Sharing a Passion for Poetry With Students Around the World

Tamara Trocki

Margaret Soltan
June 11, 2012

The Chronicle asked four professors teaching free online courses to describe their experiences. See the rest here.

Margaret Soltan, associate professor of English, George Washington University

Course Provider: Udemy

Course Title: "Poetry: What It Is, and How to Understand It"


Q. Why did you sign up to teach a Massive Open Online Course?

A. I was excited by the prospect of being able to talk to (and with—comments are encouraged, and I respond to them) hundreds (maybe thousands—my course is now on its way to 570 students, and I get five to 10 new students each day) of people around the world who might not have any other access (or who might have some access, but not very impressive access) to university-level ideas about art.

My ego also played a part. I was flattered to have been asked.

I'm excited about poetry as well, and I love to talk about it. To anyone.

Q. What's it like so far? Briefly describe what a typical "day" of online teaching is like.

A. I love it. Every Saturday my tech-savvy sister comes to my house and sets up the microphone (Udemy, in whose Faculty Project I take part, had the mike sent to me) and the camera and the light. The night before, I've typed out a lecture about a poem (I feature, with each lecture, one important modern poem in English or in translation). I place this lecture on a podium (it's a music stand, actually), and away we go.

We film in front of my piano; the room it's in has a lot of windows, so the natural midday light is usually enough.

When I've finished the lecture (I've done nine, and so far haven't had to do extra takes or anything), my husband, sister, and I sit down for lunch together. It's a great feeling, knowing I've written and presented something that someone in China who loves American poetry will be reading.

Q. What needs to happen for you to consider the course a success?

A. Some MOOC's don't consider themselves a success until hundreds of thousands of students have enrolled and passed tests and initiated online discussions. For me, the success of my course is already there, in this comment (to take one instance) that I got from a woman in China: "Your reading of [Edward Thomas's] 'Adelstrop' is beautifully illuminating, and you make modern poetry matter to me. A million thanks!"

Poetry is intense, intimate, enigmatic. For me, there's great joy and gratification in realizing that I'm making a connection with the globe via this difficult but of course universal form of human expression.

Q. Has anything surprised you about the students who signed up for your course?

A. My students have been what I thought they might be—a lot of foreigners from almost every country in the world, and a lot of Americans who write poetry or who have an interest in gaining a better understanding of poetry.

Q. Do you have any concerns going into the course—about format, implications for universities, or any other aspect of this unusual venture?

A. At this point, I don't have concerns, but rather hopes. I hope that the willingness of American university professors to do free MOOC's will enhance the image of universities among Americans, many of whom think of tenured university professors as people always looking to get out of teaching, always obsessed with their own research. I hope that watching us teach simply because we're passionate about conveying our subject matter will start to weaken this view of the professoriate.

But of course the view has some legitimacy to it; so I also hope that high-profile MOOC professors—I note that we're now being called super-professors—will help the university itself understand that the imbalance between research and teaching should end.