Massive Open Online Course

Tom Noyes

Soon as I get home from my shift at Marketplace Solutions, Ryan’s all over me about the MOOC. He refuses to go ahead on his own because the MOOC is something he wants to do as a team on account of eventually we want to be business partners, so his thinking is that by taking the course together we’re not only learning Entrepreneurship 101 or whatever, we’re also learning about each other, our respective strengths and weaknesses, so when the time comes to start selling whatever product or service we decide on, we’ll function like one organism. Which, OK, I get that, but he doesn’t even give me a chance to use the bathroom first despite knowing how long I hold it on account of my policy about public toilets, which, in my book, work toilets count as. Doesn’t even let me change out of my work-issue khakis and blue polo, which he knows I can’t wait to shed on account of they make no sense, it being the case that I’m on the phone all day, as in the people I’m talking to can’t see me, and even if they could, they wouldn’t care if I were decked out in tails and a boutonniere because they know as soon as they hear my voice that I’m out to sell them something they don’t want.


Not to be a prick, but it’s easy for Ryan to live, eat and breathe MOOC because he’s not grinding out twenty-five to twenty-eight hours a week in a cubicle in a warehouse-looking building that’s equipped with neither windows nor satisfactory ventilation, which, if not officially some kind of workplace health code violation, is still a problem, especially if the sweat of the person in the cubicle next to you smells like onions frying. Ryan doesn’t grind out even one hour a week at any job, not since last month when he was let go from TechTown, which I know was a bullshit situation for him on account of how his boss and coworkers were so cliquey, excluding him from their regular get-togethers at Buffalo Wild Wings and their once in a while get-togethers at that karaoke place behind the mall, and sometimes even calling him by the wrong name accidently-on purpose. But still.


What can I say, though? Can I say, “Hey, Ryan. How about tonight instead of MOOC-ing you hunt down a job on account of a deadbeat roommate isn’t what I signed up for?” I cannot say this because Ryan could come back with, “Well, I didn’t sign up for an insensitive prick roommate, who’s insensitive about the same things my father is insensitive about, namely the trouble I’ve had finding my niche, navigating myself to a place where I can maximize my potential, which, by the way, is what I’m hoping the MOOC will help me begin to do, so excuse me for being excited about and prioritizing the very thing which could serve to catapult me to a more satisfactory, productive life, which, despite what you and my dad think, I’m hungry for. Plus, if you think I’m a deadbeat, then why even consider partnering up with me in the business world, which is, by all accounts, dog-eat-dog and no-holds-barred?”


I’d feel bad then, of course. I’d also wonder, though, why Ryan thinks it’s a given that his potential is so amazing. What makes him think his potential isn’t, say, rather modest? Am I to go around believing everyone has startlingly high potential? Even if I think the evidence suggests otherwise? Also, is it fair for Ryan to dump on me about the shit between his father and him? Even hypothetically? I would never burden Ryan with what is between my stepfather and me, for instance, because I don’t think that’s something a good friend would do. Hypothetically or otherwise. And, finally, I admit Ryan’s question about my faith in him as a business partner would sound pretty familiar to me if he were to ask it on account of it’s something I ask myself all the time. Still, my concern about being a good friend to Ryan needs to trump my concern about whether or not he’s a good friend to me. If it doesn’t, then what separates me from any number of people I work with or am related to or am acquaintances with whom I often can’t stand to be around due to their self-centeredness/self-importance? My cousin Sean, for instance, who’s to this point self-published two E-book fantasy novels and who posts to Facebook his Amazon sales rankings, cheering himself on the whole goddamn way, and my aunt and my mom chiming in regularly, not just politely liking his posts, but actually taking the time to comment. “So proud of you, Sean!” or whatever. “We’re so proud of you for writing another four-hundred derivative, non-spell-checked pages about dragons and trolls and cave monsters! And look at all the different fonts and colors you used to signal flashbacks and flashforwards and to differentiate between what the characters are saying from what they’re merely thinking! It’s frightening, Sean, to consider how diminished the world would be without your luminous imagination!”


