“[Rhetoric] seems to me then . . . to be a pursuit that is not a matter of art, but showing a shrewd, gallant spirit which has a natural bent for clever dealing with mankind, and I sum up its substance in the name flattery. . . . Well now, you have heard what I state rhetoric to be–the counterpart of cookery in the soul, acting here as that does on the body.”

Ahh, Plato, our old friend.

Yesterday was the first day of MOOCMOOC, a massive open online course devoted specifically to the topic of massive open online courses. Follow that link if you’d like to take a look–my understanding is that lurkers, observers, and hangers-on are welcome. Far as I can tell, there are a few hundred participants at the moment; other than posting an introduction and missing a Twitter social this evening, you won’t have missed much if you hop on in.

One of the values that I’ve already found is that the readings for each day provide so much more context for MOOCs than the infotisement columns that have been floating around lately, dutifully penned by those with a corporate stake in the success of a certain brand of MOOC. If you’re like me, you’ve gotten quickly tired of them. And by quickly, I mean that I now scroll to the bottom to check the identity of the author before I’ll even bother with paragraph 2. Anyhow. The readings for MOOCMOOC are refreshing in that respect. If you’re doing anything related to digital pedagogy for the upcoming semester, there are worse things that you could do than pulling together those resources for yourself and/or your students.

There’s an internal, winding path that took me from thinking about MOOCMOOC to the Plato quote above, not the least of which was the opportunity for the pun in my title–the MOOCs, they are fond of the puns. As I’ve been thinking about how I (should) feel about MOOCs, it did occur to me that, if I wanted to hop on the Plato side of things, I might dismiss them as “showing a shrewd, gallant spirit which has a natural bent for clever dealing with [humanity].” And I’m not sure that I blame folks for feeling that way. The way that MOOCs have been infotised to us lately does seem to imagine the world of education occupied by students, teachers, administrators, parents, governments, and employers. And you might be forgiven for imagining that the solution (MOOCs) proffered appears to be to take all of those stakeholders and to phase out the one group of people among them who (a) has some sort of professional stake in knowledge, and (b) has some sort of professional stake in education. And you might also be forgiven for imagining that by phasing out, they mean turning 0.003 percent of educators into “anchors” and the rest into glorified teaching assistants. After all, I’ve heard that offered as a serious model in the past, and no doubt will again. Having forgiven you for all of those assumptions, I could hardly blame a body for finding some resonance in Plato’s dismissal of rhetoric.

(There’s a part of me, too, that imagines the dystopia of the 1.3 million-member Comp 101 course, and my future career looking like a permanent seat at an AP Exam Grading session, complete with a clock to punch. Frankly, I’m not sure that there aren’t folks out there drooling over this possibility.)

I forget the place where I saw this and for that, I’m sorry. I’ve been reading so many pieces about MOOCs over the last few days that I finally sort of lost track. One of them, though, actually made the MOOC – cookery connection, in terms of the food culture that’s emerged in the U.S. over the past 10 or 15 years. [Edited to add the link.] There’s a sense in which the Food Network is massive, open, online, and educational–most folk don’t have the time or the inclination to attend culinary school (although there was a time in my life where I actually seriously considered it). You could argue that it’s not really possible to become a serious chef by watching Food Network, but then, not everyone’s after being a “serious chef.” And it’s not as though the Food Network makes it more difficult for actual chefs to find work (I don’t think). If anything, I’d argue that a lot of their shows have raised the level of food discourse and knowledge for a healthy percentage of people in the country, making it more likely that they will support quality establishments, rarer ingredients, organic food, etc. This is completely back-of-the-napkin on my part, but I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that food culture has shifted for the better in the wake of Food Network.

The other thing that strikes me here is that cookery isn’t a bad analogy with writing, because they’re both crafty (in both ways). There is a certain degree of unapologetic cleverness about each when they’re done well. But more to the point, they’re practiced, over and over, not absorbed. I can watch wall-to-wall Food Network, and that does less to make me a better cook than an hour spent in my mom’s kitchen over the holidays. I can easily think of circumstances where it’s been helpful for me to work in that kitchen, times when it was easier to test something out on my own or on friends (and sometimes fail), and times when I brought something to an expert for a tasting (I did a little baking when I was younger). Point is that there’s no one way to learn cooking, nor is there any one way to learn writing. Ideally, I’d hope the folks who come through my classroom are learning to write from as many sources as possible, as much as possible.

That doesn’t mean that I believe that writing courses can simply be ported to MOOCs, or that that kind of instructional model can take the place of everything we do. I do think, however, that it pushes us to consider how much of “learning to write” as it’s currently happening is actually “learning to write an essay,” and whether or not that’s the best way to approach things. To push my analogy further, it’s a little like saying that “learning to cook” actually means “learning to cook a roast.” You can improve your roast-cooking without ever touching one, by learning about ingredients, cooking time, managing your food prep, and some of that can be accomplished by watching Food Network shows (I imagine). More to the point, you can learn to cook (and I’d guess that many, many people do) without ever touching a roast, much less learning to cook one. Similarly, I can imagine MOOC experiences that would help students practice and develop the skills that they need to become better writers, regardless of whether or not they’re writing “essays.”

And that’s kind of where I’m at right now. I’m setting aside my (earned!) suspicion for the week, and trying to imagine what might be gained by students and teachers alike if a MOOC were done well and centered around questions of literacies, communication, and discourse. I’ll probably watch an episode or two of Chopped, too.


Addendum: Pamela Hironymi, “Don’t Confuse Technology with College Teaching,” in today’s CHE:

As someone who spends time with students in directed conversations on difficult subjects, I’m sure the online model won’t work. We will, instead, produce graduates who cast assumptions they’ve never really questioned into grammatically correct slogans, and the sloganeers with the catchiest phrases, the most confidence, and the most money will shape the future.

That sounds a little familiar.