The Professor’s Last Stand

Columbia historian Eric Foner is giving his lectures to the public -- and to posterity.

by David J. Craig Published Fall 2014
  • Comments (0)
  • Email
  • ShareThis
  • Print
  • Download
  • Text Size A A A

“It’s almost absurd that I’d be doing this,” says Foner. “I’m not on Facebook or Twitter. I still write with piles of paper around me. I’m one of the few professors at Columbia who doesn’t let students use laptops in class. I think they’re distracting. They can take notes by hand like it’s always been done.”

And yet a MOOC, Foner realized, suited his situation perfectly. Because it would be largely automated, he could oversee its operation in just a couple of hours a week until he retired; thereafter, someone else could take over the responsibility of moderating the course’s discussion-board and chatroom conversations, enabling his virtual self to teach on forever.

“This could eventually reach far more people than have ever read my books,” he says. “How could you say no to that?”

Read more on MOOCs in Lectures on Your Laptop:

Let’s Roll

Following a couple of brainstorming sessions last fall, Foner and his new CCNMTL colleagues agreed on the basic form his MOOC would take: it would rely on video footage of Foner’s actual lectures (some MOOCs are made in a recording studio, with a professor speaking directly into a camera), edited into roughly ten-minute segments, with supplemental video clips, multimedia features, and quizzes dispersed among them. While any member of the public could access the content at any time, people who enroll in the course would be encouraged to watch the lectures and do the assigned readings at a designated pace — over a ten-week period — so they could discuss what they were learning together.

“We can’t possibly grade thousands of papers, right? OK, so that’s a drawback — the lack of writing. But in other ways, we want to give people an experience that is as grueling as they want it to be,” says Tim Shenk ’07CC, a history PhD candidate who is Foner’s head teaching assistant and who would work closely with the CCNMTL team in developing the course’s online version. “One key to that is creating a sense of community online so that people feel that they are part of a collective experience, and so that they can challenge, question, provoke, and support one another.”

This past January, a team of producers from CCNMTL got started on the hard work. They lugged cameras, tripods, lights, and microphones to Foner’s class every Monday and Wednesday afternoon, recording his lectures in high-definition video. They filmed weekly discussion sessions in which small groups of students debated the week’s readings with Foner and his teaching assistants around a conference table. And they shadowed the professor on trips to local archives, filming him as he examined Civil War–era artifacts.

“The closest thing I’d ever done to this was help curate a museum exhibition,” says Foner. “As a historian, I’m not used to working collaboratively. When I’m writing books or preparing lectures, I organize the information any damn way I want. It was interesting to learn a new medium.”

Participants in Eric Foner’s MOOC will see video footage of the historian examining Civil War–era artifacts at Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, such as this book of photographs from the Sydney Howard Gay Papers.Still, Foner approached the work with some trepidation. He had questions about the way his MOOC could be used, questions that echoed a larger debate playing out across the world of higher education. Many educators foresaw a time when colleges and universities would issue credits to students for taking MOOCs, even those produced at other institutions. Some of the more messianic proponents of distance learning thought this would bring much needed efficiency to higher education, allowing colleges to trim their teaching budgets and thus rein in spiraling tuition costs, all while giving a broader swath of students access to the very best teachers. Skeptics feared these online courses would provide a watered-down education, with students at cash-strapped public institutions denied the face-to-face time they needed with human instructors, whose numbers would be decimated. Foner, like many professors creating MOOCs, recoiled at the idea that his effort could put fellow academics out of work.

“I’m old-fashioned enough to think that the only way to get a serious education is to be in a room with other human beings,” says Foner, who has been honored for his skills in the classroom many times, including in 2006, when he received Columbia’s Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching. “I can’t imagine the future of higher education is watching a computer screen. That can’t possibly replace a real professor. At least I hope not.”

Straight to the People

The Civil War course that Foner teaches has long been a favorite of Columbia students. Foner’s mentor, James Shenton ’54GSAS, taught it before he did. One of Columbia’s most beloved teachers, Shenton became more widely known in the 1960s when he presented “The Rise of the American Nation,” a seventy-six-hour lecture series, in installments on public television. Shenton’s star turn didn’t raise many eyebrows among his colleagues, Foner says, because Columbia historians have traditionally encouraged one another to share their scholarship with the general public.

“At some institutions, you’d be looked down upon for speaking directly to the masses,” says Foner, who is the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History, a position that was held before him by Richard Hofstadter ’42GSAS, another great public intellectual. “It’s the opposite here — making your scholarship accessible to people is seen as part of your job.”

  • Email
  • ShareThis
  • Print
  • Recommend (84)
Log in with your UNI to post a comment

The best stories wherever you go on the Columbia Magazine App

Maybe next time