It’s 3 a.m. and the emails are coming in fast and furious. My iPhone is pinging like a Vegas slot machine that’s come up all cherries. What’s the emergency? I had just joined a discussion thread for a popular online poetry class—ModPo—and Emily Dickinson’s "Volcanoes Be in Sicily" is the subject of hot debate. Within 24 hours, there are over a hundred posts about this poem alone: "Why the archaic use of 'be'?" "What of the perplexing 'lava steps'?" One participant lapses into German and has started a discussion group in Switzerland. Another gushes, "ModPo=cyber peyote."
It’s the third year of the Modern & Contemporary American Poetry course, the brainchild of University of Pennsylvania English professor Al Filreis. ModPo is taught out of UPenn but it’s delivered as a MOOC—also known as a "massive open online course"—meaning it’s a virtual, free class available to Internet users around the world. ModPo enrolled 42,000 students in its first year and some 38,000 this past semester. Enrollees get access to a syllabus, links to texts, and prerecorded discussions of the poems, along with other video clips. They take periodic quizzes and write optional essays. And every Wednesday features a live webcast from UPenn’s Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia. Filreis stresses that the community aspect—study and meetup groups, real or virtual—is integral to the online coursework, and he and his team strive to make themselves available to students. After our recent phone interview, Filreis even invited me to a meetup in Manhattan to see ModPo in action.