The comments that follow are highly impressionistic, following from watching two courses of lectures from Open Yale. First, I attended via video Paul Freedman’s lectures on Mediterranean history from 284-1000, and am now coming to the end of John Merriman’s lectures on modern European history. Dr. Freedman dressed professorially – always a jacket and tie – and spoke from notes. He followed one of the basic rules of lecturing – come out from behind the podium and pace back and forth. But he always carried with him a sheaf of 8 1/2 X 11 paper notes. Frequently he stopped for up to a minute reading those notes, before continuing, giving me the impression he did not know the material. John Merrriman is very different in his style. He dresses like a slob (wrinkled untucked shirts, worn jeans etc.). He speaks ex tempore – rarely does he refer to notes at all, giving the impression he knows his stuff inside out – or at least when he is discussing France as an exemplar of European modern history. Despite this, I preferred Dr. Freedman to Dr. Merriman. John Merriman openly casts himself as a ’70s liberal’ and this viewpoint informs all his teaching. I have always, myself, strived to keep my own political predilections out of my teaching. Not so Dr. Merriman, who slants all his history to fit his politics. This is an old debate of course. One cannot be wholly neutral or distant from your subject, but one can present in a way not so clearly biased. This is why I preferred Paul Freedman’s lectures, despite being nowhere nearly as engaging. With Dr. Freedman you get a scholar’s careful look at an historical period, not a presentist presentation.
More generally, the Open Yale courses put a lot of material online and free to anyone, which I laud – my own schools do not do this. But the filming of lectures in lecture halls not well designed for this purpose is a misuse of modern educational technology. It seems foolish to me that one cannot see the slides or images projected on screens, or read the notes written on white boards by the lecturer – these two technologies are effective only for the student actually physically present. This is another example of forcing new wine into old wine skins.
Both of these online courses suggest to me that the reputation of universities such as Yale is overblown. My own schools, McMaster and the University of Guelph, are not found near the top of world, or even Canadian rankings of universities or of history departments. But I have to say that at Guelph there is creativity of presentation, encouragement for utilizing new technology in education and more importantly this is blended with a close adherence to careful scholarship. I did not see this at Yale.