Shrinking World, Expanding Minds

After stress-baking, grooming the schnauzer, and endless rounds of the card game Exploding Kittens this weekend, my husband and I decided to quit squandering our time. We signed up for edX, the massive open online course provider that serves a worldwide community and offers thousands of free classes.

Our dining room table became our classroom on Saturday as we browsed offerings that ranged from Harvard’s “Technology Entrepreneurship: Lab to Market” to “Mindfulness and Resilience to Stress at Work” from the University of California, Berkeley.

We picked an archived 2016 Dartmouth College course, “The American Renaissance: Classic Literature of the 19th Century,” which explores the writings of famous American authors and Transcendentalists, from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Harriet Beecher Stowe to Henry David Thoreau.

The choice appealed to me because last summer I re-read Thoreau’s Walden and A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers at the bedside of my dying father as he slept. It was a great comfort to me at the time, and I was anxious to further explore that literary period.

Laptops, notebooks and pencils at hand, we eagerly clicked on the video lectures.

Hester PrynneThe two professors teaching the course popped up on the screen wearing suits and ties, presenting their material in a virtual reproduction of a New England classroom. For two lifelong learners, this reassuring and familiar visual was a perfect antidote to our upside-down world and disrupted way of life. The professors promised a deep dive into “archetypal” characters such as Captain Ahab from Moby Dick and Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter.

The course introduction featured a video about the special collections at the Dartmouth library, with such oddities as Daniel Webster’s hat. We were hooked.

After watching the first video lectures, we learned those 19th century Transcendentalists previewed what was happening in our world today. As one of the profs pointed out, we continue to hear the traces of Thoreau in the “rhetoric of the ecology movement and the opposition to globalization.”

Emerson, we learned, the “central man” of 19th century American literature, entered public life during Andrew Jackson’s presidency, one of the most turbulent periods in U.S. history, and one with eerie similarities to our own. Jackson’s era was marked by ongoing financial crises, political controversies concerning “Indian Removal,” immigration, states’ rights and women’s rights. At mid-century, cholera became a worldwide pandemic, spreading as far as small towns in the American Midwest.

The course reading assignments – books, essays and poems – seemed daunting and wonderful at the same time.

On Monday morning, there was an emailed message from edX in my inbox that read:

“Your Monday Motivation is here.” It included tips for successful online learning that could apply to working from home during the COVID-19 crisis. They included: Keep your mind and body healthy; effectively manage time and minimize distractions; forge connections with your virtual learning community, and get the most out of your learning.

I put away Exploding Kittens and began reading Emerson’s Self Reliance.








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