Coursera - Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World by Eric Rabkin

La Graciada

La Graciada is a perpetual student, doing part-time graduate work alongside Coursera offerings on a number of subjects, but mainly literature! She lives, works and writes in London, but has also studied and worked on the East Coast in times gone by. She blogs about all these things in a site named as LaGraciada .

Eric Rabkin
Soumabha and Manoj have very kindly invited me to review a slightly different course for this blog: Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern WorldThis literature course has just finished and was provided by Professor Eric Rabkin of the University of Michigan.

The course traces the influences of fantasy and fairy-tale into science fiction. The syllabus goes out of its way to ensure that the bulk of the writings are available as free downloads, although a few of the texts are not available for free (legal) download, so there is a small financial outlay. In total, the course takes in a very wide range of authors, including the Brothers Grimm, Mary Shelley, and Ursula Le Guin.

The full reading list for the course was as follows:
  • The Brothers Grimm (Children’s and Household Tales)
  • Lewis Carroll (Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass)
  • Bram Stoker (Dracula)
  • Mary Shelley (Frankenstein)
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne (a selection of short stories)
  • Edgar Allan Poe (a selection of short stories and poems)
  • H.G. Wells (The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Invisible Man, as well as two short stories)
  • Edgar Rice Burroughs (A Princess of Mars)
  • Charlotte Gilman Perkins (Herland)
  • Ray Bradbury (The Martian Chronicles)
  • Ursula Le Guind (The Left Hand of Darkness)
  • Cory Doctorow (Little Brother)

Running over 10 weeks, the course focuses on one or two specific authors each week. Students are then asked to submit a 270-320 word essay on the readings and then review the essays of four of their fellow students, grading them from 1-3 on both form and content.

The course is advertised as requiring 8-12 hours of work per week. Personally, I did not find the quantity of reading exceptionally onerous, but I am very familiar with a heavy reading load (I am a literary graduate student), and other students did at times report not being able to finish all of the reading in time. The grading structure of the course allows students to skip some weeks of the course and still receive a certificate overall, which makes it rather more flexible than some of the other literature courses currently on Coursera.

Little Brother - Cory DoctorowAlso unlike some other literature courses, students had free choice over the focus of their essays, so there was no requirement to watch the professor’s lectures and write essays in accordance with his theories or interpretations of the texts. However, to not do so would be to miss a really important resource that the class offers, as the professor’s lectures were generally interesting and informative. From listening to them, students got to learn not only about his particular interest in the genre (e.g. the Eden Complex , but also about important literary movements, such as Dark romanticism. Watching the lectures take up approximately 1.5-2 hours per week, broken into much shorter thematic discussions. However, the professor speaks quite slowly, so you can easily listen at 1.25x or 1.5x the normal speed and still get all the information if you are pushed for time.

Herald and Selected StoriesPerhaps because of its subject matter (compared to, for example, the Modern and Contemporary American Poetry course on offer), this course attracted a very diverse range of students. Many of the students openly chose the course in order to improve their English reading or writing skills, while others were evidently younger than college age. This is no problem in itself, and is in fact one of the delights of sites like Coursera. However, the course’s grading system was set up on the assumption that all students would have a similar level of written English and a similar ‘base’ level of experience with essay-writing that might be expected of college freshmen.

Owing to this assumption, the course’s grading system, which relied entirely on anonymous peer reviews, failed. There were threads, forums berating ESL students, those who deviated from the particular participant’s own standards, those who graded without giving useful comments, etc., etc. There was also a lot of ‘policing’ that went on with accusations of plagiarism abounding. Although some essays were undoubtedly plagiarized (such behavior is to be expected, even though it violates Coursera’s honor code policy), there were also a lot of students using online ‘plagiarism testers’ without any real understanding of how they functioned, so students were accused of cheating because (for example) they had posted their own essay on their own blog! This, however, could be avoided with far more detailed guidance, I think. In addition, objectively scored quizzes (such as those used in the Modern Poetry course) that focus on close reading or an understanding of key literary terms and concepts could take the pressure off the peer reviewing system.
Fantasy and Science Fiction Coursera

Overall, I would recommend this course to those who are interested in reading these fascinating stories without a great deal of pressure to always complete work every week, regardless of real life issues. There is some great fiction on offer here, and the professor provides some fascinating insights in his lectures that make the troubled peer review system worth struggling through!

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