Historical Fiction Meets the MOOC

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 DeathMatthew 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.

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45 comments on “Historical Fiction Meets the MOOC

  1. Jenna Mead on said:

    Hello Bruce,
    This looks terrific and I’m keen to see how it goes. I’ve sampled both the Coursera and Open2Study platforms and your remarks here suggest you’ve already faced-off some of the shortcomings of each.
    Best, Jenna

  2. Ricardo Padron on said:

    The course looks great, Bruce, but I’m disappointed to see no Latin American novels on your syllabus. Takes a little of the glow out of your global, especially considering the importance of the historical novel to the twentieth century Latin American novel as a whole.

  3. Bruce Holsinger on said:

    Thanks Ricardo. The course is derived from an English class, concentrating almost exclusively on Angl0-American novels–but the syllabus is by no means set, and the lectures I’ve been outlining on the global dimensions of the genre include (e.g.) Allende and Fuentes. But point taken!

  4. Elizabeth on said:

    This sounds really interesting- As someone who loves historical fiction and spends entirely too much time on Goodreads trying to find people to talk to about this class, I am excited to say I signed up for the class. However, I have never taken an online class with Coursera. Are you required to participate in the online discussions/lectures in real time? I only ask because I am traveling for work during the start date of the class, and want to ensure I can still get as much out of the class as possible.

    • Bruce Holsinger on said:

      Thanks Elizabeth. Coursera classes are perfectly designed for people who travel: you can view the lectures when you have time, and the discussion forums will be open throughout the eight-week course. The only time restrictions will be on a few interactive assignments, but even with those you’ll have a forty-eight-hour window to post your responses/queries, so I can’t imagine you’ll have any difficulties. Glad you’ve signed up! (And I know what you mean about Goodreads–just joined a little while ago and am already addicted…)

  5. Anonymous on said:

    When I saw this course described I was immediately enthralled. Everything I have read so far makes me sure it it will be an interesting experience. I am not a Facebook /Twitter user and am wondering if your blog will be the place to ask questions or make comments, or if there will be another vehicle for this purpose.

    • Bruce Holsinger on said:

      Glad to hear it! There will be forums set up within the class once it begins, so you won’t need to use Facebook or Twitter to contribute actively and frequently. We’re already having quite a lively exchange on Twitter two months in advance of the class, but it’s not required–just enjoyable!

  6. Susanne Kalejaiye on said:

    I just found the course on Cousera and signed up. This is a genre I like to read – haven’t, yet, read the authours covered in the course! I’ve also got 3/4 of a novel written set in 13th C Germany. Researching that has been a joy and delight, but so far I’ve avoided the plagues and witches. So I look forward to the course!

    • Bruce Holsinger on said:

      Thanks for posting, Susanne, and I’m glad you’re interested in the course. Where exactly is your novel set? Urban? Rural? In a monastery? Sounds great!

      • Susanne Kalejaiye on said:

        Sorry to be so delinquent in replying. I haven’t forgotten the course of this post, I just didn’t expect a reply! Thank you. my novel is set first just outside of Magdeburg, then moves to what used to be called Breslau in Poland. It’s a “first person” (woman) account of her life during the reign of Frederick II and his struggle with both the Vatican and his cousin to be the Holy Roman Emperor.

  7. Bill Camarda on said:

    Thank you for the immense amount of work you and your team are putting into making this course available for free beyond the walls of your institution. Through Coursera, I’ve had the privilege to participate in Prof. Jeremy Adelman’s A History of the World Since 1300 (Princeton); Prof. Michael Roth’s The Modern and the Post-Modern (Wesleyan); and Prof. Arnold Weinstein’s The Fiction of Relationship (Brown). These experiences have convinced me beyond a shadow of a doubt that the humanities can be taught wonderfully well through MOOC platforms; and that by doing so, the academy can create and build natural constituencies for the humanities that would not exist otherwise. I do not claim that MOOCs can do everything, but what they can do is extremely valuable. This is important work; again, thank you so much for doing it.

    • Bruce Holsinger on said:

      I appreciate the kind words, Bill. yes, it’s a lot of work, and it sounds like you’ve taken advantage of Coursera quite a bit over the last two years. I hope this course lives up to your expectations!

    • Jan Weaver on said:

      Glad to hear this Bill! I just signed up for PWW as well as A History of the World and I hope I’ll be able to keep them both up. What I like most about the Coursera format is the short videos and interspersed questions, and of course the sheer privilege of being able to undertake instruction from some of the world’s most respected academics. Thanks Bruce and I look forward to our MOOC’s first week.

  8. patlaidler@gmail.com on said:

    Looks like a great course. Looking forward to it.

