Experiencing Shakespeare

Experiencing Shakespeare coverExperiencing Shakespeare: From Page to Stage
Alissa Branch, MA
University of Oklahoma
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The premise of this course is that Shakespeare is meant to be heard and seen on the stage and not read in a book. That would appear to be obvious, but too often his work gets read rather than seen performed.

Alissa Branch is an experienced actor and director who knows Shakespeare well. With the help of two young actors she explains how we can best experience the great playwright. She begins the course by talking about Shakespeare and the Elizabethan age. Branch tells us that the theater was probably the only place where people of all social classes came together. She says that the theaters were crowded, with some attendees right next to the stage. Branch explains they were a rowdy bunch, often interjecting comments as the players performed. She describes how theaters had no roof, just an overhang above the stage, and plays were performed in the daytime, not at night. Women were not allowed on the stage, so women’s parts were performed by boys whose voices had not yet changed.

Branch explains what most of us probably learned when we studied Shakespeare in school: he wrote most of the dialogue in iambic pentameter, blank verse. Each line consists of ten beats positioned in an unstressed-stressed pattern. However, in a later lecture she describes how Shakespeare wrote some of his dialogue in prose, which the playwright uses to indicate a change in mood or tone.

When I took my Shakespeare class in high school the paperback versions we read had stage directions, but those came from later editions. As Mr. Hill, our teacher, constantly pointed out, the original manuscripts had no stage directions. Branch spends some time explaining how the actors had to discern entrances and exits as well as the blocking by extracting hints from a careful reading of the dialogue. In fact, actors in the Elizabethan age did not even have full scripts. The printing press at the time was just beginning to come into its own, so actors worked from a long parchment “role” with only their lines, plus, perhaps a few notes providing cues. Modern actors, obviously, receive complete scripts, and when performing Shakespeare often mark their iambic pentameter dialogue with the stressed and unstressed syllables.

While many Great Courses series consist of only a single professor providing the lectures, Branch had the assistance of two professional actors, a woman named Brooke and a man named Kam. Brooke and Kam performed scenes from various plays, helping to demonstrate the point Branch making. The three of them also demonstrated what the environment might be like in the rehearsal room. Branch took on the role of director while Brook and Kam discussed how they might deliver their lines and block out their stage movements, making notes in their scripts as they worked. While it’s easy to take a performance on the stage or on the television screen for granted, Brooke and Kam showed how much preparation is necessary to achieve the end result.

Most Great Courses lecture series are twenty-four or thirty-six lessons, but Experiencing Shakespeare is only twelve. That’s about six hours of material, and it is six hours well spent.


The Real Ancient Egypt

The Real Ancient Egypt cover imageThe Real Ancient Egypt
multiple professors
various institutions
available for streaming with a Wondrium subscription

This series is different from the standard Great Courses lecture sets. It features four professors in a sort of round robin discussion on each of the nine topics in the course. The presenters are Melinda Hartwig of the Michael C. Carlos Museum, Betsy M. Bryan of Johns Hopkins University, Kate Liszka of California State University, San Bernardino, and Kasia Szpakowska formerly of Swansea University.

The four Egyptologists offer insights into ancient Egyptian culture and work to clear up misconceptions on the subject. They point out, for example, that ancient Egyptian culture lasted for three thousand years and that it was not monolithic. There were, they tell us, many changes in the culture during that time, including, for example, burial practices. Professor Bryan makes the point that curses to protect a tomb disappeared after the Old Kingdom.

The first episode discusses King Tutankhamun. They tell us he was not a major king, it’s simply that his tomb was discovered intact and not plundered, a very rare thing. Tut, in fact, became king very young and did not reign for very long. Recent genetic testing, they say, shows us that Tutankhamun’s father was Akhenaten, known for initiating the Amarna Revolution in which he moved Egypt’s capital to the city by that name which he built from the ground up. He threw aside all the other gods in favor of the worship of the disk of the sun. That did not last and his son initiated the return to the worship of the traditional gods. (They point out, by the way, that Akhenaten isolated Egypt politically and did not participate in the international community of the Near East, something that was disruptive to the region.)

One of the most interesting episodes was the discussion of the women rulers of Egypt. There weren’t many, but there were some. A few ruled in their own right, others seem to have acted as regent, as Nefertiti appears to have done with Tutankhamun when he was young. Evidence shows us that these women were smart and capable.

