How an online class in poetry changed a student’s life

When Al Filreis, the Kelly Professor of English, agreed to teach his Modern & Contemporary American Poetry course to tens of thousands of students around the world through the online platform called Coursera, there was no way for him to know how profoundly it would change the life of one young man.

There were, after all, 36,000 people enrolled in the class. Yet one student, a 17-year-old from New York named Daniel Bergmann, stood out. Not only because of the quality of his academic work (an essay Bergmann wrote on the poem “I taste a liquor never brewed” by Emily Dickinson is what first caught Filreis’ eye). But also because Bergmann is autistic, and he credits the Coursera class with helping him emerge from the isolation of his condition to become an active participant in the 10-week course on contemporary American poetry.

“Please tell Coursera and Penn my story,” Bergmann wrote in an open letter to Filreis, thanking him for teaching him how to function in a larger, expanded, artistic world.

Bergmann does not speak. He writes to communicate, typing one letter at a time using one finger on an iPad outfitted with special software.

“Several years ago I asked my parents to rescue me from special-ed so I could learn more academically challenging subjects,” Bergmann wrote. His tutors have taught him Latin, calculus, geometry, art, music theory, and composition.

Nonetheless, he had never written an essay before taking the Modern Poetry class. In fact, the Coursera course was the first “real class” Bergmann had ever taken, and the first time he had spoken words aloud in a classroom setting.

Both of Bergmann’s parents helped him keep up with the pace of the class. His father, a New York-based filmmaker, would read Shakespeare to him and ask him to describe the symbols, poetic devices, and structures that made the Bard’s plays work. His mother is a sculptor, poet, and poetry editor.

Filreis, who is also faculty director of Kelly Writers House, says he appreciated comments Bergmann posted in the Modern Poetry discussion forums. “They were all well written and to the point,” Filreis says. “But soon I saw his essay on ‘I taste a liquor never brewed’ by Emily Dickinson, and it was terrific.”

Of the many thousands of student essays Filreis could have commented upon, he chose to respond to Bergmann’s. The young man was excited and heartened to get feedback from Filreis, recognizing that it meant he could contribute to the class like any other student and not be defined by his autism.

Bergmann has visited Kelly Writers House twice in person; once to meet Filreis and sit in on one of his English classes, and a second time to attend a Modern Poetry live webcast session with some of his fellow students. During his first visit, Bergmann listened but did not participate. On his second visit, he jumped in.

As the session was wrapping up, participants were invited to create two-word, poem-like summations of their Modern Poetry experience. With his father standing beside him, devotedly holding a microphone close to his son’s lips, Bergmann said, “Not impossible.”

Originally published on December 20, 2012