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Title:Classical Mythology
Lecturer: Elizabeth Vandiver
Producer:
The Teaching Company
Duration: 24 x 30 minutes
Media: Audio only

As kids, my brother and I listened a lot to radio theatre versions of stories from classical mythology, mostly Greek, and since then I’ve been at least moderately interested in the subject. This fairly short (24 x 30 minutes) lecture series from The Teaching Company brings back lots of memories, but also illuminates the subject matter in a far more scholarly fashion than I’ve previously encountered. This is a university-level course, not merely stories about gods and heroes.

Elizabeth Vandiver, the lecturer, presents the subject in a structured way and there is little to complain about except perhaps for her somewhat annoying accent. She spends the first couple of lectures going through some basic but complicated questions about the definition of myth and various theories of why myth seems to be a common denominator for all human societies. She then goes on to retell a number of famous myths and discuss what the represent and what they can tell us about ancient Greece.

I think this course ought to have been longer, because there are quite a number of interesting discussions that Vandiver could have delved deeper into. Of course, there are also many myths that are completely left out because of the limited time, and even though that problem wouldn’t have gone away even with twice as many hours, I still think more would have meant that the series became better.

On the whole, this is a decent introduction to classical mythology as a scholarly subject. Not only will it introduce the student to the concepts of studying myth, but it will also provide ample examples from Greek and Roman mythology, sometimes in a way different from what we’re used to. Thus, this series is great if you, like me, just want to learn a little bit more about the subject without going in too deep.

Title: The Enlightenment and the Invention of the Modern Self
Lecturer: Leo Damrosch
Producer:
The Teaching Company
Duration: 24 x 30 minutes
Media: Audio only

This relatively short series of lectures covers, as the title implies, the Enlightenment in Europe and the changing perception of the self. The lecturer is Leo Damrosch, previously unknown to me, and his method is to approach the changing ways of interpreting the human mind through various books, mostly autobiographies, and see how these reflect the society in which they were written. In doing so, we also get a glimpse of the history, politics and culture of the time, since it is of course impossible to untangle the invention of the modern self from the other strands of human history making up what we call the Enlightenment.

I am not overjoyed by this series of lectures, mostly because I think the overall goal is very vague. After finished the series, I am still not sure what the lecturer wanted to say or what the series was about. I got a lot of separate pictures from various books, but I did not get a feeling of invention or evolution. Also, I am not convinced that approaching history and relying so much on fiction and autobiographies is a good idea. There might be no better way, but the problems it creates are serious. For instance, most of this series is spent on explaining what happens in various books, which further adds to the feeling of isolated pictures, disconnected from the larger scenery. I would have liked to have much more on more general issues. Perhaps it is telling that I thought the last two lectures were the most interesting ones, namely those on William Blake, spelling the death of the Enlightenment and the beginning of Romanticism

As is usually the case, the lecturer is still not bad in himself, although I might not approve of his strategy or of the subject itself. However, he is far from as entertaining and pedagogically brilliant as some other of the professors behind series from The Teaching Company (Patrick N. Allit, Ashton Nichols and Gary W. Gallagher come to mind). I will not stop listening to lecture series like this one, but I will not recommend this particular one to anybody else, except if you happen to be very interested in the books and authors presented in the course.

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Title: The Search for a Meaningful Past: Philosophies, Theories, and Interpretations
Lecturer: Darren Staloff
Producer:
The Teaching Company
Duration: 16 x 45 minutes
Media: Audio only

This series of lectures aim towards explaining various philosophies, theories and interpretations of human history. Each lecture covers a specific theory or school of thought, with the exception of the first and last few lectures, which are more general in their nature.

These general lectures are very interesting and sheds light on known problems or thoughts in a fantastic way. Professor Staloff has carefully chosen what to say in these lectures and my expectations after finishing the first couple of lectures were extremely high.

However, alas, this impression does not last, because I think that the middle section of this series is uneven; some lectures are really good, but some are so oblique I do not think I would be able to retell even the most basic concept covered in them. This is a serious problem with this series, because often the subject matter is described in a much too complicated way without a pedagogical framework.

Let me take the lecture on Hegel as an example. I am sure that it is very difficult to explain Hegel’s philosophy in 45 minutes, so I do not expect wonders. What I do expect is clarity of structure, which is sometimes lacking (concise summaries of key concepts are often lacking, for instance), and even though I listened to this particular lecture twice, I still had problems keeping track of what the lecturer was talking about.

Enough of negative comments now, because in general, this series is excellent and professor Staloff summarises a vast field in a fairly limited time, and he does it well. I found some lectures extremely interesting (especially one towards the end on naturalism and William McNeill). By way of recommendations, I can only recommend this to people who are seriously interested in either history or philosophy, but preferably both (I am, so therefore I liked it). It should also be noted that it is by far the most difficult series from the Teaching Company that I have yet reviewed.

