December 2012

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Online and Thriving

Gertrude Stein, are you listening? Over 35,000 people worldwide are enrolled in a course on modern poetry that pivots on your work.


In September 2012, Coursera, a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) company offering free online courses taught by some of the best teachers in the United States, offered a ten-week Modern Poetry course developed and led by University of Pennsylvania professor Al Filreis. The course begins with Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman but quickly (week 2) moves to such poets influenced by Dickinson and Whitman as William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, and Rae Armatrout. While week 3 ventures into the Imagism of Ezra Pound, Pound's acolyte H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), and a more comprehensive look at Williams, week 4 spends significant time on Stein while showing the edges of experimentalism with a look at some extreme experimenters like the Baroness Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven and Tristan Tzara.

The Steiny Road Poet, who is actively participating in the ModPo course, interviewed the gregarious but busy Al Filreis by telephone on November 1, 2012. Wasting no time, the Steiny Poet asked the professor to talk about the role Stein plays in teaching this course. The professor laughed and said, "Wow, what a question." Then, he continued,  


"Stein is the first moment in our course when students are confronted with the stark realization that semantic meaning—that storytelling, that narrative, that description and depiction are not going to be helpful. When you read the experimental writing of H.D. or William Carlos Williams or before that, Dickinson, you can always cling to the hope that you can get the meaning from it—the semantic meaning, the story—but when you get to Stein you are finally confronted with an experimental way of presenting language."  

Filreis added that for most students of modern poetry, Stein is the first time as adults that they have ever confronted this emphasis on language versus narrative meaning. al_filreis-crHe clarified by saying it's the first time, except for listening to baby babble, that these students have confronted language without semantic meaning. And yes, Dear Reader, he acknowledged that Stein's critics and detractors "accused her of doing babytalk." He says this acknowledgement is not meant to "condescend" to Stein. His point is "once we move out of babyhood and start putting words together we are socialized to mean denotative, descriptive, semantic things with our words. We lose the pure joy of expression without referential or depictive meaning."  

What does this mean relative to how the course turns on the introduction of Stein's work? "This is a great moment in the course where students are confronted with this alternative way of seeing language. It's a revelatory moment."


Here the Steiny Poet interrupted the good professor by saying she noted that he introduced Stein as gently as possible taking a political position to sell the great Modernist's work. Filreis said he didn't know if his approach to teaching was political. Then he interrupted himself to consider this word saying "when we say political we jump to the highest level of discussion. Let's try a couple of other words first. Pedagogically, I have to soft sell it [Stein's work]. I have to lower expectations. I have to say—it's going to be really hard. I don't know if we can do this— because there are a lot of detractors lying in wait."


Filreis has been through teaching Stein many times and he knows the folded arms he is up against. He said he needs to help people relax, but also convince them to work harder. He wants his students to become better "linguistic citizens" and to do at least 50% of the work. He makes this argument using what denizens of the world expect of newspapers. "We expect that our newspaper delivers to us something that is ready to understand and doesn't require any work. The newspaper does 90% of the work and we do 10%." Off the cuff, Filreis suggested, but not with certainty, that reading Stein requires 75% effort from the student. He said of this comment, "that's not fair to Stein but you know what I mean."


One of the aspects of ModPo that particularly attracted the Steiny Road Poet is how Stein and contemporary poetry would be taught. Filreis said that he "hoped one of the charms of ModPo is the mode" of teaching this course. He calls this method meta-pedagogy. "The course has to be taught in a way that it is commensurate with the material." He offered this "far afield" example, saying if his job were to teach the history of Fascism in order to dissuade students from becoming Fascists and he taught the course by lecturing, telling his students what to think, his teaching style would be incommensurate with the authoritarianism that gave rise to Fascism in the first place.

