Beginning this October, I’ll be teaching a Massive Open Online Course (or MOOC) called “Plagues, Witches, and War: The Worlds of Historical Fiction.” The course will be taught through Coursera, the Palo Alto-based company working with the University of Virginia to deliver a certain number of our institution’s online courses through its proprietary platform. Coursera has hosted dozens of courses in conjunction with its partner institutions over the last two years, on everything from “The Science of Gastronomy” and “Programmed Cell Death” to “Art and Inquiry” and “Fundamentals of Rehearsing Music Ensembles.”
“Plagues, Witches, and War” will be taught simultaneously with a seminar in the English department called, less gloriously, “Historical Fictions.” Students on the University of Virginia grounds will read many of the same texts as the Coursera students, though on a less compressed schedule, and I am assuming that most of my on-grounds students will want to enroll simultaneously in the MOOC as well (though, on the somewhat mystifying advice of University Counsel, this will be optional). Several current and former Ph.D. and MFA students will also be participating in the on-line course. My hope is to foster numerous interactions among local UVA students (both undergraduate and graduate) and the thousands of Coursera students enrolled around the world.
The course (you can sign up for for free by clicking here) will last eight weeks and will combine a global overview of the genre with a series of recorded seminars and conversations with visiting writers, including a Pulitzer Prize winner and several New York Times bestsellers. We’ll begin by reading together from a number of (largely anglophone) historical novels from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, some classic, others less well known: Sophia Lee’s The Recess, Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley, Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, William Wells Brown’s Clotel (a novel with interesting ties to the University of Virginia), Anna Katharine Green’s The Forsaken Inn (one of the first bona fide historical mysteries), and several others. Moving into the twentieth century, we will broaden the geographical scope to consider European and American modernism as well as the emergence of the historical novel as a truly global genre. Here we’ll look at works such as Chaka by Thomas Mofolo (1876-1948), who was writing in the Sotho language in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; and The Conquest of Andalusia by Jurji Zaidan, a Lebanese writer who died in 1914 and produced as many as two dozen historical novels that we know of (one of his purposes being to use the medium to teach the history of Islam, the Middle East, and al-Andalus). The last part of the course will touch on a number of contemporary writers, from the Booker Prize-winning English novelist Hilary Mantel to the Chinese-born francophone writer and artist Shan Sa.
Given the length and complexity of these novels, lectures will inevitably cover selected excerpts while providing a broad overview of historical fiction in the modern era. (This part of the course should be conceived more as a kind of animated textbook for future reference than an attempt at close reading and analysis.) At the same time, we’ll be guided by a set of common questions relevant to all the historical fiction we’re considering. What motivates certain writers to turn to particular historical moments, and what do they hope to find there? What creative challenges do historical settings and personages present to authors seeking to reimagine the past in fictional narrative? What modes of historical consciousness inform the historical novel, and how does the genre challenge us to rethink the categories of history and fiction?
Guided by similar questions, the heart of the course will be a series of seminars on the craft of historical fiction. These seminars will feature five novelists who will be our guests for recorded discussion sessions as well as on-line forums and chats with Coursera students. The course will feature an extraordinary line-up of guest artists whose novels bring to life an array of past cultures, from ancient Rome to Renaissance England to nineteenth-century Malaysia. During these sessions our guests will discuss the process of research, the crafting of character, setting, and dialogue, and the challenges of historical fiction as a genre, among other topics. Here are the visiting novelists, with links to their books and home pages:
- Jane Alison, Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Virginia, is the author of three novels (including The Marriage of the Sea, a New York Times Notable Book for 2003) as well as a memoir, The Sisters Antipodes. We will be reading from her first novel, The Love Artist, featuring the poet Ovid and his mysterious exile from Rome to the shores of the Black Sea.
- Geraldine Brooks, an internationally bestselling novelist whose works have been translated into dozens of languages, received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2006 for her novel March. She will visit our class to discuss Year of Wonders, which recreates a mountain village beset by plague in seventeenth-century England.
