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December 04, 2004

Guest Posting -- Mark's Teaching Company Choices

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

One of our regular commenters, Mark, works as an investor and moneymanager in Maryland. He's also an even bigger fan (and user) of the Teaching Company's products than I am. A few days ago, Mark dropped a comment on the blog that was full of reactions to Teaching Company courses; I found it so helpful that I asked Mark if I could promote it to its own posting. I was pleased he agreed to let me do this. Here's what Mark had to say:

Michael --

Like you, I root for the Teaching Company. I will mention, in case it enters someone's mind to ask, that I have no affiliation with them.

I order some of the Teaching Company series in the DVD format and others on CD. I watch a lot of the DVD's as I row on my Concept2 rowing machine. The benefit to that is that it makes the rowing go by with less pain; the detriment is that sometimes the fatigue causes the mind to wander. Other times I will sit in front of the TV and watch a lecture or two in lieu of other programming. That is a good alternative for when I'm too tired to read but not yet ready to sleep.

In terms of the CD's I will listen in the car, and also on my stereo system at home, where I will crank-up the volume while I fold clothes, shave etc. Also, I have recorded several to my hard drive and transferred them to my Ipod-like device, which is great for walks.

As for the courses themselves, here are some thoughts and reactions. Their course on American History, taught by three professors, was very interesting and well done. Patrick Allit you mentioned before as being very good; the other two are strong as well. I was a History major and I wish more of my professors were as interesting as these guys are.

I am very impressed by Professor Robinson's courses on Philosophy and Psychology. His level of erudition and apparent breadth and depth of knowledge were very impressive. I Googled him once and found a review of one of these courses which was quite positive but mentioned that his manner or voice was somewhat pedantic. I didn't find him that way at all. I thought he was likeable, very interesting and obviously very, very intelligent.

I love Professor Fears' courses on the History of Freedom as well as Famous Greeks and Romans. He is a very dynamic and theatrical lecturer, and the courses were very interesting. He does a good job of relating past events and personalities to our contemporary era. He made an interesting point, in the "History of Freedom" course, about how our Founders' model was the Rome of the Republic but how what we have become instead is the Rome of the Caesars. Like them, he said, we want to be entertained, to enjoy the prosperity, and to leave the governing to the Emperor and the large bureaucracy. He made another interesting point about life in Pompeii -- about how the citizens could choose between competing fast food joints, gymnasiums to work off stress and calories, theaters to enjoy what were essentially sitcoms, and how one of the leading citizens was a wealthy women who owned a chain of dry-cleaning establishments. Fears is the antithesis of a pedantic professor.

Professor Vandiver goes a nice job with the Odyssey and Iliad. Ditto Saccio on Shakespeare; deGrasse Tyson on My Favorite Universe; Liulevicius on Utopia and Terror.

I thought Professor Brettell's video course on Impressionism was outstanding. Incidentally, the reproductions display beautifully on my large-screen TV. The paintings look very bright and beautiful; the course is a great home alternative to museum visits.

Robert Greenberg's courses on Classical music cannot be praised enough. He is a really dynamic and interesting speaker.

You mentioned that you're looking forward to a history series that is newish and starts with the ancient near east and goes through the Romans. I'm not sure which course that is. [MB note: it's here.] There is one that's a few years old that sounds similar, though. It starts with the ancient near east and goes through the reformation. I thought the professor wasn't as dynamic as some others. Still I did enjoy it, and would recommend it.

I'm a big fan of the Teaching Company's products, obviously.

Best, Mark

One tip for those new to the Teaching Company: unless you've got money to burn, don't buy courses that aren't on sale. When they're on sale, they drop to about a third their usual price and become amazing bargains. And don't be too impatient: all the TeachCo courses go on sale at some point during the year. I don't know why, but the TeachCo cycles their products (and the prices) around like that. You'll get the idea quickly when you browse the firm's website.

Hey, I notice that the Teaching Company now offers a lecture series on the history of science fiction. Not for me, but it's something I imagine the GNXP posse as well as some 2Blowhards visitors might enjoy.

