Saturday, April 28, 2012

Horses for courses

Walkabout seems to be over. Anyway, I’m declaring it done, and we’ll just see what tomorrow brings.

I’ve been looking at the offerings here. I’ve long been fascinated by the possibilities of web-based learning. A lot of it is garbage. (“Send money ... Here’s your degree.”) An increasing amount of it seems quite good. David Blight’s Yale lectures on the Civil War and Reconstruction, for example, have been transformative for a lot of iTunes devotees. You don’t get the deep understanding only grinding away on readings, papers, and projects provides, but the lectures superb and powerful on their own. And there are more and more great scholars from great institutions offering this stuff. Coursera seems to be trying to become a sort of hub. Right now, they’re offering courses from Princeton, Stanford, Berkeley, Michigan, and Penn. Many seem to be more interactive and demanding—a good thing if you haven’t yet joined me in dilettante-land.

Looking through the offerings, I see that the Calculus prerequisites include being “familiar with transcendental functions.” Pretty clearly, this has nothing to do with Emerson and Thoreau, so I am forced to take a pass. At college, I took Math 3 to satisfy a distributive requirement—pretty much math for dummies. It was, in fact, basic Calculus. I took it on a pass/fail basis, and was immediately deeply in danger of experiencing the negative option. My instructor took pity. He passed me on my promise never again to take a math course. He was a great man. Since then, though, I’ve become fascinated by the history of Calculus, the need for it which arose in the 17th century as Enlightenment scientists grappled with subjects that required the sort of sophisticated measurement it allows. (Don’t tell my British friends, but I’m a Leibniz fan—as bad as I was at Calculus, I’d undoubtedly have been worse at Fluxions.) Actually, I think if I’d been able to approach the subject from this odd historical direction, I might have done all right. Too late now, though. I can barely make change.
I have, however, signed up for a Penn course called “Modern & Contemporary American Poetry” which begins, like a lot of traditional college courses, in September. So a summer of wrestling pleasurably with Whitman, Dickensen, and William Carlos Williams will get me ready for ten weeks of Lorine Niedecker, John Ashbery, Rae Armantrout, Gertrude Stein, Anne Waldman, Amiri Baraka, and Charles Bernstein — most of whom I’ve never read.

Our prof, Al Filreis, also hosts PoemTalk, which features “three poets talking about one poem for 30 minutes.” He recommends we listen to specific episodes. Three people who love and create and read poetry focusing their conversation on a single poem for half an hour? Think you could learn much from that? Whole different worlds of limits, functions, and derivatives.

 I’m there.