“Not Your Grandfather’s Greek History Class”: Talking MOOCs with Professor Andrew Szegedy-Maszak

Though MOOCs are offered in a wide range of disciplines, satisfying curious intellectuals and skill-seekers, most online courses exist in science, math, and technology. But organisations like iversity and institutions like Wesleyan University (the first liberal arts institution to launch MOOCs) are producing courses in the humanities as well. iversity spoke to Professor Andrew Szegedy-Maszak, Wesleyan’s first Distinguished Teaching Fellow, Jane A. Seney Professor of Greek and Professor of Classical Studies, whose MOOC “The Ancient Greeks” ran this fall and spring.

iversity: What was your personal approach to teaching a MOOC, and how might it differ from those instructing in science or math?

Szegedy-Maszak: With courses like organic chemistry or subatomic physics, what one needs to teach may be clear. But in a humanities course, there is greater flexibility in selecting topics, determining their depth, and assigning readings.

“I worked to allow for complexity, ambiguity, and ignorance”

Professor Andrew Szegedy-Maszak

(Courtesy of Olivia Drake)

I received advice for my course from Professor Peter T. Struck, Associate Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, who taught a successful 10-week MOOC on Classic Mythology. He said he wished his course was shorter; I therefore made mine 7 weeks long. I did so for two reasons. The first constricted the effort involved in making the MOOC, which was hundreds of hours of prep. I also shortened my course to retain student interest. There is a downward slope in engagement from the first to last weeks of courses.

I gave 6 lectures per week, which cover the earliest Greek civilization to the death of Socrates. Deciding on these topics was, in some ways, arbitrary. I chose to teach a survey-style class. The Archaic Age, for example, receives scholarly attention. I could’ve done a course on just that period, or concentrated entirely on the Athenians. But I thought it’d be more useful to give students a broader historical perspective and introduce the sense of a wider Greek world. I taught what students are likely looking for, working in allusions to today’s research, because Greek history keeps changing. I wanted to suggest to my audience that I wasn’t teaching your grandfather’s Greek history class.

The origins of Greece: golden “Mask of Agamemnon”. Bronze Age.

National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Courtesy PD

iversity: Your MOOC assigns no papers, grades, or final assessment. How do you keep students engaged and focused? Is passion alone enough, and is it specific to humanities courses?

Szegedy-Maszak: For most students, Greek history is a subject they’re interested in and wanted to learn more about. I assign blunt, evaluative weekly questions to ensure they stay on track. These quizzes enable people who want them to get statements of accomplishment. Some students requested a tougher final examination, and a statement of accomplishment with distinction for those who do well on it. When the course is offered again on September 2, I may include a final to up the ante.

iversity: In your lectures, you don’t read from a script, as many MOOC instructors do.

Szegedy-Maszak: That’s similar to how I teach my classes at Wesleyan. I’ve been teaching this material for a long time, and know it well. I instead make a list of key topics to cover during each lecture. My MOOC doesn’t use textbook readings, also like my Wesleyan courses. All readings are primary sources in translation. The value of this particular subject [Greek history] lies in hearing the voices of long ago. It gives students a sense of what we, modern historians, deal with when reconstructing past narratives.

An unavoidable factor in teaching online is the amount of compression required, hitting only the subject’s high points. A friend said to “leave a lot out to get it all in,” my operating principle. My lectures at Wesleyan are 80 minutes, and these were from 12-20. Though I left a lot out, I felt a responsibility to the material and students not to dumb it down. I worked to allow for complexity, ambiguity, and ignorance, as there’s a lot we still don’t know about Greek history.  

Bust of Socrates. His death concludes the MOOC.

Rome, Vatican Museum

Courtesy of Wilson Delgado

Interview for iversity by Anna Meixler