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Some Brief Comments on Courses Offered by
I am a big fan of The Teaching Company, providers of college (plus a few high school) level courses in a wide variety of fields. Their lectures, available in various formats (audio tape, VHS, CD, DVD), are presented by highly credentialed and truly competent teachers who obviously love teaching. I have ordered many TC courses over several years. My family and I have benefited much by them, and I am proud to share them with visitors at our house (it's more engaging than showing off a new barbeque, which I don't have anyway.) Here, for those who might be considering buying some of these courses, I offer a few thoughts.
The Teaching Company understands that digitized information technologies (esp. video and audio recordings, with supportive graphics) are making possible true learning, at advanced levels, for many hitherto overlooked or unreachable students. TC courses are designed for intelligent (but not necessarily well-educated in the topic) people who simply love to learn. Thanks to TC, we can now do so, as the saying goes, from the comfort of our own living rooms (or car, etc., if you like audio). I wish such courses had been available when I was younger, what a great supplement they would have been even to the traditional lecture format! Given the quality of information being delivered, I consider the cost of the courses low (especially if one waits for the periodic sales, as I usually do).
Of course I was concerned that the professors would not be as good as advertised, but so far I have only been disappointed in one. I was also afraid that, even if they were great, I would still have too many personal questions (I always asked a lot of questions in class) that would distract me from the points the teacher was trying to make. To my surprise, though, that did not happen often. These teachers are real pros; they anticipated most of my questions and addressed them. Lecture pace is brisk but not rushed, and little time is spent reviewing past lectures (technology does that for us now. It's called the Replay Button.) Most courses are moderately to strongly sequential, so one generally does best by starting at the beginning and just going with the prof. Lately, after ordering, I will get an interesting email with a few suggested readings or relevant websites based on my order, but TC does not bombard me with email offerings. In my experience, TC is company that does what it says it will do.
The lectures are not closed captioned. Perhaps complete captioning would be impractical, and to some extent the outline booklets that come with the courses is a help, but I mention it for those who depend on captioning in other settings. Also, DVDs do not have time tracking during the lectures; this makes it harder to go back and find a specific topic within a lecture. I have, by the way, timed several lectures randomly, and they are within 30 seconds, longer or shorter, of the advertised times, so no skimping there (it used to bug me when a prof would "let us go" 10 minutes early -- I figured I had paid for the time.)
A few personal quirks of professors, things that would not likely be noticed in a traditional lecture course over a semester (with its long breaks between classes), can be exaggerated in this format. I won't mention them (if I don't mention them, you might not notice), but I still ask, so what if some profs do have a few distracting mannerisms? I got to enjoy their terrific lectures while munching on pretzels and sipping honey tea, something I would never have dared in a traditional classroom setting. Plus I can hit pause whenever I want (try doing that in a lecture hall). I can forgive a couple professors their little habits in exchange for my being much more comfortable while learning from them.
In my notes below, I always try to distinguish my interest (or lack thereof) in the subject matter, from my evaluation of the teacher. Else, I would be disposed to rate highly anyone teaching astronomy, for example, or Roman history, because I love those topics, while I might dis someone lecturing on French Impressionism because I was bored by the subject.
Courses reviewed below (with format I used):
Coming comments on
Fagan, History of Ancient Rome (DVD)
Koterski, Natural Law and Human Nature (DVD)
Noggle, High School Geometry (DVD)
Starbird, Change & Motion: Calculus (DVD)
Vandiver The Odyssey (CD)
Vandiver, The Aeneid (CD)
Weinstein, Classics of American Literature (DVD)
* * * * * Comments on Courses * * * * *
Arranged alphabetically by Professor/s
Dr. Richard Brettell, A History of Impressionism (# 7185/6)
Very Good. I'll be honest, I bought this set for my wife, who always liked Monet, and for a son who's interested in art. I couldn't have cared less. But I watched the entire series myself, and came away much more appreciative of the movement. Brettell, like so many of the profs in the TC line-up, is both a teacher and practitioner in his field (here, a museum curator). That kind of combined academic and practical experience adds much to his lectures. Brettell deftly sets up the historical context of Impressionism, both artistically and politically, and shows how these artists and their works interacted with both worlds. He is quite understandable by one like me with little formal study of visual arts, and only in Lecture 23 (on the Nabis) did my interest flag. I would have liked identifying graphics on each picture to have appeared sooner, or perhaps to have remained longer, but that's a small complaint. Thanks to this course, I feel I can now follow an intelligent conversation about a topic that hitherto had always left me cool.
