Designing a ‘Massive’ Ancient Greek Hero

by Jeff Emanuel, HarvardX Fellow

"The Ancient Greek Hero" (CB22x) is based on a course that has been offered as a GenEd option within Harvard College since 1977 (as Culture and Belief 22), and which has been offered through the Extension School for nearly as long (as CLAS E-116/w). Over that three and a half decade period, it has spawned over 10,000 alumni.

Though the course's name has changed through the years (it has been variously known as "Concepts of the Hero in Classical Greek Civilization," "The Heroic and Anti-Heroic in Classical Greek Civilization," and "The Ancient Greek Hero"), the material itself and the fundamental approach to its teaching and analysis has remained remarkably consistent, and it was very important to Professor Nagy and the Course Team that this consistency continue in the MOOC evolution of the class.

The course team of CB22x, "The Ancient Greek Hero"
Lead instructors for CB22x, Greg Nagy and Leonard Muellner, make teaching look less massive and more personal.

First and foremost, that meant ensuring that the literature -- not lectures or videos -- remained at the center of the course. The chief text used in the Heroes course (in all versions) is the Sourcebook of Ancient Greek Texts Translated into English, a massive (nearly 1,000-page) volume containing, as you might expect from its name, every ancient Greek text that is dealt with in the course.

These include the Iliad and Odyssey, Hesiod's Theogony and Works and Days, twenty selections from Herodotus' Histories, three plays from Aeschylus and two each from Sophocles and Euripides, two works of Plato, and several other texts. Each of these is dealt with in every version of the course, and the assigned reading -- including timing, frequency, and volume -- was not lessened or "dumbed down" in any way for the MOOC offering. Rather, the reading schedule was identical to that followed by FAS students.

To assist those who might be daunted by such a schedule, we posted an "Advice for Students" document just prior to course launch, which explained the timeline of readings and provided strategies and encouragement on topics like "slow reading" and "fast reading."

Due to fortuitous timing, the primary reading was able to be supplemented by still more literature: Prof. Nagy's monumental (nearly 700-page) book The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours ("h24h"), completed just in time for the inaugural run of the X course. This book was truly 30+ years in the making, as its explanations and analyses of focus passages are based on the work done by Professor and students alike in all of the Heroes course's past incarnations. In this text, readers can find in print what they would hear and see in the Harvard classroom: the same specific focus passages, and Prof. Nagy's "close reading" analysis of them, that are discussed in the FAS classrooms are presented there, in great detail. While h24h will become a core component of all future offerings of CB22 and CLAS E-116/w, the X course's students were the first to experience Heroes with this text as a guide (they were also able to crowd-source the discovery of errors within the text, which were corrected immediately in the epub and html versions).

This supplement to the primary literature was, in turn, supplemented by the core video component of the course: conversations between Prof. Nagy and one or more "dialogic partners" about the individual focus passages. While both engaging and useful, though, the videos were intended to be only the third most important part of the course, behind the literature (far and away number one) and the discussions held in the course forums, which are moderated and participated in both by the Board of Readers and nearly 100 alumni of the FAS course who have volunteered their time as facilitators (more on this in a future post). As might be expected in a text-based course, both the discussion board activities and the videos exist primarily to assist students in engaging the literature, and to help build a community around that literature and its analysis.

Some difficult decisions did have to be made during the planning and implementation of the course, particularly with regard to assessments. The FAS course (both College and DCE) is a writing-intensive offering, which means that students' grades are based largely on multiple three-to-eight-page papers which are written and submitted in the "draft, feedback, rethinking, and rewriting" sequence.

That process is obviously not possible in an environment whose very name -- MOOC -- contains the word "massive." Even with an expanded Board of Readers, which the Heroes course has, it would be very onerous indeed to critique and grade just a few hundred students' papers -- let alone the 31,000 who are currently enrolled in the course. I will go into the process of assessment selection and development a bit more in a later post, but should note here that the options and the process are continuing to evolve even now, as the Annotation Tool developed in part for this course's assessment is undergoing Phase 2 of development and implementation, and as we prepare to introduce the Open Ended Response tool into the live learning environment.

I hope to say more on both of these in the near future.

Jeff Emanuel is a Harvard’s inaugural HarvardX Fellow, where he serves as project manager for CB22X, the Ancient Greek Hero. An archaeologist by training, Jeff also holds an appointment as CHS Fellow in Aegean Archaeology and Prehistory at Harvard's Center for Hellenic Studies, where he researches naval warfare and the development of maritime technology in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean during the Late Bronze/Early Iron Age transition.