Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Holocaust (UC Santa Cruz, Coursera) - great course but highlights some difficulties with moocs

I should preface this review by saying that I have an interest in history especially related to the second World War. I've read quite a few books on the Third Reich, including Shirer's "Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" and Richard Evans trilogy, among many others. When I saw this course I was immediately interested not only because of my interest in history but also because I had not really read much specifically on the Holocaust. While all of those books discussed the Holocaust at length that was not their primary focus.

One thing that I will talk about in much greater detail has to do with the readings assigned for this course. I purchased many of the books that they suggested, owning only Elie Wiesel's "Night". Out of the 11 suggested texts I now own all but 3. This will be important later in this review.

The course itself is made of of 10 modules and each module has assigned readings combined with video lectures. The video lectures themselves are taken directly from the physical lectures at UCSC. Normally I prefer video lectures that were designed specifically for the course because they tend to be much more direct but I like this format here mainly because there are two professors.

Professors Baumgarten and Kenez each present about an hour of lecture each week with Prof Kenez giving more of a history lecture and Prof Baumgarten more of a literature lecture. They often interact with each other during the videos which is where having a recording of the physical lecture is nice. Their interactions are often humorous but also enlightening especially when they disagree. They especially disagree on the notion of resistance in the context of the Holocaust and seeing that from two points of view is wonderful.

There are three written assignments that make up the grading for the course and they are graded by peer review. They are fairly short (approx 500-700 words) but it is here where I think the course runs into trouble. If you do not have access to the books then while Prof Kenez's lectures are easy to follow you lose much from Prof. Baumgarten's. One of the books that I did not purchase was "The Last of the Just" and when Prof. Baumgarten was discussing it I felt lost when compared to lectures I had watched that corresponded to books that I had read.

There are also videos that are assigned each week but unfortunately they are not easy to find for the most part, and by that I mean they are not available on Netflix. I have seen some of the films before but it is a shame that they are not more readily accessible. I was able to purchase most of the books fairly cheap from on Amazon and you could find the videos there as well but I tend not to purchase DVDs much these days.

The first assignment was very open-ended but out of the three papers I read only one of them had read any of the material. The other two had to write their papers simply from the video lectures so that they were merely rehashed information from the lectures. They weren't able to make arguments or ask questions from the readings because they weren't able to do the readings. The grading scale went from 1-3 and I was torn with how to grade them. Certainly I couldn't hold them to the same standard as I would someone who had read the books because they weren't required. Still, in both cases they seemed to be more of a regurgitation of material from the video lectures rather than any kind of analysis so I gave them a 2. The third paper I read not only showed evidence of having done some readings but also tried to make arguments and draw conclusions so I gave it a 3.

Here is a copy of what I wrote, "The thing that has struck me most from the readings are how very different two Holocaust experiences could be. Traditionally we might think of someone who experienced the Holocaust as someone who had an experience similar to that described by Primo Levy. To be sure, the majority of European Jewery did experience the Holocaust in a similar way. Concentration into ghettos, transport to an extermination camp and more often than not death at the camp. Nechma Tec's experience is just as much the Holocaust as Levy's. In the past I would not have really considered them to be as similar as I do now because to me the Holocaust was merely the death camps. The way that I see it now is that the Holocaust was the destruction of the Jewish way of life, which could be experienced in many different ways.