Not being a standard Great Courses lecture series, there is no course guidebook for The Real Ancient Egypt. That’s unfortunate because it would be nice to have such a thing for reference. For example, they several times displayed a graphic timeline showing the various phases of ancient Egyptian history: The Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms, interspersed by three Intermediate Periods. It would be nice to have that available to review.

I have long had some familiarity with ancient Egypt, but this series had information with which I was not familiar. I certainly felt it well worth my time.


Great Piano Works Explained

Great Piano Works Explained coverGreat Piano Works Explained
Catherine Kautsky, DMA
Lawrence University
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This course covers the entire history of the piano. It begins with Bach and ends with twenty-first century music. Instructor Catherine Kautsky is an accomplished pianist, so she not only provides the history but also samples of the music. She obviously loves what she does and has a warm smile. In fact, I’ve never seen a Great Courses instructor smile so much.

Kautsky begins with Bach, explaining that Bach wrote before the time of the modern piano, so his music, written for instruments like the harpsichord, would have sounded rather different in his time. She goes on to Hayden and Mozart, and then to Beethoven, whose instrument was much closer to the modern piano. From there she treats the romantics, including the likes of Schubert and Schumann. She discusses (and plays) Chopin, Brahms, and Liszt, and then proceeds to the Russian pianists. Reaching the twentieth century, she explains Schoenberg, Berg, and Debussy, then Ives, Prokofiev, and Bartok. She concludes with lectures on marginalized composers and composers writing in the current century.

Our instructor not only talks about the good qualities of classical music, but its shortcomings. She devotes a lecture to the plight of woman composers, the only lecture in which I did not see her smile. She discusses Clara Schumann (Robert Schumann’s wife) and explains that while she was permitted to perform (and she had quite the career as a performer) she was given short shrift as a composer, even though she was very capable, and her husband admired her work. Kautsky also discusses Fanny Mendelssohn, sister of Felix Mendelssohn, another woman who did not get the credit she deserved.

In her lecture on marginalized composers she discusses Ruth Crawford Seeger, married to Pete Seeger’s father. Seeger wanted to compose but gave it up to raise her children. By the time her children were grown and she was ready to go back to composing she had cancer and died before she could produce anything. Florence Price, on the other hand, was an African American woman who met with some success.

I enjoyed most of the lectures and the music, though I could have done without her complete rendition of Francis Poulenc’s retelling of the Babar the Elephant story, something she admits can easily be seen as a colonialist parable. I could, however, have benefited from an introduction to the technical side of music. Kautsky talks a lot about notes, chords, and scales, assuming knowledge that I don’t have.

That said, Great Piano Works Explained is both entertaining and informative.


Creativity and Your Brain

Creativity and Your Brain coverCreativity and Your Brain
Indre Viskontas, Ph.D.
University of San Francisco; San Francisco Conservatory of Music
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I’m always interested in the subject of creativity, so when I saw this course publicized I had to take advantage of my Wondrium subscription to watch it.

The course covers a lot of material in its twenty-four lectures. There is a lot of material about brain research and what part of the brain handles what functions, complete with graphics that show where in the brain a particular activity is handled. Professor Viskontas early on dispels the myth that the left brain is strictly analytical while the right brain is strictly creative. But in later lectures she makes clear that the right brain does play a role in creative thinking and the left in analytical thinking; It’s just not as clear-cut as popular culture would have us believe.

Viskontas discusses issues such as dyslexia (apparently Beethoven was dyslexic), brain damage, and conditions such as autism. She is sensitive about placing labels on people with non-normative brain functions and explains why it is often better to talk about “a person with autism,” rather than “an autistic.” At the same time, she acknowledges that sometimes a person with autism is comfortable with the adjective “autistic” because it accurately denotes how their brain functions.

The lecture on drug use and creativity was interesting because of its balance. While Viskontas admits that sometimes drugs (including caffeine) used in a certain way can enhance creativity, on balance chemical stimulants rarely do a lot for creativity.

The most interesting part of this series is the professor herself, Indre Viskontas. She has a PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience from the University of California, Los Angeles and is Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of San Francisco, where she runs the Creative Brain Lab. But she is also an accomplished professional musician. She has played starring roles in professional opera productions, has directed opera, and has coached vocalists. I can’t imagine a more accomplished person to present this course.


