Though I’ve always enjoyed school and the process of learning, I never gave a thought to online classes. The idea of them seemed so impersonal. Now, here we are in a time where the world situation is making online classes the norm. And so, sitting at home, tired of watching movies, blurry eyed from Facebooking, heavier from eating too many snacks, I decided it was time to give one a try.
A Google search led me to a series called The Great Courses, and then to the streaming service Kanopy, which offers thousands of narrative and documentary movies, as well as a wide range of Great Courses titles. The best part: Via hundreds of public library systems across the country, if you have a library card, all of this is free. Though users have a limit to the number of films each month, there’s no cap on the amount of Great Courses you can take.
Library card in hand, I signed up online through my local library, and dove into The Great Courses. Each consists of six to 36 lectures, most of them running about a half hour. The variety of topics is mind-boggling. Here’s a quick, random flip through 10 of them: “The French Revolution,” “Dog Training,” “Nuclear Physics Explained,” “Stress and Your Body,” “Inventions that Changed the World,” “How to Look at and Understand Great Art,” “How to Draw,” “Learning to Play Guitar,” “Screenwriting 101,” “Practicing Mindfulness.”
I scanned the contents, I flipped some coins, and chose three Great Courses to take at my home computer. Here’s my report.
“THE SKEPTIC’S GUIDE TO AMERICAN HISTORY” (24 lectures) My instructor: Mark Stoler, Professor Emeritus of History, University of Vermont
Professor Stoler walks back and forth, finding his mark in front of different cameras, presenting an offbeat approach to familiar components of American history.
Before launching into questions of religious toleration in Colonial America, whether or not the Constitution actually created a democracy, a reconsideration of the Roaring 20s, and a suggestion of who really matters in American history, he says, “A great deal of what we think we know about American history and subsequently believe, is mythical and wrong,” then adds, “What we commemorate and remember can be very different from historical reality.”
His lectures touch on: British dissenters who came to the New World to escape persecution but did not tolerate others who were also escaping persecution; the idea that declaring independence and achieving it are two different things; and that many British loyalists ended up moving to Canada. He explains why, even though most people think of the Battle of Gettysburg as the turning point of the Civil War, of much more military and political consequence were those at Antietam and Vicksburg, as well as the Union’s capture of Atlanta. Later, focusing on Prohibition, he tells how it led to the rise of organized crime which, in turn, became a way for certain immigrant groups to rise out of poverty and fulfill their version of The American Dream. He also argues, then gives reasons why, that figures including John Adams, John Quincy Adams and George Catlett Marshall deserve to be more well known today.
Stoler knows his stuff, and his lectures are fact- and opinion-filled. But his delivery is a little stiff, and his constant hand movements make him look like he’s conducting an orchestra.
“OUR NIGHT SKY” (12 lectures) My instructor: Edward D. Murphy Ph.D., Associate Professor, University of Virginia
Professor Murphy also walks around his lecture room, stopping to stare at the camera. His talks are aimed at students who have binoculars or small telescopes, but there’s plenty of information for those who are just using their eyes.
“My goal,” he says, “is to introduce you to the beauty and the wonder of the night sky, and to give you a basic knowledge needed to feel more comfortable navigating the sky.” A neat way to begin is his simple definition of the word constellation: “It means a gathering of stars.”
He talks about, but thankfully doesn’t list, the 48 classical Greek constellations recorded by Ptolemy, and later, about the 88 modern ones from the International Astronomical Union. We learn about light pollution and how to minimize it for better viewing, and what AM and PM stand for (ante meridiem and post meridiem ... who knew?). We’re taught about the use of star maps, the best times of the year to see certain planets, and the differences between the planets in our solar system (hard, rocky planets; gas giant planets; cold, icy bodies). The coolest section is when he explains which stars make up the constellations, and tells some detailed mythological stories that they’re based on.
Murphy’s lectures are accompanied by lots of graphs and animations, as well as spectacular photos from the Hubble Space Telescope. There’s a ton of terminology to keep track of, but it’s repeated often and explained well.
“SCI-PHI: SCIENCE FICTION AS PHILOSOPHY” (24 lectures) My instructor: David Kyle Johnson, Professor of Philosophy, King’s College, Pennsylvania
Professor Johnson does his lectures sitting on the edge of his desk, giving this one a more relaxed feeling, and he kicks off his session with, “I have a confession. I’m a nerd, a proud science-fiction nerd.” Then he gets down to business with, “We will aim to examine the philosophical arguments that the authors of science fiction make, and explore the philosophical topics and questions that they raise.”
His opener is Christopher Nolan’s film “Inception,” which he labels a masterpiece, then opines why, in detail. Turning to “The Matrix,” he offers up the basics of the plot, calls it “the ultimate epistemological movie,” then goes pretty deep, bringing the philosophies of Descartes into the discussion. When “Blink,” a 2007 episode of “Dr. Who” enters the fray, Murphy insists that time travel into the past is logically impossible, but then works in the plotline of “Back to the Future.”
Watch out. There are still the big questions: Re: “Westworld” and “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” should we consider machines that behave like us to be sentient like us? Or with “Soylent Green,” could euthanasia be morally and effectively used as a solution to overpopulation? Then there’s his candid (or is it controversial?) statement: “Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ is a classic, but it’s simultaneously one of the most iconic, weird and confusing science-fiction films of all time.”
Johnson is passionate, collected, knowledgeable and funny. He’s also hip and obviously a fan of pop culture.
For more information on The Great Courses, check the website of your local library for availability of Kanopy.
Ed Symkus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.