Coursera Review: Sharpened Visions (Poetry Workshop) – CalArts

I mentioned quite a few posts ago that I’ve been taking a MOOC via Coursera entitled “Sharpened Visions: A Poetry Workshop.”  It’s a six-week course that is mostly self-paced; I finished the course last week (after switching sections because I accidentally missed a deadline, meaning that wouldn’t be anyone around to complete my final peer-review assignment).  Overall, I found it a fairly useful and relatively enjoyable course.

I thought that Douglas Kearney, the course instructor, did a fine job of presenting the information in each module. While the videos themselves were fairly corny (I ended up just reading the transcriptions most weeks), the information was useful and well-organized, and the structure of the course made sense. The weekly topics were as follows:

  • Week one: Introduction / the Poetic Line
  • Week two: Abstraction and Image
  • Week three: Metaphor
  • Week four: Rhyme
  • Week five: Rhythm
  • Week six: Revision

Each weekly module offered instructional videos (plus transcripts), short quizzes based on the video content, and assignments which generally took the form of two poetry prompts that challenged you to apply the concepts from that week’s theme. I found some of those prompts more compelling than others, but they were stretching in a good way. The prompts were probably the most valuable part of the course for me. Weeks four and six also included a peer assessment assignment; we had to submit a drafted poem for review, and also review the work of two or more classmates.

My one great frustration with the course was the peer assessment model. It makes sense that the course would be structured this way — after all, it’s supposed to be a workshop, and it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect the instructor to personally review and grade some dozens or hundreds of poems per session. But the peer assessment also has some serious drawbacks. For one, since learners are accessing the course from all over the world, there can be real language barrier issues. The quality of peer reviews is also uneven; I got some very useful feedback from a few of my peer assessments, but others left me wondering if my peer had even read what I had written!

When doing a peer review, we were only supposed to grade on things like whether the poem had responded to the appropriate prompt, not whether you liked it. I tried to give as thoughtful feedback as I could, and several times when I really disliked a poem I chose another one to review instead, since I didn’t think I would be able to give fair feedback otherwise. But no matter how much care you put into your own peer assessments, you can still end up with comments like this:

That you can feel the poem, trying to get into the writer’s wishes to attempt to better the revised version, by applying learnt tools. Some just flow in others you can feel the struggle, but all is good as long as you try. He tried. That is definalely imperative to edit and revise your original version, which I call it draft.

Thanks, Lucia! So useful!

(I’m not bothered enough to resubmit my work to be graded by someone new, which is an option that is offered. But it’s worth noting that peer assessments need to be taken with a grain of salt, and that they may or may not be useful — which is a bit of an annoyance in a workshop when you are trying to get feedback you can use.)

Overall, I’m glad that I enrolled in Sharpened Visions. It didn’t take too much time, gave me some useful exercises and good feedback, and satisfied my itch to be learning something. I’ll be taking more Coursera classes in the future.