Great Board Games of the Ancient World

Board Games of the Ancient World cover Great Board Games of the Ancient World
Tristan Donovan
Journalist and Nonfiction Writer
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This series was different from my usual video course selections in that it was not an academic subject and that the instructor was not a college professor. It was interesting nonetheless.

Tristan Donavan, the presenter, is a journalist and gaming enthusiast. He has a fascination with games of all kinds and is knowledgeable about the rules and the evolution of board games throughout human history. The course title is misleading in that Donovan does not limit himself to ancient games; he gives plenty of attention to the modern incarnations of those games as well.

A few themes run through the various games Donovan discusses. One is that there are games of chance and there are games of strategy. There are also games that combine the two. The other is that the rules of games can be quite complex. We learn that there are families of games: games that have similar premises and rules, but which vary considerably across geography or time.

There is plenty of history in this course to provide context for the origins of the various games. For example, Donovan describes how the kings of England and France, overwintering with their troops on their way to one of the crusades, became distressed by the high stakes gambling in which their troops were engaging while playing an early form of backgammon. He explains how a precursor to chess arose in the Gupta dynasty on the Indian subcontinent, which lasted from fourth century CE to the near the end of the sixth century. He outlines how we lost details of an Aztec game called Patolli because the Catholic Spanish conquerors thought it to be sinful.

It is interesting that some games survived while others did not. The ancient Egyptians had a game called Senet that did not survive. The same was true for the Royal Game of Ur, played in ancient Mesopotamia. Yet chess, having evolved from its earliest form in perhaps the sixth century, is still highly popular today. (The game has been in the news of late on account of an apparent cheater among the ranks of the professionals.) A game played in India called Pachisi, which goes back many centuries, sees its modern-day form in the commercial board game Parcheesi. The British adopted (and adapted) the ancient Jain or Hindu game of Snakes and Ladders, Christianizing it in the process. In the United States Milton Bradley got rid of the snakes and created the commercial success they marketed as Chutes and Ladders.

Donovan is neither charismatic nor dynamic in his presentation. He also sports a Don Johnson Miami Vice-style day’s growth of beard, which I found distracting. But he is knowledgeable and the material he presents is entertaining. There was certainly a lot of information about board games of which I knew nothing. I haven’t played board games since I was a youngster, but I enjoyed this course.


Understanding the Periodic Table

Understanding the Periodic Table cover Understanding the Periodic Table
Ron B. Davis Jr., PhD
Georgetown University
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Chemistry was not my favorite subject in high school; I was much more focused on English and social studies. I didn’t like science subjects all that much. Then there was the fact that my chemsitry teacher was late in his career and seemed to be dealing with a case of burnout. I think he took his full complement of sick days, so we often had a substitute. He was also in charge of A/V at the school, which he seemed to be more enthusiastic about than teaching chemistry. That meant that when he was out we often watched films (of the old 16 mm type), whether or not they were related to chemistry, or even to science.

I managed to complete four years at Pitzer College without taking a single science course. (This was back in the olden days when Pitzer did not have any general education requirements.) Still, as an adult I was interested in science topics, and certainly watched plenty of science programs on the local PBS station wherever I lived. Similarly, I have watched or listened to plenty of science courses from The Great Courses. After finishing twenty-four lectures on Norse Mythology I was looking for something completely different (right Monty Python?) so I selected Understanding the Periodic Table, which The Great Courses and Wondrium were touting as one of their new releases.

I can’t say that this was the most captivating course I have watched, but I did learn a few things. I finally got it down that an isotope is an atom with a different number of neutrons than the most common form, and an ion is an atom with a different number of electrons than the most common form. I learned that there are many elements that don’t exist in their pure state but have to be extracted from the compounds in which they exist by using heat or a chemical means. I learned that allotropes are different configurations of the same element. For example, there are different allotropes of tin, some of which are stable and others of which disintegrate quickly. Graphite (pencil lead) and diamonds are different allotropes of carbon. And I came across elements I hadn’t heard of before, for example hafnium and osmium.

Professor Davis has a tendency to anthropomorphize the elements. He says that hydrogen wants to bond with other elements. Or that elements want to form octets, that is a molecule with eight electrons in the outer shell. It’s an interesting perspective.

