Tag Archives: Coursera

Vainglory and Metaphorical Blindness

To continue with my (self-congratulatory at best and vain at worst) series of Coursera essays, here is the 340-word essay on H.G.Wells I wrote for my free online ‘Fantasy and Science Fiction’ course.

One of the major elements of science-fiction literature is to attempt to predict or speculate about possible future events which might come to pass if mankind traverses a certain scientific and moral path. Wells, however, forces us to stop on the way and consider the journey itself—what happens when we presume to being enlightened, as the masses in ‘The Star’, but in fact, are as blind as the people of ‘The Country of the Blind’.

“Common-sense was sturdy everywhere” [1], Wells writes sarcastically. In the face of catastrophe, nine out of ten men on earth are “scornful, jesting, […] inclined to persecute the obdurate fearful” [1]. He even equates common-sense to “barbarism and savagery”; the men, with “unalterable convictions”, scorn the respectable mathematician and go about their businesses unheeding the star[1]. Similarly, the blind men mock Nunez and steadfastly stick to their beliefs—”it was an article of faith with them” [2]. So much so that in order to cure Nunez of what they think are delusions, they decide to surgically remove his eyes and thus make him “perfectly sane” [2]. “Thank Heaven for science”, Yacob says [2], and again Wells hints at the dangers of vainglory.

In both the stories, Wells warns us against intolerance and self-aggrandizement. Science enlightens mankind so that at any point in time we know more than we did in the past, but we should also realize that knowledge is illimitable, that there are many things we haven’t yet discovered. Just as the blind men lived in a world of their own making and limitations, so can we live either in a blind valley of a world or choose to open our eyes to truth and wisdom. Like the mathematician, we can hold “all the universe […] in the grip of this small brain” [1], the only requirements are acceptance and humility. Otherwise, one day someone will truthfully say that “Man has lived in vain.” [1]

Works cited:
[1] The Star, by H.G Wells
[2] The Country of the Blind, by H.G. Wells

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Alice: Through the Looking Glass

My 300-word essay on Lewis Carroll’s ‘Through the Looking Glass’ for my course, ‘Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, our Modern World’ provided by coursera.org.

Anthropomorphism is one of the many interesting literary devices seen in the “Alice” books. In ‘Through the looking glass’ especially, the humanized chess-men and the chess-set world are an analogy for real people and the real world respectively. “It’s a great huge game of chess being played all over the world”, Alice says.

In the beginning, Alice receives instructions from the Red Queen, like we receive instructions from our elders before setting out into the world. On her journey she meets many people and learns many things: the White Queen tells Alice to keep an open mind (“I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast”), from Humpty Dumpty she learns semantics and that a word means “what (you) choose it to mean–neither more nor less”, she learns self-belief in the face of doubt when Tweedledum tells her “you’re not real” and she realizes that he’s “talking nonsense”. The chess pieces themselves stand for the various types of people in our world. Some, like the queens, go “running wildly” hither and thither; they have great power which they may or may not use wisely (e.g., the White Queen is powerful but helpless and rambling). Some, like the Red King, stay on just one square all their lives. There are the White Knights, kind and helpful; and finally there are people like Alice who sometimes go where fate takes them, and sometimes make their own way, but always have their goal in mind and humility in heart.

We wonder whether the author is telling us to live as though we really were in a chess game. There are specific rules by which we have to play (or live); as a pawn one can only move forward, for one “certainly won’t go back”, and always there is the ultimate goal: that of reaching the eighth square; of fulfilling one’s destiny.


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A Little Self-knowledge

“The unexamined life is not worth living”


A few days back I enrolled in another free online course provided by Coursera. This one is called ‘Know Thyself‘, and the instructor is Prof. Mitchell Green, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Virginia. ‘Know Thyself’ is a ten-week journey towards self-knowledge: understanding what it means, how to work towards it, and its importance in our lives.

