Little known fact: MOOCs (massive open online courses) were invented by Vladimir Nabokov in his campus novel, Pnin, long before Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig launched their “Online Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” in 2011.
During a dinner party thrown by the novel’s scholar protagonist, the Russian émigré Timofey Pnin, a Waindell College colleague suggests “lock[ing] up the students in a soundproof cell and eliminat[ing] the lecture room….Phonograph records on every possible subject will be at the isolated student’s disposal.”
When one guest protests that the personality of the professor surely counts for something, another suggests that “One could have Timofey televised.” And thus was the seed of online education planted, to bloom years later with Udacity, edX, and Coursera.
Now the University of Iowa International Writing Program is getting in on the MOOC action. The storied program is conducting its first massive open online course this summer, a six-week, “interactive study of the practice of the writing poetry.” To deliver the first “video session” for its new MOOC, Iowa is piping in the former U.S. poet laureate Robert Hass, which calls to mind his great line from “Meditations at Lagunitas”: “Longing, we say, because desire is full of/ endless distances.”
I have no doubt that the eloquent and witty Haas can bridge those “endless distances” with his presentation, but the Iowa course got me wondering about how certain fictional professors would fare in the world of online education. Which heroes of those quaint, insular works known as “campus novels” would be most adaptable to the MOOC format? Which—through eccentricity, incompetence, irresponsibility, megalomania, erudition or media savvy—could best attract the teeming hordes of online learners? I present seven candidates.
Timofey Pnin (Pnin): Laundry Hour
Pnin is delighted by the tongue-in-cheek proposal to televise his classes, logical given that he is a bit of an exhibitionist, “brazenly” displaying a bit of calf when crossing his legs in the novel’s opening scene. However, his “mythopoetic” mispronunciations and teaching style make him a less-than-ideal ideal candidate for a MOOC:
…he preferred reading his lectures, his gaze glued to his text, in a slow, monotonous baritone that seemed to climb one of those interminable flights of stairs used by people who dread elevators.
When Pnin does go off-text, he embarks on long digressions, “nostalgic excursions in broken English,” which endlessly amuse him while bemusing his students.
And yet he is not without potential for broader appeal. Perhaps a YouTube channel might be a better fit for Pnin, especially considering the slapstick comedy arising from his “constant war with insensate objects.” I for one would tune in to watch him indulge his “passionate intrigue” with washing machines. Despite being banned from using his landlord’s, he casts “aside all decorum and caution” and tosses anything he can think of into it “just for the joy of watching through that porthole what looked like an endless tumble of dolphins with the staggers.” Viral sensations have been built on flimsier conceits.
William Stone (Stoner): Copulating Verbs
Stoner’s initial dourness eventually gives way to a brightening gloom as the protagonist’s disappointments and suffered indignities mount. When a snide colleague quips that “To Stoner, copulation is restricted to verbs,” he inadvertently gets at the truth behind the mild-mannered Stoner’s long teaching career: it is a love story. The poem that sparks Stoner’s love affair with literature is Shakespeare’s Sonnet #73, whose subject learns “To love that well which thou must leave ere long.”
Though the novel begins with a clinical assessment of a man who never rises above Assistant Professor and whom students don’t remember “with any sharpness,” it gradually reveals the intensity of a love felt for people and grammar alike:
It was a passion neither of the mind nor of the flesh; rather, it was a force that comprehended them both, as if they were but the matter of love, its specific substance. To a woman or to a poem, it said simply: Look! I am alive.
As his mistress and fellow teacher says at one point, “Lust and learning… That’s really all there is, isn’t it?” When taught by Stoner, the Latin Tradition and Renaissance Literature has never sounded hotter.
Hank Devereaux (Straight Man): Negotiation Strategies
Richard Russo’s Hank Devereaux, the “physical embodiment of the perversity principle,” seems the most MOOC-ready professor (despite suffering from what his doctor calls a “hysterical prostrate”). Variously known as Lucky Hank or “Judas Peckerwood,” he is the entertaining chair of an English Department at a small college in rural Pennsylvania whose antics make him into something of a local TV personality. His spiritual guide is William of Occam, whose eponymous principle holds that the simplest of competing explanations is the better. The problem for Hank is that he is in the middle of a giant farce, and in farce finding any explanation, however simple, for the multiplying mishaps is itself a tricky proposition.
