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Angela Erisman

Hi John,

A few random thoughts:

As for online engagement in comment-style fashion, I have many colleagues who do this using Blackboard. But it lacks the "public" character you're looking for, as it access is limited to those with a password.

Teaching students to respond critically is a challenge. I feel it's a challenge because it has been so very long since I learned to do it for the first time that I've forgotten how I was taught. I think it's good idea to dive into some teaching resources, which I have been trying to do as I build assignments.

I'm all behind teaching good manners. I like your point that it's counter-cultural. You didn't use that word, but it is. Might be important for students to know that you are teaching them to buck a trend.

As for grading online content, Blackboard allows you to do that, but again, it's not public. One idea might be to have students copy and paste their comments into a Word document and turn that in, like a little archive. Then your grading of them can be more thorough and is also private (which is an issue with FERPA laws). Don't know if it would work, but something to think about.

A last thought: I sense resonances of Nussbaum in your reference to cultivating humanity and your general approach to the class. I'm a fan, so I think it's great and the right way to go. But I have seen much of late on the Chronicle of Higher Ed (in the discussion of the value of the humanities) that poo-poos this approach from one angle or another as out of date. Frankly, I think that's nonsense, and this is a very worthwhile approach. But the point I'm wanting to make is that this, too, may be counter-cultural (you refer to the "right to be uninformed" that pervades our culture today). Which isn't a reason to avoid it, but I wonder if we have to make clear to our students why we're doing what we're doing the way we're doing it so they don't bring a different set of assumptions into our classrooms.


Carl Kinbar

Thanks for this post, John. I teach in a fully online environment using the same methodology you have adopted for the online portion of your hybrid course. Since most of the program is offered this way (we also do synchronous online conferencing in some courses), students get acclimated to the approach and the values you speak of are cultivated deeply.


Hi Angela,

Thanks for the conversation. Here are a few initial responses.

The three genres I am situating online in a public forum could be situated instead within a closed circuit, through Blackboard or the like - my institution has its own proprietary software.

There are several reasons I decided against this.

I want to foster public virtues; the best way to do that is to put students in a situation in which they will need to interact, not only with me and their fellow students, but with John Q. and Jane Q. Public. To be sure, it worked out that way this spring to a limited extent only, because regular commenters on these threads and my students did not mix it up much.

My students saw themselves as a closed network - those responsible for a swarm of comments written under monikers of a particular kind. Regular commenters seemed to think that they needed permission to interact with the students (which I gave them if they asked me).

Without excluding random comments, which are often wonderful, I would love to (1) see two or more classes from different universities mix it up; (2) invite experts in the field to subscribe to a relevant comment feed, and kick in their two cents during a 3 day window; (3) organize a classroom of online students not for credit following the same course and fulfilling the same requirements.

One thing I did not predict in my ignorance is how many students approach the comment genre with fear and trembling. As it should be: I am asking them to state their own point of view, to do it by building on and/or respectfully disagreeing with the essay and other commenters. I am also asking them to do more than state their likes and dislikes, to build an argument, and to demonstrate broad familiarity with the subject matter discussed. All in the space of a paragraph or two!

I have to get used to the fact I am going to have to devote plenty of time to teaching students the conventions of a review essay, a thematic essay, and now, a short comment to a short essay.

I am comfortable with Nussbaum's emphases but I can see why many others are not. I footnote her in my introduction to the course:

Angela Erisman

Is the "public forum" this blog? Sorry - I'm just a bit unclear about where all these short essays + student comments are.


I assigned short essays = blog posts like the ones I link to above.

Here is a three step sample:

Short essay =

Student comment:

Mission 2 said:
Hell is a concept that has always puzzled (and disturbed) me. The entire concept of Hell seems off to me. What is its purpose? It seems many people have a different justification for it. Is it for deterrence, separation, rehabilitation or punishment? It seems ill-equipped for any of these justifications. For deterrence, it has its seemingly best chance of working. Similarly to punishing the minority of trouble makers in school to make the rest of the students behave, Hell may provide this service to society. The downside of this, though, is that it creates anxiety and fear in people and many families undergo a lot of mental anguish over family members (those whom are gay, atheist, "living in sin," and/or having pre-marital sex, etc.) having to endure an eternity of torture. Also, it is worth noting that passages such as Matthew 7:13,14- say "Enter ye in at the straight gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many are there be which go in thereat.: “Because straight is the gate and narrow is the way, which leadeth into life and few there be that find it” show that the Church wholeheartedly believes that these passages announce that the majority of people will find themselves in Hell rather than Heaven. This nullifies the argument that punishing the minority will deter the majority. We should also keep in mind that God is omniscient, so He knows that the majority of people will be eternally tortured for their sins, yet not only allows this to occur, but created Hell for this purpose. For separation, Hell seems effective yet unnecessary. It seems many people think that the sinful and "good" should be separated in the afterlife. Even if this was the case, what justifies the torture? If two children were not getting along because one of them was bullying the other one and I was told to separate the two of them, that would certainly not entitle me to inflict physical torture upon the bully. This is a direct analogy of Hell being used to separate sinners from non-sinners. We are told that God doesn’t want to sentence souls to damnation in Hell, but is forced to because of his perfect holiness. Even if we ignore the fact that an omnipotent God is forced to do anything, there seems much more humane ways to separate souls in the afterlife. The argument of rehabilitation can be immediately invalidated by the fact that Hell is eternal. No one leaves due to good behavior. As for punishment, I get the most queasy. Let us imagine that for every sin we have each committed in our lifetime, we are sentenced to one year of torture. Does that seem excessive? Okay, how about 100 years, 1 million years, or even 100 million years. Hell is described as eternal. So, even saying we receive 100 million years of torture for each of our individual sins would not accurately gauge our future punishment and the Bible also tells us that the majority of people will undergo this treatment. Perhaps many people will disagree with me, but I don’t feel that anything a person can do in one lifetime justifies an eternity of torture. Yes, I am including rape, murder, genocide, sexual molestation of children. All of it. Please do not misunderstand my words to mean that these acts are okay. They are absolutely abominable and that is precisely why I used them in that example. The acts that I listed are among the worst crimes we can inflict upon other people and the fact that they occur is disgusting to me. Yet, I still do not think that they deserve and infinite amount of torture for them. Punishment? Yes. My frailty as a human acts as a justification to myself as to why I would want punishment for the committers of these crimes, but not an eternity of it. A hundred years of even the most gruesome acts does not justify billions of years of Hell fire. In short, Hell serves no purpose. To claim that God is forced unwillingly to torture humanity is to deny God’s omnipotence. To claim that God wants to torture humanity is to deny His benevolence.

Hi Mission 2,

That is a long, thoughtful comment. It would take an even longer comment to get to the bottom of the vast number of topics you bring up. I will try my hand at a few.

Re: the idea that the majority of people will rot in hell for eternity. It's true that the church has often taught something like this, but is it taught in the New Testament?

It's not clear to me that it is. Jesus in the gospel of Matthew for example uses a great variety of images to describe the fate that awaits those who do not enter by the narrow gate. On the one hand, it's not controversial that a majority of people then and now do not enter by the gate Jesus offered - that is, very few people act on his offer to take up their cross and follow him. It stands to reason that Jesus' dire warnings are indeed intended to apply to most if not all people. On this understanding, we are destined to be burned up in fire, we will have to pay our debt to the last cent, we will experience darkness and remorse. All of which is awful and clearly designed to deter people from doing anything but take the warnings of Jesus very seriously.

But that is not the same thing as saying that most people will not and cannot be expected to find healing thanks to the tree of life spoken of in the book of Revelation. None of the above can be said to preclude the possibility that a great many will be rescued from hell, as tradition says Jesus rescued others (the Harrowing of Hell between his death and resurrection).

On another note, God's omnipotence is not absolute according to the Bible; more precisely, the full weight of his omnipotence will not be brought to bear until the last days; in the meantime, it is evident for the most part sub contraria specie (under the form of its opposite), in God's suffering on the cross.

Most often if not always, people hurt and harm others because they feel someone has hurt and harmed them. The desire to hurt and be hurt by others in return is very strong in some people, far stronger than a desire to forgive, walk the extra mile, and so on.

What is a God of justice and love to do in the face of such? It's a hard question. I know what we do. We punish them. We take away their freedoms, in whole or in part, sometimes for life. We kill them, on the battlefield, at home in front of family (Osama bin Laden), or with an injection.

Then we turn around and suggest that there would be no purpose to God doing similar things.

Perhaps that's because God is, at least for most people, nothing more than a wish-projection. That was the thesis of Ludwig Feuerbach. He may not have been far off.

Posted by: JohnFH | May 17, 2011 at 11:20 PM


Here is a draft of the instructions for commenting the students will be given a month from now, in preparation for the Fall semester.

You are to comment on one online essay per session. The essays are part and parcel of the course’s content. Log in comments with your moniker [title of film to be reviewed + number] and university email address. Make sure your spelling, grammar, and logic are excellent. Make sure you demonstrate familiarity with the subject matter at hand. Argue your point of view in crisp, formal English; do not simply assert it or state likes and dislikes. Ask questions - formulate them carefully)! Interact with previous comments and be ready to interact with comments to your comments. Subscribe to the relevant comment feeds. Compose comments offline, save them in a document file and email them to me on a weekly basis, but also copy and paste them into the appropriate comment thread. I will provide feedback and a provisional letter grade every two or three weeks. You are welcome to ignore the requirement to submit comments on a weekly basis, but you forfeit the possibility of getting an A or a B for the course if you do. Your total contribution to comment threads is expected to exceed 3000 words.



Thanks for the encouragement. I'll try to touch base with you later. I'm guessing your experience has helped you sort out solutions that work best in the context of online interactive study.

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