Big Data, Paul Robeson Shirtless

Flipped Courses, Analytics, and Derivations Big and Small

Still from The Emperor Jones, dir.  Dudley Murphy (1933).

Still from The Emperor Jones, dir. Dudley Murphy (1933).

There is a possibility that our course is going to be utilized as the foundation for “flipped” instruction, at an MIT-partner institution abroad. Like many universities, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is helping to develop curricula for an emerging university outside the United States, and it seems that our MITx offering will be adapted as an instructional tool for use in a residential situation. The details about this will emerge in the coming weeks. While our team will likely not be directly involved in facilitating this possible outcome, we do have to take steps to plan for the eventuality.

Open education of the xMOOC variety is complicated by factors such as this. The inherent problem is one of derivation. Not only is our content-driven online course inherently derivative–based, as it is, on Professor Jarzombek’s recorded lectures from Spring 2013–but it is also going to be used to develop derivative content–such as materials to facilitate residential instruction elsewhere. This means that our course team sits in middle of a bundle of pedagogical considerations stemming from translation issues. Our goal, at present and as always, is to make sure not only that as little as possible is lost in translation (holistically-speaking), but to see what we can do to make translation a value added proposition.

This derivation-driven development dynamic is not unique to our course, or even MITx. At our sister organization HarvardX, open-enrollment edX courseware is only only one facet of a series of various, parallel learning initiatives, position both ahead of and proceeding open-enrollment edX course offering.

Here is one example: Last Spring, students in Harvard course Chinese History 185, “Creating ChinaX—Teaching China’s History Online,” studied a condensed version of Professor Peter K Bol’s Societies of the World 12, “China: Traditions and Transformations,” then worked in teams to develop content and structures for this fall’s ChinaX online course offering (read more here).  In this instance, the production of edX content facilitated a pedagogically-motivated learning experience for residential students in a “bricks and mortar” environment. ChinaX will therefore feature derivative content, but the fact of that derivation has been used as a type of learning opportunity.

Here is another exmaple: Currently, a so-called “small, private online course” is being offered to incoming students of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, with the possibility that it be opened up at a later date. Here we see an opportunity of derivation of the second type that 4.605x is facing, where developed courseware is used to leveraged to create additional learning opportunities, for a larger body of stakeholders.

Unfortunately, neither of these precedents fully captures the dynamic now underway here at 4.605x.

I have been tasked with thinking through the opportunities offered in the before-and-after duration of our courseware, and I am working out my thoughts through an allusion to performance.

The Emperor Jones (directed Dudley Murphy, 1933), is a loose adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s 1920 play about a former Pullman Porter, Brutus Jones, who kills another man, goes to prison, escapes, and exploits the superstitions of the black natives to be come the ruler of a small West Indian island-nation. Much of the movie, adapted by Porgy author written by DuBose Heyward, concentrates on Jones’ back-story, which takes place before the start of the O’Neill’s play.

The actual differences between O’Neill’s play and the plot of the film are only relevant here for three reasons.

First, many consider the film to have been more or less a vehicle for Robeson’s incredible baritone. While this may be true, it also led to an incredible, and Oscar-worthy performance on his part.

Second, there are a number of aspects of the film’s non-canonical components that are dependent upon racism for their narratival effect. The first of these is the film’s opening sequence, which begins with a stereotypical portrayals of an African dance and then fades into a scene of a Baptist church in the American South, where the dancing of the congregation presents an image that argues for a continuity between the “savage” Africans and the ring-shout Baptists. The message of this allusion is heightened by the structure of the film. The climax and highlight of Heyward’s adaptation is a 12 minute spoken monologue, taken directly from O’Neill’s play, in which Jones, hunted by natives in revolt, flees through the jungle and slowly disintegrates psychologically, becoming a shrieking hysteric who runs right into the path of his pursuers. In a classic if complicated instance of secondary signification, the view of African Americans as inherently primitive, sub-humans is naturalized as the message of the Jones’ tragic narrative, which in the original can be interpreted (and I want to emphasize: can be, not should be) as an everyman’s tale of descent into alienation (like so much of O’Neill’s work).

The third reason concerns skin. The play recounts Jones’  story in flashbacks as he makes his way through the forest in an attempt to escape his former subjects, now rebelling against him. Jones, initially dressed as a king, is progressively stripped of clothing over the course of the play, revealing more of his black skin as he degenerates into a state of madness. In Staging Depth: Eugene O’Neill and the Politics of Psychological Discourse (1995), Joel Pfister explains that this “striptease” was meant to identify O’Neill’s black actors “with a sexuality that white audiences could both fascinate themselves with as an embodiment of their own psychological primitivism, yet at the same time spurn as ‘nothing more than a prancing darky on stage.'” In the film, Jones’ stint on a chain gang (mid-way through the narrative arc), creates the first opportunity to show Robeson shirtless, a form of exposure unusual for 1933 and especially for a black actor, at that time. Here, Murphy’s play with Robeson’s sexual power is codified in his exposed skin, once again naturalizing his behavior within a racist stereotype about black men and sexual prowess.

The adaptation of The Emperor Jones is a study in how derivation offers the opportunity to extend the cope of something both towards pragmatic opportunities (in this case showcasing Robeson’s sublime voice and superb acting talent), and towards the unthinking operation involved in the crass and easy exploration of stereotype as a form of short-circuited meaning production.

Here is my fear: 4.605x is a survey course, composed of relatively autonomous episodes, portrayed in lectures. I can see its content being easily misused, formulating connections that the course itself leaves ambiguous, to the detriment of students.