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Title: The History of the United States, 2nd Edition, 5-7
Lecturer: Patrick N. Allitt
Producer:
The Teaching Company
Duration: 36 x 30 minutes
Media: Audio only

Patrick N. Allitt concludes this 84-part lecture series on the history of the United States (see the first and second review), beginning with the industrialisation of America and concluding with a few lectures on the 1990s, terrorism and Bill Clinton. It has been a long journey and in this review I will focus mainly on Allitt’s contribution, but I will also say something on the subject of the series as a whole.

To start with, it should be mentioned that it must be one hopeless task to summarise the entire history of the United States into such a small span of time. I think Allitt succeeds in choosing relevant topics and he spends an adequate time on each. However, I still think his contribution inferior to his earlier performance in connection with his lecture series on Victorian Britain. I do not know if it is due to my wider experience of lecturers, to the fact that I found the subject matter more interesting or simply to the fact that he has to cover way too much in too brief a period of time. Regardless of the reason, I still did not enjoy the last three parts of this series as much as those prior to them.

Regarding the series as a whole, my impression is positive (The Teaching Company has never let me down before) and I recommend the series if you feel (like I do) ignorant about the subject. For more serious people, the series is much too shallow to be of great interest. However, I still recommend part four, concerning the American Civil War to everyone.

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Title: The History of the United States, 2nd Edition, part 4
Lecturer: Gary W. Gallagher
Producer: The Teaching Company
Duration: 16 x 30 minutes
Media: Audio only

Professor Gary W. Gallagher continues to depict the history of the United States, beginning where Guelzo left off, i.e. in the prelude to the American Civil War. In sixteen well-planned and expertly performed lectures, Gallagher presents the setting in which the war took place, what happened during the war and what consequences it had for the United States as a nation. The narrative is divided into various themes, covering military development, slaves, economics and much more.

As usual, the lectures are very good, but as you can see, I think that Gallagher is worth half an additional snail compared to Guelzo. Why? Gallagher’s lectures are more structured and he also makes this structure obvious to the listener. He always begins with a summary of what he is going to say, which points he is going to pursue, and so forth. At the end of the lecture, he ties everything together and sets the stage for the next lecture. Very well done indeed.

Also, I think that the subject matter is more interesting. I did not know much about the American Civil War, so listening to these sixteen lectures was truly entertaining as well as educational. I recommend them, because even if you are not interested in listening to all 84 lectures, it is perfectly possible to listen to these sixteen lectures if you have the opportunity. The series now change lecturer yet again to professor Allitt, previously review on this website for his excellent lecture series on Victorian Britain.

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Title: The History of the United States, 2nd Edition, parts 1-3
Lecturer: Allen C. Guelzo
Producer: The Teaching Company
Duration: 36 x 30 minutes
Media: Audio only

The Teaching Company’s lecture series about the history of the United States is fairly ambitious, spanning 84 lectures of half an hour each, three different lecturers, roughly 500 years of American history and a broad variety of subjects. Therefore, I have decided to split the reviews of this series into three parts, one for each of the lecturers. First out is Allen C. Guelzo, who lectures on the history of the United States up until the dawn of the American Civil War.

Positive things first. Guelzo is an excellent lecturer (yes, I know, it will soon be boring to praise The Teaching Company’s lecturers, but it cannot be helped, because they are indeed that good), with a pleasantly modulated voice fit to accompany me during the day. His style is clear, straightforward, and connects isolated events into themes and more general ideas.

I think Guelzo picks germane threads of history to weave this bigger fabric depicting the history of the United States. He is anxious to explain why things happened the way they did and does not resort to merely telling a tale of what has happened. His style is lively and animated, which pulls the listener into the narrative.

On the negative side, Guelzo starts by saying that it is easy to be smug about proud of being an American in such a way that it is perceived as smugness by non-Americans. The problem is that he makes himself guilty of this at several instances, especially in the beginning. It is always the Europeans who are evil, but as soon as the settlers do something good, they are suddenly called Americans instead. And so on. However, this is not a very big issue and apart from being a bit annoyed at times, it does not really affect the overall impression of the series so far.

I have finished roughly half of the series, but I will return to you with my impressions as soon as the lecturers switch again. By way of summary, this series is suffused with the same sense of quality and adept teaching skill which I have begun to associate with The Teaching Company.

