Closer Readings Commentary

A MOOC for Teaching Literary Analysis: “The Literature of the English Country House”

Jim Fitzmaurice, lead educator on the MOOC, is retired Emeritus Professor of English from Northern Arizona University and a former NEH Summer Programs for Teacher project director. He is currently working part time as Director of Distance Learning for the School of English at the University of Sheffield in the UK. Susan Fitzmaurice, Head of the School of English at the University of Sheffield, will be the co-lead educator.

I have run many seminars for secondary teachers over the years, where we have read plays by Shakespeare as well as poetry, fiction, and drama written by women writers of the English Renaissance such as Margaret Cavendish, Mary Sidney Herbert, and Lady Mary Wroth. I have liked working with secondary teachers because they tend to be down to earth and practical. In my experience, teachers mostly do not like the “smoke and mirrors” approach found in certain sorts of literary theory and I agree with them. Much of what I learned from secondary teachers I have tried to incorporate with the help of my co-lead, Susan, into the upcoming MOOC, “The Literature of the English Country House.”

If you are a secondary teacher, this MOOC will be a great opportunity for you, along with your more ambitious students. Through it, they can spend part of the summer improving their abilities to analyze literature.

The Literature of the English Country House

The MOOC begins on June 2 and runs for eight weeks. It will acquaint your students with some important texts that they may not have gotten to yet—Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. We also will expose the students to a few bits of literature that they are not likely to encounter elsewhere—Sociable Letters by Margaret Cavendish and The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde. (Actually, students may run into Canterville Ghost on late-night TV, so I could be wrong.)

In all, we will cover 450 years of literature, beginning with Thomas More’s Utopia. Other texts include a sampling from Ben Jonson’s poetry, a Spectator essay by Joseph Addison, a spooky passage from Ann Racliffe’s Gothic novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho, a bit from a novel by Georgiana Devonshire (the duchess of the recent biography of that name), and nonsense poetry by Edward Lear as well as Lewis Carroll.

I think your students are going like the MOOC—and so will you if you choose to come along.

Keep in mind you need not teach at the secondary level to enroll. Indeed, you need not teach at all! The stated work load is 3 hours per week, but there is no attendance sheet and you and your students can do as much or as little as you like. If you need to go on vacation (it is summer, after all), you can skip a few weeks. Or you can come back and read what you have missed. By the way—we do not read all of the books. We just analyze key samples, so there is no need for anyone to buy textbooks. Everything you need to participate is free and accessible online.

Why a MOOC?

So how did I get interested in putting together this MOOC?

One day when I was in the kitchens at Bolsover Castle, south of Sheffield, and visions of Shakespeare’s Sir Toby and Maria in the kitchen of a country house in the Trevor Nunn version of Twelfth Night popped into my head. The peeling wallpaper of that room at Brodsworth Hall, north of Sheffield, brought to mind various film iterations of Miss Havisham from Great Expectations. Later, when a call went out at the University of Sheffield for ideas for MOOCs, I got in contact with the people in charge.

“MOOC,” if you don’t already know, means Massive Open Online Course. The word “open” tells us that there is no charge for signing up. The class is open for anyone in the world. All that is needed is access to a computer and that access could be through a public library.

Our main method of instruction will be close reading, and we will employ screen casts. In the screen casts, our various educators read aloud their interpretations while the interpretations appear written on the screen. The key words become bigger, expanding out at the viewer. At the end of each screen cast, there will be an online discussion. It is in these discussion threads that we expect to see the main learning take place. The educators leading the discussion are regular faculty from the School of English at the University of Sheffield, so you and your students will get a taste of what it would be like to take a course at a British university.

A big part of this MOOC will involve posting to discussions. Along the way, lead educators will answer questions and we will also ask a few! We have hired three PhD students from the University of Sheffield to read and post as well. I enjoy online discussions and have engaged in many of them, especially when I taught an online Shakespeare course for Northern Arizona University.

My colleagues at the University of Sheffield and I have noticed that there is worry among college professors that first MOOCs will be created, and then, we all will be given pink slips! The fear is humans will be replaced by stored digital content! But none of my colleagues, themselves, really worry much. We know MOOCs can’t unseat the classroom teacher—they offer supplemental learning, and will never become a substitute.

The MOOC starts June 2, 2014