DartmouthX Course Connects Communities Through Literature

1/20/2016
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In July 1838, when Dartmouth students invited Ralph Waldo Emerson to speak on the subject of “Literary Ethics,” he was no canonical figure—more of an outsider to the academy who had recently caused a scandal at Harvard Divinity School for promoting free thought, says Donald Pease, the Ted and Helen Geisel Third Century Professor in the Humanities.

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Professor Donald Pease, left, and Lecturer James Dobson co-teach “English 52: The American Renaissance at Dartmouth,” a course that is being offered in conjunction with the launch of the College’s latest DartmouthX massive open online course, “The American Renaissance: Classic Literature of the 19th Century,” which begins Feb. 16. (Photo by Robert Gill)

 

“Emerson says, in effect, you no longer need to listen to someone else tell you what authors mean,” Pease says—a radical proposition for the time. “The students invited him because he was in the avant-garde.”

This term, students in “English 52: The American Renaissance at Dartmouth”—co-taught by Pease and James Dobson, a lecturer in the Institute of Writing and Rhetoric and the English department—are exploring primary documents in Rauner Special Collections Library that show how their peers from 177 years ago responded to Emerson’s message and those of other key literary figures of the period, many of whom visited Hanover.

But the seminar, which focuses on major American writers of the 19th century, from Walt Whitman and Herman Melville to Harriet Beecher Stowe and Frederick Douglass, will extend far beyond the boundaries of the Dartmouth campus.

That’s because the course is being offered in conjunction with the launch of the College’s latest DartmouthX massive open online course, or MOOC, “The American Renaissance: Classic Literature of the 19th Century,” which begins Feb. 16 (registration is open now).

The result will be an unusual hybrid, where the intimacy and intensity of Dartmouth’s classroom experience directly informs the online DartmouthX course.

“We’re hoping that the Dartmouth students will find objects and primary texts that will give evidence of Dartmouth’s importance in creating the American Renaissance—and use that to produce conversation that will get people on the MOOC engaged,” says Dobson.

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“We’re hoping that the Dartmouth students will find objects and primary texts that will give evidence of Dartmouth’s importance in creating the American Renaissance—and use that to produce conversation that will get people on the MOOC engaged,” says Lecturer James Dobson. (Photo by Robert Gill)

 

“AmRenX,” as its creators call the MOOC, is the fourth in a series of DartmouthX courses launched in 2014 in partnership with the nonprofit online learning consortium edX. The others include “Introduction to Environmental Science,” taught by Andrew Friedland, the Richard and Jane Pearl Professor in Environmental Studies; “The Engineering of Structures Around Us,” with Vicki May, an associate professor at Thayer School of Engineering; and “Introduction to Italian Opera,” led by Steve Swayne, the Jacob H. Strauss 1922 Professor of Music.

Anyone, anywhere in the world, can take the seven-week AmRenX course—and Pease and Dobson say they particularly hope alumni will sign up. (They encourage anyone interested to visit the course website, which among other information includes links to electronic versions of selected readings.)

“Our hope is that Dartmouth alums who take the DartmouthX course will recall their own experience of learning about Melville, say, from James Melville Cox, Blanche Gelfant, or William Cook,” says Pease, referring to legendary Dartmouth English professors of the twentieth century.

“This is all about investigating the boundaries of what we consider a Dartmouth classroom,” says Alan Cattier ’86, associate chief information officer and director of Academic and Campus Technology.

Cattier, who had Pease as a professor when he was an undergraduate, has been helping the AmRenX team find web-based tools to enhance the ability of students within the AmRenX course to participate within the edX platform. These tools may allow small groups of students within the class to virtually assemble as well as to stay in touch with course events and announcements as they occur during the offering.

The online course is also designed to be flexible, Dobson says. While each week is organized around a specific author, “you can move wherever your whim takes you, from author to author, or you can spend more time with one author. If you want to use this as an opportunity to read Moby-Dick, you can spend most of your time in the Melville week.”

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American Renaissance course website

A Class on Dartmouth’s History, Informing Its Future

Opera for Everyone: Making the Next DartmouthX Class

Video: The Making of the First DartmouthX Course

Creating AmRenX and the residential course has been a team effort, Pease and Dobson say—one that has involved collaboration with instructional designers, videographers, librarians, and curators.

“The two instructional designers, Michael Goudzwaard and Erin DeSilva, have been instrumental in helping us think about the large picture and about the experience of the student going through the course,” Dobson says.

Pease says the collaborative process of thinking about how to translate his course material into a form that would work for online students has transformed how he thinks about teaching.

“Constructing this course has made me attentive to every dimension of the pedagogical experience,” says Pease.

Dobson says that the team’s collaboration with Bonnie MacAdam, the American art curator at the Hood Museum of Art, and Jay Satterfield, the special collections librarian at Rauner, has been especially fruitful. “They both bring an understanding of different ways of reading that create a much richer experience,” he says.

For instance, with Satterfield’s help, students will have a chance to examine early editions of Moby-Dick—a text they will be reading in an electronic format. “Jay’s knowledge of how that text was printed and distributed is invaluable for understanding the moment in which it was created and how it has been interpreted since.”

The development of opportunities like this, which connect students with each other and with resources across campus, is one of the overarching goals of the DartmouthX project, says Cattier. Another is to bring the lessons learned from developing online courses to the residential experience.

“I don’t think Dartmouth professors should worry that MOOCS are going to undermine or displace the residential learning experience,” says Pease. “It complements it, and thickens it. It’s a deep, deep ally.”

Written by
Hannah Silverstein, MALS '09