"There's something we might call an anti-Fascist pedagogy that even in a MOOC induces a student to work hard and grapple with material they don't get [and] with a teacher who is not lecturing but encouraging discussion. The reason ModPo has caught on is that people are discovering the mode of the course is exactly the point we are suppose to learn about the poetry." Yes, Dear Reader, this is where the Internet and social networking come into play. Gertrude Stein's promotion of "talking and listening" is translated and facilitated by online discussion chat rooms, tweets, and Facebook updates. ModPo students worldwide talk to each other, the professor, and his teaching assistants through these methods.  

Numerous live web broadcasts for the purpose of answering questions all help to make to make ModPo intimate, as if a student was sitting at the table with professor Al and his TAs whose preferences and personalities the students come to enjoy in their own educational reality show. Recently when TA Ali Castleman wasn't at the table for a couple of videos and a live webcast, the discussion forums were buzzing about where she was and would she be coming back.

Week five of the syllabus deals with antimodernists including Communist poets, Harlem Renaissance poets, and formalists including Robert Frost, Richard Wilbur, and X. J. Kennedy.  Weeks six and seven move back to the experimentation of Beat writers (e.g. Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac) and the New York School (e.g. Frank O'Hara and Kenneth Koch).  From week six, Gertrude Stein's influence starts to emerge until more clear influence surfaces in the eighth, ninth, and tenth weeks where L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E, chance, conceptualism, and unoriginality poetry is presented. Prof Al said in his introduction to the course that students should fasten their seatbelts in order to ride out the storm these contemporary writers stir up.

When asked how many students are staying with the course, Filreis said, "It is hard to tell but of the 35,000 registered for the course, probably about 20,000 connected with the course in any significant way ever. Probably about 10,000 at certain times have been active. I would say there is a core of 6,000 who are grappling with it every day. Most folks want to spend a day of maybe three to four hours and that's fine, but I'm not counting them in that 6,000 who are living breathing it."

Filreis said he plans to teach this same course again in September 2013. There may be a few poems that are different but essentially it will be the same as ModPo 1. He has been teaching and tweaking this class for the University of Pennsylvania for some years and along the way he has learned a lot about how to bring resistant students into the fold. The live class too has its online aspect but the for-credit course with live private access to the professor has a slightly different syllabus and a price tag of something under $2,000.  ModPo 1 will be open to those who registered by November 19, 2012 and until ModPo 2 comes online. Those who already took the course will be encouraged to take it again and help others experiencing it for the first time.



So what did the Steiny Road Poet learn about Stein? She learned that it is possible to do a close read on difficult poems like Tender Buttons, that the collaborative approach gathers energy and excitement. Take, for example,  


What is the current that makes machinery, that makes it crackle, what is the current that presents a long line and a necessary waist. What is this current.  

What is the wind, what is it.  

Where is the serene length, it is there and a dark place is not a dark place, only a white and red are black, only a yellow and green are blue, a pink is scarlet, a bow is every color. A line distinguishes it. A line just distinguishes it.  —Gertrude Stein from "Objects" in Tender Buttons


The ModPo discussion between the TAs and professor yielded such ideas as: the machinery is a sewing machine, maybe in a dress factory like the Shirtwaist Triangle Factory. This factory burned down in 1911. Stein wrote Tender Buttons in 1912.


Al Filreis said he wants his student to walk away from ModPo with these three ideas:

First and most importantly, to see value in collaborative learning. He hopes his students will "proselytize" this idea wherever they go.

Second to look hard at the language we use and "go beyond their fathers' sayings as Frost puts it." Filreis wants his students to stop assuming but work through the language to discover what is there.

Lastly to love modern poetry and to read more of it.

The Steiny Road Poet has always said that when you go into the woods, go with your tribe. And she knows collaboration has it pitfalls but for learning how to navigate modern and contemporary poetry, what professor Al Filreis offers in his ModPo curriculum has been an enriching experience.  

While not every poet is there (e.g. just a whiff of Wallace Stevens and no Marianne Moore), consider this forum a toolbox for building your own house of poets and poetry. So Gertrude Stein, are you finding sanctuary in these new buildings?

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©2012 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2012 Publication Scene4 Magazine


Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier
Karren LaLonde Alenier is the author of five collections of poetry and, recently, The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas and she is a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
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