  9. This is perfect for me. A subject I am passionate about as I love historical fiction, and the opportunity to trial a MOOC which will feed perfectly into my professional development and knowledge as I work in higher education in Australia and as you speak about MOOCs are very contentious, so I shall be able to gain first hand personal experience of a MOOC in an area that I love, and hopefully be able to provide some valuable insight of my experiences to my boss. Win-win

    • Bruce Holsinger on said:

      Glad to hear it, Tania. Geraldine Brooks is from Australia–she grew up near Sydney–so that will be a nice connection for you. Looking forward to your participation!

  10. Donna Schoeny on said:

    I am retired and looking forward to this course as a first attempt at online enrichment and intellectual stimulation. I have never used twitter but am willing to try. What book would you recommend to read first in preparation for the course?

    • Bruce Holsinger on said:

      Thanks for the comment, Donna. Keep in mind that the use of Twitter is not a course requirement–merely a way to establish contact before the course begins. We’ll also be interacting (again, optionally) with some other writers on Twitter streams, so I wanted everyone to have a chance to give it a whirl.

  11. Dawn Reno Langley on said:

    The organization of this course is impressive. I like the combination of reading works of historical fiction and learning about what it takes to write it. As an academic with a PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies, this type of course whets my appetite and makes me want to go back to college! I’m also a writer (though I haven’t written fiction that I would consider historical; the most “historical” is a novel set in 1957), so I’m excited about the guest lecturers you have invited, as well as by your own experiences within the genre. I’ve also talked to a few of my instructors and encouraged them to check out the course, thus we might have our own mini-discussions here on my campus. Thanks for offering this!

    • Bruce Holsinger on said:

      Thanks for the encouraging words about organization, Dawn. Perhaps you *have* written properly “historical” fiction: as I’ll point out in one of the lectures, Sir Walter Scott set Waverley sixty years before present–so you’re almost there! Let me know how the discussions on your own campus unfold: that would be a really interesting dimension to add.

      • Dawn Reno Langley on said:

        I’ve encouraged my faculty and staff to join this class, but I’m not sure if anyone has. We have a Read ‘n See Book Club and are currently reading The Girl with the Pearl Earring. Every year, we tie in our choice with an event that we have on campus that’s focused on the arts of another country/time. This year, we’re doing the Renaissance. However, I will be sharing what I learn with them –as well as with anyone who reads my FB blurbs. I’m also interested in knowing how my novels might be considered historical (one of them is set in 1957, so that’s a no-brainer, but the others are more contemporary). Really excited about this!

  12. Marcia Taylor on said:

    I look forward to this course with young eagerness, My brain, however has been around awhile. Could you see your way clear to providing the first couple of readings so I can hit the ground running when the course begins?
    I know that the best syllabi are mutable and am prepared for that. Your video introduction suggests that you teach for all the right reasons. We’ere in good hands.

    • Bruce Holsinger on said:

      Hi Marcia, I hope you saw the link to my most recent post for “Early Adopters”–you’ll find almost all the readings listed there.

  13. Joanne Clarey on said:

    As a writer and former English major I’m looking forward to this course. I recently published my tenth novel and first historical novel, Missing Amy, which takes place in New Hampshire in 1883, during the gilded age, an exciting time in the development of American politics, capitalism, civil rights, and social mores. I’m excited by the syllabus and the guest speakers.

    • Bruce Holsinger on said:

      Glad to have you in the class, Joanne. Please feel free to share your work with others enrolled in the course (through the forums, the Facebook page, etc.). One of the aspects of this course that I’m looking forward to is the participation of writers among the students: not just visiting writers I’ve invited, but active writers of historical fiction who are enrolled and interacting with aspiring writers and active readers in the genre. Hope it meets your expectations!

  14. Maybelle Wallis on said:

    Hi, I’m a writer from Birmingham UK, presently interested in early 18th C Europe, and I’m looking forward to this course. One of the questions which constantly perplexes me is how much to invent, how much to research, and how much to be influenced by other authors’ versions of the same events. I’m hoping you will be discussing this on the course.

    • Joanna Brierton on said:

      Hi Maybelle,
      That is so exciting that you are a writer! I have always wanted to write and have dabbled in short stories, poetry, etc. I have recently become interested in historical fiction and have the same exact questions you do- how to research, how much to invent, and also how to find other people’s recollections reputable. Writing is such an enormous undertaking when I have to work full time and raise my very active 12-year-old daughter. I hope to get a lot out of this class.
      Good Luck,
      Joanna

    • Bruce Holsinger on said:

      All great questions, and I’m thinking about them myself constantly. Glad you’re enrolled, and I hope you enjoy it.

