On 31 October 2016, over 4,600 learners across the world will begin a unique, five-week online education experience. Encouraged to ponder all things southern – from Martin Luther King, Jr. to the mint julep – these learners will explore this most intriguing yet often maligned region of the United States, guided by experts from the Institute of Humanities at Northumbria University. Learners will read articles, watch videos, participate in quizzes and group discussions, and even undertake some southern recipes in their own kitchens. Interacting with experts as well as each other, those enrolled on this free and distinctive course will experience a truly interdisciplinary introduction to the history, climate, culture and politics of the former Confederacy, exploring its manifestations in literature, film, music, television and food. They will be forced to consider the connections (and leaps) between ideas, stereotypes, and reality: how much of what we ‘know’ about the South is actually grounded in or relevant to the southern experience? Similarly, where and when does the South begin, end, and simply exist?
The course is the result of a Centre of Excellence Partnership between the Institute and FutureLearn, the first UK-based platform for Massive Open Online Courses, or ‘MOOCs’ as they are known. This partnership offered a fantastic opportunity to highlight the interdisciplinary foundation at the very heart of the Institute to a truly global audience. American Studies is, of course, interdisciplinary by its very nature, and so it made sense to utilise obvious strengths in this area when a MOOC was first proposed in November 2015. Focussing on the American South provided a natural segue to the teaching and research occurring daily in the Institute, as it is a region that looms large for so many scholars. Led by renowned southern historian and BAAS Chair Professor Brian Ward and Dr Michael Cullinane, a leading scholar in American political history, contributors to the MOOC include Prof. David Gleeson, who has published extensively on the South and the Civil War; Prof. Sylvia Ellis, an expert on Texan President Lyndon Johnson; and Dr Randall Stephens, who has written numerous books and articles about religion in the American South and its intersections with popular music. Other contributors include Dr Henry Knight-Lozano, whose work explores contested identities in Florida; Dr Julie Taylor and Dr Jude Riley, who are both interested in southern literary modernism; and Dr Joe Street, whose research centres on the African American freedom struggle in the 1960s and 1970s. Allan Symons, a PhD student, contributed to discussions on southern music, and composed and performed the original music that accompanies the MOOC.
Planning for the module began in February 2016, when Prof. Ward set the original parameters for the five week course. Week One was designed to gauge initial reactions: acknowledging common stereotypes, popular facts, and common misconceptions about the region. Following weeks would then offer a chronological exploration of the South’s history, politics, and place in popular culture. Colleagues began to contribute short articles that intersected with their research interests, as well as scripts that would serve as the basis for a series of recorded talking-heads and discussions.
Filming the video segments took part over two days in July 2016, facilitated by production company, In-House Films. Colleagues delivered their scripts to camera: terrifyingly new territory for most of us new to the green screen! However, despite temporary stage fright and wardrobe malfunctions, the MOOC offered a fantastic opportunity for members of the department to work together, sharing research and ideas in a manner all too rare in the often solitary academic practice. This was a distinctly enjoyable experience, especially for those PhD students invited to participate, myself included. In-keeping with my research interests, I produced articles and videos on the South’s presentation in mainstream cinema and television: from Birth of a Nation to Beasts of the Southern Wild. I will also be serving as module ‘Facilitator’ when the MOOC goes live on 31 October, enabling discussion and responding to student comments. Using social media to share links and articles that I think will be of interest to the cohort, I will be tweeting using the hashtag #FLAmericanSouth and encouraging learners to do the same. Certain elements of the course lend themselves well to social media, such as the culinary exercises in which learners are encouraged to upload photographs of their homemade southern delicacies, including jambalaya and cornbread. Current events including the presidential election, the new Kings of Leon album, and college football (which is huge in the South) provide a novel way to engage students in thinking about the contemporary region and attract more learners to the course. Facilitating these activities is a unique opportunity for me, and an unprecedented role at Northumbria. After the module has closed, I will reflect on these experiences in a future USSO post.
It is hoped that the MOOC will help students see Northumbria and American Studies in a new light. Rather than long classroom-style lectures, the MOOC uses short, high quality videos and condensed, accessible articles to introduce key intellectual debates in southern studies, from the history of slavery to the development of the civil rights movement. Because FutureLearn places such emphasis on interactive and social learning, students are encouraged to comment on individual steps, articles, and videos. Based upon the best and most interactive aspects of social media, FutureLearn serves as a platform where all enrolled learners can discuss issues together and ask questions. These connections enable learners to support each other, hopefully removing some of the issues associated with isolated distance learning. While almost half of our enrolled learners are based in the United Kingdom, we have also seen considerable uptake in the United States. There are also smaller pockets of learners based in every corner of the globe, making the MOOC an incredibly international experience. Students will therefore be able to share ideas about the South’s significance with people from a multitude of countries and cultures, reflecting upon the truly global importance of this most contested region. It would be great if y’all could join us! Watch Prof. Ward’s introduction and sign up here!