Monday, January 28, 2013

What's a MOOC? Why philosophy?

Here we go!
This week I am starting one of those MOOCs that higher ed people have been hearing so much about over the past year - Introduction to Philosophy from The University of Edinburgh (via Coursera). For the uninitiated, MOOC stands for "Massively Open Online Course." (I pronounce it with a long "o" and a hard "c.") In the paradigm which they've been most discussed, they are free online courses offered by prestigious universities who have partnered with for-profit companies who provide the software platform through which the course is delivered. (Smaller, non-profit - and more creative - MOOCs like DS106 have been around longer.)

Enrollments run in the tens of thousands, though actual participation through the entire course usually ends up about a tenth (at best) of the initial sign-up count. These courses are college level, though they don't come with any academic credit at the end, though this could conceivably change - and already has in this case.

MOOCs have been hailed as "game changers" and "disrupters" and all sorts of other high praises and/or epithets, depending on how you feel about the state of higher education in the U.S. (existential and financial crisis) and what to do about it. Probably the most reasoned critique I've read comes from Ian Bogost, a game designer, theorist, and professor, in this piece at The Atlantic: Inequality in American Education Will Not Be Solved Online. I'm very sympathetic to Bogost's critique, but I also wanted to see what all the fuss is about. A few at EMU have expressed interest in the MOOC wave, wondering if we could somehow ride it. So as the ed-tech guy for EMU it's part of my job to figure that out. Call it R&D. But why philosophy?

I've been skirting around philosophy for over two years now, without ever having taken any formal courses in the discipline. The densest book of philosophy I've read comes from the genre of moral philosophy, After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre, but most of the time I read online blog posts, book reviews, and listen to podcasts that have a "philosophy nerd" edge to them. My teachers have been James K.A. Smith, Charles Taylor, and MacIntyre. Others include Wittgenstein via Hauerwas and Brad Kallenberg. (Yes, all men - the discipline apparently has a problem with that. Nancey Murphy, a Christian philosopher w/ Anabaptist sensibilities, would be someone that I should read.)

"Addressing big questions" seems to be one of the better ways to think about the work of philosophy in the everyday sense. Harvard superstar justice professor, Michael Sandel, describes philosophy as "unavoidable" in one of his older essays:
philosophy inhabits the world from the start; our practices and institutions are embodiments of theory. To engage in a political practice is already to stand in relation to theory. For all our uncertainties about ultimate questions of political philosophy - of justice and value and the nature of the good life - the one thing we know is that we live some answer all the time.
Philosophy as theorizing about our social life together - and that life together as an embodiment of those theories - is a way to ensure that philosophy is never thought of as somehow disconnected from everyday life. Philosophizing is itself a practice, a discipline with a long tradition. Philosophy in the sense that Sandel describes it here is resonant with what Charles Taylor calls the "social imaginary," "that common understanding that makes possible common practices and a widely shared sense of legitimacy." Humans have to make sense of the world and their place in it in order to move and be. We are the theories we live out, and by living them out we continue to theorize.

The word "story" or "narrative" could stand in for "theory" above. If we understand the social life of humans as being constituted by our language(s) - a Wittgensteinian view - and that human life exhibits a story-like character, then the act of theorizing/narrating becomes a rather ordinary phenomenon. Normal folks don't often consciously think about how our lives are embodiments of the theories/stories that - by our upbringing, training, and experience - we hold to be true, but the theory that this is indeed so is plausible to me.

One reason that I'm habitually drawn to big questions has to do with the fact that I'm a confessing Christian. That is, I believe that Jesus Christ is Lord of all, and that this confession makes, literally, all the difference in the world. Christianity is a long tradition whose plausibility in contemporary Western societies is by no means a sure thing. So Christians get a lot of push-back or apathy these days, and even many Christians themselves aren't really that clear on what they believe, how diluted their belief systems have become in postmodernity, much less what kind of difference all this makes for daily living and life together.

So my being drawn to big questions begins to have a vocational and ministerial purpose. I seek to understand that I may help others, especially other Christians, understand; all the while holding the church's teachings of sin and human creatureliness and the virtue of humility close to my chest. That is, I don't know everything and there's a real chance that I'm misleading myself and others. But we're all in this together and we should try to live well. That is why I philosophize and theologize, and why I think those theoretical disciplines matter, not just for the supernerds who practice them.

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