The Great Courses is a collection of audio and video lectures (and now streamed) by expert teachers on a wide variety of subjects. Some can be quite expensive (over $200) but right now there’s a sale on and some are $20 and $30. Here’s something about the origin. The breadth of the selections is mind-boggling, from the “Aeneid” to “Zero to Infinity: a History of Numbers” and just about anything/everything in between.
A friend of mine and her husband have bought many of them over the years and love them. She makes jewelry and listens to the tapes while she works. I recently bought my first one, a series on writing great sentences. (Who knows… one may witness the fruits here).
Has anyone bought and listened to any of these lecture courses, and if so can you recommend any that were particularly good. Any stinkers to avoid?
I’ve been a fan for many years. I used to borrow them from the library, even back as far as the audio cassette days. I purchased a few during the download era, and they’re all easily available for me to stream from their iPad app.
I’ve never really run across a bad course, but each professor has their own teaching style. Their website has numerous reviews. Just like at a college, some professors will wander far and wide from the lecture description and some will tend to follow a syllabus religiously.
I tend to like Bart Ehrman’s religion courses and Rufus Fears on history.
They rotate their products through the sales cycle. Everything goes on sale at least once a year. So if you have a favorite, just keep an eye on it.
I like their history courses. Some of my favorites are Before 1776: Life in the American Colonies by Robert Allison, Civil Liberties and the Bill of Rights by John Finn, Cycles of American Political Thought by Joseph Kobylka, Fall and Rise of China by Richard Baum, Great American Bestsellers: The Books That Shaped America by Peter Conn, History of Ancient Rome by Garrett Fagan, History of the Supreme Court by Peter Irons, and Long 19th Century: European History from 1789 to 1917 by Robert Weiner.
I haven’t come across any outright stinkers but I’ll admit that I’m not as impressed by Rufus Fears as others seem to be. He gets generally high ratings but I find him somewhat shallow and folksy.
Bart Ehrman is excellent but he has too narrow a focus - he’s done several courses on early Christian history and you’ll often find him repeating himself. I’d certainly recommend listening to some of his courses but you might want to consider if you want to listen to all of them.
I wasn’t happy with Robert Greenberg. He has several courses on music but I don’t rate him very high as an instructor on the one I listened to. I wouldn’t listen to any of his others.
I had my eye on Understanding the Fundamentals of Music by Greenburg. I took two semesters of music theory in college, but I thought it would be cool to listen to some lectures where I didn’t have to rush out and do homework. Which course did you listen to, do you remember?
I’ve listened to them for almost fifteen years now. I think the best lecturer is Patrick Allitt. Robert Greenberg is almost as good. I think the best single lecture series I’ve listened to is The History of Hitler’s Empire by Thomas Childers. History works best for such courses, I’ve found. When told right, history is just an interesting story.
I think it was probably that one. And I had the DVD not the audio course.
Here’s my problems with Greenburg:
He had poor time management. He spent time telling us that he didn’t have enough time to discuss certain subjects. And I recall thinking “If you hadn’t just wasted two minutes telling us you didn’t have enough time to discuss this topic, you might have been able to spend those two minutes discussing the topic.”
He also illustrated some point about music by playing a passage of music. On a few occasions, he’d then say something like “Wasn’t that beautiful? Let’s listen to it again.” and play it a second time. It’s a recording - if I wanted to hear the music a second time, I’d rewind. It was annoying to have Greenburg do this when he had repeatedly said he didn’t have enough time in the lectures.
When the music was playing, all that was shown on the screen was the name of the composer and the work. It would have been more useful to use the video portion to convey more information. Show the notes on the screen so people can see the notes as they listen to them being played. Or show the musicians playing the music. Either would have done more to show how the music is made, which was the point of the course.
Greenburg would often discuss some element of music and then play a passage of music that he said demonstrated that element. The problem is that a normal piece of music is made up of dozens of elements. I’d often have no idea which part of the music I was listening to was the element Greenburg had talked about. So after he supposedly taught me what something was, all I knew was that it existed and was contained within a certain piece of music without really knowing what it was.
So Greenburg’s course gave me a chance to listen to some nice selections of music. But I don’t feel I learned anything from them.
