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
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That Foner enjoys this part of his job, and that he is uniquely gifted at it, is evident every time he stands in front of an audience. He does so frequently, not just in the classroom but also before small-town historical societies, public-school assemblies, alumni groups, and gatherings at Civil War battlefields and memorials across the country.

“At some institutions, you’d be looked down upon for speaking directly to the masses. It’s the opposite here — making your scholarship accessible to people is seen as part of your job.” — Eric Foner

Items from the Abraham Lincoln portraits and memorabilia collection.Speaking in simple and colorful language that is entirely free of “academic gobbledygook,” as he calls it, Foner will effortlessly weave together strands of scholarship about nineteenth-century US politics, economics, demographics, racial dynamics, and international relations to help people make sense of the most complex issues of the era: How did Americans understand the concept of freedom back then? How did they apply the concept to black people, women, and members of various immigrant groups? Were Southerners and Northerners really that different in this regard? How did their regional economies influence their views? And how might the course of history been altered had the US government allowed the Southern states to secede?

“One of the things Professor Foner is always doing is relating history to the present day,” says Anna Martelle Miroff, a College senior who took the course last spring. “He shows you that history is alive, and that its interpretation is an ongoing project that can reveal as much about the historians producing the scholarship as the subjects they’re writing about.”

The owners of edX, a nonprofit MOOC platform that Harvard and MIT operate jointly, saw the potential immediately. Soon after receiving a call from Columbia officials last fall about hosting Foner’s course, a deal was being negotiated.

Guaranteed Giveaway

By the time Foner and Columbia joined forces with edX last winter, the University had already produced eight MOOCs on topics as various as virology, economics, finance and banking, natural language processing, and electrical and computer engineering. All were hosted by Coursera, a for-profit company that had been launched by two Stanford professors in early 2012. Coursera quickly became the world’s largest MOOC provider, hosting hundreds of courses created by academics from dozens of institutions. The company’s visibility gave a handful of Columbia faculty access to more students than they’d ever had in their careers; in 2013 alone, over four hundred thousand people enrolled in Columbia courses on Coursera.

“You can get information out to so, so many people,” says Columbia microbiologist Vincent Racaniello, whose MOOC on virology last year drew an audience of more than forty thousand people. “In my case, I’m teaching people all over the world about vaccinations, infectious diseases, outbreaks like Ebola. I think virology is a subject that everybody should know about. And a lot of people don’t have access to good science instruction where they live.”

Foner opted against working with Coursera in favor of edX, which was a few months younger than its chief competitor and considerably smaller. He thought edX, being a nonprofit consortium, would be less likely to take steps that might jeopardize faculty jobs at brick-and-mortar institutions. Neither company had yet figured out how to sustain itself financially. They were experimenting with the same basic strategies: selling certificates to students who successfully completed courses and licensing colleges the ability to issue credits to those who earned them. But edX was positioning itself as the more service-minded of the two, offering fewer but more academically rigorous courses and conducting serious research on its users’ experiences, analyzing how people take in and retain information, depending on how it is presented.

“I don’t want to be involved in making anybody rich,” says Foner, who received assurances from edX executives that no college or university would be permitted to issue credits for taking his course. “If another teacher wants to use it as a supplement to their lesson plans, that’s fine. Anyone can do that by visiting the site. But nobody’s going to commercialize this in any way.”

That’s not to say that Foner or anybody else can perfectly predict the ripple effects of his MOOC. Might working adults enroll in his MOOC instead of, say, taking a history course at a community college?

“I suppose so; this is a disruptive technology, right?” he says. “But it’s hard to imagine how many people that will apply to. And maybe someone who takes this course will become so interested in history that they’ll subsequently enroll in college.”

Fables of the Reconstruction

In talking to Foner, it is clear that he wrestled with the decision to create a MOOC. But it is also clear that he, like any passionate teacher, believes that people really need to know what he knows about his subject. The Civil War, Foner has often said, is the most important episode in American history, the cauldron out of which our modern nation, with its strong federal government, modern economy, and seemingly intractable cultural divide between North and South, was born. The era still fascinates us, he says, in part because we haven’t yet worked through a lot of resentments formed during the war and during the turbulent Reconstruction period that followed. Americans have a hard time seeing eye to eye on many social and political issues, he says, because of misconceptions that persist about the era.

What misconceptions?

“Like that slavery wasn’t the real cause of the war,” he says. “That the real issue was states’ rights or disagreements over trade from fully confronting this ugly part of our nation’s history.”

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