Back in December I discovered Coursera, a website that partners with major universities around the world to produce MOOCs, or Massive Online Open Courses. I was so excited by the course offerings that I ended up enrolling in several, and possibly over committing myself to these lectures and readings for the next couple of months. It’s okay though, because all of the courses are free, and I don’t have any real need for a completion certificate, other than to maybe post it on the refrigerator door.
The courses are much more like auditing a large lecture at any university. Some of the lectures are recorded from actual class meetings at that campus, and some are recorded separately for the MOOC.
Right now I am enrolled in three courses– Science From Super Heroes to Global Warming from UC Irvine, Introduction to Philosophy from University of Edinburgh, and The Modern and The Post- Modern from Wesleyan University. The first two seem so far to be freshmen level or 100 level courses, and the one about Modern/Post-Modern just began this week, so I don’t have much of an impression just yet. I was especially interested in these introductory level courses though, for several reasons: one being that I thought it would be fun to go back and brush up on and revisit concepts I learned over a decade ago, but also because I happen to teach introductory level courses at a four year university. These courses are the equivalent of what my English 101 students are attending before and after my class, so I thought it would be interesting to see what they cover and how they are taught.
So tonight as I was listening to the lecture for the science class, which actually happens to focus more on scientific thinking, sort of a critical thinking in the sciences type of class, the professor emphasized the importance of the scientific community in understanding science. He asked the students (this one was taped form an actual lecture) about pop culture representations of scientists, and the class described the classic mad scientist who works alone in his basement laboratory.
The professor went on to describe how this is the exact opposite of an actual scientist, explaining that real scientists collaborate, peer review, meet for conferences, talk over a beer, and consider themselves part of a community. The loner mad scientist is simply not the way that scientific discovery happens.
The first lecture of this Intro to Philosophy class is also emphasizing conversation and community. And it got me thinking– we, myself, these other professors, and every other professor who brings this up in classes, feel the need to spend time convincing our students that those in our field actually have people to talk to, actually have lives, and have to be good “team players” to cut it in the field. We spend this time trying to debunk these deep seated myths that those who excel in academia must have lonely, unfulfilled lives, and it’s left me wondering why we have these myths to begin with.
For one, we do have this cultural emphasis on the individual, that those who achieve greatness did so completely by their own talent, intelligence, skill, and nothing else. We don’t like it when a Nobel Prize is split between people because there needs to be one individual winner. We also like to think this way because it is easier to think they have some gift that we don’t, and so we don’t need to feel bad about ourselves for not achieving the same thing. They are just different from the rest of us, and there is nothing we can do about that. In many cases, because they are so inherently different, they must not lead lives that resemble our own. In fact, they must live in our worst nightmare: loneliness.
And that leads into the anti-intellectualism that is so pervasive in our culture. On the school yard, mediocrity and conformity are the way to avoid a wedgie, and even into adulthood, intellectuals still sometimes have to make apologies for who they are. Think about the last time you maybe had to down play your interest in a subject that others might not find “cool.” Think about why “The Big Bang Theory” is one of the most popular comedies. As a culture, we like to distance ourselves from and laugh at intellectuals, not because they are rude or particularly funny. It is because they make us feel bad about ourselves.
So I suppose it isn’t a surprise that in first year college courses, instructors feel the need to break these widespread stereotypes, to show that not only do intellectuals play well with others, but that one must be able to do so in order to succeed.
I hope that this emphasis on collaboration and the overall “coolness” of excelling in academic endeavors becomes more of the cultural norm, and less of a pathetic cry from professors that “We have friends, really, we do!”