Redefining Reality

Redefining Reality coverRedefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science
Professor Steven Gimbel, Ph.D.
The Great Courses
Audio download $39.95 when on sale
If the course is not on sale, check back– the sale price will come around again

This course is sweeping in its scope.

Professor Gimbel’s premise is that there has always been a redefinition of reality as a result of advances in science and technology. He covers pretty much all of the sciences including physics, astronomy, biology, chemistry, and even psychology. He goes back as far as Plato and Aristotle and takes science fully into the modern era, discussing string theory and virtual reality. Gimbel has a great breadth of knowledge and understanding. He even covers popular culture, including books and movies, rather extensively.

Sometimes Gimbel would get too down in the weeds and I would find my mind wandering. This is not the best Great Courses lecture series I have listened to, but much of it was quite interesting.


A History of India

History of IndiaA History of India
Professor Michael H. Fisher, Ph.D.
The Great Courses
Audio download $64.95 when on sale
If the course is not on sale, check back– the sale price will come around again

This is a highly ambitious course. It succeeds.

Professor Fisher starts thirty thousand years ago discussing the native peoples of India, the Adivasi, who were present when later groups, the ones who ended up controlling India, arrived. In fact he starts millennia before that if you include the first chapter in which he discusses the geology of the region. He concludes discussing modern India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh and mentions events as late as 2016.

In thirty-six lectures Fisher covers the little known Indus civilization, the rise of Hindu religion and culture, the Muslim rule of India, the British domination of the region, and the emergence of the modern nations of the region. Fisher is not an unbiased observer. He loves India and has lived there for extended periods. He clearly has a fondness for Hindu culture and religion. Nonetheless, he offers a balanced perspective, giving all of the players fair treatment.

If you are looking for a broad overview of the Indian subcontinent this is a great place to start. You might want to invest in the video download, as I know I missed a lot of visuals. However, I listen to these lectures on my walks, so the audio download is what I purchase.


Becoming a Great Essayist

Becoming a Great Essayist coverBecoming a Great Essayist
Jennifer Cognard-Black, Ph.D.
The Great Courses
Audio download $24.95 when on sale
If the course is not on sale, check back– the sale price will come around again

I very much enjoyed this course. As a blogger I appreciated what Professor Cognard-Black had to say about what makes a proper essay. You can write about your own experience any time you want, but until you include a more universal component, until you work in a perspective to which your readers can relate, you have not written an actual essay.

For anyone desiring to get serious about essay writing, this can be a highly useful course. Cognard-Black discusses a wide variety of essay types: skeptical, reasonable, empathetic, visual, and on and on. She reads from well-written, evocative essays. And she gives assignments. After discussing a particular type of essay she provides instructions how to get started writing one.

There is a lot of valuable material here. I expect to listen to this course again.


recycling The Great Courses

I have downloaded more than sixty audio courses from The Great Courses since I first began buying them in 2010. Given that, it is becoming harder to find a course I am interested in when it’s time to load a new set onto my iPod. Sometimes new courses do get my attention, as did English Grammar Boot Camp, though I ended up getting the video of that one.

Great Courses logoWhat I’ve done then, is to recycle courses that I’ve listened to previously on my walks. A while back I reviewed Between Cross and Crescent which describes Jewish civilization in medieval and early modern times. I followed that with The World of Biblical Israel, which is a great course on exactly that topic. Currently I am listening to The Fall of the Pagans and the Origins of Medieval Christianity, which describes the transition of Christianity from its status as a persecuted minority to becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire.

I’m reviewing fascinating material and saving money at the same time. All good stuff.

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English Grammar Boot Camp

English Grammar Boot Camp coverEnglish Grammar Boot Camp
Professor Anne Curzan, Ph.D.
The Great Courses
Audio download $44.95 when on sale, Video download $69.95 when on sale
If the course is not on sale, check back – the sale price will come around again

This is one of the most enjoyable of the over 60 Great Courses series I have purchased.

I generally buy lecture series from The Great Courses to listen to on my iPod when I’m out walking. When I discovered this course, however, I knew I would be missing out if I didn’t get the video. So I did something that I have never done: I got the video download. The vast majority of my Great Courses purchases have been audio downloads, and I have purchased a few DVD sets, but this was my first video download. I’m glad that’s what I did. I downloaded the Great Courses iPad app and was able to stream the course while sitting in my comfy chair.

