A Summer of Fantasy and Science Fiction

Sometime back in April I noticed an advert for a group called Coursera who were offering entry to University courses for free.  Unlike those that can be accessed via I-Tunes U, these were real time courses that you followed week by week through video links and which, most intriguing of all, delivered a grade at the end.  This wasn’t the first time I’d come across this company, there was much publicity the previous year when they had linked with Stanford University to offer courses in IT. What was different this time round was that their portfolio had expanded to include subjects from the Humanities.

Now, as anyone who has worked in the Humanities at this level (or any other level for that matter) will tell you, once you’ve done the research for the course what really takes the time is not the teaching, it is the marking.  At this time of year University lecturers across the world are pulling their hair out as they try to meet exam board deadlines.  And that is with perhaps thirty or forty students taking a module.  I believe the Stanford IT module attracted in excess of 40,000.  As my American friends might say, “Do the math’! Even if there hadn’t been anything that attracted my academic interest I would have signed up for something just to see how they were planning on dealing with this.  As it is they have a module entitled Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World in which I am very interested, so I signed up for that.  It starts on Monday.

The primary reading list is quite extensive, although all but two of the books can be accessed without payment on line, and there is no secondary reading suggested so far.  Whether that will come in the videos remains to be seen.  Over the ten weeks we are going to study:

  1. Grimm — Children’s and Household Tales
  2. Carroll — Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass
  3. Stoker — Dracula
  4. Shelley — Frankenstein
  5. Hawthorne & Poe — Stories and Poems
  6. Wells — The Island of Dr. MoreauThe Invisible Man, “The Country of the Blind,” “The Star”
  7. Burroughs & Gilman — A Princess of Mars & Herland
  8. Bradbury — The Martian Chronicles
  9. LeGuin — The Left Hand of Darkness
  10. Doctorow — Little Brother

I’ve only read the first two of these so I have a lot of catching up to do, but then that’s the idea behind doing the course.  Currently, I am renewing my acquaintance with the Grimms’ tales which I haven’t read since childhood.  I find that at the moment I am giving most consideration to the way in which they are structured because that is my area of expertise, but suspect that come next week’s lecture my attention will be directed into other more psychological pathways as that seems to be the focus of the module.

And what about the question of assessment?  Ah, well that is where I start to have doubts.  If I want a grade I have to submit an ‘essay’ for at least seven of the ten weeks of the course.  Now I don’t know what an ‘essay’ means to you but to Coursera it means a piece of writing between 270 and 320 words.

This post is already over 500.

Of course, brevity is the soul of wit and I’m not one to encourage rambling, but what am I supposed to say of any real value in 300 words?  That essay will then be submitted to four other students for grading by peer assessment and I will grade four myself.  At the end of module my grades will be averaged out with account taken for my participation in the on-line forum.  I assume that will have to be calculated purely numerically by the number of times I log on.

I’m not actually against peer assessment, I think it sharpens the minds of those doing the assessing almost as much as their having to write their own piece, but I do think it needs careful monitoring and I can’t see how that is going to be possible in this instance.  I would be very interested to see the quality feedback on this module when it is over.

For myself I haven’t decided whether or not I shall submit essays for grading.  I have courses of my own to plan for the Autumn as well as the Summer School coming up in four weeks time, and I’m still back and forth to hospital with no indication when that will be over.  On the other hand, I shall definitely be writing about what I’m reading because that’s the way I sort out in my own mind what I’m thinking.  I’ll wait until after the first video session, I think, before I make up my mind.

I wonder, have any of you experience of courses like this?  Given the way in which the costs of a University education are rising in England, I can see that anyone who could crack the assessment aspect in a manner that proved satisfactory to employers would open up a very active market and I’m not surprised that companies are already experimenting in the field.  This is clearly in the early stages of development but it’s something traditional Universities are going to have to watch especially as numbers of applications are already falling rapidly and, with the decline in students staying on to do A levels, are likely to fall further over the next few years.


16 thoughts on “A Summer of Fantasy and Science Fiction

  1. Having studied with the Open University for the last six years, I’m a great advocate of more flexible opportunties for learning. But peer assessment? Hmmm…I remain to be convinced about that one. My only experience of peer feedback is from creative writing, and that was very mixed. What’s more, feedback is one thing and grading quite another.