- Yangsze Choo is the debut author of The Ghost Bride, a Fall 2013 selection in Barnes & Noble’s Discover Great New Writers series. The novel, set in colonial Malaysia in the 1890s, explores the Chinese world of spiritual marriage through the eyes of a young woman faced with dark secrets and an impossible choice.
- Katherine Howe is a New York Times-bestselling novelist as well as a scholar and teacher of American culture. She will join us to discuss The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, which tells a transhistorical tale of witchcraft, magic, and persecution from the seventeenth century to the present.
- Mary Beth Keane, author of The Walking People, received her MFA from the University of Virginia and in 2011 was named one of the 5 Under 25 by the National Book Foundation. Her novel Fever retells the story of “Typhoid Mary”: Mary Mallon, an Irish immigrant identified as the first immune carrier of typhoid fever in America.
I’ll also be holding a series of one-on-one conversations with various writers and scholars on the subject of historical fiction, among them Andrew Taylor, the British novelist and author of The Scent of Death; Matthew Pearl, the bestselling author of The Dante Club and The Poe Shadow; Eva Stachniak, a Polish-born Canadian writer whose latest historical novel, The Winter Palace, takes as its subject Catherine the Great; and Michael McKeon, a literary historian and author of The Origins of the English Novel and editor of Theory of the Novel: A Historical Approach, who will speak with me about György Lukács’s influential theory of the historical novel.
Now, it needs to be said here that MOOCs in principle and in practice are highly controversial, at least for faculty at most American institutions of higher education. Rather than shying away from these ongoing conflicts around online learning, I will be making them one of the “subplots” of the course by teaching and teaching through the controversies generated by the advent of MOOCs and the institutional crises they embody–beginning with the leadership crisis at my own university. I’ll be linking periodically to any number of recent writings on MOOCs and online education: both the utopian visions of Thomas Friedman and Daphne Koller (Coursera’s founder) and the sharp critiques of MOOCs by writers such as Aaron Bady, Siva Vaidyanathan, and others. (For a thoughtful view of the controversy itself see “Stop Polarising the MOOCs Debate” by Cathy Davidson.) A dedicated thread on the course discussion board will be devoted to the practicalities and politics of online education, and I’m hoping they will inspire a wide variety of perspectives from Coursera and UVA students alike.
One of the emerging MOOC practices that won’t be a feature of the course is “peer assessment,” at least not in any way that entails binding evaluation. Students who complete the requirements (several multiple-choice quizzes, a few interactive excercises on social media, and an archival assignment) will receive a certificate of completion. There will be an optional written assignment that will allow interested students to post creative work, but again, it won’t have any bearing on students’ successful completion of the course. From everything I’ve read and observed while researching and putting together “Plagues, Witches, and War,” we are a long way from any kind of effective peer evaluation of written work on this massive scale, at least in the humanities–so I’m not going to ask my Coursera students to assess, grade, or rubricate the work of their peers. This is not to say that students won’t have an opportunity to engage one another in extended and meaningful ways. But it took me several years of teaching on the university level before I really felt qualified to make constructive and meaningful comments on student papers, let alone to distill these comments into a quantitative marker of performance level (i.e. a grade). I don’t want to replicate this experience on a global scale.
These caveats aside, I’m quite excited for the course to begin–though there is still an enormous amount of work to be done: planning, recording, and editing video lectures, which must be transcribed in full before posting; integrating slides and in-video quizzes into the lectures; scheduling seminars with our guest writers and coordinating the logistics of their visits (whether in-person or virtual); building out the content in each course unit, with links to novels, primary archival sources, and articles; and the list goes on. I am working with a dedicated and fabulous team of staff, students, librarians, and vendors to get the course fully on line before the start date.
Do take or audit or criticize the course if you’re so inclined, and I hope you’ll post any queries or suggestions below or on this blog’s Facebook page. The Twitter hashtag for the course will be #hfmooc; I’ve already sent an initial tweet or two for those interested.