Tonight’s MOOC module is big, Ryan tells me, because it’s the last one we need to get through before taking our first exam, which I think will be pretty hard but Ryan thinks will be a breeze. He’s been chatting all day with members of his discussion forum who also think it will be a breeze, which is pretty interesting because the one time I logged into my discussion forum, no one was even talking about the MOOC. I was the only American logged in at the time, along with two Canadians, five people from India or Pakistan or wherever and one woman from the United Arab Emirates, who all just wanted to talk about the NBA playoffs. I made it clear to them that I hate basketball, not just basketball but all sports because I think sports send all the wrong messages, such as jumping, running and throwing are the primary skills and talents that youth should aspire to, develop and respect. “I don’t know how high school is where you all live,” I typed, “but here in America, jocks rule the schools and get all the attention and resources, and, excuse my French, but that’s bullshit.” The next day I received a message from one of the course moderators saying that I’d earned warning #1 for using an expletive, and warning #2 wouldn’t be a warning, it would be me getting banned from not just this discussion forum, but from all discussion forums. So, obviously, Ryan has a way better discussion forum. This girl from Iceland even gave him her e-mail, and they’re chatting on Facebook all the time, and if it’s really her on her profile pic, then good for him because I have to say she’s hot. In the photo she’s playing a guitar on stage and singing into a microphone, meaning that she could be cool and talented as well as being super cute, meaning Ryan would have no shot in-person, but via MOOC, via e-mail, via Facebook, I guess he’s doing all the right things, posting all the right links, making all the right comments, using all the right emoticons. If I were to say I weren’t rooting for him and the Icelandic girl, that would make me a pretty bad friend, which the whole point of me MOOC-ing with Ryan, besides the business we want to start together, is I don’t want to be that. Rather, I want to help see him through to the end of something so when he looks at himself in the mirror, he’ll see someone who’s a finisher, not someone people accidentally-on purpose forget to invite to Buffalo Wild Wings. Regardless, I think Ryan and I being assigned different discussion forums is pretty funny considering we live together, thus making it theoretically pretty handy for us to discuss the course with each other, considering that the whole point of MOOC’s is supposedly handiness.


That said, I admit that sometimes I think I should give my discussion forum another go because of how the course description says that, to harness the full potential of the MOOC, students have to make the effort to engage and learn from not just the lectures, but from one another. Like how the United Arab Emirates woman asked me, “Have you ever seen a cricket match?” after I wrote my critique of sports, and I looked it up and learned that it’s like baseball but takes even longer to play, which is hard to imagine, but something I admit I didn’t know before involving myself with the MOOC on account of wanting to be supportive of Ryan, who’s, let’s be honest, been having a shitty go of it lately, what with, first, TechWorld, and then, second, getting punched in the face at Caribou Coffee a couple weeks ago by a guy who immediately apologized on account of how he’d mistaken Ryan for another guy who’d been stalking his ex-girlfriend a while back. The guy then bought Ryan a large macchiato and said, “You should get a muffin, too. You deserve a muffin. Least I can do. Or even a scone.” So Ryan got a pumpkin nut muffin, and all that night my strategy to cheer up Ryan was to say, “I hope someone punches me in the face tomorrow so I can get some free grub!” and it worked a little because we had a good time for a while brainstorming better restaurants where we could be punched and then apologized to, real restaurants with steaks and ribs and burritos and beers, say, or even getting punched at TechCity and then driving away with a new laptop or flat screen.


Has the MOOC to this point been everything I dreamed? That’s a tough question to answer because I didn’t really dream about it. I don’t even remember agreeing to MOOC with Ryan, but that first evening, he was all, “Tonight’s the night, right?” and I said, “For what?” and he said, “The MOOC,” and I said, “What MOOC?” and he said, “Very funny. The online entrepreneurship course you promised me we’d do as an initial first pre-step to thinking about our business,” and I said, “When was this?” and he said, “Come on, man,” and I said, “If MOOC’s are free, how does anyone make any money?” and he said, “Not everything’s about money, man,” which he’s right, but it’s not necessarily something you want to hear your maybe future business partner say.


