The UPenn / Coursera / Al Fireis MOOC ModPo opens for another session next week. ModPo = Modern and Contemporary America Poetry. The 10-week course starts out with proto-modernists Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, then moves on through William Carlos Williams, the Imagists, Gertrude Stein, the Beats, and much more. Picasso and Marcel Duchamp get a look-in; T. S. Eliot barely gets mentioned (!)

I love this course. ClassCentral recently published a list of their highest rated MOOCs of all time, and ModPo came in at number 2, just under An Introduction to Interactive Programming in Python (Part 1).

What’s so great about it? Let me count the ways…

It makes difficult poetry accessible

I never used to have much patience for poetry. If a poem didn’t make sense to me the first time, I’d turn the page. Three of those and I’d close the book.

It turns out that if you take the effort to tear a poem apart word by word, it gets better. There’s almost always more going on than meets the eye. I should have known this, because this is how they taught us poetry for GCSE English Lit. But the analysis of poetry that we did at school always felt dry and formulaic. Spot the alliteration; state the effect it has on the reader. Spot some other poetic technique; state the effect it has.

Maybe it was because no-one was really interested in analysing poetry except the teacher. Or maybe it was because I was too young to appreciate the supposed beauty of Seamus Heaney digging up some potatoes. Whatever the reason, I didn’t get it.

In my late teens I started reading the Beats and a few other poets (e.e. cummings, T. S. Eliot) but most poetry books I opened seemed vague, weird, opaque and inaccessible.

Al Fireis runs ModPo with a couple of general methods that mitigate against this. One: admit that the material is difficult but encourage people to stick with it. Two: demonstrate that the material is difficult by showing smart people struggling with it. Three: model the kind of techniques we might want to use when analysing a poem.


All of this takes place in seminar-style course videos, which show Al dissecting poems with his teaching assistants sitting either side of him, contributing to the seminar as students. The whole thing is filmed in a cinéma vérité / U.S. courtroom style: one camera panning left to right, zooming in on people when they speak. It seems like almost no sections are edited out, and maybe for this reason, it’s compelling. The camera shines a harsh and unforgiving light on a group of brave people who have volunteered to be students in front of an audience of thousands. I have a lot of respect for the TAs for taking part like this. But it’s worth it: they ultimately make the course what it is. Fireis has a phrase, “The wisdom is in the room”. He means that a group can unpick a poem better than an individual. This is why the filmed seminar format works so well for this course, and why it’s so much more appropriate than having straight video lectures. The course wouldn’t be anything special if the videos were polished pieces to camera, Al talking directly to the viewer. The poetic analysis we see happening in the seminars is Socratic; it comes about through dialogue between the teacher and the students. Students put forward ideas and the teacher shows them where those ideas might lead. If they’re good ideas, they go somewhere. Not-so-good ideas don’t get very far.


ModPo encourages participation. The pedagogy is something like this:

1) Watch a video of people discussing a poem.

2) Get the urge to take part (“I want to be in that room!”)

3) Realise you can’t take part, because it’s a video.

4) Share your ideas on the discussion forum.

This works pretty well. The videos model the kind of analysis you’re expected to practise in the forums. All you have to do is imitate the kind of behaviour you’ve been watching.


The MOOC has a sense of taking place in a defined spatial location. I was surprised at how much this improved my experience of it. The discussions take place in the Kelly Writer’s House on the UPenn campus in Philadelphia, and every video starts with an exterior shot of the house. In one video, Al takes us on a tour of the house; all the teaching assistants are there hanging out and reading poetry in different rooms. We learn that anyone can show up at the house and have some food. They have authors come and give readings. We’re even invited to visit as ModPo students!

I really like the message this conveys. I take it as it’s intended: underlining the “open” in Massive Open Online Courses. However, it’s worth considering an alternative take on this by Jeremy Knox, in his book Posthumanism and the Massive Open Online Course. Knox thinks it’s more complicated than that – Al Fireis knows that most people taking ModPo can’t actually get on a plane and visit Philadelphia. On top of this, the veneration of the Kelly Writer’s House reinforces its exclusivity, as if you get a better quality of poetic understanding simply by being in a university building. Knox also argues that an unintended consequence of celebrating the House – a physical embodiment of Dickinson’s House of Possibility – is that MOOC participants feel deprived. It sets you up to compare the vibrant atmosphere depicted on the screen with your own situation as a MOOC student, sitting alone in your flat, your face illuminated with the blue light from your laptop screen.

I’d have more time for this interpretation if I felt the invitations from Al were disingenuous. But I don’t – I think Al is genuinely inviting thousands of people to visit the Kelly Writer’s House if they happen to be in the area. He’s visibly in love with that damn house, like a proud parent. I don’t begrudge him wanting people to come visit. His enthusiasm for the MOOC cohort, and the place in which it’s located, makes the course as a whole warm and welcoming. Al wants us to feel part of the cohort, going so far as to coin the word “ModPoers”. This is unusual in the world of MOOCs, where students are often referred to through the screen as individuals (the singular “you”), or worse, not referred to at all. Imagined communities is my favourite concept to make sense of this.

Even if you’ve only got a slight interest in poetry, I’d recommend giving ModPo a shot. If you make online courses, have a look and see if you like the teaching style. I think it works; it’s confident, different, and draws you in. That’s less common for MOOCs than it should be.

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