Featured Courses 2020 - 21
Whither the State. Course Coordinator, Dennis Dresang
“Careful, logical, and evidence-based inquiry.” That’s how Dennis Dresang has described methods of getting good information and that approach is obvious to anyone taking Whither the State.
Dennis, a UW-Madison emeritus professor and founding director of the La Follette School of Public Affairs, has offered his popular Whither the State for PLATO every autumn for many years and it remains one of the best attended of PLATO’s offerings. Focusing on topics of current interest in the public sphere that impact the state and the nation, the course includes not only Dennis’s own astute commentary, but also regular guest presenters who can speak authoritatively on public affairs—ranging from political scientists such as David Canon to officer holders such as Congressman Mark Pocan or former state Senate president Brian Rude.
Due to the pandemic, PLATO’s Whither the State no longer happens only in the fall semester. Last fall’s sessions, which focused heavily on the 2020 elections, drew online attendance that typically topped one hundred. Because everyone meets online, guest speakers no longer have to be drawn only from the Madison area.
The course usually goes on a hiatus in the winter and spring since Dennis is a snowbird who heads out to the American southwest during Wisconsin’s cold season. This year Dennis’s travel plans are no different, but with the course now being all digital, we are getting twice as much of Whither the State. Dennis is continuing the course on a twice monthly basis from December 2020 through May 2021. Dennis leads the session from his southwestern residence (and sometimes outdoors on his front porch) with Madison assistance from Terry Shelton and Kurt Sippel.
The course follows the same format as in the past, except it now takes place twice a month, and continues with an array of guest speakers. The most recent session was led by Prof. Ryan Owen, who is director of the Tommy G. Thompson Center in Public Leadership. Prof. Owen presented and fielded questions on the future of the modern Republican Party. Other recent sessions included a presentation on economic and monetary challenges and opportunities facing the Biden-Harris administration and another on climate change policies and politics in the US and the world.
Upcoming sessions include What's Going on with the Stock Market? (Feb. 2); Future of the Media: Misinformation, Bias and Facts (Feb. 16); and Social and Political Implications of Transportation Policy: Now and Future (March 2). Later classes will include the redistricting process in Wisconsin and other subjects of interest.
If you have haven't been taking the course, this is a great time to sign up for his Tuesday morning course listed in the SPRING SCHEDULE 202I. No need to go outside in the cold or find a seat. And because the class is being video recorded, you can catch up on previous sessions you may have missed at PLATO’s courses online in the VIDEO RECORDED COURSE. Both the Spring Schedule and the Video recorded courses is listed in the left hand column on this page.
The Paris Climate Agreement Turns Five course coordinator Peter Krug.
Peter Krug is offering the course, The Paris Climate Agreement Turns Five, this Winter Session. Twenty-five participants join Peter each Friday morning to hear about the status of this international agreement to reduce the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Every five years the member nations must update their greenhouse gas reduction targets and policies. The year 2020 was the first time the update was due. Because of the world wide pandemic, the meeting was rescheduled for 2021.The Trump administration removed the US from this agreement effective this past November. President-elect Biden will seek to rejoin the agreement when he becomes President.
Peter is focusing on the mitigation efforts of the 3 largest developed parties who are responsible for the most greenhouse emissions on our planet – the United States, the European Union, and the People's Republic of China. Mitigation is the “stabilization and reduction of greenhouse gases around the world.”
The course discusses the following topics: In week one and two, Peter summarizes the main points of the Paris Agreement and speaks of the governmental options including examples.
The next three weeks focus on each of the three major producers of greenhouse gases: The United States, the European Union, and China. And the last week presents the topic of Climate diplomacy and a course wrap-up.
Everyone is welcome to join this course to find out what the countries of the world are doing help our climate, and what they intend to do. As Peter states, his goal is “to provide an enhanced foundation for following the news and your possible participation in the ongoing climate change discourse.”
Thank you Peter for offering PLATO this fascinating and important course.
