MOOCs – learning by experience

by Paul Maharg on 06/02/2014

What’s it like to study a MOOC?  Well, you could read the studies, listen to students — but what’s maybe best of all, you could take part in one yourself.  Which is what I did about six months ago — I joined a Harvard MOOC,  The Ancient Greek Hero, me and about 36,000 others.  So what was it like?

I enjoyed learning about Homeric texts and heroic representation in Greek art, from Gregory Nagy, other speakers and other learners on the forums.  I found some of it moving; I recalled earlier learning, in Greek and Latin as a schoolboy, in Greek Civilisation & Ancient Near Eastern History minors as an undergrad (for me, in Plato’s lovely phrase, learning was remembering).  It was also moving to read how much other learners, who had no experience of HE, enjoyed the MOOC, and to see them coming to an understanding of a culture wholly different from their own.

Discussion on the forums was uneven and slipped off topic a lot.  The pace was glacial.  But it meant that I could dip in and out, range around,  explore, do the day jobs.  The central resources were absorbing, particularly Nagy’s close readings of texts and the interdisciplinary discussions of Greek art & history.  His emphasis on how to ‘slow-read’ a text was a necessary basic discipline for anyone unused to detailed study of ancient texts, and since there were no prerequisites for entry to the course, this meant quite a lot of fellow-students; and he carried it off well, brimming with enthusiasm for the task but not underplaying the difficulty of it:

The true hero of the course is the logos (“word”) of reasoned expression, as activated by Socratic dialogue. The logos of dialogue requires both careful thought and close (or “slow”) reading, which is a core skill taught in this class. The course begins by considering the heroes of Homer’s epics and ends with Plato’s memories of the final days of Socrates — memories which can only be fully understood by a reader who has gained a thorough comprehension of the ancient Greek hero in all his or her various manifestations.

Sometimes the so-called seminars were stagey — eg Nagy talking to someone as if she were a student (I think she was actually one of the edX organisers), socratic in all the wrong ways.  But the MOOC has made me start to re-read the Homeric literature and look out its critical literature, and nearly 40 years after those first undergrad minors, I’m reading with fresh eyes.  And recalling what I liked first time around.

Two memories came to mind.  The first was a throwaway comment by a lecturer in a class on Greek Civilisation at Glasgow University, years ago, on Alexander’s campaigns.  He apparently went into battle wearing a linen tunic.  It seemed unbelievable.  I’d already been puzzled by this in a passage from Plutarch’s Life of Alexander we were translating in school.  Before Gaugamela, Plutarch describes Alexander’s armour in detail — it’s a rhetorical device used in the Iliad, where heroes’ armour is described in detail, particularly Achilles’ armour (and Alexander of course hero-worshipped Achilles).  So what does he wear on his torso?  Plutarch calls it a linen corselet that was heavily quilted.  No metal?  Apparently not – but recently Aldrete, Bartell & Aldrete have analysed the linothorax tunic, and shown how effective it is as armour, particularly in hot and dry conditions.  See here for their students getting involved in the project (including a cut-out-and-keep template for making your own linothorax) — and see especially the last photo at the foot of the page, with an arrow shot at and embedded in the armour as it was being worn by a student.  Now that’s taking your research data seriously.

The second was an altogether darker scene.  One of the translation tasks that I remembered from Greek classes at school wasn’t a particularly graceful piece of prose or poetry.  It was Arrian’s description of Alexander’s ruthless treatment of an older general, Parmenion, whose army commanded the supply lines through Media back to Greece.  Parmenion’s son, Philotas, campaigning with Alexander, was suspected of being implicated in a plot to kill the king, condemned by the army and executed.  There was no proof of Parmenion’s part in the plot but Alexander  sends two assassins back to murder Parmenion, and before word of his son’s execution can reach him.  The two travel by night and day, by camel, and the ghostly, moonlit, treacherous ride stayed in my memory.  And the question, how could Alexander do that to the older man, trusted by Philip and Alexander in turn?  Later, I read that the king, to ensure performance by Polydamas, one of the assassins who was known to like Parmenion, had detained his sons as hostages.

It was a lesson in the utter savagery of heroics, right enough.  I remembered it later, when as an adult educator I put together a course in sources of English literature, one of which was the Iliad, and compared translations.  I chose Book 16, comparing Alexander Pope’s version in rhyming couplets, EV Rieu’s Penguin Classics prose version, and Christopher Logue’s free verse adaptation.  I guess that what I missed from this MOOC was the sense of ruthless ambition, the bitter politics and pathological violence, and the lamentation (all of which apply to Socrates’ society as to Achilles’) .  It’s there, but often mitigated.  Logue’s translation, praised for its depiction of battle violence, catches the mourning also, in quietly elegiac passages.  Eg Zeus, on the death of his son Sarpedon, killed by Patroclus in battle, and even as the Greeks and Trojans are fighting over the corpse to claim it, instructs Apollo to save his body from humiliation and deliver it to Sarpedon’s people in Lycia:

       And Apollo took Sarpedon out of range,
And clarified his wounds with mountain water.
Moistened his body with tinctures of white myrrh
And the sleeping iodine, and when the chrysms had dried
The Mousegod folded him in minivers that never wear
And lint that never fades,
And fetched the two blind footmen, Sleep and Death,
And saw they carried him, as fits a man
Before whose memory the stones shall fade,
To Lycia by Taurus.[1]


  1. [1] Logue, C. (1962).  Patrocleia.  Book XVI of Homer’s Iliad.  London, Scorpion Press, 29.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Kristoffer Greaves February 6, 2014 at 08:57

Nice post, Paul. I am inspired to try a MOOC to improve my understanding of some key areas.


2 Paul Maharg February 11, 2014 at 03:45

Thanks Kris. I’d recommend it to anyone wanting to know more about MOOCs. They can be more personalised forms of learning than courses that are more dependent on more rigorous pacing and structure.


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