The periodic table is larger today than it was during my junior year of high school. The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) finalized today’s table in 2016, taking us up to element 118, oganesson. The PDF version of the course guidebook sacrifices a lecture-by-lecture outline of the course, as is found in most Great Courses lecture series, but instead provides us with an interactive periodic table. When you click on an element the guidebook takes you to a description of that element. Pretty cool.

If such things interest you, this is a course well worth watching.


Norse Mythology

Norse Mythology coverNorse Mythology
Jackson Crawford, PhD
University of Colorado, Boulder
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Jackson Crawford offers an interesting and in-depth discussion of Norse mythology in this twenty-four lecture course. He discusses the sources we have and explains how, although they were written down after Scandinavia became Christian, the stories are pagan in their origin. He primarily draws from two sources: the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda. Both were originally written in the 1200s.

Crawford discusses the two main families of gods, which he refers to as the gods and the anti-gods. The latter group is often translated as giants, but Crawford states that is somewhat misleading as they were for the most part equal, it simply being that one group was “good” and another “bad.” Even that is not clear cut, as amongst the gods many of them had one parent who was an anti-god.

He discusses Odin vs. Thor and explains that even though Odin was the head of the gods, Thor was by far more popular. This is because Thor was representative of the common person while Odin represented the aristocracy. Crawford is careful to point out how popular culture has embellished and altered the original myths. For example, sources such as the Marvel Universe have shaped Loki into a devious trickster. While Loki did in fact cause a good deal of chaos and disruption, he wasn’t especially devious. It was just that in the “dream logic” of myth, as Crawford calls it, people just go off and do things without thinking them through.

In addition to discussing the gods, Crawford spends a lot of time describing the legends of human heroes, some of which were very detailed and complicated, with lots of murder and betrayal. Of course, the gods involve themselves with the humans. Odin was said to have given up one eye in order to obtain wisdom, so when an old man with one eye shows up in a story we know who that is.

Crawford clarifies just who the Valkyries were, Richard Wagner having greatly distorted the original story. They were human women who were given supernatural powers, including the ability to fly. Their sole role was to carry fallen warriors to Valhalla for Odin. If one got married or otherwise gave up her role, she lost her powers. Though the Valkyries were human, their leader was the goddess Freyja. Crawford notes women played a much more active role in Norse mythology than they did in other medieval literature, such as the Arthurian cycle. There are even legends of shieldmaidens, human women who became warriors. We have no evidence for such women in Viking history, but they show up in legend.

There is a strong sense in Norse mythology that both gods and humans are subject to fate. Early in the cycle a seer tells Odin how the world will end, in a battle called Ragnarok, essentially meaning “the fates of the gods.” In fact, Valhalla was not some glorious paradise, but where fallen warriors prepared for that last, hopeless, preordained battle. This is why characters in these stories routinely walked into futile situations. They knew it was fate and they had no ability to avoid it.

As grim as much of it is, there is some fascinating stuff here and Jackson Crawford maintains a high standard of scholarship in presenting this material.


The Big Bang and Beyond

The Big Bang and Beyond coverThe Big Bang and Beyond: Exploring the Early Universe
Gary Felder, PhD
Smith College
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The experience of watching this course was rather odd. First, it was taped when the COVID protocols at the Great Courses had the instructors sitting instead of standing, and always looking at one camera rather than turning from one camera to the other. Second, instructor Gary Felder has a rather odd demeanor. His quiet, measured tone projects the more of an image of Buddhist meditation instructor than a cosmologist.

But a cosmologist he is, and there is a lot of good material here. Felder goes through the basics of the big bang theory, describing the various phases of the process. The formation of the first stars, and after that the planets, solar systems, and galaxies, did not occur right away. That happened sometime between thirty million and two hundred million years after the big bang. And Felder tells us the big bang was not an explosion but simply the moment the universe started expanding. Cosmologists call this moment Planck Density, “the earliest moment we can describe with our currently known laws of physics.”

Felder explains the original theory of the big bang was pretty much accepted once Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB). Before that a few cosmologists, most notably Fred Hoyle, believed the universe was a fixed, stable entity, what Hoyle and colleagues called the steady state theory. But although most scientists believed the CMB was sufficient proof of the big bang, there were several phenomena that the theory failed to account for. This is where the theory of inflation arose. Inflation posits that distances in the universe increased by a huge amount, perhaps 101,000,000 (that’s ten to the one million) in a fraction of a second. This explains many of the inconsistencies found in the original theory. I won’t go into them here, but Felder describes them in detail.