Dr. Robert Brier, The History of Ancient Egypt (# 351/4)
Excellent. Brier is a genuine master of his subject, possessed of a casual, engaging personality. He offers a superb overview of this vast field in a logical, thoroughly understandable manner. He's yet another TC prof who can make sense of his subject. He weaves in scads of interesting anecdotes without getting side-tracked or trivializing his topic, and lets his personal enthusiasm for Egyptology show through without making himself the focus of attention. Graphics and visual aids are generally light or otherwise available in lots of Egyptology books, so I imagine an audio-only version of the course would also be satisfying. Some of the lectures are real stand-alone treats (e.g., "Joseph in Egypt" or "Obelisks"). A couple of categories Brier briefly uses to discuss magic, religion, and philosophy were a little confusing (e.g., using "metaphysics" to describe "supernatural", or suggesting that certain Christian beliefs -- as opposed to symbols -- are derived from Egyptian theology). This is a long (48 lectures!) and immensely satisfying course. Some of my kids have asked to watch it a couple of times. Supplement Ideas: The History Channel, Mummies and the Wonders of Ancient Egypt (1996, featuring, among others, Brier!); 20th Century Fox, Cleopatra (1963).
DRS. EDWARD BURGER & MICHAEL STARBIRD, CLASSICAL MATHEMATICAL IDEAS (# 1421/2)
Excellent. It is difficult to put into words the pure excitement caused by the lectures given by Burger & Starbird. Two teachers with different personalities tag-team for a stunning tour of classical (as in, known to the ancients and important for the moderns) mathematical principles with various ties to critical thinking, or problem solving, skills. There are too many strong points to list here, but the fourth dimension lectures, and the related demonstration of arguments by analogy, were superb. At some point prior to deciding a major in college, every student with any demonstrated aptitude for math should see these lectures: if one completes them with "Well, that was interesting" then go major in something else; but if the last lecture leaves one, how to put it, intellectually breathless, you'll know what to look seriously at studying. Resist the temptation to watch these lectures in quick succession. (Okay, don't resist it. I didn't. But one will have to go back to give some topics time to sink in.) Do try the exercises at home. They are fun and move one toward a genuine sense of mastery over the materials. The course is heavily qualitative (i.e., not "numberish", and understandable by people with no math past high school) but a little algebra and geometry background would be helpful. Outstanding course.
DR. ALEX FILIPPENKO, INTRODUCTION TO ASTRONOMY (# 181/5)
Excellent. A great way to learn from a truly effective teacher who is directly involved in important research in his field. I have some amateur grounding in astronomy, but what I already knew Filippenko made even clearer, and of course, he taught me much I did not know. He is a little stiff in front of the camera in the first lecture or two, but that passes and his sense of humor sets in (though I thought his remark about Galileo's preserved finger and the Catholic Church in Lecture 10 was inappropriate.) The visual graphics are good and, although Filippenko does not assume a math background for students, he offers enough formulae and illustrations to hold the interest of those of us who like the math without boring those who don't. This is not a "guide to viewing the night sky", it is college astronomy. If you have some chemistry, geometry, and physics of light in your background, all the better. Filippenko's lectures flew by and his creative examples and analogies made good sense. Filippenko conveys his confidence to his students. He honors Einstein's dictum that the universe truly is comprehensible. Supplement Ideas: CIT/Annenberg, Mechanical Universe (1985); CBS News, Man on the Moon (2003). NB: I have not seen Filippenko's 2003 astronomy update lectures.
REV. DR. JOSEPH KOTERSKI, THE ETHICS OF ARISTOTLE (CD # 408)
Excellent. Extremely solid stuff from beginning to end. Here's how to make maximum use of these lectures.
1. Simply listen to Lecture 1, and read over Koterski's notes thereon.
2. For each subsequent lecture, A) read Koterski's notes for each lecture, B) then read what he designates as "Essential Reading" in the Ethics itself, C) then listen to the lecture, and D) re-read the notes and relevant portion of Ethics. This is a disciplined routine, obviously, and the closer one sticks to it, the more effective is Koterski's explanation of Aristotle's text. There are 12 lectures, so plan to do one a day, over two (ok, maybe three) weeks. Imagine, just a fortnight away from a solid grasp on one of history's most influential treatises.