In one of the first few video lectures, Prof. Green talks about this very famous quote from Plato’s ‘Apology’, attributed to Socrates when he was just about to be given the death sentence. I’ve always thought it showed great courage on Socrates’ part to say, as I understood, that he’d rather die than stop philosophizing. And I never thought any more about it, never thought to apply it in my life, because I’d rather live silently than die because of my convictions. (Wow, that sounded more cowardly in black-and-white than it does in my mind. Just to be clear–I won’t die for my convictions because I might be wrong! Okay, that just makes it worse. Moving on.)

But the professor explains that the phrase doesn’t mean that if you don’t analyze your own life, you’re better dead. He quotes another well-known philosopher who has written that a better translation for what Socrates said would be, “The unexamined life is not to be lived”. That is to say, your life may be worthwhile even if you don’t spend time introspecting, but it would be enriched further if you did actually ‘know thyself’. “Not to be lived” as in ‘should not be lived, so examine your life’ and not ‘should not be lived, so die’.

And that makes so much more sense. Not only because I don’t have to die in this scenario, but also because the quote has now become meaningful and useful to me, and isn’t just some great thing someone said once.

It now tells me to work towards self-awareness.

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“You couldn’t (doubt yourself) with eyebrows like yours”

–Jonathan Harker to Van Helsing

I wrote sometime back about this online course I took last year, ‘Fantasy and Science Fiction’. You can find my post here. Each week, we were supposed to read a book and write a 270-320 word essay which would “enrich the reading of a fellow intelligent student”. The essay shouldn’t read like a review, but should be somewhat analytic and definitely informative. So today I present to you my essay on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, assuming there are very few book-lovers who haven’t read it. I started with the quote I’ve placed at the beginning of this post.

Physiognomy is the art of judging an individual’s character by studying their facial features. Though considered a pseudoscience now, it was widely popular in the author’s time. In the novel too, it plays an especially important role. Not only does the description of a character’s facial features paint a vivid picture of the character in our minds, it also tells us from the outset whether that particular character is good or evil, which is of paramount importance in this novel.

Thus, the driver who transported Jonathan to Castle Dracula has red eyes; the devil has red eyes, and so as soon as we read this description we know that the driver is somehow dangerous. The Count has “a very strong, aquiline, [..] thin nose [..] lofty domed forehead”, signifying his strength of body and character, and his pride. But more noteworthy are his “fixed and rather cruel-looking” mouth and his “peculiarly sharp white teeth”. Even his coarse, broad, hairy hands with the long, sharp fingernails further the impression that the Count is more beast-like than human. Although during the first few hours of Jonathan’s visit we have no concrete reason to doubt the Count, his physical description is enough for us to beware of him. Similarly, Dr. Seward’s “strong jaw and the good forehead” tell us of his courage and intelligence. Van Helsing is a “kindly, strong-faced old man”, which tells us that he is mature and experienced, brave and forceful. 

Physiognomy is also a valuable literary device in signifying the change in the characters’ personalities. Jonathan’s gray hair not only symbolize his shock and terrible ordeal, but also emphasize the fact that he is an old soul; he has experience and knowledge way beyond his years. Similarly, the startling change in Lucy’s features (eyes that were “dull and hard at once”, “voluptuous lips”) warn the reader of her conversion into an Undead. Mina too, bears the scar on her forehead as a reminder of her “unclean” status. 

Thus, although much criticized now, the art of Physiognomy proves to be a most advantageous tool in the hands of the author; it helps us in identifying the undercurrent of the novel–the basic theme of the story–the triumph of good over evil.

Have you read the book? If you have, what do you think of my critique? And if you haven’t, do you want a link where you can download it legally from?


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Online Learning

Last year in June I enrolled in a 10-week long online course provided by Coursera. Coursera is a social entrepreneurship company that collaborates with many top universities and offers a wide range of free online courses. It’s a great place to look for free world-class education.