Talking About Race course coordinator Kathy Michaelis
Talking about Race was a discussion course based on - So You Want to Talk about Race by Ijeoma Oluo, published in 2018 plus “11 Step Guide to Understanding Race, Racism and White Privilege, a Curriculum for White America” by John Greenberg, 2017. Key topics included Why Talking about Race, Confronting Issues of Race, is important (Race is not biological; Defining Racism; Why talking about racism is so difficult); Understanding the White Privilege; Stepping Back into History – Racial Disparities and White Privilege; Race, Police & The Criminal Justice System (Is Police Brutality Really about Race? What is the School-to-Prison Pipeline?)
Although there were some technical glitches (due to human error), discussion worked quite well within the online environment. Most attendees were very engaged.
Refighting the Civil War course coordinator Daryl Sherman offered the following comment:
"I have been teaching Refighting the Civil War for over a decade now with some class members who have been attending it for over half that long. In its current permutation I find a DVD course on the Civil War that meets my standards and I present it lesson by lesson. At the end of each, usually 30 minute DVD lesson, I throw it open to questions and discussion. We continue this until no one has more to contribute on the subject, usually around 30 minutes, but occasionally far longer. We then have another DVD session, followed by another discussion. This sometimes causes us to run over our time by 10 to 30 minutes but no one has ever objected, rather they stick around and seem to enjoy it. I know I do."
Refighting the Civil War comments by Romeo Dais
I joined Daryl’s civil war class in February 2016. I had retired from being a Reference Librarian at Madison Public Library in February 2015 and had been looking for additional things to do with my time. I selected books from 1998 – 2015 which included the Civil War. Daryl provided a few bibliographies of civil war books, which I checked to see if Madison Public Library owned and, in most cases, it does have them.
The format of the class is to view presentations via cd-rom disks and comments on the presentations. Initial presentations are usually about ½ hour and then Darryl, with his extensive knowledge of the civil war, comments on what was viewed. Class members then interjected their comments on the video. The class is 2 hours and we can usually view 3 presentations per class.
When I joined the class, we were in the middle of a presentation by Garry Gallagher, The Great Courses, the American Civil War. Gallagher is a renowned civil war historian from the University of Virginia.
After Gallagher, we viewed Ken Burns’ The Civil War, first shown in September in 1990. Whereas Gallagher presents a traditional history course, with charts and graphs, Burns emphasizes the human emotional and physiological effects on those caught up in the war. At the conclusion Burns says: “What we need to remember, most of all, is that the Civil War is not over until we today, have done our part in fighting it, as well as understanding what happened when the Civil War Generation fought it. (They) have established a standard that will not mean anything until we have finished the work…”
Daryl was able to bring in outside presenters to add perspectives to the class. Dr. Steve Oreck, a retired UW-physician has a history in the U.S Navy Medical Corps. In the War on Waters, Oreck discussed naval warfare with an analysis of ability of the North and South to conduct naval war, ship numbers, kinds of ships, coastal blockage, rivers wars, and commerce.
In another presentation by Dr. Oreck, Civil War Medicine: myths and realities, we learned of the small number of doctors at the beginning of the civil war. The Army and Navy doctors went to medical school whereas the South had no medical schools. Surgery was done by qualified doctors with anesthesia. Giving a bullet to bite on in surgery is a myth. Although sanitary conditions at the start of the war were poor, they improved. Disease accounted for 60% for deaths during the war and the major cost of the U.S. budget after the war was for veteran care.
A class member brought in copies of musical instruments and prevented a talk on music lyrics and songs during the war.
Edward Ayers, A New History of the South presents in 24 lectures a new look at the
South. Yet, misconceptions and incomplete information abound about the South, concerning not only its origins and development, but also its interconnections with the Northern states, its place in the larger scope of world history, and its repercussions for our own era.”
After the Ayers lectures, we are now back to Gallagher, to look at the entire course presentation.
I have thoroughly enjoyed participating in the Civil War class. Daryl Sherman has continually displayed a vast knowledge of the subject and an empathy with the soldiers, their families and the African American populace. The class members have been very receptive to me and I could not ask for more.
and the Curriculum committee asked the coordinators to let us know about their online course experience.
Here is a sampling from some of the responses:
Pathways to a Sustainable Planet course coordinator Rick Steeves offered the following comment:
With the distractions of the COVID pandemic in Madison, our group of 25 has slipped down to the high teens, but our discussions remained active with every lecture. We used Zoom as our on-line platform, and most of our sessions were recorded and posted on the platomadison.org web site.