In his valiant effort to secure an operating budget amidst funding cutbacks and shifting priorities—the campus is breaking ground on a new “Technical Careers Campus”—Hank grasps that he must fight farce with farce. Demonstrating how to be an effective negotiator in front a pool of reporters, he makes the following threat:
Starting Monday, I kill a duck a day until I get a budget. This is a nonnegotiable demand. I want the money on my desk in unmarked bills by Monday morning, or this guy will be soaking in orange sauce and full of cornbread stuffing by Monday night.
That he is wearing a novelty nose, and holding a goose instead of a duck, in no way diminishes the soundness of his strategy in dealing with benighted administrators or tight-fisted legislatures. In terms of professors making spectacles of themselves, Hank is rivaled only by David Kepesh from Philip Roth’s The Breast.
Julian Morrow (The Secret History): “The Terrible Seduction of the Dionysiac Ritual”
Moving from one charismatic professor to another, we encounter Julian Morrow, The Secret History’s Classics professor who encourages his Classics students to embrace their inner godheads:
If we are strong enough in our souls we can rip away the veil and look that naked, terrible beauty right in the face; let God consume us, devour us, unstring our bones. Then spit us out reborn.
Set in a small New England College town, Hampden, Donna Tartt’s novel is about the bad effects of good education—or rather, a supremely, seductively good education. Guided by their brilliant teacher through the mysteries of the Greek canon, Julian’s tutees, beguiled by their teacher’s statements about the self-annihilating pleasures of Dionysian ritual, decide to try it for themselves. The unfortunate local man who is subsequently torn apart by the maddened cohort probably wishes they had majored in economics instead.
A marvelous, “magical talker,” Julian seems like the kind of Nietzschean “super professor” that critics of MOOCs fear they will create. As one of his students writes in his semester evaluation: “How…can I possibly make the Dean of Studies understand that there is a divinity in our midst?” What better spokesman for the bloviating apostles of disruptive online education than a man who can say with a straight face: “I hope we are all ready to leave the phenomenal world and enter into the sublime?”
One reservation is that Julian’s small coterie did serious damage with their orgiastic rites and fits of “telestic madness.” I shudder to think what would happen should Julian’s eloquent lectures inspire not just four students but a massive group to murderous states of Bacchic frenzy.
Jim Dixon (Lucky Jim): Facial Recognition
Jim Dixon, the protagonist of Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, is an adjunct seeking to secure a more permanent position from his “incurable evader” of an advisor. As an academic, Jim displays an “enforced avoidance of anything ambitious,” though he does exert an impressive control over his pliable face, pushing himself to put it “through all its permutations of loathing.”
“I’m the sort of person you soon get to the end of,” Dixon admits to the beautiful fiancée of his advisor’s son, an admission belied by the inexhaustible supply of faces he pulls. Grotesque though they may be, they provide a creative outlet and demonstrate a kind of genius, both of which are lacking in his dissertation: The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485. There is Jim’s Eskimo face, his lemon-sucking face, his mandrill face, his Evelyn Waugh face, and an improvised face so savage it doesn’t have a name:
Gripping his tongue between his teeth, he made his cheeks expand into little hemispherical balloons; he forced his upper lip downwards into an idiotic pout; he protruded his chin like the blade of a shovel. Throughout he alternately dilated and crossed his eyes.
When Jim gets the girl and a plum, non-academic job at novel’s end—the luck has to change at some point—he has no corresponding expression. A smile, presumably, would be too pedestrian, so until he has time to settle into his new, sunnier life, he settles for his “Sex Life in Ancient Rome” face, which every online learner should have in his or her repertoire.
Professors Zapp and Swallow (Changing Places): Humiliation on a Massive Scale
It might seem perverse to mention David Lodge’s Changing Places in the context of MOOCs, given that no campus novel emphasizes the effect of physical presence on a campus—Euphoric State (UC Berkeley) or Rummidge (University of Birmingham)—on the personal and intellectual life more clearly than Lodge’s. Morriz Zapp, the author of “five fiendishly clever books” travels to England, while Philip Swallow, the stalled British academic comes to America to understand “American literature for the first time in his life…its prodigality and indecorum, its yea-saying heterogeneity.” The two professors, who begin the novel crossing each other on planes, end up with their respective wives/mistress in a hotel room, the culmination to the various kinds of cultural and sexual exchanges that occur throughout.