    From the list of texts, I’m only familiar with Frankenstein and Dracula, so I’ll looked forward to your thoughts on these and the others too.

    1. I agree with you, Karen. As I said, I have experimented with peer assessment but it opens up an institute to all sorts of claims of malpractice. I can just imagine the appeals committee meetings from students who thought (possibly correctly) that they had failed their course because they had not had the necessary feedback to help them develop. And that’s before you even bring in the question of grading. As someone who was responsible for quality assurance across a major tertiary institution, it makes me quake.

    1. Thank you, Sly Wit, I’ve just been over there and that does look very interesting indeed. I wouldn’t have found it without you, so I’m very grateful.

      1. You’re welcome. Even though I’m no longer a professor, I like to still keep a foot in that world. (Although he’s always a good reminder of why I left!)

  2. I have read all but the Doctorow and would question why such disparate works were bundled together in one course unless the idea was to demonstrate that what appears to be fantasy on the surface could very-well be just a friendly container for a much more serious theme.

    1. That’s just what a friend of mine who does know something about the subject said, Mike. I don’t know enough to comment, but hopefully the course will make it clear.

  3. Alex, the latest New Yorker has an essay by Joan Acocella, “The Lure of the Fairy Tale.” Since you’re reading Grimm, you might be interested. I certainly want to read Grimm now.

    I had thought of taking this SF course when you first mentioned it, but then discovered that I have read most of these books: mostly classics, but an odd mix. A Princess of Mars? Fun but truly trashy.

    As to peer assessment: who would trust students to do that? Do they read? Do they know how to write? I’m sure it’s quite a mix.

    Sounds very interesting, though.

    1. Thanks Frisbee, I’ll follow that through. I find fairy tales fascinating. Most of my professional research was done using them as ‘fodder’ for testing out the model I was working on. As I read the Grimm I’m beginning to realise just how much the narrative shape was tidied up in later versions.

  4. As both a student and a teacher, sometimes even as a professor, I’ve never found peer review to be of much use. I suspect this type of class is probably the future of higher education, but I do not believe it is an improvement. It will save money at the expense of quality. Those with money will still attend classes with actual professors in the room and will get a better education as a result.

    1. I’m sure you’re right. I know that I have to be careful to keep my response consistent from the first essay in a batch through to the end. How can there be even consistency let alone parity with this method.

  5. Peer assessment is an interesting exercise if you have a professional teacher standing there too. But four random assessments of 300 words is…. something I have never come across before. Seriously? I don’t know that I could even write a decent synopsis in 300 words, let alone analyse anything. But as you say, some sort of short-circuit had to be worked out for that many students. The list of books is one containing lots of titles I’ve never read, so I’ll be interested to hear what you have to say about them. At least in your blog you can write as many words as you like and there’ll be lots of us to peer review! 🙂

    1. I must admit, I hadn’t thought about it that way:). I watched the Introductory video this afternoon and I can see that it is going to be a very different way of looking at certain types of fiction to the one I’m used to. I’ve spent so many years (decades?) concentrating on structure that to take a more sociological approach is going to take some getting used to, although it should be interesting.

  6. What a curious mix of of a reading list. I’ve read most of them and don’t understand why the fantasy and SF are being mixed because the goals of each are rather different. I will be curious to hear more about the course as you go along. As for peer assessment on 300 word essays, huh? Ok, free class and big enrollment so I understand the approach, but I can’t see how one can say anything really complex in 300 word essays or how students in the same class learning the same material could possibly make any kind of useful assessment. And what value is there in a grade since no degree awarding university will accept it?

    1. From what I can gather the ‘essays’ are meant to be an opportunity to share a particular view of a work with your peers, rather like a seminar presentation. They aren’t what I would recognise as essays.

      The question of what the point of a grade might be is one I’ve discussed around the University and we could see that it might be proof of commitment and ability to stick with a course when you were applying to come and study full time. What the participating universities get out of it is another matter. We decided that they must be hoping to showcase the type of course they offer and thus attract more students.

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