We’ve enjoyed 4 excellent guest lecturers this fall: Dr. George Erickson (Unintended Consequences), Kathy Kunz (Dane County’s Plan to Address Climate Change), Doug Edwards (A Useful Model for Predicting Climate Change) and Dr. Ankur Desai (Climates Change, can People?).
Our 2 group discussions were not posted, to promote more candid opinions. The titles for these discussions were: How can individuals help our planet? and Reducing Carbon Emissions from transportation. Dr. Lee Gasper-Galvin was the featured discussant for the latter meeting, since she had attended a special meeting on this topic in Detroit.
As coordinator, I reviewed an excellent book, Nature’s Best Hope, by Dr. Douglas Tallamy, and I gave 3 lectures: WATER: its Power, Promise and Turmoil in North America, Antarctica, and Advanced Reactors: Why we need them to save the Planet.
Our group has been meeting for 11 years, so we know and enjoy each other’s viewpoints, but we welcome newcomers as they continue to enrich our group dynamics.
What in the World Happen course coordinator Bruce Gregg offered the following comment:Thanks for all your efforts to guide us to the virtual programs. We had a average class of 35-45 people but could not get picture of late arrivals so we would give picture spot to late arrivals. But it all seemed to work out. While we started out slowly each meeting seemed to be improved as were more comfortable with the program and what it offered to everyone. Jim Leidel was superb and without him we would not have made it.
What in the World Happen course participants offered the following comments:
I think Jim Leidel and Bruce Gregg have done a great job getting all of us “tech savvy” and the “how do you turn it on people” to come to the table every Thursday, especially during this time of pandemic isolation it is so important to keep up with friends and intellectual stimulation and pursuits, I also would like to thank Therese for helping us get up and going and also Marsha and Alice as we have taken time from their family.
On the positive side: No worry about road conditions, travel time, and "dressing up".....plus you can walk around and have a cup of coffee during a presentation, just listen from a comfortable chair.
On the negative: I have varying experiences with the technology. On several dates, I was not able to hear (only see) .... on my laptop. Luckily, we have a desktop.... where we can listen consistently. I need two options to function. Never have we been "out in the cold."
I do wonder if this won't be "the way to go".....down the road. It has numerous benefits for those who can't drive....etc.
"I like the virtual classes a lot. In the past, I would find classes that I thought looked interesting, but they were in a location I didn't want to drive to, so I passed them up. With virtual classes I have a wider choice.
It might seem counterintuitive, but in some ways, I feel more connected to people in the virtual classes than when we met in-person. For one thing, you're looking right at everyone else's face, instead of the back of their head. Before the class starts you can easily be part of the chatting that's going on. There's only one topic at a time and it's easy to jump in. Whereas for in-person classes, there might be multiple conversations going on at the same time, and you figure the people talking are really good friends and you don't want to butt in.
The presentation part of it isn't perfect, because the presenter loses the ability to see the audience unless special steps are taken: either join the meeting on a second device or have a second monitor. I've tried both; each has advantages and disadvantages. When giving a presentation, it's important to me to get visual feedback from the audience - are they staying with me, are they bored, are they laughing at my jokes, etc.
I usually like to show video clips during my presentations, but haven't experimented with that so I'm not sure how successful it would be.
On the whole, I think PLATO is doing a wonderful job of keeping all these classes going. I really appreciate all the work that PLATO and the course coordinators are going through It has been a lifeline during these lock-down times.
A couple of comments for presenters:
I also want to thank everyone who makes the virtual classes go so smoothly.
Biographies course participants offered the following comments:
For my first Biography class this semester, I used the phone-in option. After a half-hour I got nervous that the number might not be toll-free, so I left the meeting. I did indeed incur a long-distance charge of almost $12 for 30 minutes. I know that the PLATO newsletter had a brief mention of charges once, but I think it would be a good idea to have that be part of the standard language that goes out with the link to the meetings. Some people have long-distance charges already bundled into their monthly fees, but some unsuspecting people like me could get burned.