At any rate, truth be told, the lectures aren’t bad. In fact, I’ve heard a few things that have really stuck with me. This morning at Marketplace, for instance, I kept thinking about how the woman who spoke in the last module said that while most small business start-ups fail, they don’t fail because of failure; rather, they fail because the owners give up. Which I guess the takeaway from that is you should never give up, or you shouldn’t give up too quickly, or failure is only failure if you call it that. Otherwise it’s just tough times you need to fight through, sustain your belief through, keep your chin up through. But there’s a lot of nuts-and-bolts stuff in the course, too, about how to secure loans and attract investors and market your product or service, and it seems those are things you’re going to be either successful or not successful at. Like you will either market your business well, or you won’t. You will either be successful at attracting investors and getting banks to approve your loan applications, or you won’t. When you’re sitting there at your kitchen table with your rejected loan applications and/or disappointing sales receipts and/or maxed-out credit cards, I’m thinking it might not matter much whether you decide you failed because of failure, or you failed because you’re giving up. I’m sure the “never give up” message is in many cases good advice, I’m just wondering if it’s universally applicable, if success is always the best option and failure always the worst option. For example, any rational person would consider me a failure at Marketplace—my productivity numbers are among the lowest of all productivity numbers; my numbers are consistently only marginally better than the numbers of people who get fired for their low numbers—but would I be doing myself any favors by being more of a success at Marketplace? I don’t think so. In fact, if I were any better at selling people things they don’t need over the phone, I think I’d feel like more of a failure. If I were really good at it? If it were, like, my talent? If I were an idiot savant of phone sales? I think I might kill myself or become a monk or something. It’s that kind of job. I consider it that kind of job. Of course, the fact that I consider it that kind of job and still continue to show up whenever my name appears on the schedule probably could be considered one of the worst kinds of failure, but here’s what it’s not as bad as: it’s not as bad as failing a down-in-the-dumps friend who asked you to MOOC with him to give him a little hope and help keep him on track. Like why people sometimes join Weight Watchers together, which my cousin Sean, the self-published novelist extraordinaire, has been in and out of his whole life. There’s even Weight Watchers for kids, which my mom made me go to once with Sean because that’s what you do for family, she said, but this was during my own chubby period, before senior year of high school when I started having only coffee for lunch, and I think at least half the reason she wanted me to go was for my own good. Anyway, now I’m not fat any more, and Sean’s not fat all the time. His weight is up and down. My mom says when he’s writing he keeps the weight off, and when he’s not writing he puts it back on, which is probably why she and my aunt are so encouraging to him, but still, on some level it has to matter whether what he’s writing is worthwhile or not, or maybe that’s my problem, that’s my hang-up, that I think worthwhileness should matter, and it’s my mom and aunt who have it right that what really matters is Sean’s health and happiness, not his gaping plot-holes, his stilted dialogue, or his under-developed settings.


Tonight’s MOOC lecture is a blur. The guy talking is a white guy, but his accent is heavy and hard to place and tough to get past. Plus, on top of the accent thing, the guy starts off talking French, although French isn’t the kind of accent he has, in order to bestow on his audience the knowledge that the word entrepreneur comes from the French word “entreprendre,” meaning “to undertake,” which is really useless info because it doesn’t help Ryan and me even a little on account of the things we’re considering selling aren’t French-related, and our success won’t in any way depend on our knowledge of the history of words. Not to mention that telling us where the word that the course is about comes from seems like something you’d want to do, if you’re going to do it at all, in Module 1, not Module 4.


I look over to the other end of the coffee table where Ryan is all eyes and ears on the MOOC, and he’s wearing his yellow sweat pants with the button-down baby blue dress shirt again, which means that he needs to do laundry again, which means that he’ll probably borrow some money from me again, and not even ask, just take a bunch of quarters out of the jar I keep laundry quarters in on my night stand.

 About the Writer

Tom Noyes’ newest book, Come by Here: A Novella and Stories, won the 2013 Autumn House Prize in Fiction. He is the author of two other story collections, Spooky Action at a Distance and Other Stories and Behold Faith and Other Stories, which was shortlisted for Stanford Libraries’ William Saroyan Award. Currently, he teaches in the BFA program at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, where he also serves as a consulting editor for the literary magazine Lake Effect. 

Ryan’s drumming his fingers on his goateed chin when I say, “What kind of accent is that supposed to be anyway?” and Ryan says, “Shhh. Welsh, I think,” which, I have to say is about the best answer he could give if his goal is to piss me off and make me think it’s not altogether inexplicable that his co-workers at TechTown didn’t include him in their social circle or that some dude at a coffee shop tagged him in the face or that his own father has trouble interacting civilly with him, and make me seriously rethink our tentative plans about being business partners because, first of all, you don’t shush your partner, you always hear your partner out, and second, you don’t pretend to know things you don’t know, like what Welsh people sound like, which Ryan doesn’t know from the hole in the crotch of his yellow sweat pants.


Ryan’s answer does something more than just piss me off, though. It reminds me of Sean’s latest in-progress book, supposedly the final installment of his cave monster trilogy, because one of the hunters in the book, the most bloodthirsty and skillful hunter, in fact, wears a kilt, which made me wonder if the setting was Scotland, which is why Ryan saying “Welsh” reminded me of it, on account of how both places are kind of British, but when I asked Sean if the setting of his novel was Scotland, he was like, “Not literally Scotland, not Scotland per se, not only Scotland, but if you’re asking is the locale in my latest book Scotland-inspired, if you’re asking if Scotland was one of the many ‘real-world’ places that informed my fictitious setting, I’d have to tip my hat to you and say, ‘Sure! The setting is Scottish-infused, and there are certainly Scottish elements in there, namely the kilt, which you mentioned,” which by the wordiness of this hypothetical answer Sean gave me to my rather simple question, you can get an idea of how he writes.