  15. Temur Davronov on said:

    I can’t thank you enough for launching this great course, I enrolled the moment I read about it. I love reading books, however I read mostly Sci-Fi & Fantasy and through your course I hope to discover the world of historical fiction for myself. Apart from this, my dad is a poet and writer, who is known mostly throughout former Soviet Union and Turkic speaking countries. His name is Khurshid Davron, you may visit his page in English here: http://kh-davron.uz/files/eng/about.html
    He writes mostly historical fiction and I was planning to translate his novels into English, that’s why I’m sure that your course will help me to understand the language and spirit of historical fiction. I read your email sent to all students enrolled into this course and decided to open Twitter account, so hopefully we’ll be in touch before the start of the course!

    Once again thank you and I’m looking forward to having a great time while entering the domain of historical fiction!

    • Bruce Holsinger on said:

      Wow–thanks very much for that reference to Davron. I will definitely take a look. One of our guest scholars will be Gustavo Pellon, a great translator of Latin American historical fiction. If it would be helpful I could put you in touch with him as you’re thinking about translating your father’s work.

  16. Joanna Brierton on said:

    Hi everyone. Bruce, I am excited to be enrolled in this class. I had signed up for another Coursera class on poetry, but just could not wrap my head around some of the concepts, and unfortunately didn’t finish it. I have always been interested in historical fiction and would like to attempt to write something some day. Thanks for putting this course out there. I hope to get a lot out of it.

    • Bruce Holsinger on said:

      Thanks Joanna, and I hope this one meets your expectations! We have a very diverse reading list, so there should be something for everyone. I do hope students will push themselves to read difficult and unfamiliar writing. Glad to have you enrolled.

      • Joanna Brierton on said:

        Thanks. I have already started reading Year of Wonders and I’m really enjoying it. Thanks for posting the other stuff too. I am a head-start kind of girl :) .

        • Bruce Holsinger on said:

          I’m the same way! I hope the course lives up to your expectations and that you’ll keep checking back on the blog for various and sundry things–course-related and non.

  17. Bill Speer on said:

    Bruce, I just enrolled in the course and I look forward to the launch. I read a fair amount of historical fiction so I was hooked by the course title. I am enrolled in Modern and Contemporary Poetry (ModPo) which is led by Al Filreis at UPenn. Al is very active and passionate about the benefits of interactive, technology-based courses. I will be interested to see how you and the community of students in the course address the pedagogical issues of MOOCs.

  18. Olivia Diamond on said:

    I am glad that peer assessments are not part of your course. Having taken several MOOCCs already in the humanities, I found peer assessments did not contribute to the learning experience. This strikes me as the most exciting class I will be taking, outside of Al Fireis’s Modern & Contemporary Poetry, because I have a livelong passion for historical fiction and I have written a few works of historical fiction myself.

  19. Vikas Singh on said:

    I am delighted to have joined this course, a first for me as far as MOOCs is concerned. I must admit that I am a bit disappointed to see Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notredame and Dicken’s Christmas Carol missing from the list. Though a more recent phenomena, Dan Brown could have added interesting perspective to the course. Anyways, I am eagerly looking forward to having a great time with the course.

    • Bruce Holsinger on said:

      I hope it lives up to your expectations, Vikas! You know, I had Hugo on the syllabus until a few weeks ago but just had to take it off–it’s only an eight-week class and something had to go. But if you want to start a discussion thread on it in the forums I hope you’ll feel free to do so.

  20. Hello, Bruce and congratulations on this course, I look forward to it! I am a huge fan of historical fiction but unfortunately none of my friends or family seem to care for that sort of thing, so I have been feeling like an outcast. I am very glad I have found this course and your blog and I can’t wait to start reading. Will a complete list of books be available once the course starts or have you already posted it somewhere and I overlooked it?
    Thanks.

    • Bruce Holsinger on said:

      THanks for your comment! What you see on the blog post is pretty close to a complete list–I’ll refine it a bit, referring students to particular passages, chapters, etc., once the course starts, but there will be no significant additions. I hope you enjoy the class, and that it makes you feel less alienated!

  21. Angela Peñalva on said:

    I was really interested in the course because I love reading and writing. I am sure it will be a wonderful course, but my English knowledge is not so good to appreciate and to follow it. Literature is not genetics or physic or other field you don´t have to dominate the language so well.
    The best for all of you

    • Bruce Holsinger on said:

      You’d be surprised, Angela–we will be posting full transcripts of all video content, so anything you don’t get on the lectures and in the seminars will be available in writing. Worth a try, perhaps?

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