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.


The Mysterious Etruscans

EtruscansThe Mysterious Etruscans
Steven L. Tuck, Ph.D.
The Great Courses
Audio download $44.95 when on sale
If the course is not on sale, check back – the sale price will come around again

I was a classics major at Pitzer College back in the 1970s. That meant I studied the Greek and Latin languages along with Greek and Roman history, literature, art, and archaeology. The Etruscans were predecessors of the Romans. They interacted with, and fought with, both the Greeks and the Romans. And yet in my four-year classical education they were barely mentioned at all. Perhaps they got a chapter and a lecture at the beginning of a Roman history class.

That’s a shame, because the Romans owed much to the Etruscans, as this course makes clear. The Romans got the paved road, the arch in building architecture, and most of their religion from the Etruscans. The Etruscans had their own qualities, however, that were unique in the ancient Mediterranean. Women were nearly equal to men, it appears, and children showed up in Etruscan art. Children did not show up in Roman art until the time of Augustus, when he made a deliberate decision to include them as part of his reworking of the history of Rome.

As fascinating as this course was it was also frustrating. That is because it included a lot, and I mean a lot, of Etruscan art. Professor Tuck does a marvelous job of describing each piece for the audio-only listener, but I reached a point where I was saying to myself, “Hey, I’m missing out on a lot here!” But then, if I were watching the video version I would be sitting on my rear, while the whole intent of my downloading lecture series from the Great Courses is to have something to listen to when I’m out walking.

So it’s all good.


Jesus and His Jewish Influences

JesusandHisJewishInfluencesJesus and His Jewish Influences
Jodi Magness, Ph.D.
The Great Courses
Audio download $44.95 when on sale
If the course is not on sale, check back – the sale price will come around again

This was a thoroughly enjoyable course. Jodi Magness is an engaging lecturer and the information she presents is fascinating. She discusses various aspects of Jewish history and religion and how they tie to Jesus. Some of the ties are somewhat tenuous while others are very direct, but the information is always fascinating. Magness starts in the period before the first temple was built and goes all the way to the early rabbinic period.

I learned a number of things I didn’t know before. For example, I learned why the people of Jesus’s region of Galilee were Jewish. The Hasmoneans, you will recall, wrested Judah and Jerusalem away from the Seleucids. They also did a fair amount of conquering of their own, including the area of Galilee. They forced conversion on the peoples they conquered, which is why the line of the various kings Herod was Jewish and why the common people, including Mary and Joseph, were as well.

I’ve often heard that the rabbis were the successors of the Pharisees after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD. Magness insists, however, that not all rabbis followed in the Pharisaic tradition and not all Pharisees adopted the rabbinic approach.

Drawing from her own research, Magness provides some interesting theories about Jesus. Judaism, you will recall, was very interested in ritual purity. This was true both of mainstream Jews and of the various sects, such as the Essenes. She states that Jesus believed in ritual purity, citing the passage in which Jesus healed the leper and told him to go show himself to the priest. While the Essenes in one their documents, part of the Dead Sea Scrolls, list all the kinds of people who will not be allowed in the coming kingdom (essentially everyone who was not physically whole and without blemish), Jesus healed people, so Magness proposes, so they could participate in the Kingdom of  God. She points out that the aliments that Jesus healed (leprosy, hemorrhage, blindness, etc.) match pretty much exactly the list of the ailments that would exclude someone from the Essene version of the kingdom to come.

This is a great series. If this a topic that interests you, I can highly recommend it.