Though Zapp can reportedly “make Austen swing,” a better use of his and Swallow’s talents would be in a course on “Humiliation,” the parlor game made famous in Changing Places. In it, players admit to not having read a canonical book. The winning player is the one whose selection has been read by the most number of other players. That is, the winner is the player who has demonstrated the most embarrassing gaps in his or her reading list. (In the novel, a hyper-competitive professor cops to never having read Hamlet; he wins the game but loses his job.)
Picture it: “Humiliation” played on a massive scale, transformed from a parlor game into a sociological survey that could reveal once and for all the most famous text one has not read. What better way to unleash two of the Internet’s greatest powers, crowd sourcing and shame? I’ll start. The Grapes of Wrath. (This is anonymous, right?)
Image via mayeesherr/Flickr
Like many people, I was saddened when it was publicized that Philip Roth had quietly announced his retirement in an interview with a French magazine. By chance, the news came near the end of a year during which my attitude toward Roth changed from appreciation to obsession. Before 2012, I had read perhaps 10 of Roth’s books in a decade. This year, I read 15 Roth novels in a row, the literary equivalent of binge-watching multiple seasons of a serial television drama. The more I read, the more I appreciated how Roth writes not only with technical virtuosity and aesthetic mastery, but also with profound spiritual intent. In this way, he reminds me of the 85-year-old Japanese master chef portrayed in the recent documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. At the top of their fields and now in their twilight years, both come across as men who vacillate between narcissism and humility, perfectionists for whom life is work and work is life. As a tribute, I offer the following 10 key ideas I gleaned from Roth’s work and career. I hope these inspire fans to revisit his books, detractors to give him another try, and newcomers to read him for the first time.
1. Work hard. With 31 books in 51 years – from Goodbye Columbus (1959) to Nemesis (2010), Roth cranked out copy like Danielle Steele, James Patterson, or Stephen King, not like a precious literary genius. He could have rested on his laurels in any of the last six decades, gone off the grid like Salinger, or found a nice sinecure at a writers’ workshop. But he just kept on writing. Roth was probably at the height of his powers in the late 90s and early 2000s, the years of the masterful trilogy (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain) and The Plot Against America. But his recent books are equally elegant, the kind of short novels that demand to be read in one sitting. If you think you work too hard, think about Roth and think again. If you’re satisfied with your accomplishments, think again. Roth’s won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award (twice each), the PEN/Faulkner Award (three times), and is the only writer to have his canon published by the Library of America while still alive. The protagonist of Everyman quotes the painter Chuck Close as saying “amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work.” Indeed.
2. People are animals. Roth’s male characters cannot keep it in their pants. Their lives are filled with sex, mostly adulterous sex, mostly sex with younger women. His titles alone suggest carnality (The Professor of Desire), physicality (The Anatomy Lesson), beastliness (The Dying Animal), ejaculation (The Human Stain) and straight-up sex (The Prague Orgy). In his silliest novel, The Breast, a philandering professor David Kepesh wakes up to discover that he has become a giant mammary. For all the misery their lust causes them and their wives and lovers, these guys rarely seem to learn from – or apologize for — their peccadilloes. While these tales both celebrate and caution against lechery, they are not pornography. Roth’s books lack the soft-core aspect of Haruki Murakami or John Updike or Anne Rice sex scenes. Although many of his characters objectify and mistreat women, it’s reductive to call Roth a misogynist. If anything his characters love women too much, albeit in an oft-misguided way. As Roth writes in Deception, “With the lover, everyday life recedes.” Such characters’ urges seem motivated not by hedonism, but by the desire to slake needs, to find companionship, to stave off mortality. Following the classic writing teacher advice to take away your hero’s central desire – Roth makes his alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman impotent, which only makes him hungrier for sex and more appreciative of its power. In a country where sex is still taboo, Roth’s embrace of such a core biological and psychological compulsion is not merely titillating or salacious, but refreshing.
3. We are alone and want to be known. Despite their busy bedrooms, Roth’s characters are often hermits, recluses, and lone wolves. His three major recurring alter egos – Zuckerman, Kepesh, and “Philip Roth” — are all lonely, as are many of his secondary characters, whether they are young, middle-aged, or old. Yet for all their solitude and secret lives and double lives, they still strive for the love of friends or mentors or heroes or parents or siblings or lovers. Throughout his work, Roth suggests that the deepest human longing is the desire to be known, not merely biblically, but intellectually, emotionally, and existentially. Yet we are all fundamentally mysteries to each other. As Zuckerman says in The Human Stain: “For all that the world is full of people who go around believing they’ve got you or your neighbor figured out, there really is no bottom to what is not known. The truth about us is endless. As are the lies.” Another character in the same novel speaks to the dilemma at the heart of Roth’s characters and perhaps of all humanity: “afraid of being exposed, dying to be seen.”