The thing about my cousin Sean’s latest book is that I don’t hate it as much as his other books, and I’m trying to find the best way to tell him this. He’s been sharing it with me via Google Docs even though I never asked him to share it, even though it was my mom and not me who invited him to do so, which I’m trying to figure out why she did that, if it was supposed to be encouraging to him only or if she thought it was something I needed to do for whatever reason, like the whole Weight Watchers for kids thing. Anyway, I want Sean to understand how much better this book is than his previous books, but I don’t want to make him feel badly about his previous books, but I don’t want to give him a big head about this new book, which, although a lot better than his other books, is still not what I would call good. I think maybe it could be, though, and if it reaches that potential I don’t see why maybe he shouldn’t send it to a legit publisher to see if they’ll bring it out and maybe help him with the editing and proofreading rather than do the self-publishing thing again. It’s not a fantasy novel really. Not only fantasy. I mean, yes, there are cave monsters from some other-worldly dark realm or whatever, being hunted by cave monster hunters, one of whom, as I mentioned, wears a kilt, and some of whom are sorcerers in addition to being hunters, but it’s also, on another level, about how the main characters have problems and are working to find ways out of their problems, and although the story hasn’t yet gotten to the part where the reader knows what all the problems are, I get this feeling that all the problems, the whole book, in essence, is kind of sneakily about Sean’s struggle with his weight, even though the book is fiction, as in it’s not really supposed to be about him at all.


Suddenly (“Suddenly” is one of my cousin Sean’s favorites) the last thing I want to be doing is watching this MOOC, and since Sean’s book is suddenly in my head, I figure I’ll take a look in Google Docs to see if there are any new pages. So that’s what I do. I don’t say anything to Ryan. Not even when he says, “Want me to pause it?” when I go to the refrigerator first to get a beer, which is the last one, which I drink while still in the kitchen so Ryan doesn’t see me walk through the room with it thereby opening a can of worms, and then I do walk through the room and get my laptop and sit on the other side of the room from Ryan, who probably assumes that I’m streaming the MOOC lecture on my computer instead of doing what I’m really doing, reading Sean’s book, on account of there are a bunch of new pages there waiting for me.


And then this happens: I get to the part in Sean’s book where the kilted cave monster hunter, on his deathbed, confesses that one of the reasons he was so driven to hunt cave monsters and one of the reasons he was so adept at hunting cave monsters is because his father, the father he never knew, the father who’d abandoned him and his mother, was, in fact, a cave monster, and I admit I get a lump in my throat, and I feel lost and sad, like I’m on my own deathbed so to speak, like I myself have hunted my last cave monster, and like I myself am part cave monster, and in a way these feelings are very dark, but in another way they’re good. Not happy, but genuine somehow despite being pretend. Like I can feel all this weight I didn’t even know I was under, but I can also feel that this weight’s been lifted.


When the MOOC guy with the accent is done talking, Ryan is all, “So what do you think? You want to take the exam together?” and I say, “Listen to this, man. You know that cousin of mine who I told you was a sucky writer? Listen to this,” and I read the cave monster hunter’s deathbed speech, and Ryan’s like, “Yeah, you’re right. That’s pretty sucky. Plus, I have no idea what’s going on in the book so it makes no sense. Plus, I thought you were MOOC-ing with me this whole time? Were you instead reading your cousin’s sucky book? Are you going to MOOC later? If you wanted to MOOC later, all you had to do was tell me, right?”


From there the conversation goes downhill, but I’m thinking that, in the long run, downhill could prove to uphill. For both Ryan and me. When I tell him that I suddenly know for certain that I’m not going into business with him, that our business has already failed because I’ve already given up, he’s quiet, and when he tells me that if that’s the way things are going to be, he believes we need to go our separate ways as roommates on account of how it would be too uncomfortable to share domestic space after our professional relationship has disintegrated. I’m quiet at first, but then I say, “OK, if that’s what you want. In the meantime, if you need some laundry quarters, you can just go ahead and use mine. You don’t even have to ask,” which I meant as a kind of goodwill, no-hard-feelings gesture, but the way he stormed out of the apartment suggests that he took it in another way.


The next morning I wake up to a note on the kitchen counter that says, “FYI: I got an 88 on the test, which is practically an ‘A’.” Which it’s not practically an ‘A’. And I wonder if my cousin Sean is OK with his living arrangements in my aunt’s attic, or if he’s looking for a change. I’d be willing to float him for a while.