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Title: Science Fiction, the Literature of Technological Imagination
Lecturer: Eric S. Rabkin
Producer: The Teaching Company
Duration: 8 x 45 minutes
Media: Audio only

This fairly short lecture series by Michigan University professor of literature, Eric S. Rabkin, is an attempt at covering the entire science-fiction genre in roughly six hours, from its dimmest origins when no one knew about science fiction, to the modern film industry. As you will have noticed, I quite enjoy good science fiction, at least when it comes to novels (there are good movies too, but not that many), so some academic scrutiny of the genre feels appropriate, especially since I, for various reasons, missed the Science fictions classics course being run this semester.

The series starts out very strongly, discussing Shelley’s Frankenstein, various works by H.G. Wells (such as The Time Machine) and Jules Verne. Since I have never encountered these works from a literary point of view, the first three lectures are extremely interesting, shedding new light with almost every word. He then goes on to discuss pulp novels of the earl 20th century, which, to be honest, is of only academic interest to me, since pulp is not my preferred type of literature.

He then covers the expansion of the genre beyond what was published early on, mentioning authors I am very well acquainted with, spending much time on especially Robert A. Heinlein, but moving on to Ray Bradbury and Ursula K. Le Guin, authors who in various ways did things no one had done before, and, in Le Guin’s case, in a way which was appreciated by non-afficionados. After a lecture on modern science-fiction film, he finishes with a brief review of what he calls New Wave and Cyberpunk (discussing Philip K. Dick, William Gibson and others), again authors who expanded the genre.

Let me start by praising the lecturer by saying that his technique is absolutely brilliant. Again, I marvel at the skill of The Teaching Company’s chosen professors. Indeed they are claimed to be picked not only on the grounds of academic merit, but also based on teaching excellency, and in my experience, this is more than just advertising. It is actually true for most lecturers.

That being said, I am not that fond of the contents of the series. As I have said, the beginning was very good, but the series gradually degraded into being quick summaries and reviews of books I have already read. Sure, here and there he mentions ways of interpreting things I was unaware of, but a more general discussion of the genre would have been much more interesting. I do not know how this is perceived by those who have not read the books he talks about, but I assume that the problem is even worse for them. I am also a bit disappointed that he mentions only a few authors active today, largely leaving out the two last decades seems somewhat inappropriate to an overview.

I also feel that this is not good because he leaves out much of what modern (meaning what is published now) science fiction is about. His definition of the genre proposed early on in the series is not only to my disliking, but it also feels old and very narrow. Wikipedia has a fairly good article on subject and I recommend it. I think the most important thing is that science fiction is a means by which the author can say something relevant to us now by using things that do do not exist (yet, in some cases), which would have been very difficult to say otherwise. In this I agree with the professor, but his demands on science fiction being epic (in the sense of saving-the-world epic) is just not true today. His idea of plausibility holds true, but using mumbo jumbo language is not plausibility to my mind (he argues that it makes it sound plausible, which somehow would render it science-fiction, something I strongly disagree with).

I have gained something important from this lecture series, though, and that is the urge to read more analytically when it comes to books published in a context unfamiliar to me. For instance, I have realised that I have often missed the point of novels because I was too uneducated about the zeitgeist out of which they came, H.G. Wells and Jules Verne being the obvious examples. It is difficult to appreciate Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War if one does not connect it with the Vietnam War and Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Even if the connections might be obvious, feeling them when reading is a different matter from realising it in hindsight.

Conclusively, since it is a fairly brief series of lectures, I recommend it to those of you who either do not know very much about science fiction or to those very interested who would like to get a bit more background. Those of you in between are better off investing your time elsewhere.

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Titel: Emerson, Thoreaus and the Trancendentalist Movement
Föreläsare: Ashton Nichols
Producent: The Teaching Company
Omfattning: 24 x 30 minuter
Medium: Ljud
Recenserad: 2007-05-29

Ämnet för den här föreläsningsserien sammanfaller med en kurs vi läser i skolan, vilket är anledningen till att jag började lyssna på den. Snart hade dock föreläsaren lyckats så bra med entusiasmera att det inte hade behövts någon annan motivering för att lyssna vidare.

Föreläsningen handlar om den transcendentalismrörelse som uppstod i mitten av 1800-talet i nordöstra USA, med frontfigurer som Emerson, Thoreau och Alcott. Rörelsen handlade bland annat om mer liberal teologi, att det fanns något gudomligt inom varje människa. Vägen till att uppnå detta gick inte via församlingar eller skrivna regler, utan genom intuition och tillit till den individen. Från Emerson och kompani kan man därför spåra den tro på individen som dominerar USA idag.

Professor Ashton Nichols är kompetent så det förslår och han har verkligen lyckats med uppgiften att såväl förbereda vettiga föreläsningar som att sedan genomföra dem. Det ligger på en begriplig nivå och han är noga med att förklara vad han menar. Han har valt att presentera transcendentalismen genom en mängd personporträtt, vilket jag tycker fungerar riktigt bra.

