Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Great Courses are Great

I’m on an audiobook break, listening instead to audio from “The Great Courses” company. I know, that name is incredibly stuffy and obnoxious sounding, but hold on. Their pitch: they figure out the top 1% of prof’s in the country and invite them to audition. Of the 1%, 1 in 20 is picked to do a course. Each lecture is 30 or 45 minutes and a course is 20-40+ lectures. In listening time, a total course ranges from one long book to two or more very long books. List price is outrageous, but they have an annual sale where everything is ~70% off. I’m guessing the company just takes the rest of the year off. Anyway, somehow I got on their catalog list a few years ago and was frequently tempted. I finally took the dive and got three that seemed like slam dunk topics that showed a broad range: Great Ideas of Philosophy, Books that Changed History, and Relativity. (I was surprised and then amused that all three started in the same place, but that's another topic.) I’ve listened to some of each so far, but more Philosophy than the other two. They are awesome. Whether the numbers in their pitch are real or not, their promise about prof quality seems real. At least for these three, I think they actually think about the art of lecturing differently…hell, for that matter, they just seem to think it is an art. Period. Yes, they are more entertaining than lectures I’ve had. But also more memorable. And far (far!) more thought-provoking. For example, in comparison to books, they realize someone is listening and that the best path might not be linear. They seem to have more link-backs and connections than would seem natural in a book. As a comparison, when listening to a book, I frequently repeat sections. Maybe I get distracted when working out or I just miss a point. No problem, just "rewind" and keep going. But that's where the impressiveness of the lectures comes in: I've delayed my rewind instinct because half the time I need it during one of these lectures, the prof decides that moment is the time to restate their point. It's as if they are trying to be sensitive to which moments a listener will need greater clarity or reinforcement. It doesn't feel like a repeat, but rather a useful reconnection to make sure nothing gets missed. There’s definitely a sense of listening to folks who are simply more expert at lecturing than I’m used to. And at least in theory, my ancient school days put me in front of some top lecturers.

I suppose it's weird that I'm talking so much about style rather than substance. So I'll end by saying the content itself has been excellent. I suppose it's hard to miss with the three test courses I picked and I'll probably get motivated to talk about them in a future blog. But the gist is that there have been topics on which I've taken courses and tests (yes, ancient history)--and only now realize I never really "got" before. It's very cool. Even calling what they sell "courses" can probably make them sound dull and heavy. But that's far from true. If their catalog has any topics that interest you and you don't at least try out a course or two, you're missing out.

[On a totally differnt topic, if anyone else knows why Blogger sometimes has this weird glitch where you paste something in and can't make everything that same font, please shoot me a message, OK?]


lucky said...

The one on ancient Egypt was awesome.

Anonymous said...

So far, I've bought only broad "survey" courses like history, literature, or music. But I just got a catalog with unbelievably focused courses: 24 lectures on Henry VIII or 24 lectures on the Iliad. I guess an ancient Egypt course would be in middle.

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