Thanks, Howard. You say
Most courses focus on the delivery by a teacher of a specific body of knowledge to students, who are held accountable as individuals for retaining and comprehending that knowledge. In this learning community, we’re going to be inquiring and reflecting more than delivering and memorizing, and we’re going to be thinking, discussing, learning as a group as well as learning individually — we’re going to be both collaborative (working together on projects) and cooperative (co-responsible for each other’s learning).
OK. I know what those "most courses" look like. I've taken a bunch of them and taught some of them. There's quite a bit of variety there. But I can't really tell what you mean by "learning community" without actually being there and seeing what happens.
Now, as it happens, while your course is a F2F course at Stanford, some of the work takes place online and is visible to Google searches. Anyone can see some of what goes on (a bunch of posts by one "Ruth" came to the top of my Google search; I linked one of them to my FB page as it might interest some of my FB musician friends). While the online aspect certainly changes the dynamics, it's incidental to the educational philosophy. You don't need the online facilities to run the course along those lines, do you?
In my undergraduate and graduate education there's only one situation that I'd characterize as a learning community, and that wasn't even a formal course. It was a research group in graduate school run by the late David G. Hays. Most of the regulars were graduate students, but there was an undergraduate or two; and just about anyone might show up for a meeting or two. What happened there is rather like what you've characterized as "hanging out and messing around."
The core group was maybe half a dozen including Hays. And work sessions rarely had more than seven or eight people. We all sat around the dining table and Hays had a white board he put at one end of the room.
As a practical matter some members of the group were also enrolled in formal courses with Hays, but that wasn't a requirement. What was a requirement was a high level of sophistication about natural language semantics and cognition. Further, most, though not all, members of the group had learned a model Hays and other members of the group had developed over the years. Getting up to speed on that took a semester. Some people got there by taking a course called "Mechanisms of Langauge"; it was one of those course open to both undergraduate and graduate studends (I assume that the double number, 183/283, on your course signifies that). I got there through a semester of 1 on 1 tutoring while I was also enrolled in a grad course w/ Hays.
That common conceptual base allowed us to communicate effectively with one another and allowed us to get real work done. The research group met weekly at Hays' home. Either before or after the work session we all helped prepare a common meal, either lunch or dinner depending on when we did our week. During the work session each person got to put one item on the agenda, though you weren't obligated to do so. The work went on until all items had been covered. If it wasn't possible to cover every thing, items not covered were moved to the beginning of the next session. We got real work done in those sessions.
That's my gold standard. That was a learning community that was also a research community. That's not, however, a general model for higher education.
Let's take another example. My first year in graduate school I took a course called "Traditional Forms of the Narrative." It was taught by Bruce Jackson, who wrote that article about the glory years at UB. Bruce – yep, in the English Dept we called our professors by first name* – taught the course as an informal off-the-cuff lecture course. And I'm not sure he could have done otherwise as there were maybe 15 to 20 students enrolled, which is too many to run a discussion that includes everyone.
There was, of course, a syllabus. I forget what all we read – Gilgamesh, Njal's Saga, Iliad, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a bunch of so-called toasts Bruce had collected, some other stuff – plus some secondary material. Bruce would riff/lecture for the first hour or so and then he'd field questions from the class. For the most part there was little actual back-and-forth discussion among class members.
I thought it was a good course. The paper I wrote for the course became one of my first formal academic publications. And I'm still in touch with Bruce.
Could Bruce have run that course like Hays' research group? No. There were too many students in it and we didn't have enough of a common conceptual background. Could he have run it like you're running your course, Howard? I don't know. Could you teach an online literature course along those lines? I don't know, though there are people here who have a good deal of experience teaching online lit courses.
I spent a number of years posting to a group blog, The Valve, that was mostly about literature. Was it a learning community? That depends on what you mean. For example, we held a number of symposia organized around specific books. A number of people would write posts about the book; some of those were Valve regulars, and some were invited for the occasion. Anyone, of course, could comment.
Some of those events were very good – like this one on Theory's Empire (an anthology on literary theory), which is what attracted me to The Valve. Real work got done. Some of the posts were written by 1st-tier senior faculty; others were written by junior faculty and grad students. The commentariat came from all over.
There are any number of fan sites around where lots of people spend a great deal of time posting and commenting. I'm sure a lot of that's just idle chit chat. But I'm also sure that real learning and exploration is going on. Of course, idle chit chat is part of the investigation process and who knows when an idle remark will lead to real probing.
*But no student referred to Hays by his first name. Once I'd gotten my doctorate I asked him for permission to do so. Why? Because I'd seen it done. Though I knew that he'd grant me permission, I still had to work up my nerve to make the ask.