Jag vill rekommendera den här serien till alla som är det minsta intresserade av att förstå sig på amerikaner, eller på annat sätt är nyfikna på källan till begrepp såsom “civil disobedience” eller “self-reliance”.

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Titel: The Great Ideas of Philosophy
Föreläsare: Daniel N. Robinson
Producent: The Teaching Company
Omfattning: 60 x 30 minuter
Medium: Ljud
Recenserad: 2007-03-30

Filosofi har länge varit ett ämne jag varit intresserad av, men inte riktigt studerat ordentligt. Därför satte jag tänderna i denna mastiga föreläsningsserie med nöje och förväntansfullhet. Professor Robinson tar oss med på en resa på ungefär 2500 år och ägnar för det mesta en föreläsning åt varje filosof, med undantag för några av de viktigare som får två. På det hela taget en hastig genomgång av ämnet som lyckas med att inspirera mig, men misslyckas med att lära ut.

Låt mig förklara. Det som är bra med serien är att den tar upp intressanta saker på ett intressant sätt. Materialet känns väl valt och jag gillar Robinsons sätt att prata och hans humor (som visar sig ganska ofta). Det är sällsynt med akademiker med humor, men det är kul när man stöter på dem. Jag blir väldigt inspirerade att läsa mer av och om ämnena han tar upp och tänker inte stanna här. Min plan är att försöka utgå från föreläsningsseriens struktur för att tillägna mig mer om varje del.

För däri ligger seriens nackdel. En halvtimme är inte tillräckligt för att förklara exempelvis Kant så att jag förstår vad det handlar om. Ibland kan jag tycka att det är för att Robinson är för invecklad och för komplicerad, men det kan ju också bero på ämnet. Jag känner i alla fall att jag många gånger bara fått en liten del av det som var avsikten och det är inte speciellt bra. Få repetitioner och sammanfattningar gör att det blir mycket svårt att faktiskt lära sig någonting beständigt.

På det stora hela är jag dock nöjd, eftersom serien återupplivat mitt intresse och väckt många intressanta frågor. Jag vill varna för att språket är tämligen komplicerat. I de allra flesta fall hänger jag med i engelskan, men det är ibland på gränsen. Talar man inte engelska som modersmål och/eller har läst mycket formell engelska kan det bli på tok för mycket för att det ska fungera. Om ni inte tror att det här är ett problem, rekommenderar jag serien, även om den väcker fler frågor än vad den besvarar. Jag tycker nog att det är bra snarare än dåligt, men i alla fall.

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Titel: Victorian Britain
Föreläsare: Patrick N. Allitt
Producent: The Teaching Company
Omfattning: 36 x 30 minuter
Medium: Ljud
Recenserad: 2007-03-23

Att lyssna på för kursen externa föreläsningar är ett gammalt knep jag använt mig av flera gånger tidigare. Eftersom jag beräknar att jag har ett par timmar per dag då det inte går att göra något annat än att lyssna (när jag går, diskar, städar, lagar mat, etcetera), är detta ett mycket effektivt sätt att skaffa sig stora mängder bakgrundsmaterial till ämnen jag pluggar. Det är givet att allting inte fastnar, men tillräckligt mycket gör det för att det ska vara någon idé.

Den här föreläsningsserien handlar om Victorian Britain, vilket är en av två epoker jag skrev tenta på nyligen, och presenteras av en herre som heter Patrick N. Allitt. Seriens genomförande är exemplariskt från början till slut och jag har egentligen ingenting att klaga på. Jag visst inte att jag var intresserad av perioden innan jag började, men nu har jag fattat det. I de 36 föreläsningarna har han hunnit gå igenom kultur, socialt liv, inrikes- och utrikespolitik, ekonomi, teknisk utveckling och mycket, mycket mer. Varje föreläsning är väl avgränsad och behandlar ett eget ämne, även om de alla hänger ihop bra. Allitt har trevlig dialekt och en röst som gör sig bra för föreläsningar av det här slaget och mycket av seriens storhet kommer utan tvekan från hans utförande snarare än innehållet. Han är duktig på att blanda upp vad han säger med bra exempel och stundtals roliga anekdoter.

Serien är dock inte helt perfekt, men jag tror snarare att det beror på att ämnet inte är det bästa tänkbara för min del. Herr Allitt gör dock ett förbaskat bra försök och når nästan hela vägen fram (vilket är flera sniglar mer än jag hade förväntat mig). Jag kan också tycka att sammanhanget mellan föreläsningarna är lite svagt, men det kan ju också betraktas som en fördel. På det stora hela är jag mycket nöjd med den här föreläsningsserien och kan varmt rekommendera den, även till er som inte är specifikt intresserade av ämnet.

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