Written Communications

Written CommunicationsWritten Communications: Being Heard and Understood
Allison Friederichs, PhD
University of Denver, University College
Watch for the sale price to recur at The Great Courses
or stream the course with a Wondrium subscription

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.


Wondrium

You are no doubt aware of my fondness for The Great Courses. For many years I listened to the audio versions of the courses while walking, first on my iPod then on my iPhone. I punctuated these with the occasional DVD set. In the new world of streaming I shifted my focus to that medium. All of it entertaining and educational.

The folks at The Great Courses have done a good job of keeping up with technology and have for a while had a streaming subscription service called The Great Courses Plus. They recently rebranded it as Wondrium, and along with the traditional Great Courses lecture series they offer additional content, including documentaries and other material.

Wondrium logoSince I’m a long-time Great Courses customer they had been pestering me to subscribe to Wonderium. Recently they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. It was for an annual subscription at an attractively discounted price. I took the bait.

I’m glad I did. I wouldn’t say that I’ve been binge watching, but I’ve been doing a lot of watching. I saw a series on the Medici that was fascinating, but which I probably wouldn’t have bought outright. Similarly, I enjoyed a series on self-editing which was focused on fiction. I don’t write fiction so I would not have purchased it, but as part of the subscription it was worth my time. A lecture series on genetics and how people respond to seeing their genetic ancestry results was enlightening. I am currently enjoying the video version of a lecture series I listened to on audio a few years back about the world of the Old Testament. The visual enhancement is nice. And a series I am also watching now about effective written communication is great stuff. It will likely merit its own review here.

Wondrium allows subscribers to download the course guidebook, just as you can when you purchase a set. The only downside compared to purchasing a class from The Great Courses is that if you were to let your subscription lapse you would no longer have access return to a course you had previously watched.

That’s a minor matter compared to the advantages of a Wondrium subscription.


English Grammar Boot Camp (revisited)

English Grammar Boot Camp coverEnglish Grammar Boot Camp
Anne Curzan, PhD
University of Michigan
Watch for the sale price to recur at The Great Courses
or stream the course with a Wondrium subscription

The Great Courses released this lecture series in 2016 and I had great things to say about it at the time. I thought this would be a good time to revisit it.

Much has changed in five years. Curzan was then a member of the usage panel for the American Heritage Dictionary, which was for decades my favorite dictionary. Sadly, as I wrote, the usage panel no longer exists and the dictionary is now frozen in time. I now go to Merriam-Webster for my dictionary inquiries. The Chronicle of Higher Education shut down Lingua Franca, the great language blog to which she refers. On the upside, the Google Books Ngram Viewer, which tracks the use of words and phrases over time, now goes up to the year 2019, and not just to 2008 as it did in 2016. And professor Curzan herself? She is now dean of Literature, Science, and the Arts at the University of Michigan.

The passage of time and all these changes notwithstanding, the course holds up nicely five years later. Curzan tells us it is all right to split an infinitive and to end a sentence with a preposition. She says that while it is best to use the active voice in most cases, sometimes flow or style might mean that the passive is more appropriate. There are a couple of things that she emphasizes repeatedly. Curzan tells us that while a certain construction might not be wrong, its use may be jarring to an intended audience and distract them from your message. Or it may simply cause them to view your writing skills negatively. (Depending on your audience, any of the three usage styles mentioned above might be examples.) Curzan also talks about the importance of consistency. Style guides disagree, so she tells us to select one approach and use it consistently.

Curzan does not take a strong stand on the Oxford comma (or serial comma as it is sometimes known). She tells us she prefers it but does not insist on it. Simply be consistent, she says. Personally, I am a big fan of the Oxford comma, as is the Chicago Manual of Style, my preferred style guide. I believe it helps to reduce ambiguity. My favorite example of ambiguity caused by the missing final comma is a book dedication, probably apocryphal (I hate to say): “I’d like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

Curzan is both a linguist and a professor of English, so she offers a balanced approach to grammar and usage. As a linguist, she also provides a lot of historical background and shows us that certain constructions which we might view as recent and incorrect have been around for centuries. For example, Curzan tells us that Shakespeare used both singular they (which Chicago now accepts) and double negatives (Celia in As You Like It: “I cannot go no further.”). The Bard even uses the subject form of a pronoun where we would expect to see the object: “Yes, you have seen Cassio, and she together.” That’s not to say that we should be doing so in formal writing today.

