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The Dead Poets Society gets a revival online

It's popular to say that poetry is dead, but Al Filreis' modern poetry course attracts tens of thousands of students

Anyone who thinks poetry has gone the way of the dodo needs to spend some time with Al Filreis.

The University of Pennsylvania professor is teaching Modern and Contemporary Poetry - Modpo for short - as a massive, open, online course. In three years, it's attracted more than 110,000 students from around the world.

“You realize poetry isn’t dead, they just told you it was dead,” Filreis told America Tonight.

ModPo is free and students receive no credit. It’s all for the joy of learning. For each of the 10 weeks, Filreis leads live webcast discussions with graduate students on poets like Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg. In online forums, participants can also discuss the poems with the guidance of volunteer teaching assistants, previous ModPo students invited by Filreis to take on the role.

“This is not for the faint of heart. This is a course of difficult poetry, where poets have something difficult to say and didn’t quite succeed in saying it.” Filreis explained. Poetry is the democratic form. It’s the form where a writer asks you to engage and help make what the poem means.”

A global classroom

Filreis has received some unlikely help, from students like T. De Los Reyes, 28, who owns a small, independent branding and graphics design company in Manila, Philippines. Delos Reyes has signed up for ModPo for a third consecutive year and will serve as an online community teaching assistant for the second time.

“My life has been made richer because I have ModPo,” De Los Reyes said over email.

The poems are all in English, but course’s following spans the globe with devotees like Mary Armour, a Zimbabwean who teaches literacy in rural South Africa.

“Here in ModPo, I found myself with so many other poetry lovers from Pakistan, the Philippines, Asia, Africa, Israel, Latin America, Britain and the United States looking at reading difficult and non-mainstream poems together and sharing insights,” Armour wrote in an email.

The reach of the ModPo community has extended beyond the collective reading of poetry. Jamie Givens, 52, a massage therapist from Nashville, said that when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, fellow ModPo participants rallied around her, offering emotional and financial support as she went through her treatment.

“It’s been rather stunning to me that people from all over the globe would be interested in my journey, and humbling, too,” said Givens, who is now cancer free.

A very big little world

Al Filreis has been teaching this subject for almost three decades, but he's reached more students in the last few years than in his entire career.
America Tonight

Filreis has been teaching a version of Modern and Contemporary Poetry since 1985. He began experimenting with teaching online in the mid ’90s when he offered a version of the course online for credit. In 2012, he enlisted to teach ModPo through Coursera, one of the world’s largest platforms for massive open online courses or MOOCs. Filreis didn’t know what sort of response it would receive.

Some 42,000 people signed up. He was stunned.

“I realized that there’s a hunger for access to this supposedly difficult material,” Filreis said.

The response flew in the face of what he’d been told for years about poetry’s imminent demise, even by family members. When Filreis decided to get his PhD in poetry after graduating from Colgate University in 1978, he recalled his grandmother telling him how sorry she was he had decided to enter “a tiny little world that only a few people are interested in.”

“Then suddenly tens of thousands of people show that they want to do this around the world,” Filreis said.

ModPo’s popularity puts the class in Coursera’s upper echelon, in the same ballpark as “Introduction to Finance,” “Learn to Program” and “Think Again: How to Reason and Argue.”

Dwelling in impossibility

Daniel Bergmann, now 18, with his University of Pennsylvania student ID. After completing ModPo, he was invited to take classes "in real life" at the Ivy League school, including English 88 this fall, taught by Al Filreis.
Courtesy of Michael Bergmann

Daniel Bergmann, a young man on the autism spectrum, signed up for ModPo during its inaugural year, in 2012. He was 16 and being homeschooled at the time.

“I’ve learned not to bet against Dan, but I didn’t necessarily think it was going to work,” his father, Michael Bergmann, remembered.

The course did work, Michael Bergmann said. ModPo has helped his son engage with the world, he said, effectively pushing back against his autism and lessening his son’s sense of isolation.  

 “I, as a father, have a sense that my son is out in the world, somehow,” Bergmann said. “We’re able to share the world with our son in a completely different way.”

When Filreis invited ModPo participants to attend the taping of the final webcast of 2012, the Bergmanns took him up on the offer, driving from their home in New York City to the University of Pennsylvania campus.

“I have to say I’m completely crazy. If someone from ModPo, anyone wants to come and visit, my door is open,” said Filreis, who has since become friends with the Bergmanns.

Michael Bergmann said he was nervous about whether his son could sit through the class. “All of my attention was: Could Dan sit there? Could he sit still? Could he listen? Could he not disrupt the webcast? Could he make it all the way through?” he recalled.

Daniel Bergmann didn’t just sit still; his performance in class that day made him something of a ModPo legend.

At the end of the class, Filreis went around, asking students to offer up two-word poems. Daniel Bergmann had never spoken in a classroom before in his life, but he told his father that he wanted to contribute. His two-word poem: “Not impossible.” The room erupted in applause.

“I burst into tears,” Michael Bergmann said. “I thought maybe nothing really is impossible.”

His mother, Meredith Bergmann, noted that there was a poetic symmetry to her son’s final words. The first poem studied in the course, by Emily Dickinson, begins with the line, “I dwell in possibility.’”

For Filreis, those two words were a testament to the revolutionary power of education technology.

“I realized then that the dreams that we have had about reforming education and making it more available to more people was actually happening right in front of our eyes,” he said. “So that moment confirmed in me a choice that I made to be as open as I possibly can to all possibilities.” 

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