Thursday, 12 December 2013

hei hei 4.605x

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
William Faulkner

And so, one more edX course is finished: A Global History of Architecture: Part 1. I do hope there will be Part 2 at some point.

I registered for 4.605x quite by accident. My mind was already set on doing different course this Fall, but since it was not on until mid-October, I decided to check what else is on offer. As 4.605x was starting in mid-September, I thought I can give it a try. (A mental note to myself: don’t do two edX courses at a time.)

No regrets, and many pleasant surprises. The course had everything one can expect from the name, viz. “architecture”, “history” and “global”, and much more: anthropology, geology, geography, ecology, religion, philosophy, economy, politics...

how it works

The twelve week-course is organised as follows:

4×[2×{weeks of 3 lectures} + {one exam week}]
(see the bottom of the page for the programme of the course).

Each week contains three video lectures, divided in sensible chunks (about 10 minutes). At the start of each lecture, it is recommended to download the Lecture Handout, which outlines important places, terms, and dates addressed in the lecture. The students also are encouraged to read the corresponding parts of the textbook and contribute to the forum. Typically, each video fragment is accompanied by one or more multiple-choice review questions based on lecture material. You have one attempt to answer a question; each question is worth one point. These questions count as a homework for the current week. The number of questions varies from lecture to lecture (it could be anything between 6 and 15); all 24 homeworks count for 20% of the total course grade. I found it easier to answer the questions as I go along the lecture. Saying that, on couple of occasions the relevant topic was discussed in the fragment following the question, and on one occasion it was not discussed at all (the answer could be found in the book though). The time to complete a lecture (i.e. watching all videos and answering the review questions) is about two hours.

The exams include matching problems, drag-and-drop problems with icons and labels, multiple choice questions, and drop-down menus. Each exam contains 10 problems/questions, worth a total of 100 points (20% of the total course grade). You have two attempts for all multiple choice questions and three attempts for all other question types. Naturally, because of that, you have a better chance to get all the answers right. The time to complete each exam was estimated to be about an hour; I think I never needed more time than that.

Here’s how my final progress graph looked like:


The main strength of the course is the lectures. Professor Mark Jarzombek is passionate about his subject, whatever it is called. He is also a brilliant lecturer, in spite of all his “sort ofs” and “if you wills” (which would irritate me in any other speaker). For once, you see a historian who is not just telling you what was happening (or built), but is explaining why it was happening (and built).

Last time I was fascinated with the world history that much was about twenty years ago, when I was reading Lev Gumilev. And some of ideas put forward by Jarzombek would not feel out of place in Gumilev’s books.

There is an important difference though. For Gumilev, the architecture and art in general were static, crystallised remnants of historical processes. In his view, the monuments were only capable to stay or fall apart. And that is not interesting.

For Jarzombek, this is not the case. His buildings are alive. Just like any living system, they age and eventually die, but they also can develop. Even ruins can evolve. Most importantly, buildings are never just the building: they are ideas, models, tools, parts of the landscape. The last lecture, in particular, deals with the problem of time, and I found it one of the most intriguing lectures of the course. Here, more questions is asked than answered. Do we have to restore the ancient buildings? If yes, to what end and to which degree? If we are rebuilding Parthenon, should we paint it over (because the original Parthenon was painted) or leave it white (because this is how we used to think about Ancient Greek temples)?


The custom ebook for 4.605x, containing excerpts from two textbooks, Architecture of First Societies: A Global Perspective and A Global History of Architecture, was made available within the courseware. Which is great, considering how much Wiley charges for these books. However, the e-reader experience was not the best. To access the book, one has to create an account with VitalSource. You cannot save a chapter in any normal format to read it later, e.g. on your Kindle. You can print out maximum of two pages at a time. The font size make it almost impossible to read the e-book on a laptop (not to mention mobile devices). I read only a couple of chapters before giving up. Oh well. Hopefully, one day I will buy them second-hand.


I did not participate in the forum as much as I would like. Almost every time I tried to read anything there, I was confronted with this ghastly message:

Warning: Unresponsive script

Which is a shame. The discussion was lively, and many participants shared the photos of some truly marvellous buildings.

(Of course this problem is not specific to 4.605x. I did encounter it in other edX courses too. But in 4.605x I saw it a lot. The reason is, the “directed discussions” prompted by the course organisers fell victims of their own success — they attracted many hundreds of comments. I am sure that the edX programmers will eventually fix their forum software. The number of students taking the edX courses is going to grow!)

list of lectures

  1. First Societies
  2. The Gravettians and the Hunting Traditions of the North
  3. The Holocene and the Agro-Pastoral Emergence
  4. The Agricultural Emergence
  5. Ca. 3000 BCE, Stone — Between Life and Death
  6. Cities and Temples
    • Exam 1
  7. 1500 BCE: After the Cataclysm and the Rise of the Eastern Mediterranean
  8. Iron and the New World Order
  9. Persia and Greece
  10. India and China
  11. Buddhism: India and Beyond
  12. The Americas: Shaping/Harvesting the Land
    • Exam 2
  13. Rome
  14. Roman Architecture
  15. Early Christian Architecture
  16. Christianity and the Roman East
  17. Early Islamic Architecure
  18. Early Hindu Architecure
    • Exam 3
  19. Borobudur, Angkor, and SE Asia
  20. The 13th Century: Inner Asia and Beyond
  21. Medieval Christian Architecture
  22. Italy: 13th to 15th Century
  23. Colonial Transitions
  24. Time
    • Exam 4

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