Alumni Study Poetry by the Internet
If you have ever wished that you could revisit Penn - take a course, meet other alumni, consider new questions and topics - all without leaving home, this spring you got your wish. All you needed was a computer, a modem, and access to the Internet. On behalf of the General Alumni Society, Dr. Alan Filreis of the Department of English "taught" (his quotation marks) a course in Modern and Contemporary American Poetry over the Internet. The course was specifically designed for interested alumni. It was advertised in the Pennsylvania Gazette, and enrollment required only sending an e-mail message to a given address, along with a little information about the person enrolling. There were to be no papers or exams and no grading of what people learned.
Participants were placed on an electronic mailing list and received weekly e-mailings of short poems and topics for discussion. Dr. Filreis was a contributor, but whether the assigned poem was by Emily Dickinson or Wallace Stevens, the alumni themselves were responsible for the range and liveliness of the discussion. The existence of this "passionately intellectual community" waiting to come to grips with challenging topics was a surprise, Filreis admits. He had hoped to give Penn alumni a way to get actively involved with the University again and was delighted by the eagerness and thoughtfulness of the responses.
When the course was first offered, over 160 people signed up. This made for a daunting early flood of e-mail messages. However, as the weeks went by, the number of regular discussants dropped and active participation became more manageable. Some enrollees admitted to "lurking," that is, to reading the assignments and enjoying the comments but rarely if ever adding comments of their own. Others rejoiced in the relative anonymity that the electronic medium gave to their remarks. For example, a vascular surgeon declared that the course has allowed him to comment on things "I would never have had the courage to speak about in a live forum. I have been intimidated my entire life by the 'mind merchants' that dominated these courses in college. Now...I can speak my mind without fear." (Alums are identified here as they chose to identify themselves).
Jennifer Stein added that anonymity means that "no one can 'stereotype' you as having a certain viewpoint, one of several advantages to electronic communication. For Joe, however, that very inability "to link a person with a series of their comments" and get a sense of a coherent personality "with a distinct point of view" was a little frustrating. "Real-time chats" would have helped the problem, in his view. Nearly all the participants found the course a wonderfully refreshing change from their busy workaday worlds and a reminder of what they had enjoyed about Penn. As Robert Shepard (C/G'83) put it, "It's a thrill to walk into my office in San Francisco each morning and realize that a part of me is back in Bennett Hall." Two high school teachers, however - one teaching math and one English - used the course materials to intrigue and enlighten their own students.
Most of the respondents said they would like to take more courses electronically, and several had suggestions for the kinds of offerings they would like to see on the Net. As one remarked, however, modern poetry makes an ideal subject matter since the readings are short and easy to send out electronically. Treatises on diplomatic history would be considerably harder to share! (Alumni will be offered new courses via the Internet; selections for both the fall and spring semesters are being made now.)
Perhaps the dominant impression that emerged from this first course aimed specifically at alumni was of people having fun, doing something for the sheer pleasure of it. Judith Kritzberg (CW'62) observed that "the participants in this course are eager to continue their education for the joy of learning and thinking. It speaks well of Penn's education that so many...of us are participating in this with no reward other than the pleasure we get."
It's a view shared by Alan Filreis. He now goes back from his virtual to his actual classroom with a stronger conviction that all those undergraduates truly are "at the beginning of an educational process that will last a lifetime."
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