4. The flesh is weak. This is true for Roth’s characters not only in their lasciviousness, but also in their fascination with their own physical frailty and mortality. Like an episode of Law and Order or The Wire or Midsomer Murders, nearly every Roth novel features at least one death. His work is also filled with illnesses – cancer, strokes, chronic pain — and a multitude of scenes at hospitals, funeral homes, and cemeteries. All this death – and the possibility of death — raises the dramatic stakes and adds to the existential malaise and weightiness. In The Human Stain, Zuckerman describes a crowd at a concert as “an entity of sensate flesh and warm red blood, separated from oblivion by the thinnest, most fragile layer of life.” And it’s not only old people who confront death. In Nemesis, a polio epidemic strikes kids. In The Plot Against America, the narrator’s adolescent cousin loses a leg in World War II. “The Life and Death of the Male Body” — a phrase from Everyman — seems to sum up Roth’s oeuvre. But it’s not all gloom. For all their physical frailty, Roth’s characters want to live, to love, and often, to write until their last breath.
5. Beware of ideology. In Roth’s world, personal tragedy and political tragedy go hand in hand and ideologies like communism, fascism, terrorism – and their antitheses — have deadly consequences. I Married A Communist is the biography of a radio host who falls victim to McCarthyism. The Plot Against America imagines an alternate reality where America flirts with fascism and Nazi Germany under President Charles Lindbergh. Pulitzer Prize-winner American Pastoral is the story of a homegrown female terrorist. In The Human Stain, an aging professor battles with political correctness and professional persecution at the university as well as neo-Puritanism in the era of Clinton and Lewinsky. In The Prague Orgy, Zuckerman goes to Eastern Europe, where the secret police track his every move. And in many of his novels, Roth speaks of the horrors of a century of American militarism, from World War I and II to Vietnam and Korea to Afghanistan and Iraq. And according to a character in The Human Stain, human history consists of two types: “the ruthless and the defenseless.” Overall, the message seems to be that any mass political movement – on the left or on the right, radical or reactionary, secular or religious – poses grave danger to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. A eulogy in The Human Stain celebrates “the American individualist,” suggesting that people are better off when they think for themselves.
6. Prejudice is alive and well. Along with his distrust of ideology, Roth’s fiction critiques the pervasive Anti-Semitism and racism in America. Roth’s protagonists are mostly secular or atheist or agnostic Jews, but they still identify as Jewish, and perhaps more important, others label them as Jews. Roth was born in 1933, the year Hitler came to power, a historical fact that lingers in his books. Sometimes it’s a major plot point, as in The Plot Against America, which includes forced resettlement of Jews, or in The Ghostwriter when Zuckerman meets a woman he believes is Anne Frank, or I Married A Communist, which links anti-Semitism and McCarthyism. Not that Roth spares Jews from his critical eye. The Zionist rabbi in The Counterlife and the rabbi in The Plot Against America who colludes with the Lindbergh regime are two of his most villainous and least sympathetic characters. And his narrators often vent their frustration with the strictures of Judaism. Zuckerman is often called a traitor for his fictional depictions of Jews. In Portnoy’s Complaint, the narrator’s mother thinks he’s eating non-Kosher food in the bathroom, when in fact he’s masturbating. And there’s one aching moment in The Plot Against America where a young boy sees his mother on the bus through the world’s eyes: “It was then that I realized…that my mother looked Jewish. Her hair, her nose, her eyes – my mother looked unmistakably Jewish. But then so must I, who so strongly resembled her. I hadn’t known.” In one of his finest books, The Human Stain, Roth adds the issue of racism through Coleman Silk, an African-American professor who “passes” as white and pretends to be Jewish to his family, friends, and colleagues. While overt anti-Semitism and racism may be less common in 2012 than it was in Roth’s youth – and an African-American is our president – Roth implies that we shouldn’t congratulate ourselves on our tolerance. Given America’s history of racism and religious persecution and more recent treatment of Muslims since 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the constitutional claim that “all men are created equal” is more of a hope than a reality.