The course title is misleading. This series is both fun and informative. In fact, of all the Great Courses series that I have purchased, and that number now exceeds one hundred, it is the only one for which I have purchased the full course transcript (as opposed to the guidebook that comes with the course).

If you are a grammar or language nerd you will find English Grammar Boot Camp well worth your time.


Two Video Courses on Physics

Don Lincoln CoursesThe Evidence for Modern Physics: How We Know What We Know (2021)
The Theory of Everything: The Quest to Explain All Reality (2017)
Don Lincoln, Ph.D.
Senior Scientist, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab)
streaming video purchased as a set on sale for $97.90

I’m not sure what motivated me to buy this set. There is a lot of duplication in these two video courses. They do take different approaches, however. The newer course is a general overview of physics and focuses on how we know what we know, as the subtitle indicates. Dr. Lincoln focuses the older course on the quest for a “theory of everything” in physics, and he describes what we know and where the gaps in our knowledge are.

Both courses discuss the classical physics of Isaac Newton, Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity, quantum mechanics, subatomic particles, the big bang, gravitational waves, and what we know and don’t know about dark matter and dark energy. Lincoln does a good job of making complex concepts clear, although there is a lot more math in the older course than there is in the new one.

The older course offers a lot more in the way of graphics and enhanced production values. In that course Lincoln changes his position and looks at the two different cameras. In the new course he is always looking at the same spot, though there are two camera angles. I attribute all of this to the fact that the second course was obviously taped during the pandemic, with its staffing and social distancing limitations. In Evidence For Dr. Lincoln gets tickled by his lame attempts at humor just a little too often, something that occurs far less frequently in The Theory of Everything.

This is all fascinating stuff, and I enjoy learning about quantum mechanics from different experts in the field, as you may have noticed from my Kindle and audio book reviews. In this case, however, the two courses are too similar for me to recommend both. There have been no major breakthroughs in quantum mechanics since 2017, but of the two I’d recommend The Evidence for Modern Physics, despite the couple of drawbacks I’ve mentioned. On the other hand, if you find that the older course on sale and that the new one isn’t, the go for The Theory of Everything.


The World’s Greatest Churches

The Worlds Greatest Churches coverThe World’s Greatest Churches
Professor William R. Cook
State University of New York at Geneseo
Instant video $35.00 when on sale
If the course is not on sale, check back – the sale price will come around again

William R. Cook is one of my favorite Great Courses professors. I have taken several of his courses, both audio and video. In fact, I think his series The Cathedral is my very favorite of all the Great Courses I have watched or listened to (and that’s a lot: nearly 80, I believe).

The World’s Greatest Churches ranks right up there with The Cathedral for being interesting, informative, and visually captivating. In twenty-four half hour sessions Cook visits churches of all denominations around the world. What’s impressive is that he visited most, if not all, of these churches in person and took most of the photos we see himself.

The variety is amazing. We see famous churches in the East, such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the former Constantinople (later a mosque and now a museum). In the West we visit Chartres and Winchester cathedrals along with St. Peter’s Basilica. But at the same time I was treated to churches with which I was not familiar: the cave churches of Cappadocia, the churches of Armenia and Georgia (the country that lies between Russia and Turkey, not the state in the U.S.), and the simple, wooden stave churches of Norway. Nor does Cook omit modern churches He shows us an impressive church in Iceland called the Hallgrímskirkja, and two modern churches in Korea, one Catholic and one Presbyterian.

Professor Cook is a practicing Catholic, but he has the utmost respect not only for other Christian denominations, but for other religions as well. As a Great Courses veteran he is an excellent lecturer and he keeps each lecture fascinating and lively.


A History of European Art

History of European Art coverA History of European Art
William Kloss, M.A.
Independent Art Historian
Instant video purchased on sale at $69.95
If the course is not on sale, check back. A sale price will come around again.

This is a very long course at forty-eight lectures. Most Great Courses packages are twenty-four or thirty-six lectures. But then it covers a lot of territory. The survey begins with Carolingian and Ottonian art in the late Middle Ages and goes all the way through to art in the twentieth century between the two world wars.

There was a lot of interesting material in this course. It was amazing to learn how much art moved around. Works that were designed as altarpieces were taken down and moved elsewhere, sometimes simply to the museum on the site of the church, sometimes to another country. If the altarpiece was made of multiple panels it was often cut up into its separate components.

I had learned bits and pieces about European art here and there, but I’ve never taken a comprehensive course. I had never thought about how much of late medieval and Renaissance art was on one of two themes: either classical history and mythology or biblical material. I noticed that the art in that period bore a stronger resemblance to the physical world than that beginning in the late nineteenth century with the advent of impressionism. The subject matter also changes as artists began to paint based on their own inner ideas rather than on commonly known topics. As Professor Kloss says, “We have left the world of shared meaning behind.”