Both Levy and Tec experienced the constant threat of death although it was a much more prevalent aspect of Levy's life than Tec's. When Tec faced death, as with the dead baby still in it's stroller, or the mass shootings after round-ups it was an extraordinary situation for her whereas with Levy death was a normal occurrence. Those Jews that were able to survive the Nazi's by passing may have heard rumors about Birkineau but Levy lived in the shadows of the crematoria. It is easy to see that their two experiences were vastly different but that raises an interesting question of if one of their experiences was somehow "better" than the others.
I find this to be a very difficult and troubling question not only to try and answer but even just to ask. Was surviving the Holocaust even better than not? At first this would seem to have an obvious answer, of course surviving is better than not, but so many survivors took their own lives after liberation. They were living in a world where their entire families were often gone, including many of the people they had known prior to the war. So if the idea of survival doesn't even allow us to place the tag of "better" on it then how can we ask the same thing about one's experience? 
Reading Tadeusz Borowski's writings about Auschwitz are what first made me consider the question. After reading Levy I almost found myself having a hard time feeling sympathy for Borowski even though I know that his experience was horrible. Since he was not a Jew, however, his experience was very different. There are examples he gives where he seems to be playful and almost having a good time. In other words, he was able to keep his humanity. This is something that was robbed of many, if not most or all, of the Jews who were not immediately exterminated. He receives packages from outside the camp and seems to have a much better diet than just the watery soup that Levy had to live on. In this case it is easy to say that Borowski's experience was better than Levy's but then I realized that lead me to another question. Did Borowski actually experience the Holocaust, or was he merely a concentration camp inmate?"

I received a grade of a 3 although I'm not sure exactly how the grading works because the feedback I got from one of the graders was quite negative. He said that he felt my paper was very lacking because I did not answer the final question that I posed. I'm not sure if he was just a lazy reader or if I did a poor job setting it up but my goal was not to answer that question but to leave it for the reader to think about.

One of the greatest things for me about this course is that it was the first time I read poetry and had any time of positive response. Prior to this course every time I read a poem the only reaction I had was to think how I couldn't wait to finally be done with it so I could get on with my life. We read Dan Pagis's "Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway Car" and Paul Celan's "Todesfuge". Both of these make me feel sad, and the more I read them or listen to them read the sadder I get. Perhaps it is that I read them within a much deeper context than poem's I read in high school but it was ironically very fulfilling to me to feel so sad from a poem.

This is a wonderful course and I look forward to it each week but it does highlight some of the shortcomings of a course where readings are assigned that are not in the public domain. My experience watching the video lectures related to one of the books I had not read really emphasizes how serious an issue it can be to not have access to the readings. The lectures that did correspond to the readings were superb and enlightening and this multi-disciplined approach to one of the darkest events in human history allows for a more emotional response than would be possible from a strictly historical view.


  1. I've been highly suspicious of the fate of the Humanities within a MOOC framework and this post really hits home. I mean, on the one hand, I'm pleased a lot of people have access to these materials. We certainly open more avenues for exploration than we actually "complete"--which is just to say we point people toward great spots for independent thought and study after the close of the MOOC. Yet, something like peer-reviews are, in my opinion, sort of ridiculous. They are great for the person who writes them i.e. it forces them to think through the materials (we learn best when we have to write, or explain our thoughts to others) BUT the act of "receiving a grade" or "receiving comments" simply falls flat.

    As you noticed, we hit some copyright snags and were unable to provide pdfs of some of the materials (noticeably Last of the Just). We also couldn't help stream the films. Is it our fault for not reconstructing the syllabus for a MOOC platform? Is it a MOOC fault to not have special copyright law go-arounds? Not sure. Our course was made from pre-existing material that has been available on vimeo for years. Peter and Murray were super excited to get their lectures to a wide audience knowing that we would face these problems along the way. In the end, was it worth it? I think so. And I think my list of "things to do differently next time" is also quite valuable.

    This is a great idea for a blog, and as you continue to explore the MOOC platform, I encourage you never to lose sight of the giant complex process that goes behind launching one. It's not usually the case that "one person" decides to do x,y,'s always a team and there are always reasons for things (even the bad things, even the good things). I've had a lot of things I could say "I told you so" about with regard to this course, and I have a lot of people who have been able (and willing!) to tell me "see, I told you so!" about other things.

  2. Why have you chosen to not attach yur name to this blog?

    I think the blog has the potential to be valuable, but I just don't feel comfortable dropping my comments into an "anonymous" void.

    Jan Carr

  3. It is almost impossible to find the readings here in Brazil. I think this is the biggest problem of MOOC and for the Holocaust course itself. International students may not find all the readings available.