It's been wonderful to be able to see so many people who have been in this class for years and to meet some new members! Jim Leidel has done a great, shall we say heroic? job of navigating Google Meet and dealing with the occasional glitch. We've heard some great talks. Although it isn't the same as being able to meet in person, it certainly is preferable to not meeting at all! Thanks to everyone involved in making this possible!
I am currently taking Biography, History and Current Events all virtually. The first two are with Google Meet and the CE class with Blackboard Collaborate. For the most part I have found this medium acceptable to hear the speaker just fine. Having a good moderator is critical especially one who know how to navigate the online system. Jim Leidel in the first two classes and Jerry Burns in the CE class. Once the group respects the microphone system, everyone can hear just fine. The biggest learning curve seems to be presenters learning how to show their pdf's, photos, slides, and videos. Each course has seen this struggle at the beginning. Overall, I am thrilled we have the two systems to choose from. Many people still think Zoom is better, but Google Meet is fine with me for the next few months.
Reading History, One Book at a Time - THE BOSTON MASSACRE: A FAMILY HISTORY course coordinator offered the following comments:
This semester I offered a history course—my first for PLATO—which meant not only developing the course but also learning how to offer it virtually. It turned out to be a great experience. We read and discussed Serena Zabin’s The Boston Massacre: A Family History, a social history focused on the everyday life of soldiers and citizens during the British occupation of Boston.
One challenge was that this was a high participation class—no Power Point or lecture. The meetings were driven by member discussion. Would this work virtually? The answer is an unequivocal yes. It exceeded my expectations. Everyone was able to participate, no one was delayed by traffic or a search for parking, and the format encouraged close attention to what the members were saying.
Bringing in 18th century maps, documents, newspapers, and images was easy. When a question arose, it was possible to display a relevant source through screen sharing rather than having to set up a projector.
In our final session, the book’s author joined us for two hours, answering questions about history and discussing her research and writing. Given that she teaches in another state and lives 300 miles from Madison, we wouldn’t have been able to have her without the digital format.
Sure, we all missed getting together in person. But class comments indicated that there still was a feeling of being in a group. Comments ranged from “it’s been a lot of fun” to “good group of interesting people; fascinating book.” Even though we all met from the safety of our own homes, one participant put it well: “thanks for bringing this interesting group of people together.” Together is the key word. Although separated by the pandemic, we were indeed brought together by our shared love of learning. . . . Coordinator Michael Stevens
Writer's Workshop course coordinator Andy Millman offered the following comment:"Believe it or not, I think we are getting used to the format and kind of like it! It's not the same as meeting in person, but it does have some advantages, aside from the main one of safety. I think people enjoy not having to go out and will enjoy it even more as the weather gets colder. I also think that because our group time is mainly comprised of offering feedback to other writers, we are able to adapt to the virtual format."
Women's Journeys course coordinator Greta Brix-J. Leer offered the following comment:
I have 17 members in my class and all of them show up reading and reflecting on their essays written from my prompts. I'd considered using google meet, but most of my members already were on Zoom. We took a vote and decided on Zoom.
This was partly due to a generous offer by one of my class members to host the class.
She already had an account and I didn't. Of course, I lead and coordinate the class, and things are going quite well. Members even say that they enjoy the class.
No doubt it's a new experience for all of us and we do miss the physical classroom contact a lot.
However, some of the members commented that we get to see each other's faces and smiles WITHOUT the masks!!
Refighting the Civil War course coordinator Daryl Shermanoffered the following comment:
I am digitally challenged and if I did not have a live-in digital technician it might be too much for me. Once I am past the technical difficulties and in class and have admitted the students it all goes swimmingly for me/us/the class, I believe. I do miss the personal contact but virtual face to face is a remarkably good substitute.
Talking About Race course coordinator Kathy Michaelis offered the following comment:
"I had trouble presenting the first class, even though I had done a test run. But after that things are fine. Online works pretty well, and certainly is convenient."
Fake News course coordinator Jack Mitchell offered the following comment:"When I had trouble getting Chrome to work on my Mac, I decided to use Zoom. The first four sessions did not go well technically, for reasons I did/do not fully understand. I had to cancel one session and needed a class member to rescue me for another by inviting everyone (including me) to her Zoom account. The two most recent sessions went fine and I think I have resolved the problems."