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Plagues, Witches, and War: The Worlds of Historical Fiction (3)

Well, the Plagues, Witches, and War: The Worlds of Historical Fiction course is officially over. In all honesty, I started the course aiming to find some tools to work on a story regarding the Keichō Embassy from Japan to the Vatican, lead by Hasekura Tsunenaga between 1613 and 1620.

I am not left with an overall impression of the course that is positive. As you might remember, I have been a bit peeved with the whole deadline fumbling, and everyone going on their high horses about it. Well, the last deadlines also got juggled, and jumped a whole week backwards, so in the end basically every deadline got moved, some with louder announcements than others. I won’t go into that again, but changing requirements is not something that is going to give a course a good reputation (and the course organisers have been complaining about the “bad rep” of MOOCs).

Opinion on classmates aside, my general impression of the course is a big… ‘so what?’ I mean, what is the whole buzz about historical fiction? That it requires research, and sometimes a lot of it? That is true, if you want accuracy, but you need to research with whichever genre you are writing. Even when planning a fantasy world you need to decide on your laws of physics. I am making a big effort to get my hands on every factual yakuza publication out there, for example (which apparently makes me a huge geek somehow).
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It is not my intention to put down historical fiction as a lesser genre, but… research-wise it does not really feel a particularly different genre. If you want to portray anything with accuracy, you need to do your research. Using real people as characters might be the tricky part, but that is a choice the author makes. Each writing path has its own difficulties, I’d say, and historical fiction is not an exception in any way. You can also quite easily ‘ignore’ the research part and be deliberately ‘imprecise’, just giving clues about where and when you are – that’s the easy way (I am guilty of doing that before, I confess… and I am sort of doing that with the location of Turn of the Page right now).

I did decide to give Dickens a second chance and I would have bought one of the guest author’s books, if some idiot had not given away the ending on the forums. Also, I had thought about sharing the assignment ‘essay’ I wrote, but… you know, I kinda lost interest.

This is not me wanting to complain about something that I got for free, but not convinced. I did not find the course serious enough somehow. Wobbly deadlines are a sign of bad organisation and it is very hard for me to learn anything if it is not organised. That might be why right now I don’t feel like I learnt anything particular from Plagues, Witches, and War: The Worlds of Historical Fiction that can at the moment help me improve my writing.

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Plagues, Witches, and War: The Worlds of Historical Fiction (2)

This post was going to wait until the course was finished, and should have been a tadbit different, but something happened today that had made me a bit miffed.

As I mentioned in the previous post, the Plagues, Witches, and War: The Worlds of Historical Fiction course has three grading points:

  • Three quizzes
  • Five “guest author” questions, one for each of them
  • An essay, which had to:
    1. identify a primary source (an original document / object / place…)
    2. add a link to it or an explanation of why a link was not included (i.e. you used something not on the Internet)
    3. be over 10 sentences
    4. be handed in at a fixed point in time, for which you had a countdown (total time circa 20 days)

After that you check points 1-3 on five essays (“peer evaluation”), and that’s all folks.

Except now the deadline has been extended. It has been pointed out that I am a horrible person for not wanting Philippines people to get their certificate of completion. But let be honest here, while I admit that a natural disaster sucks and that people who have been through the typhoon need a break and leeway, these are other reasons I have found:

  • It was Thanksgiving. Who puts a deadline in the middle of a holiday??
  • Messed up time zones
  • Assumed the time was 23:59 and not 00:00
  • Had it done, but I wanted to send it last minute
  • Did not log in before that day
  • Signed up for the course after the deadline was passed
  • Mistook the deadline for the deadline of another course / issue

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I believe that generally extending a deadline is a mistake. It lowers the quality of the course, as the requirements become more on the lax side. There are ways to deal with individual cases, such as those affected by a natural disaster, and can be done. It requires more effort, yes, but can be done. Furthermore, for a free course, reputation is everything, and now a precedent has been set – just whine, even if your reasons are “I can’t read a clock”, and the deadline will be moved. Because the instructor wrote that “it had been poor planning on his part to set the deadline in the middle of a holiday” anyway, so it was his fault, right?