Having watched the course lectures out of order, a few times, I can say and Professor Jarzomebek’s lectures stand on their own easily. They are comprehensive, and entertaining (which is saying a lot: after seven years of higher education in the field of architecture studies, I’ve become pretty jaded). I can also say that no particular lecture is necessary to satisfy the overall pedagogical ambition of the course: training students in an understanding of history and architecture can be achieved even without a unit on the Minoans and discussion of the impact of the collapse of the Indus River Valley civilization in 1500 BCE, for example. That said, Professor Jarzombek’s course does not lend itself easily to historiogrpahical agendas outside the moral philosophy of the autonomy of practical reason. So while 4.605x courseware can and should be used as a resource for teaching global architectural history–few exist–I would hate to see it used to naturalize secondary aspects as overriding ones. It would be an abuse of this content to create a course centered on ideological critique (cf. Tafuri) or technical determinism (cf. Semper; Banham) for example, or to make an argument that architectural history is characterized by expressions of singularity (Frampton) or signification (Jencks)–all of which are possibilities, should one cherry-pick. Expanding on a personal example: given my background and interests I think that I could make a very interesting course out of Professor Jarzombek’s lectures that focused on gender roles and the evolution of domesticity, production, and aggregate spaces–but I think that to do so would do students a disservice, because the absolute character of 4.605 (covering the whole world, and spanning 5,000 of social history) neutralizes its particular content such that its only agenda is that of conveying material, to foster the intellectual growth of a student audience.

How can this facilitation be expanded to include a body of teachers? I don’t know. What I would like to see is metamorphoses of 4.605x, not derivations, in the same way that the course hopes to have an impact on student thinking about architecture and history, not necessarily shape it.

Members of the Office of Digital Learning are doing a lot with analytics to reconsider courseware can be designed to maximize intended impact. One recent study (here) uses anonymous, aggregated, and chronologically analyzed student click data sets to understand when and how often students utilize certain resources. This research has already had a marked impact on our course, leading to the implementation of four, regular exams rather than a mid-term and final, since research has found that students engage much more with eText when this format is used.

The impact of this leveraging of analytics remains to be seen. What we have done is essentially short-circuit the xBait-and-Bait, by utilizing assumptions generated form elsewhere. Our hope is that this metamorphosis will improve the learning experience; it is just as possible that this implementation will over-emphasize minor aspects of our courseware (such as eText), while naturalizing their assumed importance.

Unlike cinematic adaptation, driven as it is by market forces and a strong culture of genre, authorship, cliche, the dynamic of derivation within which this course team sits involves a high degree of free play. It is my hope that analytics data about, for example, what students click on the most, how this is reflected in assessment outcomes, and how demographic data might be implicated in such outcomes, can be leveraged to continue thinking pragmatically about improved learning outcomes rather than to reinforce assumptions or stereotypes. Put another way, it is my hope that we leverage our gathered data to learn what there is for us to learn, about learning, rather than to attempt to manipulate the structures we have created to conform to (or, worse, create) a lowest common denominator. For example, it would be doing students a disservice to use the data they produce while taking our course to construct an elitist paradigm whereby certain demographic sectors possess an inherent superiority with regards to our material, relative to others. It would be a further disservice for such a paradigm to over-emphasize the adaptation of our courseware by certain institutions and certain people while denying that opportunity to others. It would be incredibly useful to try, as much as possible, to model student learning experiences and to audit that to see where certain aspects of our course structure, content, and distribution can be made to evolve, positively, in either direct future iterations or within adaptations made by others.

To follow through on this last path implies a model of the adaptation of The Emperor Jones, in reverse.

I consider this course to be more or less a vehicle for Professor Jarzombek’s incredible lectures. While this may be true, it will also lead to a commendable democratization of access to world-class architectural history instruction, executed on a scale never before seen.

There are a number of components of this course’s overall structure that are dependent upon a spirit of pluralism for their pedagogical effect. The first of these is the first lecture, which begins with a rational and cautious conveyance of the limited theories and facts known about the first societies. One example of this is Professor Jarzombek’s discussion of ochre, and its use in ancestral worship ritual, which draws a connection between the use of this material in various societies, historically, without naturalizing this phenomenon within ostensibly transhistorical explanations. In a relatively novel historiographical instance, this portrayal of first societies imparts upon them their own type of modernity, whereby cultural practices are represented as a cumulative instance sitting at the end of an ongoing historical unfolding.

With this in mind, 4.605x can be seen as a kind of format for historical pluralism; it recounts the story of architecture and history in various instances as it moves through them, chronologically, in an attempt to foster literacy. Presented in episodes, the history of architecture and society gradually accumulates, its instances receding form their particularity and towards their implication in a continuum. This is the opposite of a striptease, whereby revelation is seductive by virtue of the ignorance it produces: everything one learns reveals the possibility for learning that much more. Placing material of this sort online moves the threshold of revelation back to the level of the course itself, which itself reveals its internal possibilities for additional, self-motivated revelation. Embodying a curiosity that student audiences can both fascinate themselves with as an embodiment of their own potential for knowledge, 4.605x creates for itself a new demographic of architectural historians. Future adaptions, both analytics-driven and for use in external residential education, can create further opportunities for this proliferation. In order for this to happen however the focus needs to be not on broadcasting, but on broadening the access to knowledge the course offers those participating within it to new bodies of students, freely adapted as dictated by pragmatic need.


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