Modernity, Conspiracy, and Open Education: Online Humanities Offerings from UC Santa Cruz

March 22, 2023

Peter Kenez, Professor of History
Matthew Lasar, Lecturer of History
Murray Baumgarten, Professor of Literature

In the past year, some UC Santa Cruz Humanities faculty have opened their courses to the world through the campus partnership with Coursera. With gratitude to Professor of History Peter Kenez, Professor of Literature Murray Baumgarten, and Lecturer of History Matthew Lasar, anyone in the world with an internet connection can now enroll in Conspiracy Planet, in which learners apply a set of analytical tools to a variety of conspiracy theories, and Odesa: Jews in the Modern World, in which learners make connections between Jewish migration and modernity. Other open-access Humanities courses include Professor Bettina Aptheker's Feminism & Social Justice, which recently reached a milestone of enrolling more than 100,000 students.

These courses don’t follow typical formats. In Odesa: Jews in the Modern World, professors Baumgarten and Kenez are engaged in a rich dialogue on the complex position of Jewish people in late-19th and early-20th-century Odesa, addressing the impact of antisemitism, modernity, industrialization, and war on their lives. In Conspiracy Planet, lecturer Lasar presents the history of a set of pivotal conspiracy theories, including Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the JFK Assassination, and the life and death of Marilyn Monroe. In both courses, the hallmarks are the engaging and creative final projects that learners produce.

In Conspiracy Planet learners create their own conspiracy theories, using the logical fallacies and tricks often deployed by conspiracy theorists. Lasar’s Coursera learners have devised some clever—and often humorous—scenarios suggesting that: 

  • Extraterrestrials rigged the United Kingdom’s general election in 1997, which resulted in Tony Blair’s Labor Party coming to power; 
  • North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un is actually an actor paid by the US government; 
  • During World War I the German government encouraged hot dog consumption to make Americans more comfortable with the presence of German submarines (which resemble hotdogs in shape);
  • Justin Bieber is a cyborg; and
  • One person has been the continuous President of the United States since 1789.

“In coming up with these outlandish claims,” explains Lasar, "learners become more aware of the key elements of conspiracy theories and how they make fictional scenarios seem plausible." 

In Humanities emeritus faculty members Murray Baumgarten and Peter Kenez’s course, Odesa: Jews in the Modern World, learners ”send” a postcard from the historical Odesa they have been studying, with a self-selected photograph, synthesizing what they have learned in the course. In this peer-reviewed assignment, learners are asked to think of someone specific—a real or imagined friend or family member—as they write, and to address the postcard to that person.  

A learner from Utah writes:

It is now nearly fifty years since we migrated to this “City of Opportunity” from the Moldavankas of Krakow. I hope to share some of our experiences and challenges since relocating.
Our family has realized some success, becoming one of the banking houses in Odesa, working with many exporters to transport their grain from Russia to all parts of Europe. We are also financing other businessmen as they move towards greater modernization/industrialization of their shops. We were fortunate to have been able to attend the local secular schools, learning Russian in addition to Hebrew and Yiddish (learned at home), to allow greater reach into the business world.
While these successes are welcome, we are still concerned with the various types of antisemitism seen here. Not only are we hated because of our religious beliefs, there are those who dislike us because of the business success we’ve achieved.  

A learner from Alabama takes a different approach: 

I do hope this note finds you well and good. My cargo business is going great and I am making many rubles. I saw my old friend Babel the other day, carrying his violin to practice. Look I said, the heck with the violin, let's break open a bottle of Russian Vodka and become as free men as it should be. As we sat there on the pier in a slightly drunken stupor, he told me the violin was definitely not for him and he tossed it into the ocean. I said, "It's just as well but look how it floats. Out to sea into the never ending abyss." He told me he wanted to write about such things. That his soul was not meant to be tied to a violin and unending practice. He wanted to go to the university and become a writer. I said, "Go for it," as I handed him the bottle.

By partnering with Coursera, UC Santa Cruz is providing world class education to communities that don't have universities or community colleges nearby,” says Cid Pearlman, who oversees the Online Education’s open access offerings. “UCSC’s online and open access courses make it possible for people across the globe to benefit from our outstanding faculty’s teaching and research.” 

Additionally, UC Santa Cruz is a member of the Coursera Partner Consortium, which enables free sharing of content among participating institutions. UCSC students, faculty, and staff can access this shared partnership content through Coursera for UCSC