It was the first time I was participating in a massive online open course (MOOC for short), and my course was “Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World“. On Jan 22nd, Coursera relaunched this course, now 14 weeks long. The lecturer is Prof. Eric Rabkin, Professor of English language and literature at the University of Michigan, and the objective of the course is to understand how Fantasy in general and Science Fiction in particular provide insights into our own minds and into the functioning of the world.

The format of the course was very simple. It was divided into 10 sections (one for each week). Each section comprised of a short reading, an essay assignment, peer review, and video lectures. Every week we were supposed to read a book or a couple of short novels, and write a 300 word essay “to enrich the reading of an intelligent, attentive fellow student”. That is to say, we had to write about something that we found particularly insightful or interesting about the plot, theme, style, structure, imagery or allusion etc. in the book. We were not supposed to write book reviews, and we were not supposed to discuss non-literary matters (we had to focus on the book itself).

This was followed by peer review. Each student was given a minimum of four(anonymous) essays to grade (anonymously again) on two counts: form and content. ‘Form’ consisted of structure and grammar of the essay whereas ‘content’ meant insight, argument and examples. The grades were quite simple too: for each category, we could give a grade of either 1(poor to can do better), 2(average) or 3(outstanding), so that the final grade ranged from 2 to 6. I used to think of it in terms of OWLs: 2=Poor; 3,4=Acceptable; 5=Exceeds Expectations; 6=Outstanding. There are no ‘Troll’s and ‘Dreadful’s since giving ‘0’ wasn’t an option.

One of the great things about this review system was that reviewers were also asked to comment on the essay they just read; for both ‘form’ and ‘content’ they were asked to write about at least one thing they liked, and at least one thing that the writer could do well to improve/change. I was fortunate in my reviewers; most of them had something to say to encourage me as well as to help me write better.

After the peer review submissions came the lectures. Every week Prof. Rabkin released a series of videos dealing with the week’s reading, which helped us understand the novel itself and all the general subjects it dealt with. For example, the first week we read Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and Prof. Rabkin talked about the brothers themselves, how and why the book came into being, about the morality of fairy tales, natural symbols and colour symbolism in the stories, how to read the back story of a story, etc.

And it was a wonderful experience! I got to read a number of wonderful authors–Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ursula LeGuin (‘The left hand of darkness’), the Grimms, Lewis Carroll (‘Through the Looking Glass’ and ‘Alice in Wonderland’), Ray Bradbury (‘The Martian Chronicles’), Cory Doctorow (‘Little Brother’), Mary Shelley(‘Frankenstein’)–rediscovered Edgar Allan Poe and fell in love with him all over again and re-read many wonderful books (Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’, H.G.Wells’ ‘Country of the Blind’ and ‘The Island of Doctor Moreau’, a few of Poe’s short stories). ‘Discussion forums’ was a resource all by itself, I found out many amazing things there. I got to read other people’s essays and most of them were amazing, especially with regards to content, but also form; I learnt a lot from my fellow students. Most importantly, I managed to complete the minimum required 7 essays+reviews, and got a great grade (70%, based on participation, i.e. for completing 7 out of 10 assignments) and even a certificate to show for it! I was so thrilled with Coursera and with my first MOOC experience that I’ve already completed one other course (and got my certificate), am in the middle of four courses, and enrolled in half a dozen others.

Although it’s possible that the ‘Fantasy and Science Fiction’ course has a different format and grading policy this time around, it should be a great experience for anybody who loves books in general and science fiction in particular.

Coursera is a great place for anyone who loves to learn. They provide such a wide variety of courses–Humanities, Biology, Medicine and Healthcare, Astronomy, Computers, Maths, Business, Social Sciences etc.–that I’m sure everybody can find something of interest there. Not only that, but most courses require no prior specialized background to enroll in a course. If the wide variety of courses on offer make you confused, just remember this:

“Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?

The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”

                                                                 -Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland. 

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