To Dwell in Possibilities-Back to School with the Coursera

By Octavia McBride-Ahebee


“N., thank you so much for your recommendations of the two Mahmoud Darwish poems. I am looking forward to discovering them. You mentioned how I might so appreciate Darwish without speaking Arabic. I love writers who emanate from everywhere and I have to rely on translators and I have developed equal passion for both the writers I love and the translators of their work. For example, I adore translator Edith Grossman as much as I adore Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Carlos Fuentes. For Darwish, I like the translator Fady Joudah.

This class, even before it has started, is proving to be quite amazing.”


So begins an exchange into my first odyssey into one virtual classroom of over 30,000 students who dare to dwell in the possibilities that a modern and contemporary American poetry course might offer.  


Led by University of Pennsylvania professor Al Filreis and his enthusiastic cohort of TA’s, this course of American poetry, now known affectionately to its takers as ModPo, is part of a grand and equalitarian experiment powered by the social entrepreneurship company   Coursera.   And I am smack in the middle of it and on fire.


Coursera provides the conduit for universities like Penn, Princeton, Stanford, John Hopkins, University of Michigan, and the University of California at Berkley-, to name a few, to offer an array of courses online to anyone in the world, with access to a computer and the courses are absolutely free.  Courses range from An Introduction to Mathematical Thinking, Securing Digital Democracy, A History of the World since 1300,  Greek and Roman Mythology,  Community Change in Public Health, Neuroethics,  Calculus,  Philosophy and more than 100 other courses.


Though I am a practicing poet and I am, like I tell my elementary students, on a constant journey of learning.  Each year I infuse my classroom with the likes of Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, Lucille Clifton and so many others.  I am overjoyed to be a member of Coursera’s Modern and Contemporary American Poetry class because it means I will bring something new and enlightening to both my students and myself.


My course officially opened today,  though  ModPo students had earlier created a Facebook page and the exchanges there tell the real power of this experiment; of when the world is invited to come together to explore a topic and share ideas.  Already, I have read the comments from ModPo classmates from Egypt, South Africa, Brazil, Ukraine, Thailand, Canada, Chile, Australia, Russia, India, Germany and from across the Ben Franklin Bridge.   


Though the focus ModPo will be American poets, starting with the Belle from Amherst, Emily Dickinson, I have already been introduced to poetry from around the world starting with a suggestion to read two poems by Palestinian writer Mahmoud Darwish, as well as the work of Nicaraguan, Czech and Canadian poets.


I think it goes without saying that the majority of those who are able to avail themselves of this experiment are privileged just by the fact they have internet access.  So, the real test of

such a project like Coursera is how we, the advantaged, campaign and lobby and involve ourselves in undertakings with a mission to narrow the digital divide.


As Emily Dickinson said, “The soul should always stand ajar, ready to welcome the ecstatic experience.” I believe my ModPo course will be just that.


To learn more about Coursera and its courses click this link:

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