Coursera and the Art of Brevity

I admit it: I have a problem. My family is concerned, my friends are perplexed and my boyfriend is beginning to despair. Due to a crippling psychological disorder, I am physically unable to allow pockets of free time to creep into my hectic work-life schedule.

That’s not to say that I’m some kind of superwoman. Far from it. I’m just as susceptible as the next person to naps and YouTube and all-encompassing hangovers that last until 10pm the following day. My problem is that I see a week of free evenings stretching out ahead of me and, instead of thinking, “Great! I’ll piss about and go to the pub and watch an entire series of House of Cards,” I think to myself, “Great! I’ll learn Spanish and write a novel and master macroeconomics.” At which point I piss about, go to the pub, watch an entire series of House of Cards, then panic and try to squeeze 6 months’ worth of intellectual activity into the hours I should be sleeping on a Sunday night.

The latest enabler of my addiction is Coursera. If you haven’t discovered it yet, take a look: it’s amazing. Coursera is a website where you can sign up for online versions of degree modules from major universities, wherever you are in the world, for free. These are made up of video lectures and set reading, and are assessed through multiple choice tests or short essays, depending on the demands of the course.

You can take courses on just about anything and they’re open to everyone, with no entry qualifications or maximum class sizes. It is, however, intense – like a normal degree module, to do each course properly you need to set aside anything between 5 and 12 hours a week. Naturally, given that I work long hours and run a small company of my own along my main job, I signed up to four courses, then had to drop one when I realised I was trying to do the equivalent of one and a half degrees in my non-existent spare time. Which is a shame, as the course I had to let slide was Wesleyan’s The Modern and the Postmodern, the reading list for which covers Marx, Baudelaire, Rousseau and Freud – the stuff that dreams are made of, for a literature geek like me. I just hope that they repeat the course next year so that I can do it properly.

One course that has been invaluable to me is Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World. Much like my English degree, this is structured so that each week you cover a new author, then write an essay on any aspect you like of that author’s work, generally covering as much or as little of their oeuvre as you deem appropriate. Where it differs from my English degree, however, is that these essays must be between 270-320 words long.

Reading feverishly through vast amounts of text, coming up with enough ideas to fill an essay and then churning one out in a continuous flow of 3am hysteria comes relatively naturally to me, but a tightly constructed argument of just a few hundred words, one that manages to convey a sense of deep analysis without seeming artificially brief or over-edited, is a different matter altogether. As any writer or editor in just about any medium can tell you, crafting a well-written short piece is a far more arduous task than writing a long one; as George Bernard Shaw famously wrote*, “I’m sorry this letter is so long, I didn’t have time to make it shorter.”

From a journalistic perspective, the challenge of communicating complex ideas with minimal words has, I feel, helped to sharpen my writing style and deliver an argument with more clarity and focus. When faced with a limited word count, the temptation can be to either cram in far too many thematic references without the space to explain them fully, or to hone in too tightly on a single aspect, without being able to show effectively enough how it relates to the whole.

Both of these approaches are, of course, entirely at odds with good journalism, the purpose of which is to demystify a cacophonic multitude of facts and forces in just enough detail to be understood by a non-specialist readership, without losing or distorting the key truths along the way. In the words of Albert Einstein, another great communicator, “everything should be made as simple as possible – but no simpler.”

Update: To show you what I mean, below are a handful of examples of essays I’ve written during the course, (with varying success). Please note that these essays were explicitly written for fellow readers of the course and so don’t give any plot exposition… but if the urge seizes you, all of the text are available for free online.

Mary Shelley | Frankenstein

In Frankenstein, Shelley explores a fundamental tenet of Romanticism: the distrust of “progress”. When Frankenstein states his ability to turn ‘violent passions’ into an ‘eager desire to learn’, he reflects the claim of Rousseau (a major influence on Shelley’s contemporaries) that “before art fashioned our manners and taught our passions to speak an affected language, our habits were rustic but natural”.

Shelley’s choice of language is intrinsically tied to this claim. When Frankenstein talks of scientific goals, the words he uses are not only tinged with inevitability (“imperative”, “irrevocable”, “fate”, “destiny”) but, crucially, are overwhelmingly drawn from Latin roots – as are the roots of the scientific ideas that his father deems so dangerous. Compare this to the shift in language as he talks of family, where the words used (tender, mould, worth, straw, life, bond, love) are drawn from Proto-Indo-European roots, dating far back beyond any major classical civilisation to the very earliest human needs. Like Rousseau, Shelley appears to seek meaning in not only the values but the actual words of early man.

