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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But the single biggest misconception about the era, and the one whose influence on public life today is most pernicious, Foner says, is the notion that white Southerners were mistreated in the decades following the war. US historians up until the mid-twentieth century, he says, perpetuated the idea that the North had exploited the postwar South economically, had granted former slaves in the South too many civic rights too quickly, and had generally micromanaged the region’s affairs in a way that gave white Southerners reason to feel embittered for generations to come. This view, Foner says, has since come to be seen as inaccurate and deeply racist — the result of white historians’ attempts to intellectually legitimize Jim Crow. Yet the notion persists that Dixie was victimized.

“I think there is a wider gap between historians’ understanding and popular understandings today vis-à-vis Reconstruction than any other period in American history,” Foner says. “One of the footholds of modern conservatism is this whole idea that white Americans have a right to feel aggrieved about their lot. We saw that in the white backlash against the civil-rights gains of the 1960s, and we still see it in some arguments against affirmative action. It dates back to that old historical work. I feel an obligation to correct some of that bad old history, and to get good, up-to-date history out to as many people as will listen.”

Spirit of Compromise

A summer storm threatens as Foner takes a seat in a windowless conference room on the fifth floor of Butler Hall. It is a few weeks before his digital course will go live on edX, and “the MOOCers,” as he affectionately calls his CCNMTL colleagues, are discussing the details of its format.

Stephanie Ogden, a digital-media specialist, is demonstrating how students will be able to navigate within Foner’s lecture videos by scrolling through an accompanying transcript.

“I can jump down to here,” she says, clicking on a word next to the screen, “and the video will follow.”

“Oh, that’s pretty cool,” Foner says.

“We can speed it up as well,” she says, setting the video to run at 1.5x speed, giving Foner’s voice a slightly high-pitched tone.

Foner in his office in Fayerweather Hall in 2012. / Photograph by Daniella Zalcman

“That’s very popular in the MOOC world. People like to go a little faster,” says Michael Cennamo, an educational technologist.

“People tell me I speak too fast to begin with,” cracks Foner, a native New Yorker. “When I taught in the South, they begged me to speak slower.”

A recurring point of debate between Foner and the MOOCers has been how frequently his lectures ought to break for poll questions, quizzes, and other interactive features. Such features are thought to help online students feel engaged; Foner worries that they will simply be distracting. In fact, Foner had initially suggested that his lectures run as uninterrupted seventy-five-minute video clips.

“I was quickly informed that’s not how things work,” he says. “Apparently people’s attention span online is rather short. Nobody wants to sit there for an hour and fifteen minutes.”

The current plan, Cennamo explains, is to embed two pop-up questions within each ten-minute lecture video.

“To see if you’re paying attention,” chimes in Tim Shenk, the history PhD student working on the project.

“Right,” says Cennamo, who adds that edX can later analyze students’ responses to these multiple-choice questions for insights about how they are learning.

“Wait a minute. Two per clip? Fourteen per lecture? That seems like a heck of a lot,” Foner says. “It would be as if in the middle of a book chapter you’re suddenly throwing questions at the reader. It interrupts the narrative. So two seems like a lot.”

No problem, says Cennamo. One question will do.

“I’m impressed with this group,” Foner says later. “So I’ve been happy to go along with what they think will work — within reason.”

Civil Discourse

The first part of Foner’s three-part edX course went live on September 17. Entitled “A House Divided: The Road to Civil War, 1850–1861,” it is running for ten weeks; it will be followed by “A New Birth of Freedom: The Civil War, 1861–1865,” which will launch on December 1, and “The Unfinished Revolution: Reconstruction and After, 1865–1890,” on February 25, 2015.

More than six thousand people from 136 countries enrolled in “A House Divided” as of its launch date. Three-quarters of them live in North America; many others are from Europe, Asia, and South and Central America. Only 17 percent described themselves as students in an introductory poll. Nearly a third identified as high school teachers, college instructors, or professional historians. The vast majority described themselves simply as “history enthusiasts.”

“It looks like a lot of people taking the course are doing so for self-enrichment, which makes sense, given the subject matter,” says Shenk. “Learning about the Civil War might make you a better citizen, but it probably won’t get you a new job.”

An eighty-four-year-old man from Toronto warns his peers how slowly he’ll be typing: “Only using my right index finger ... I can’t get enough education!”

Judging by online discussion taking place on the course’s site the first week, those who signed up share a love of learning — and little else. Among them is a ninety-year-old Texan who’s earned several degrees in retirement; a thirteen-year-old British homeschooler; a woman from Nigeria who is a US-history buff; a New York City high-school teacher who is taking the course with several of his students; someone from Switzerland looking for answers to specific questions (“Frustrated I don’t understand why Northerners cared so much about slavery when they certainly didn’t consider African Americans to be their equals”); and an eighty-four-year-old man from Toronto who warns his peers how slowly he’ll be typing (“Only using my right index finger ... I can’t get enough education!”).

“The diversity of experiences people are bringing to this is pretty amazing,” says Shenk. “It’s obviously gratifying to open up the Columbia experience to people who might never step foot on this campus.”

The challenge now faced by Shenk and seven other history PhD students working on the course is formidable: to corral the online conversations taking place among thousands of people whose backgrounds and educations vary wildly, into the type of provocative yet respectful dialogue that is the hallmark of any great classroom. Each Columbia graduate student is spending several hours a week reading online posts, chiming in to answer questions, guide conversations, and tamp down any misguided comments. Each week, they earmark ten particularly insightful student posts for Foner to respond to personally. They are also encouraging students to form breakout discussion groups with people who share their interests or educational backgrounds, which they can do through the course’s Facebook and Twitter pages.

“The best way for smaller communities to form, based on the lessons of previous MOOCs, is to let it happen organically,” says Shenk. “Our strategy here is to gently push people in the direction we’d like to see them go.”

Foner, meanwhile, is watching the project unfold with an excitement tempered only slightly by its endless unknowns. He has begun to wonder: How long will the course remain relevant? Will there come a time soon when he’ll want to update its content? Or might it be wiser to retire the course altogether in a few years, thus clearing the way for some younger Civil War historian to assume the throne?

For now, though, he’s trying not to over-analyze. “I’m skeptical of a lot of things,” he says. “But I’m not skeptical of this.”

For additional content on this topic, visit Lectures on Your Laptop at:


Andrea Stone ’81JRN contributed reporting.

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