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Going Back to Yale—Online

I’m not a technophobe, but for me to end up taking an online course required a most unlikely conspiracy of events. First, I didn’t delete the e-mail from AllLearn: the Alliance for Lifelong Learning—a joint venture of Yale, Stanford, and Oxford—without reading it. Second, I actually linked to the Web site. Third, the woman who is notoriously terrible with “non-essential” online communications signed up.

Try this. Go to www.AllLearn.org and try failing to find something that makes you think, “Yep, I want to do that.”

How about a course on September 11th and its aftermath? Or one on Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro? I was seriously tempted by one on 20th-century Irish fiction or by “Shakespeare from Screen to Script.” The course catalogue is a gloriously skinny Blue Book, all pedigreed professors and sexy titles.

The one that I finally chose, “eClavdia: Women in Ancient Rome,” was irresistible. The line, “E tu, Bruta, what was your contribution to the Roman Empire?” was a call to arms. Diana Kleiner, deputy provost for the arts at Yale, teaches it, lecturing on such topics as “Women Movers and Shakers in Pompeii” and “Brainy and Battered Third-Century Women.” I struggled with deciding to enroll for, oh, five minutes.

A quick cost-benefit analysis: Can I afford it? Do I have the time (4 to 6 hours a week)? No. Really, no, no, no. What’s the return on investment? Ah, now there’s a question. Learn something, just because I want to? There’s no purpose, except the sheer pleasure of learning?

Still a little uneasy about online learning, I was reassured when the course materials arrived the week before the course started. There were two books, a set of two CD-ROMS, and instructions about when and how to start.

Things got underway with an e-mail from Katrina Dickson, the course moderator. Dickson sent weekly e-mails with details of upcoming assignments, discussion topics, and technical advice. Our first assignment was to choose a Roman online identity, and explain our choices on the message board. I loved it that “Sabina Nutrix, imperial wet-nurse,” was a lactation consultant in real life. The nice lady from Tennessee explained that she had chosen an identity as an actress because it was so far from her real-life persona.

There were about 30 of us, and the beauty of the virtual classroom became quickly obvious as we made our introductions. We covered the globe, from North America to Europe to Taiwan, and ranged from a high school senior to 1950s graduates. There were lawyers, a doctor, teachers, a museum curator, full-time mothers: Even at Yale, we could never match that kind of diversity.

The course is structured around the assigned readings and the CD-ROM lectures by Professor Kleiner, but the real backbone is the message board. Katrina Dickson initiated discussion “threads,” some of which were related to the week’s assignments. Others were discussions of Roman society, art, and women.

The stars of the show were the Roman women whose lives we looked at through the art that portrayed them, their cities, their homes, their children, their men, and their professions. From Livia, model of Roman feminine virtue, to Plautilla, condemned to death for her role in an attempted coup, we came to know the women at the top of society. From midwives and prostitutes, we became acquainted with the women at society’s bottom. We also learned to appreciate how much can be said with a hairstyle, how a Roman city is put together, the different styles of Roman wall painting, and about ancient birthing techniques.

The other two “Roman women” were Professor Kleiner and Katrina Dickson, Clavdia Maior and Clavdia Minor respectively. Professor Kleiner’s lectures were well-produced, authoritative, and beautifully structured. She also has a dry professorial wit, displayed when she dropped in a picture of Hillary Clinton while talking about Roman empresses with attitude. And Dickson encouraged us with grace, humor, and boundless knowledge.

So ditch the cost-benefit analysis and take it from me: Virtual learning has a lot to recommend it. Doing it for fun has many advantages—you can spend time pursuing threads that take your fancy, without worrying if they will come up in the midterm. Since “eClavdia” has finished, I have a big hole in my life, but my goodness, I’m enjoying my sleep.




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