At Yale, Online Lectures Become Lively Books

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, and other institutions are old hands now at taking course material from the classroom and lab and putting it online for learners anywhere to use. Yale University may be the first to reverse the process, using its Open Yale Courses as the basis for an old-fashioned book series.

This month, Yale University Press released the first batch of paperbacks based on lecture courses featured in the online-learning program. Priced at $18 and available in e-format too, the books are meant to expand the audience for the course material even further, according to Diana E.E. Kleiner. A professor of art history and classics at Yale, Ms. Kleiner is the founding project director of Open Yale Courses.

“It may seem counterintuitive for a digital project to move into books and e-books, because these are a much more conventional way of publishing,” she says. But the Open Yale Courses are about “reaching out in every way that we could.” That includes posting audio and video versions online (via Yale’s Web site, YouTube, and iTunes), and providing transcripts and now book versions of the lectures.

Having transcripts of their lectures to work with gives faculty authors a jump-start. “It was incomparably the easiest book I have ever written,” says Shelly Kagan, a Yale professor of philosophy whose lecture course on death has become one of the Open Yale program’s most popular offerings. “I just started with the transcripts and treated that as a first draft.” The book that resulted, also called Death, has already been reviewed in the Wall Street Journal.

Other books have taken him 10 years, Mr. Kagan says. This one took only a few months. Talk to him in detail about the process, though, and it’s clear he put a lot of fresh labor into the project, in addition to the years of work that went into creating the lectures in the first place.

Even very good lectures contain grammatical mistakes, jokes or asides, or physical cues that don’t work on the page, and other unfelicities that might distract or annoy a reader. Mr. Kagan polished those away and restructured some of the discussion so that it followed a more logical order. He changed some descriptive details.

He preserved the freewheeling, more personal style he uses in the lecture hall. “Although I changed the setting, and some of the examples, cleaned up the grammar, moved points around, and so forth and so on, I tried very hard to keep the conversational tone from the lectures,” he says. ” The subject matter is heavy—I am talking about death, after all—but I don’t think we have to discuss it in a ponderous, inaccessible, ‘academic’ fashion.”

He doubts he would have turned his lectures on death into a book at all without the transcripts and the feedback from people outside Yale “suggesting there’s a hunger for this stuff.” Since his lectures went online, he’s heard from people all over the world. He’s even become a kind of philosopher-guru in China, where volunteers created Mandarin subtitles for his videotaped lectures.

“I’ve just had the most amazing experiences with it,” he says of his participation in Open Yale. “I get e-mails from people in all walks of life, from literally all corners of the globe.” Some want to engage him in philosophical debate; others share stories about their own grappling with life-and-death issues. In many cases, “people were striking a deeply personal note,” he says. “The whole range of it has been humbling and gratifying.”

Laura Davulis, associate editor for history and large digital projects at the Yale press, edits the series. Because the authors are so steeped in their material, and because the idea is to preserve the original spirit of the lectures, “I definitely have a lighter hand” in editing, she says. “My role is really more guidance in terms of how to take material that’s spoken and turn it into something that’s appropriate for a reading audience but still has that friendliness and accessibility of sitting in a course and listening to the lecture.”

The books in the series aren’t peer-reviewed as outside manuscripts would normally be, according to Ms. Davulis, but they’re approved by the press’s acquisitions panel and its faculty committee. Although the series is aimed at readers beyond Yale, it makes for a nice on-campus partnership between Yale’s press and the online-education project. “One of the things we wanted to play up was the Yale connection,” she says.

To reinforce that, the book jackets feature details from sculptures and other campus artwork. Mr. Kagan’s book, for instance, sports the image of a skull from a stained-glass window in the university’s Hall of Graduate Studies.

[Image: book jacket of "Death" by Shelly Kagan, Yale University Press, 2012. Used courtesy of Yale University Press.]


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