That one, in particular, was not one of his best. Some of the lectures were pretty good, such as the early ones on instruments and timbres, and maybe on rhythm, but too many of them were tedious: laboriously going through things, like key signatures, that would be better learned by looking at them and reading about them, and not taking advantage of the opportunity to show us what they sounded like in actual pieces of music or to explain why a composer might choose one key over another.
I’ve listened to a few of his other courses. The short biographies of individual composers may be the ones of his I’ve enjoyed most. He’s an entertaining and enthusiastic lecturer, but only so-so when it comes to pointing out what’s going on and what to listen for in the musical examples he plays.
As of about a year ago, Audible.com has been offering the courses that are available in audio-only format on their website. If you’re a member, you can get a course for a credit, which may be the cheapest way to purchase them, although you don’t get the course guidebook that way.
As others have mentioned, the Teaching Company regularly puts their courses on sale for well under the “regular price”; so if money is an issue for you, you should never pay full price for one of their courses. If money is really an issue, check your local library, or look for used copies for sale at places like Amazon.com.
I’ll give some specific opinions and recommendations in another post.
Upon visiting the site and refreshing my memory on the ones I’ve watched/listened to…
My Recommended list, based on the one or more courses I’ve heard, includes Patrick Allitt, Patrick Grim, William Kloss, John McWhorter, and Timothy Taylor.
My Not bad, but overrated list includes Rufus Fears, Bart Ehrman, Luke Timothy Johnson, and Robert Hazen.
I’ve also watched quite a few of the mathematics courses (though not yet the one on Music and Mathematics, though I have it and plan to start it soon) and can provide more detailed opinions upon request, but in general they range from Pretty Good to Wonderful provdided you’re in the appropriate audience for them (which varies from course to course).
One that I don’t recommend is Life and Writings of C. S. Lewis by Louis Markos. It’s not a very good introduction to either his writings or his biography. I could have suggested just off the top of my head professors who would have done a better job on this.
Fully agree. My two big complaints with that series are
(1) Markos didn’t tell me anything that I didn’t already know from reading Lewis’s works themselves, and
(2) Even as a Christian and a fan of C.S. Lewis, I found Markos’s uncritical cheerleading of both to be over the top.
There is a lecture series on C.S. Lewis from the “Modern Scholar” series (available at Audible.com) by Professor Timothy Shutt that is much better.
My wife got me the CD version of that one for Christmas. I’d recommend the DVD version, since he spent a lot of time showing waveforms which didn’t come over well on CD. Some of it was interesting. I had the math already, so I’m not sure how someone who didn’t study Fourier transforms in college would do.
I have two 30 CD sets by Greenberg - 30 Greatest Orchestral Works and the Symphonies of Beethoven. Both are excellent. Since I listen to Beethoven symphonies quite a bit, that was the best, and I’ve listened to the entire course more than once. Since I’m tone deaf I was in over my head by the end, but that is me, not him. He is also pretty funny.
The other one I have is the DVD course on the Hubble space telescope. Probably good for elementary astronomy, but really not a lot of great pictures (you can do better on line) and the lecturer was not all that great. It is quite cheap these days.
Have you checked iTunes U? There are a lot of good courses on there in a variety of subjects, and lots and lots of them are free. I had considered purchasing some of the Great Courses a while back, but now that I’ve discovered iTunes U, there are more courses there for free than I can manage the time to listen to.
I’ve finished the GC series on Fractals and Chaos – pretty good. I’ve got an engineering background, so of course I might not even realize it when the math gets a little deep. Still, I’d say that it all hangs together well enough that most anyone can float across any deep waters. It was treated as a review course - not really something that a math major would take.
The course definitely helped me understand the subject better, and how the various pieces of it hang together.
I used to commute every Monday morning three hours for a contract position and I listened to Daniel N. Robinson’s philosophy collections while driving there and then home on Friday evenings. While it gives a good basic overview, if you are looking for in-depth and substantive details concerning a philosopher, his particular school of thought and how that interacts or anticipates the works of other philosophers, you are going to have to read additional material and watch many documentaries.
The Great Sources does a good job of introducing subjects. After that you, the listener, have to broaden and deepen your knowledge yourself; there series won’t do it for you.