One of the continuing pleasures of being a Barnard alumna is the opportunity to audit classes on campus and participate in the intellectual life of the College. Recognizing that alumnae beyond the tristate area crave the same intellectual engagement, this fall Barnard launched its first online course, The Modern Novel, taught by best-selling author and Millicent C. McIntosh Professor in English and Writing Mary Gordon ’71. 

“I was looking for things we could do online,” says Dorothy Urman Denburg ’70, vice president of college relations. “Mary proposed it after we were together in Chicago in the fall of 2010; she did a reading from her novel The Love of My Youth. She said she was willing to be a pioneer, and I leapt at it. I know her to be one of our most gifted teachers.” 

The demand was clearly there, affirms Gordon. “When I would go around the country and meet with alumnae groups, they would ask for this,” she says. “I thought this might be a good way [for alumnae outside New York] to connect with the College.”

The seminar was originally designed for 40 participants. Almost double—75 alumnae—signed up. “I was pleasantly surprised that we could have filled it twice,” says Denburg. The course focused on five modern novels, Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, E.M. Forster’s Howards End, James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs.Dalloway. Gordon delivered two lectures for each novel; alumnae participated fully in a webinar, a real-time session for each text with viewers submitting questions or comments (unlike the auditing experience). The first 40 enrollees were also able to submit their journal entries about the works to Gordon.

“We wanted to make it a unique Barnard product,” says Denburg, who emphasizes that this online venture is “not about modifying the undergraduate experience.” What makes it distinctly “Barnard” is that the alumnae are “engaged, and having a conversation with Mary.”

Still, as Gordon says, “The ability to talk to each other through the discussion board makes it a much more personal use of online education. It is not something I would do with undergraduates. It’s not a substitute for personal relationships.”

The experience has been gratifying for alumnae participants. “The lectures were interesting and well organized,” says Alison Hayford ’68, a retired professor of sociology and social studies, who participated in the webinars. She admitted that she found “writing 500 words much harder than writing 5000,” although she enjoyed doing the journal entries. 

Nicole Vianna ’81, an economics major who was in the non-journal writing cohort, signed up because “I had read some of the books before, and I wanted to revisit them in a more formal way,” she says. “The level was very high. It’s Barnard women, which is what made it fun.” Plus, there was Mary Gordon herself. “Her presence was the best thing,” says Vianna. Carol Cohen ’59, an English major who hadn’t read all of the novels as an undergraduate, adds, “I like the way Mary looks at literature. I’m taken by her insights. This was intellectually stimulating.”

Working with alumnae was just as enriching an experience for Gordon. “These are [women] who’ve done lots of things,” she says. “What’s been thrilling is having them say, ‘I want serious intellectual engagement,’ or ‘Our reading group isn’t good enough for me.’ One woman who is a judge responded to the unreliable narrator in The Good Soldier. That rocked my world: [The response] so wonderfully expanded a hope I’d always had that literature does connect to life . . . but also made it clear to me how it could perhaps be the opposite of useful, and that paradox, in a way, embodies all the complexities that make literature invaluable. 

“The level of the responses was incredibly high. It was very exciting to talk to people around the world and feel that Barnard spirit of tough, demanding, insightful and close reading. It’s not over when you graduate.”

Another online course is being planned for the fall of 2013 and will be announced when the dates and syllabus have been confirmed.