This also pushes forward the clock for assessing your peers. I am done, but many people are not. Now those people are falling behind with their schedules, blocked for 48 more hours (which is time to “post if you’re done”. Hah. Ten sentences and we have a list of archives right there. It IS doable in an hour. Not that I believe many people would do it anyway, start from scratch when they have already missed the deadline once). So now we either have less time for the peer evaluation, or the deadline for that will also be extended and the results will be in later and people will complain that they’ll have less time for the quizzes and… It could go on and on forever.

All in all, I think that extending the deadline was a poor idea. When you want something free to have quality you need to put effort on reputation, and this, silly thing as it might sound to you, is unfair. It reduces the quality of any certificate of completion that can be obtained, because the grading criteria are not rigorous at all, they are accommodating and bendable beyond the human condition of wanting to give a hand to someone who has found themselves in the middle of a natural disaster.

Because of Thanksgiving or misreading the clock? That is where quality dies down.


Just to be very clear here: Giving Philippine students a second chance, I agree with. Giving everyone a second chance, just because, I disagree with. I believe there could have been another way to deal with the situation.

Plagues, Witches, and War: The Worlds of Historical Fiction (1)

Lately MOOCs are on the uprise. In case you don’t know, a MOOC is a Massive Open Online Course, which is basically a course held over the Internet, no participant limit, and lots of forums to create community feelings. I semi-accidentally signed up for Plagues, Witches, and War: The Worlds of Historical Fiction, a MOOC on (did you guess?) historical fiction!

The course is offered for free through Coursera by the Unversity of Virginia and takes 8 weeks.

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The course is comprised of:

  1. What Is Historical Fiction?
    • 1.1 Defining the Genre
    • 1.2 The Pre-History of Historical Fiction
    • 1.3 From Archive to Novel
    • 1.4 The Question of Origins
    • 1.5 Historical Fiction: A Global Genre
  2. Poetry and Exile in Ancient Rome: Jane Alison. Seminar with Jane Alison on The Love Artist
  3. Two Centuries of Historical Fiction
    • 3.1 Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales: Fiction on the Frontier
    • 3.2 Brown’s Clotel: Slavery, Fiction, and a Founding Father
    • 3.3 Dickens and the French Revolution: A Tale of Two Cities
    • 3.4 Anna Katharine Green and the Invention of the Historical Mystery
    • 3.5 Modernism, Metafiction, and the Mass Market, 1920-1980
    • 3.6 The New Historical Novel in Latin America
  4. Witchcraft and the Early Americas: Katherine Howe. Seminar with Katherine Howe on The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane
  5. A Plague Year in Renaissance England: Geraldine Brooks. Seminar with Geraldine Brooks on Year of Wonders
  6. Disease and the Written City: Mary Beth Keane. Seminar with Mary Beth Keane on Fever
  7. Ghosts and Marriage in Colonial Malaysia: Yangsze Choo. Seminar with Yangsze Choo on The Ghost Bride
  8. Wrap-Up and Conclusions

The course offers a diploma given that you:

  1. Pass three online quizzes on the content of the lecture
  2. Ask a question to every guest writer
  3. Write a small essay about a historical primary source

I don’t think I’ve ever been an avid reader of historical fiction, but I have enjoyed a few books by Spanish authors from the Medieval and Arabic-Spain times, and I thought it might be interesting considering a tentative idea I have in mind (Have you ever heard of the Keichô Embassy?)

It has made me realise that it is hard for me to just listen to a lecture without having any kind of written anchor, so I found that I either needed to take notes or use the subtitles. I chose this last option and it worked nicely, I was able to concentrate much better once I could read along. I guess I’m a written-words person XD

I’ve currently finished unit 1 and worked my way through the reading of unit 2 – awaiting for the lectures to be posted. I will keep you posted.