There are some theories that say just because the big bang happened as it did in our observable universe, it did not necessarily happen that way in the whole universe. There might be multiverses these theories say. That’s where cosmologists draw from quantum mechanics.

An open question is whether the universe will expand forever or stop expanding and collapse back into itself. That depends on the critical density of the universe. It turns out that the universe is so close to that critical density that we don’t know. At least that was the case until the discovery of dark energy. With dark energy in place the universe will expand forever. Unless dark energy decays. Then maybe it won’t.

Confusing, yes. But Gary Felder helps make all of this clear in his twelve lecture series.


Understanding Greek and Roman Technology

Greek and Roman Technology coverUnderstanding Greek and Roman Technology
Stephen Ressler, PhD
United States Military Academy, West Point
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One advantage of having a Wondrium subscription is that I don’t have to weigh whether I think it’s worth the investment to buy a course. I can simply start watching and if I don’t like the course I can remove it from my watch list and move on to something else.

So when I finished my previous course I turned to Understanding Greek and Roman Technology, not sure what to expect, especially since the instructor is from West Point. I need not have been concerned. Despite his affiliation, Professor Ressler does not at all give off a military aura. He is very pleasant and low key in his presentation.

Even though I was a classics major at Pitzer College, studying the Greek and Latin languages and Greek and Roman history and culture, I learned a lot from this course. Dr. Ressler covers the breadth of Greek and Roman technology. He discusses architecture, urban planning, water supply systems, roads and bridges, transportation, construction, military technology, and shipbuilding. He goes into detail about construction techniques and shows how sophisticated planners and builders in the ancient world were in the process of design and execution.

This is perhaps the most ambitious Great Courses lecture series that I have watched. Ressler does not just lecture: he demonstrates with models that he has built. He shows how ancient technology works with models of buildings, roads, military apparatus such as catapults and battering rams, water supply systems, and ships. Ressler pours concrete, runs water, demonstrates road building with dirt and stones, and uses bricks for a variety of demonstrations. He even shoots an arrow and ejects a ping-pong ball with a model of a catapult. I don’t suppose that the Great Courses studio has taken such a beating before or since.

This is an interesting and entertaining course. And never before have I seen outtakes during the credits after the final lecture of a Great Courses series. Excellent stuff.


Written Communications

Written CommunicationsWritten Communications: Being Heard and Understood
Allison Friederichs, PhD
University of Denver, University College
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The advantage of having a Wondrium subscription is that I don’t have to consider whether or not a given course is worth buying. I can simply start streaming the course and see how I like it. With Written Communications: Being Heard and Understood, the course description intrigued me. At the same time, the title of the first lecture put me off: “Impactful Writing.” Impactful? Really? But then the Merriam-Webster Unabridged online dictionary lists the word with no qualification. There is no notation such as “nonstandard” or “informal.” So I forged ahead.

The course was, in fact, very useful. The focus of the course is on business writing, but much of the content is applicable no matter what kind of writing you are doing. Despite her use of the word “impactful” (which she uses often) and despite her charming, witty (I’m tempted to say perky) demeanor, Allison Friederichs is old school and no-nonsense when it comes to grammar and usage. She comes down firmly against the singular “they,” only offering a sort of footnote at the end of the discussion, acknowledging that the usage is becoming accepted in many circles. She favors, as you would expect, the Oxford comma.

Friederichs offers a structured approach to composing any sort of document (email included, she emphasizes). She calls the method ACE: analyze, craft, and edit. Friederichs devotes a half-hour lecture to each step. The middle step, in her view, is the least important and your time should be spent on planning the document and editing your original draft. She discusses the importance of word choice and talks about writing in such a way to maintain a positive relationship with your correspondents.

I thought the final lecture, which was on email, might be less useful than the other lectures. It turned out to have some very practical advice. For example, regarding email attachments Friederichs suggests first adding the attachment, then writing the email, and finally completing to TO: field. That eliminates those follow-up “oops” emails resulting from forgotten attachments.

The lectures on punctuation and grammar provide an excellent review even if you are familiar with the material, and the ACE process for writing is worth taking a careful look at. This is a practical course with material that one can apply to any sort of writing.