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I did it! I finished a MOOC.

I submitted my final project for “POPX1.1x The Rise of Superheroes and Their Impact On Pop Culture.” I paid for the verified certificate, so – fingers crossed – my project was acceptable. (We had to create a superhero, along with three panels of a comic. The verified certificate includes comic artwork signed by Stan Lee.) Perhaps I should wait until I get my “grade” to leave feedback…

The course, offered via SmithsonianX, was taught by Michael Uslan, best known as a producer for all the modern Batman movies and, according to his Wikipedia page at least, as the first person to teach an accredited course on “on the serious study of comic books.”

“The Rise of Superheroes” was enjoyable enough, don’t get me wrong. (I finished after all, right?) It offered a peek into the Smithsonian’s sizable comics archive. And there were lengthy interviews with Stan Lee – who, I confess, I found to be incredibly endearing – on the history of the industry and his own involvement in it.

But it was not a “serious study of comic books.” It was not academically rigorous; it was not a substitute for or even a version of a college course – not even a 100-level one. (It was offered by the Smithsonian, and I suppose you could argue that, as such, it was never meant to be.) The course provided a pretty straightforward account of “the rise of superheroes” in comics – decade by decade how the industry was born and grew from the Golden Age to the Silver Age, and how it was shaped by The Big Issues of the day. There was no required reading for the course (other than the explanatory text that slightly expanded upon each week’s video lectures). We weren’t even required to read a comic book, let alone any theory or analysis.

And it’s not that pop culture classes can’t be demanding. (I’d like to think mine were when I taught.) To the contrary, the study of popular culture – “cultural studies” broadly speaking – has its own intellectual history that can be, at times, densely theoretical. It’s actually one of the things that I found quite rewarding about teaching classes on popular culture: you can crack open some pretty challenging ideas because students often already feel quite comfortable talking about media. Cultural studies gives them a richer, deeper vocabulary and analytical and theoretical lenses to do so.

But my concern isn’t so much that this particular course was pop culture studies “lite.” (For what it’s worth, the syllabus for the SmithsonianX course looks quite similar to this one being offered via Coursera.) Rather, I worry that MOOCs will increasingly deliver all studies in a similarly “lite” version, that MOOCs will be unlikely to provide much critical analysis or equip students to develop any, particularly on topics where there are passionate feelings or entrenched opinions.

I can’t help but wonder if this particular course treated comics or superheroes carefully (blandly) for fear of upsetting powerful brands and a powerful fandom. But more generally, I wonder if MOOCs will systematically avoid anything controversial for fear of upsetting the Internet.

I wrote about this briefly in my 2014 review of the year in MOOCs as there were several examples of courses whose discussion forums descended into “flame wars,” as small groups of students tried to hijack the conversation and disrupt the class. Such was the case with the Coursera course “Constitutional Struggles in the Muslim World” for example, where the class discussion “‘very quickly disintegrated into a snakepit of personal venom, religious bigotry and thinly disguised calls for violence.’ But some students have accused [the professor] of abusive and tyrannical behavior in his attempts to restore civility.” In an interview with the Times Higher Education, the professor Ebrahim Afsah said the course ”‘attracted a number of people who…were out there to harm, to insult and to disrupt the learning process.’ Such students were first warned publicly and, if they failed to rectify their behaviour, banned from future discussions. This approach was ‘against the recommendations of Coursera.’"

As I’ve noted before, some of this is (obviously) the culture of the Internet – racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, jingoistic, etc. But some of this is the technology itself – the design, the mechanisms of discussion forums that serve to augment rage and not inquiry.

Can you have intellectual vulnerability and/or insurgency in a MOOC? (In a Coursera/Udacity/edX MOOC, to be clear.)

Back in December, I wondered how these incidents of “flame wars” in MOOCs might be connected to the media’s fascination by “trigger warnings” on syllabus and if all of the latter would have a chilling effect on education online and off-. I still think it’s worth asking: what sorts of topics will the major MOOC providers and their university partners want to explore as, let’s be honest, so many of these classes serve mostly as PR.

The media has continued to play up trigger warnings this year, and Vox recently ran a ridiculous op-ed lately suggesting that (liberal) professors were “terrified” by their (liberal) students. The media-driven narrative at least: that students don’t want and can’t handle difficult, upsetting, challenging material.

It’s a narrative that I think is worth unpacking because it involves a notion of seeing students as customers who incredibly fragile and who are always right. It positions the student as all-powerful – and I simply do not think that’s true. (“The student,” to be clear, is not the same as “The Internet.” It’s funny how MOOCs and our desire to frame everyone as a “lifelong learner” muddy this.)

This narrative involves too this long-running right-wing talking point that higher education is full of liberal professors who want to indoctrinate students with their leftist ideas. (Reminder: David Horowitz – perhaps the best known voice of this argument – is the father of Ben Horowtiz, co-founder of VC firm Andreessen-Horowitz and investor in, among other ed-tech startups, Udacity. See also: “How Online Education Can Save Conservatism” by the right-wing think-tank Heartland Institute.)

The MOOC feels like an obvious place to introduce a curriculum that’s easier, more popular, more empty – all the while insisting that it’s more democratic. And while some of the hype about MOOCs replacing local course offerings has died down, I still think it’s worth questioning what that replacement would look like, particularly if MOOCs are going to be so intellectually bland.

I’ve heard, for example, that we only really need one Intro to Shakespeare class – that such a thing could be offered via MOOC by one amazing super-professor. Admittedly, I choose the Bard here because I took an introductory class on Shakespeare (and as I learned later queer theory) from Jonathan Goldberg that blew my mind. It’s one of the few undergraduate classes that I remember vividly several decades later – I think we gave him a standing ovation at the end of the semester because his lectures were that incredible – as the class was deeply deeply challenging. It took material that I thought I knew and that I thought I understood and that I really did love – Shakespeare! – and it pushed me to think and rethink. The graduate teaching assistants were clearly uncomfortable (bless their hearts) and they helped us to understand that, while Professor Goldberg had argued that Romeo and Mercutio might have been bedfellows (lovers?) and that Portia’s sword was a strap-on phallus that there were other, equally valid interpretations. We could do things with history and culture and text as long as we supported our arguments with text and culture and history.

“The Rise of Superheroes and Their Impact On Pop Culture” could have done that too. Comics are, as the course alluded to, such an interesting part of American popular culture and history throughout the twentieth century. I recently used Wonder Woman in a talk, for example, about the history of teaching machines and educational psychology. I built on text and culture and history and other scholars’ work. (Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman is one of the finest examples of popular culture studies I've read in recent years.) And yet, I couldn’t help but notice that every time Wonder Woman was invoked in this MOOC on superheroes, she was a joke; her creator Charles Marston’s psychological experiments and his connection to women’s rights, hardly even worthy of a humorous aside.

My fear: the treatment of Wonder Woman in “The Rise of Superheroes and Their Impact On Pop Culture” is symbolic of how all topics will be treated by popular MOOCs. We’ll get tittering, but no theory. Lots of tits and ass – if that’s what the Internet wants, right? – but very little critical analysis. And that's what some hope is the future of higher education.

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Audrey Watters


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