The Homeric MOOC: Will It Revolutionize Education?

Edward Gorey Charitable Trust
Drawing by Edward Gorey from Rex Warner’s Men and Gods: Myths and Legends of the Ancient Greeks, published by NYRB Classics

On the morning of Sunday, June 10, 2012, the faculty, staff, and students of the University of Virginia were notified of a palace coup. The university’s president, Teresa Sullivan, had been forced to resign by a small faction on the board of trustees. The conspirators were led by the board’s chair (the “rector” in local parlance), a Virginia Beach real estate developer named Helen Dragas.

The motives for the coup have never been entirely explained, perhaps because those responsible were themselves not quite sure what they were trying to accomplish. But the mythology of the affair has emphasized two issues. Sullivan was viewed as insufficiently aggressive in pursuing what the conspirators on the board saw as the next big wave in education: massive open online courses (MOOCs), in which a single instructor teaches thousands or tens of thousands of students over the Internet. She was also said to have resisted proposals to close obscure and unprofitable programs—in particular the department of classics.1

The sequel is well known. After two weeks of protests by students and statewide criticism, the conspirators were forced to back down and Sullivan was reinstated. But the episode has come to symbolize a tension between classic ways of teaching (for what could be more classic than classics?) and new, “disruptive” technologies, symbolized by the MOOC. As Gregory Nagy’s new book illustrates, the reality is murkier.

Nagy earned a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1966. Still in his early twenties, he was immediately hired as a faculty member, and except for a brief stint at Johns Hopkins he has been there ever since. He has attained most of the honors to which an American classicist can aspire, including the presidency of the American Philological Association and the Sather lectureship at Berkeley. He has been a generous mentor to two generations of graduate students, an agile impresario of several series of scholarly monographs, and, most recently, director of the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, D.C. Now over seventy, he has managed to become an éminence grise without ever quite ceasing to be an enfant terrible.

All of Nagy’s work has dealt with early Greek literature, and almost all of it, directly or indirectly, with Homer. Many of his characteristic concerns are already present in his first book, the austerely titled Comparative Studies in Greek and Indic Meter (1974). Like all modern Homerists, Nagy starts from the demonstration by Milman Parry (1902–1935) and his then assistant Albert Lord that the Homeric poems reflect—and reflect on—a long tradition of oral composition and performance. Parry died tragically young, seven years before Nagy was born, but Lord was one of Nagy’s teachers and for many years his colleague at Harvard (he died in 1991).

Nagy himself…

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