DR. JEREMY MCINERNEY, ANCIENT GREEK CIVILIZATION (# 321/2)
Very Good. This course steers a deliberate path between turning the Greeks into mythic superheros and relegating them to the status of curios ultimately alien to our own lives and times. McInerney exudes, in fact, deliberation: a very steady lecture style, methodical narratives, and so on, taking students from pre-history to the rise of Alexander the Great (~ 400 BC). His is basically a historically arranged presentation, and there are enough "special topics" lectures (e.g., an insightful and surprising look at Sparta in Lecture 8) to allow a good sense of Greek life to emerge amid the sequential events. Graphics and visual aids are generally light so audio-only versions should be satisfying. These lectures are, in brief, a fine part of TC's impressive repertoire in ancient civilizations. Supplement Idea: PBS, The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization (1999).
DR. MONICA NEAGOY, HIGH SCHOOL ALGEBRA I (# 101)
Disappointing. Perhaps I should not review this course. I did not intend to watch it, having bought it for kids, and I only saw a half dozen or so lectures (though I watched them a couple times). Moreover, this version might not be the same as the one currently listed in the catalogue. Anyway, I never liked it, and I did not finish it. Neagoy makes too many slips of the tongue, some of the graphics are mislabeled, there are little errors in some equations, and she goes into graphing (on calculators at that) far too early in my opinion. Her "ones" look like "sevens", and her variable "x" is indistinguishable from a multiplication sign. Combined, these things could unnerve a beginning student and distract one who wanted the course as a review. Silver lining: I hemmed and hawed about this set for some years, and when I finally contacted TC about it, they exchanged it, with no hassle. Love that lifetime guarantee!
DR. PETER SACCIO, [SHAKESPEARE] (# 263A, NB: the original, 8 lecture audio course.)
Very Good. Saccio can both interpret Shakespeare and deliver it. With just four hours for this immense field, these lectures were neither rushed nor superficial. Of course, the more Shakespeare one has read or seen, the more one will appreciate Saccio's info-packed references and allusions. I suggest listening to these talks straight through, that is, with just a short break say about halfway along. True, Saccio is a bit caustic in his dismissal of "anti-Stratfordian craziness" (Lecture 1), but those sympathetic to Oxfordian arguments are used to that, and his suggestion that Shakespeare favored art over truth (Lectures 2, 8) while thought-provoking, was unconvincing for me. But overall these are very strong talks, and Saccio offers notably moving insights into Merchant (Lecture 6, a good stand-alone candidate) and Lear (Lecture 8). Supplement Ideas: Branagh's 1989 Henry V, Olivier's 1948 or Branagh's 1996 Hamlet, Olivier's 1973 Merchant of Venice, and Branagh's 1993 Much Ado About Nothing. Here's a thought: rent and watch these films over a week, cap them off with Saccio's lectures while serving Cornish pasties, and host thereby your own Shakespeare Festival!
DR. ELIZABETH VANDIVER, CLASSICAL MYTHOLOGY (# 241/2)
Excellent. No nonsense Vandiver has to be one of the giants of the TC gallery. This course concentrates on Greek mythology (that's where the best action is anyway) but she sets up the general nature and structure of myth so that her analysis can be applied in a variety of cultures. These lectures are not a retelling of the myths themselves, except in so far as necessary for Vandiver's analysis, so it would help to bring to these lectures some basic awareness of the main characters and events such as is available in any basic anthology of myth. Vandiver ably demolishes several modern myths about myths and helps us see what these ancient stories teach us about ourselves today. Low graphics means the course would work quite well in an audio-only format.
DR. ELIZABETH VANDIVER, THE ILIAD (no course # on box)
Excellent. I have little to say about these lectures, they are simply superb. Don't try to listen to them before you've read The Iliad, of course, (if only because Vandiver's talks are analytical, not recitations), but you will surely want to re-read it with Vandiver's penetrating analysis in mind. Like all Vandiver lectures, they are so laden with information that one simply has to break the listening up into digestible segments.
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"And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and largeness of mind like the sand on the seashore...He spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall; he spoke also of the beasts, and of birds, and of reptiles, and of fish...." I Kings 4: 29-33.
Neither I nor this page are affiliated with The Teaching Company in any way. I purchase
all courses from TC at advertised prices. Comments last updated December '04....Ed Peters