Margaret Soltan’s Online Poetry Course.

8 Apr

Margaret Soltan’s online poetry course for Udemy is yet another project that fuels my conviction that the principle achievement of the Digital Humanities pertains primarily to the recognition that digital and information technology can be used to enable what are still largely traditional approaches to the teaching of the humanities.  The main draw of an online course like Professor Soltan’s is that it makes information and the experience of learning about literature from an informed source available to a wider range of people than would have previously been possible.  The main drawback of such a course is that it lacks a sufficiently communal atmosphere.  Though communication with the professor via email or online chat is possible, the one-on-one, face-to-face interaction enabled by a traditional classroom setting is simply not possible, to say nothing of the student camaraderie commonly found in especially vigorous class discussions.  As is always the case, the experience is made more distant, even alienating, once it is expanded to a certain point.  The internet in essence allows the whole world to be a classroom, and while, as near as I can tell, no information as such is lost in the transition from real space to cyberspace, the experience of receiving the information is more distant, and the process of communication is both more distant and delayed.  

Soltan’s course involves the reading, discussion, and interpretation of poetry, and is organized along 16 sections totaling to 19 lectures.  The focus is on modern poetry, mostly written in English, though some non-English poems are discussed in translation.  The poets featured include Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, TS Eliot, Paul Valery, WH Auden, among others.  The recorded lectures mostly consist of Professor Soltan reading a lecture revolving around a specific topic, such as the analysis of a particular poem, general concerns governing the analysis and evaluation of poetry, and critical principles.  The course’s governing inquiry is the definition of poetry, and how it can be understood.  One of the more refreshing attributes of Professor Soltan’s course is the fact that it fosters in students a critical faculty- Professor Soltan actually wants her students to distinguish good poems from bad ones.  This is something which the casual reader does as a matter of course (of course) and it traditionally has been a feature of the academy as well, but the arrival of post-structuralist theory and the ultimate privileging of the pursuit of cultural patterns and the mysteries of textuality has meant that simply ascertaining a literary work’s quality and speculating how the author achieved (or did not achieve) that quality has fallen by the wayside in recent decades.  Incidentally, the Digital Humanities in its most ambitious forms have not promised to fundamentally alter this state of affairs, though it does offer the possibility of driving the pursuit of patterns to its logical conclusion; as N. Katherine Hayles wrote, “The unsettling implications of ‘machine reading’ can be construed as pointing towards a post-human mode of scholarship in which human interpretation takes a back seat to algorithmic processes.”  In short, it has the potential to eliminate the pleasures of ambiguity that are commonly thought of as intrinsic to the discipline.  On the other hand, this is only a potentiality.  The Digital Humanities may very well prove to be more expansive than that, as indicated by Stephen Ramsay when he wrote, “Why in the world would we want the computer to settle questions?”  They should be opening new critical possibilities, developing new theoretical models, and otherwise expanding the range of humanities scholarship.  The reason some of the more difficult questions surrounding the Digital Humanities refuse to go away, I believe, has to do with the nature of the computer itself.  It is principally, nay, entirely, a symbol-manipulating, pattern-analyzing instrument.  The study of literature and culture should not be reduced to the instrumentality of its tools.  One of the promising aspects of Soltan’s project is that the tool of the computer expands the tradition in an inspiring, democratic manner.  This is the digital humanities as lecture platform, a medium of communication as opposed to a method of analysis.  One thing the computer does for literature whether it is being used as a tool of communication or a tool of analysis is significantly expand the scale of any project being done.  Whether it be a larger lecture audience or a larger pool of data, one thing that I think we can confidently pronounce about the Digital Humanities is that it has permanently changed the scale of our inquiries. 




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