In May 2008, Brooklyn-based indie rock band Vampire Weekend released the single, “Oxford Comma.” The song, famously, begins with the line “Who gives a fuck about an oxford comma?” The implication of this line is that the grammatical debate about the inclusion or suppression of the serial comma is one of many effete concerns that are more a matter of pretension that reasonable concern, of a level of everyday importance tantamount to meeting the Dalai Lama (extraordinary, but not necessary), or getting to know one’s butler (necessary only if you have a butler).  The only reason to bring it up is to impress. As much as I like Vampire Weekend, I have to admit that they might have gotten this one wrong. I think everyone should climb the Dharamsala if given the opportunity, and as a feminist I have to say that generally speaking I find Li’l Jon’s bass-heavy titles to be more misogynistic than truthful. Also, and very suddenly, I have been made to “give a fuck about an oxford comma.”

With a team of administrators, programmers, video editors, and students, I am developing a Massive, Open, Online Course or, “MOOC.” To be offered on the edX platform this fall, 4.605x, “A Global History of Architecture: Part 1” will be the first MOOC offering on the subject of architectural history. Material for the course is adapted from MIT Professor Mark Jarzombek’s spring 2013 lecture course, “Introduction to the History and Theory of Architecture.” Based current enrollment, it is estimated that 4.605x will attract 100,000 students from around the world. The size and diversity of this projected student body presents a number of concerns to the team developing the edX offering. These concerns range from the pedagogical-how do we represent the course content in a way that is accessible and user friendly for a global audience, without compromising content or experience-? to the mundane-in this sentence, do we want to use the oxford comma or not?

The oxford comma can have a marked effect on syntactical connotation and word meaning. One of the more humorous examples is the oft-repeated The Times TV listing:

By train, plane and sedan chair, Peter Ustinov retraces a journey made by Mark Twain a century ago. The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.

As the magazine Mental Floss pointed out  earlier this year, this ridiculous passage  supports the use of the Oxford comma, “because it keeps Mandela from being a dildo collector.” (They go on no note: “However, even the Oxford comma can’t keep him from being an 800-year-old demigod. There’s only so much a comma can do.”)

Here on the 4.605x course team, our challenges are not so perilous but do present, in the order of magnitude of that preceding absurdity, proleptic  anxieties. To the extent that one should take care not to associate the former President of South Africa with assembled sexual instruments, one does not want to engender the complaints of 100,000 strangers.

In the syllabus for our massive, open, online course, our course requirements have been outlined as follows:

Watch all lectures, complete all lecture review questions, and complete the mid-term exam and final exams.

It would also be grammatically correct to have listed these requirements as…

Watch all lectures, complete all lecture review questions and complete the mid-term exam and final exams.

…and this is how we had written the sentence, originally.

Now, it could be said that any reasonable person would read these sentences as both saying that in this course, you have to watch lectures and answer questions after them, regularly; also, there is a final exam and mid-term that you’ll have to do. It is also entirely possible to read the sentences differently, with the first meaning what I just wrote and the second seeming to imply that after watching lectures–perhaps iteratively, perhaps in a marathon–there is a sequence of assessments that includes review questions, a mid-term exam, and a final exam; perhaps this sequence happens weekly, or after each lecture; perhaps one will be forced to complete the same mid-term and final exam after watching every lecture. With 100,000 students reading the syllabus, there is no way of knowing how it will be interpreted. I will not be monitoring the course after it goes live, in September, but I certainly don’t want to burden whoever might be with the remote possibility of demands for clarification, statsitcally amplified by 100,000 opportunities for misreading. Additionally, I do not want to burden a student, for whom English is not their first language, with any possible confusion about how this course offering is structured. Not including the oxford comma in our description of course requirements takes for granted the meaning of the terms “mid-term” and “final” to mean comprehensive exams taken seven weeks and at the conclusion of a semester-long course, and this is unfair. English is our language of instruction, and there isn’t anything I can do about that (as I am only fluent in English myself), but that doesn’t mean we should penalize our students for being unfamiliar with American academic lexicon.

I never would have thought that I would “give a fuck about an oxford comma,” but now I have to. It is these and other surprises that we hope this blog will share to you. We at MIT’s Office of Digital Learning are at the frontier of open online course development, which presents many exiting challenges, which have been written elsewhere. What the 4.605x course team wants to communicate, with this blog, is the quotidian realities of constructing an online learning environment. Perhaps you will find it interesting, perhaps you will find it useful. It is our hope that this blog imparts to you experiences that you can apply in your own work in the exciting world of online education. We will write regularly as this course develops, a process which concludes in late August.

–Samuel Ray Jacobson, MITx Fellow

One thought on “Oxford Comma

  1. Grant says:

    Why not use a bullet point list to remove confusion entirely? The course requirements are:
    *Watch all lectures
    *Complete all lecture review questions
    *Complete the mid-term exam
    *Complete the final exam

    If that won’t work due to some other requirement, fix it as so:

    The course requirements are: Watch all lectures, complete all lecture review questions, complete the mid-term exam, complete the final exam.

    Lastly, to fix the TV Listing sentence from The Times, rearrange the order:

    The highlights of his global tour include encounters with a dildo collector, an 800-year-old demigod and Nelson Mandela.

    Now it’s clear with or without the oxford comma.

    Or if you want to fix it with only punctuation, do it as so:

    The highlights of his global tour include encounters with: Nelson Mandela; an 800-year-old demigod; and a dildo collector.

    When trying to remove confusion from a list of items in a sentence, there’s plenty of ways to do so if you don’t restrict yourself to the original order or to keeping it a sentence.

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