Kloss is knowledgeable but has an odd manner of presentation. He almost never looks at the camera, but looks at his notes or computer monitor, or seems to peer off into the middle distance. Nonetheless, he knows his stuff and is well qualified to present this engaging material.


Greek Tragedy

Greek TragedyGreek Tragedy
Professor Elizabeth Vandiver, Ph.D.
The Great Courses
Audio download purchased on sale for $19.95
If the course is not on sale, check back – a sale price will come around again

When I was in college one of the two or three best courses I took in my entire college career was Greek Tragedy. It was taught by Dr. Robert Palmer, an old-school classicist. It is not a course I will forget.

That was some forty-five years ago, however, so I figured I was due for a review. This course filled the bill. This version of Greek Tragedy is one of the “older” Great Courses, published in 2000, and as such is not so graphics-intensive as some of the more recent offerings. That made it great for listening to on my walks.

Professor Vandiver is a first-class lecturer. Her lectures are clear and easy to listen to. She not only covers the literary aspect, but also discusses the staging of the various surviving plays. She clearly distinguishes between where the author drew from the original myth and where he (always “he,” sorry) embellished, added, or modified the myth we know from other sources.

Older does not mean inferior. The course was thoroughly enjoyable.


Ancient Mesopotamia

Mesopotamia coverAncient Mesopotamia: Life in the Cradle of Civilization
Amanda H. Podany, 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 was a most enjoyable course.

I was familiar with some of the material, but I learned a lot. One of the things that Professor Podany made clear was that while we often think of Mesopotamia in terms of the great empires, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, for much of its history Mesopotamia was made up of multiple kingdoms and city-states.

One of the great things about this region in ancient history is the amount of written evidence that we have. The decipherment of the cuneiform script in the nineteenth century provided a wealth of information. Writing was done on clay tablets. Those clay tablets were either intentionally preserved by firing in kilns or accidentally preserved when a city was destroyed by fire.

There is a lot of boring administrative material, but also many other types of documents. We have legal documents such as court records, letters between kings, and even letters from the daughters of kings who were married off to peer or client kings.

Professor Podany’s presentation is engaging and her British accent is a delight to listen to. If the material interests you, you will love this course.


what’s the cost?

I recently wrote about The Great Courses lecture series on Athenian democracy. There is a lot of interesting material in this course. I wrote in my review that Athenian democracy came at the cost of maintaining a slave society. There were other costs to Athenian culture as well.

the ParthenonWe are all aware of the marvelous culture we have inherited from Athens, including the architecture, sculpture, and drama. However, the great creations of the golden age of Pericles were funded by the Athenian empire in which client states paid tribute to Athens for military protection. And Pericles himself only held the role of general. He never had an official position in the actual governing body of Athens. His influence held sway nonetheless.

Athens paid for its arrogance, its hubris, when the client states got tired of the financial burden and turned against Athens. The result was, of course, the Peloponnesian war which dragged on for years and which Athens eventually lost.

History is a complex thing.


Athenian Democracy

Athenian Democracy coverAthenian Democracy: An Experiment for the Ages
Professor Robert Garland, 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

I have listened to other courses by Robert Garland and have always enjoyed them. This particular course was especially good.

The material is not new to me. I was a classics major in college, meaning that I studied the Latin and Greek languages as well as Greek and Roman history, literature, art, and culture. Still, it’s always fun to review and there is always the opportunity to learn something new or discover a different perspective.

Athenian democracy was truly a democracy as far as it went. All free males in Athens were expected to take part in the governance of the state. There were a variety of roles to fill and everyone took his turn. Of course, this represented only a small portion of the total population. Women were excluded as were slaves. And it was a slave-based society that allowed the free men to have their democracy.

Of course the democracy wasn’t seamless and there were times when tyranny or oligarchy ruled the day. Still, overall Athens had a strong track record of democracy until the Macedonians put an end to it.

This course was recorded in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election and is heavily influenced by the result. Garland is no fan of the winner of that election. While the lecture series from the Great Courses are designed to be mostly evergreen, and the bulk of this course which focuses on the ancient world will be as well, it will be interesting to see how those parts referring to the election and its aftermath hold up after a couple of additional election cycles.

Nonetheless, if you are interested in the ancient world and its history and governance I can highly recommend this course.