I know Anne Curzan’s work. I very much enjoyed her course The Secret Life of Words. And this course was an absolute delight. Don’t let the title fool you, however. “Boot Camp” should not, in this context, be construed to mean “basic training.” This course is anything but basic. In the first lecture Curzan says, “I’m a complete geek about grammar—and I have a feeling that you’re here, taking this course, because you also care a lot about language and how to use it well. You’re in the right place.” (I was so taken by this course that I did something else I have never done: paid for the complete course transcript.) There is definitely a lot of grammar geek stuff in this course.

Curzan is a linguist, which means she is as much concerned with how language is actually used as she is with proper usage. In fact more so. That’s not to say that anything goes. She very much understands the need for proper grammar in written English, and she tells her students (and us) that using certain constructions might cause the writer to be judged by certain readers, or that a certain usage might simply be distracting to the reader. At the same time she points out that certain rules, such as not splitting an infinitive or not ending a sentence with a preposition, were established more or less arbitrarily.

If you are a grammar geek you will love this course. While I included the price of the audio download, I highly recommend the video.


Dante’s Divine Comedy

divinecomedyDante’s Divine Comedy
William R. Cook, Ph.D. and Ronald B. Herzman, Ph.D.
The Great Courses
Audio download $34.95 when on sale
If the course is not on sale, check back – the sale price will come around again

This is a fascinating course. William Cook and Ronald B. Herzman are first-class lecturers. I very much enjoyed their course on St. Augustine’s Confessions. They are equally effective in discussing The Divine Comedy.

I have to admit never having read Dante. My three-volume Penguin Classics set disappeared somewhere along the way. I’m still not sure that I’ll carve out the time to read the work, but at least this course has given me a lot of insight into The Divine Comedy.

Cook and Herzman offer a lot of insight into this great work. They discuss how Dante meets both famous figures and figures involved in the local political strife of his time. He meets both historical and fictional characters, and he meets both Christians and Pagans. They discuss the intricate structure of the work, and that parallel structure between the books.

They point out that many people read only The Inferno and think that they have gained all Dante wants to say. They make clear that you need to also read Purgatorio and Paradiso to fully grasp Dante’s vision.

This is a marvelous introduction to the Divine Comedy.


Classical Mythology

ClassicalMythologyClassical Mythology
Elizabeth Vandiver, Ph.D.
The Great Courses
Audio download $34.95 when on sale
If the course is not on sale, check back – the sale price will come around again

Perhaps being back in Southern California has enhanced my longing for my Pitzer College days as a classics major. In any case, this is the second course in a  row that I have listened to about the ancient Mediterranean world. Right before this I listened to a course on the Etruscans.

Classical Mythology was a subject I studied a lot in college, both in my Classical Mythology class as well as other classes. I read both Ovid and Vergil in the original Latin. Certainly much of the material here was familiar, but I was reminded of things I have forgotten and got some new perspectives as well.

Professor Vandiver describes how many stories in Greek mythology suggest that it is unfortunate that a man needs a woman to produce a son. She says that is reflective of the perception of men in classical Athenian society. While my studies taught me that men in that society preferred each other’s company to that of women, it was never taken to the extreme that women were an unfortunate necessity. In fact, my gay friends did push that perspective when they learned I was a classics major, and it seems that their view was more accurate than I believed at the time. I knew women were marginalized in classical Athens, but Vandiver emphasizes this much more than my professors in Claremont ever did. But then they were all men, and Vandiver takes a distinctly feminist perspective. And of course when I was in college in the early 1970’s it was just the beginning of the modern feminist movement.

In the final lecture Vandiver describes science fiction as our own mythology. She says the difference is that science fiction looks to the future while Greek and Roman mythology looks to the past. Aside from that, however, she sees many striking similarities.

Vandiver is a great lecturer, and these sessions are engaging. I also watched her course on Hesiod on DVD, which I very much enjoyed. This course works very well on audio. If this is a subject that is of interest to you, I recommend it the next time it comes around on sale.