course.  Mark your calendars because the Modern Poetry course will be offered again in September 2013.  

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