The Mississippi River, which runs through the stories and novels of Mark Twain, connects the American Heartland. Like the mighty Mississippi, Hillsdale’s newest online course on the work of Mark Twain connects members of the Hillsdale community from around the nation to Hillsdale College.
“Twain is such a recognizable figure,” said Assistant Professor of English Kelly Scott Franklin, who’s teaching some of the video lectures. “He’s got a universally-appealing style, and he has written stories that everyone knows and loves.”
Hillsdale College introduced Mark Twain: Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Selected Short Stories to its offered free online courses in October. The class, taught by Franklin and Assistant Professor of English Benedict Whalen, consists of nine video lectures. After President of Hillsdale College Larry Arnn introduces the course with an opening lecture about Twain and the study of literature, Whalen and Franklin each teach four lectures on Twain’s works. Franklin teaches “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” and Whalen handles most of “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
“I think American literature is a great subject for the Hillsdale College online courses,” Franklin said. “Hillsdale College is so interested in how the United States has absorbed and transformed the Western Tradition, and I think our fans and partners and supporters out there will love this class.”
“Because Twain’s works are so concerned with essential human truths, those essential elements carry import to political, artistic, and scientific realms,” Whalen said. “So I think in that way it fits within everything our public audience should care about. Whether they’re more political or artistic, I think Twain speaks to all of that through the truths that he captures and represents.”
On-campus core and upper-level classes, such as English 360: American Renaissance and Realism, also allow students to delve into Twain’s literature. According to Whalen and Franklin, all types of people can enjoy Twain.
“I enjoy Twain, both teaching him to the student body at large and then also to English majors in upper level classes,” Whalen said. “He’s rewarding across the board. He’s always funny, always delightful, both to students who just love literature and to those who are maybe a biochemistry major.”
This class joins other online classes such as Great Books 101 and 102, Western Heritage, American Heritage, and Introduction to the U.S. Constitution. On top of the available core curriculum classes, Online Courses, a collaboration between Marketing and External Affairs, also offers classes on C.S. Lewis, Shakespeare, and Winston Churchill.
With hundreds of thousands of people in one class, building a classroom community is something that is nearly impossible with online classes, proving to be one of the online classes’ only downfall.
“Obviously the best scenario is being in the classroom because you can ask questions and talk to the professor,” Director of Digital Marketing Jonathan Lewis said. “I’m sure that’s what probably everyone wishes they could do, but this gives the people that can’t make it here or are past the college age that would still love to learn, the opportunity to. We’re just doing the best we can to allow people access to all the stuff we love here.”
With 2.4 million enrollments and 1.5 million students (because one student can enroll in multiple courses), the classes are reaching people across the nation. These classes, however, aren’t just for people past college age.
“Generally our audience is an older one, so it’s a lot of people who are continuing learning,” Lewis said. “Although we do get a lot of reports of homeschoolers using them or families using them, and sometimes those students matriculate here.”
Comparing the media work he did for this class to the articles he writes, Franklin says that it’s satisfying to teach a really broad audience because it’s like expanding the classroom to the world.
“I think prepping the lectures was a lot of work,” Franklin said, “but delivering them and recording them was a lot of fun. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”