For Shelley, this is not a simple case of rejecting civilisation for our ‘savage’ roots. Repeatedly we are presented with the concept of the chimera, either ostensibly (as Frankenstein’s father describes the work of his scientific heroes), or symbolically, in the monstrous physical chimera Frankenstein creates from multiple bodies, and references to the peaceful homeland of Switzerland, a cultural chimera of French, German and Italian. In Frankenstein, change itself is not the issue; it is ignoring our roots that is catastrophic. Frankenstein does not contravene ‘human law’ through his experiment, but through domestic neglect. His progeny’s potential to be kind is corrupted by separation, first from his parent-creator, then by wider society. As Shelley reminds us, “Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow; nought may endure but Mutability”. Humans, she suggests, will inevitably change and evolve. Rejecting this is not only futile but potentially fatal.

Ray Bradbury | The Martian Chronicles

In The Martian Chronicles, Bradbury explores conflicts of human nature through three manifestations of missionary figure – spiritual, cultural and military – and through the figure of Lord Byron, in which all three symbolically converge.

Byron is widely revered as a creator of sublime cultural works, but the exquisite balance and beauty conjured in “She Walks in Beauty” is contradicted by the infamously hedonistic philandering of his private life – the kind of “sinful” behaviour that Father Peregrine deplores in the new colonies. Byron was also a soldier, voluntarily joining the Greek fight against their Ottoman invaders; he believed passionately that he was defending an ancient, noble and learned culture against invaders so barbaric that they, like Spender’s crewmates, used classical monuments as “target practice”.

Like Byron, each of the missionary figures we encounter in The Martian Chronicles carries “the book with him in one hand, the pistol ready in his other”. Their goals, no matter how noble, are driven by a personal need to conquer, and so fail to move those they encounter in any lasting way. Human culture (via Byron’s poetry) first reaches Mars as an “odd and frightening song” that traumatises the Martians as it infiltrates their “entertainment”; Spender’s newfound appreciation for Mars is expressed in a violent military exercise to murder his colleagues; Peregrine’s wish to convert the “blue spheres” for his own pride is thwarted, leaving the Fathers wondering “what church could compete with the fireworks of the soul?”

The repeated references to Byron’s poetry serve as subtle reminders that each character’s mission to conquer the land, hearts or minds of those they encounter are, like Byron himself, awash with internal contradictions, intrinsically linked to personal need, ambition or gratification, and frequently backed with violence. Each mission, too, takes humans and Martians as physical, spiritual and cultural collateral: only the “blue spheres”, removed from human desires altogether, are able to achieve true happiness and longevity.

Ursula LeGuin | The Left Hand of Darkness

Throughout fairytale and Christian mythology, fish are used as soul-symbols; for Jung, they represent “the “nourishing” influence of unconscious contents, which maintain the vitality of consciousness by a continual influx of energy”. In The Left Hand of Darkness, LeGuin expands this fish metaphor to explore the relationship between personhood and society.

The words “fish”, “fishing” and “fisherman” appear 35 times in the novel. In the parade, Karhidians advance “as comfortably as fish through the sea”, each person at ease with their social position and interconnecting relationships. Estraven is rescued by fishermen, but stripped of any link to society, finds himself “laid out like a gutted black-fish”. In Orgoreyn, a “unified and increasingly efficient centralised state” that mirrors Cold War-era USSR, Estraven toils on “Fish Island”, where fish are industrially processed and humans are correspondingly stripped of privacy, names and identities. When Shusgis remarks that Estraven was found in “a glue factory or fish cannery or some such place”, he references the psychological death – in Jungian terms, death of the vitality of consciousness – experienced by mechanised humans, cut off from their community.

For Ai, the fish symbol leads to a powerful reconnection with the subconscious and social connectedness. AI stands for “Artificial Intelligence,” a science concerned with rationality, removed from individual desires – reflected in the kingless coalition of Ekumen and Ai’s description of his mission: “Material profit. Increase of Knowledge. The augmentation of… intelligent life.” Drawn by “the delicious smell of… fish”, however, Ai finds his rational worldview destabilised. The symbol leads him to Faxe and the “wordless” experience that exposes him to the underlying “chaos” of his unconscious, “all sexually charged and grotesquely violent.” Although “uneasy”, Ai discovers he can control these unconscious forces only by becoming “a figure in the pattern, in the web”. For LeGuin, individual humanity can only enjoy the ““nourishing” influence of unconscious elements” when experienced within a community – like fish within a shoal.

*Yes, yes, and Pascal, and Twain.


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