Peter S. Onuf tells people upfront that he is not “a Jefferson worshiper.”
The University of Virginia scholar, who teaches a free online course on Thomas Jefferson that will debut Monday, is struck by the paradox of a slave-owning Founding Father who espoused liberty. Onuf’s own political sympathies lie with the party that opposed the nation’s third president.
“I’m a native New Englander,” Onuf said, “and if I had my druthers, I’d probably be a Federalist. But he is a fascinating guy.”
For U-Va., Jefferson is indispensable and omnipresent — the founder of a public university that aims to live up to his vision of an “academical village.” His enduring fame as the author of the Declaration of Independence also gives the university in Charlottesville endless opportunities to promote its brand around the world.
It is no accident, from a public relations perspective, that U-Va. timed the online course “Age of Jefferson” to begin on Presidents’ Day. It also is no accident that the university will offer subtitled versions in Chinese and Spanish in hopes of tapping audiences in Asia, Europe and Latin America.
Anyone with an Internet connection can take the course, for no charge, through the Web site Coursera or view it through the application iTunes U. The massive open online course, or MOOC, is a joint venture of U-Va. and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. It is U-Va.’s 12th MOOC since the school began offering the courses a year ago. Others have covered topics such as the history of the modern world, business entrepreneurship, the influence of President John F. Kennedy, effective classroom teaching and the physics of how things work. Those who pass the courses don’t receive any credits toward a U-Va. degree.
In some ways, U-Va. views an online course on Jefferson not just as an opportunity but also as an obligation.
“If any university is going to create a MOOC on Thomas Jefferson, that better be us,” said Kristin Palmer, director of online learning programs for U-Va. “It would be embarrassing if it’s not us.”
A senior U-Va. official said the MOOC should not be seen as a marketing exercise.
“This is meant to be a serious course on Jefferson,” said Jeffrey W. Legro, the vice provost for global affairs. “It’s not Jefferson 101.”
MOOCs, which have proliferated in the past two years, are sometimes described as a disruptive force that will “democratize” the elite level of higher education. Skeptics say such claims are overblown.
If Jefferson were alive today, the debate over the direction of higher education in the 21st century might have resonated with him. The revolutionary leader founded U-Va. in 1819, a decade after the end of his presidency.
U-Va. is hardly the only university with a Founding Father tie-in. George Washington University said it is exploring the possibility of a MOOC on the first president. James Madison University said it does not have a MOOC on the fourth president but is developing courses related to Madison and his Montpelier estate.
Onuf’s course is a six-week study of Jefferson’s thought, using video of lectures the emeritus professor gave last year at the university and at Montalto, a peak overlooking the Monticello estate. A video introduction shows footage of the mustachioed 67-year-old historian riding his bicycle on the historic campus, known as the Grounds. The camera lingers on Jefferson’s Rotunda, the Lawn and other iconic images.
“I’m Peter Onuf,” he tells viewers as he dismounts and strolls with the bike. “I’ve been teaching history here for almost a quarter of a century. And we’re going to be doing a course on the Age of Jefferson. And what a treat to be here at Mr. Jefferson’s university.”
In an interview, Onuf said the course will explore Jefferson’s views on religious freedom, education, generational relationships, the Declaration and the emergence of an American people. And of course, slavery.
“I talk about it at great length,” Onuf said. “Enslaved people, Jefferson’s own slaves, constitute what I call a captive nation.”
Onuf said he explores Jefferson’s argument for a solution that would emancipate slaves and then deport them. But Onuf said he doesn’t spend much time on Jefferson’s relationship with his slave Sally Hemings because the course is not designed as a biographical study. Most historians, including Onuf, agree with a conclusion the Thomas Jefferson Foundation has posted on its Monticello Web site: that Jefferson fathered children with Hemings after his wife died.
People who take the course can take quizzes, if they like, and earn a non-credit statement of accomplishment if they pass. “I don’t like the idea of quizzes,” Onuf said. “I’d like to think we can just have an adult conversation.”
A conversation, that is, with thousands. Some of U-Va.’s MOOCs, like others offered by well-known universities, have drawn huge audiences. Politics professor Larry J. Sabato’s MOOC on the legacy of JFK, the university said, has drawn nearly 100,000 viewers. A business school MOOC has drawn nearly 200,000.
In all, about 800,000 people have participated in U-Va. MOOCs so far through Coursera, according to Palmer, with more than 40,000 earning statements of accomplishment. Palmer said Friday that about 11,000 people had signed up for the Jefferson MOOC.
Onuf said he is mindful that his course has special significance for the university and Monticello. “I’ve always understood this is a kind of branding exercise,” he said. “I appreciate and even respect those institutional imperatives. These are not infomercials, though. I personally am not doing it for these institutions.”
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