7. New Jersey is beautiful. There’s no deeper prejudice than the native New Yorker’s snobbery about New Jersey, a prejudice I share despite a dad from Hoboken, a girlfriend from East Brunswick, and a lot of time spent in the Garden State over the last two years. But let’s be honest. New Jersey deserves a lot of its bad rap: the traffic and toxic smells on the turnpike, the Guidos and Guidettes down the shore, the violence and poverty in Newark and Camden. Even the musical celebrities – Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, and Bon Jovi — are mercilessly cheesy. Yet in Roth’s eyes, New Jersey is beautiful, if not aesthetically, then emotionally. And as Roth points out in The Human Stain, New Jersey was originally called New Caesarea, a name surely suggestive of an empire. Not that Roth romanticizes Jersey: the squalor and decay of his once idyllic native Newark is recurrent, but he portrays it as a real place with complexities and contradictions, virtues and flaws. While his Jersey-born characters often escape to the culture of New York or the tranquility of the Berkshires, and Roth himself has lived in Connecticut and New York sine 1972, you can’t take the Jersey out of the kid or the books. When he dies, I hope the state finds an appropriate way to honor him. No disrespect to Woodrow Wilson, Vince Lombardi, and Thomas Edison, but I hope it’s not the Philip M. Roth Rest Stop. Then again, it might be fitting. Like that quintessential Jersey car – the Ford Mustang — that first came out in 1964, back when Roth had only two books to his name — Roth is an American classic whose styles change, but is always recognizable as itself.
8. There’s a fine line between reality, fiction, and fantasy. Many writers blur the boundary between fiction and their own lives. Roth takes this to an extreme. His characters are writers, professors, and artists who might as well be writers, and even a recurring “character” named Philip Roth. (Fortunately, Roth has the good sense to focus more on their personal lives than their literary lives). His favorite settings include his native Newark, Chicago (where he went to graduate school), and the fictional Athena College, which reads like a small town New England fusion of the schools where Roth studied and taught (Bucknell, Chicago, and Princeton). Even his more outlandish premises (The Breast, The Plot Against America) are grounded in reality. While Roth may have some literary gas left in his tank, he’s clearly concerned with events of this world. There’s no danger of him writing Nathan Zuckerman: Vampire Hunter.
9. The Power of Three. Roth’s stories are filled with grace and grandeur, fast-paced plots, and high stakes drama. He writes both linear and non-linear narratives, often with seamlessly overlapping layers of memory and reflection. While he favors first person narration, he also experiments: deception is written entirely in dialogue, essentially a play without stage directions. And beyond his subject, there is the majesty of his prose, lush but never dense, intellectual but never pretentious. His sentences can be one word or contain 23 verbs, like a sentence in The Plot Against America. One paragraph in I Married A Communist uses the word betrayed or “betrayal” 23 times. And like a character in The Human Stain, his best friend seems to be the dictionary. Full analysis of Roth’s prose would take a dissertation, so I’ll look at one signature move. Open any page of Roth at random and you’re almost guaranteed to find at least one triplet. One word repeated three times in a single sentence. The same word in three consecutive sentences. A sentence with three nouns or three adjectives or three verbs. A sentence with three adverbs or three prepositions or three proper names. Three consecutive sentences that begin with the same word or phrase (anaphora). Three consecutive sentences that consist of a single word. Three consecutive sentences of dialogue. Three consecutive questions. And permutations and combinations of all the above. One of Roth’s favored techniques is to describe a character’s outfit in terms of three items of clothing. Even when he quotes other writers – such as Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, or Anton Chekhov — he uses passages that feature triplets. Roth mentions this technique in Exit Ghost, which confirmed my suspicion that he writes triplets on purpose. Yet despite its ubiquity the technique never gets stale, because Roth’s command of grammar, syntax, and punctuation – especially em dashes, colons, and semi-colons — gives him a seemingly limitless number of ways to write triplets. After I noticed the technique, I started marking triplets with a 123 in the margins – and then using triplets in my own prose (as you might have noticed). As Joan Didion once said: “Nothing is too heavy to lift.”
10. Know when to quit. Roth’s retirement announcement was not entirely surprising. Now a few months shy of his 80th birthday, he hadn’t published a book since Nemesis in 2010, and in Roth time, two years is an eternity. He also hinted at his literary exit in 2011, when he told The Financial Times: “I’ve stopped reading fiction. I don’t read it at all. I read other things: history, biography. I don’t have the same interest in fiction that I once did.” Then again Roth has read plenty of fiction, including all of his own, which is more than most people, myself included, can say.
Image credit: Bill Morris/[email protected]