Mark and I both would love to hear from other visitors about their TeachCo favorites. Trading tips about how to keep our minds alive and alert -- what could be better? So pitch in, folks. Visitors who want to check out my own Teaching Company recommendations can type "Teaching Company" into the search box in the lefthand column of this blog. Here are the names of some of the profs I've liked best: Greenberg, Taylor, Shearmur, Allitt, Kors, Sapolsky, Zarefsky.

Many thanks to Mark.


posted by Michael at December 4, 2004


I heard Vandiver doing Greek Tragedy - a brilliant course, but her manner of speaking got to me a bit. She always seems pressed for time, the words tumbling out in a nonstop flood. Take a breath, lady! Maybe the lecture periods were too short for the amount of material? But regardless, the material was first rate and I'd still recommend it.

Saccio's Shakespeare is great. Delightful, really. The first TC course I got, and he hooked me. He has the same voice as every other acting teacher I've ever known and is warm, witty, and wise.

Speaking of occupational voices, Father Joseph Koterski has the official priest voice. His course on the Ethics of Aristotle is very good. Pretty much follows the book, but adds context and ramifications. His course on Natural Law left me baffled, but that particular subject always does. (Is it religious? Secular? Deontological? Consequentialist? I may never know!)

One of their out-of-print courses was called The American Military Experience In World War II and Vietnam. Despite its title it covered Clausewitz and Principles of War and military history in the entire 20th century. Great stuff. Lt. Col. Robert Morris was the teacher; great cynical delivery, especially the way he says "warrrrrrr". I wish they'd reissue it.

That history of science fiction course you mention is very fun. It's short, but you get the history of the pulp novel, the story of how Western archetypes were recast into Sci-fi archetypes, and all the highlights of the literature from Jules Verne and Ralph 124C41+ right through to cyberpunk. I don't read much fiction - science or otherwise - but I had a blast with that one.

The History of The English Language is a good one too. Seth Leher is the prof. Lotsa goodies about William Caxton and Samuel Johnson and people like that, origins of modern spelling, the Great Vowel Shift (there was dancing in the streets!) and other stuff. I listened on a trip to Virginia. These are all great for the car, but sometimes I wind up driving around the block for twenty minutes because the lecture is so good.

The History of Rome course from Garrett Fagan is another one. (If you're wondering, my local library has a bunch of these and that's why I know so many.) Great Irish accent I could listen to for days, and did. Lots of fascism and debauchery.

One of the good things about these courses is their organization. Often you've picked up bits and pieces of a subject but never synthesized it into a coherent whole. And one of the most notable feats of organization is The Joy of Science from Robert Hazen. A whopping 60 lectures. He starts with basic mechanics and energy, from there to thermodynamics, which gets us to relativity, then quantum mechanics which gets us into chemistry, to fission and fusion, then to the birth of stars (for what are stars but fusion writ large?), astronomy and the Big Bang, the birth of the planets, to geology, to the origins of life, biology, genetics, and evolution. It's one hell of a tale the way he tells it.

Now that I think about it, I might listen to that one again.

I've been told the histories of Greece and of Egypt are worthwhile as well, but I can't personally vouch for them. (Yet.)

Oh, one more! Human Prehistory and the First Civilizations, Brian Fagan lecturer. Anthropology and archeology, mostly but not entirely with an Old World focus, from a Cambridge don who likes to gently brag about his classical education. Another good speaking voice. Gets us from Lucy and that whole crowd through the farming revolution to the iron age and cities and ancient civilizations.

It's really hard to think of one I haven't liked. I had some minor issues with Kors; I kept wanting him to point out little things I thought were important. And the same thing with Taylor. Economics was my major and the Enlightenment is a major interest, so my preconceived notions got in the way of things. I think it's best to stick to subjects you're not likely to get riled up about. Or maybe I just get riled up to easily.

Anyway, have I mentioned I like the Teaching Company? Well, I do.

Posted by: Brian on December 4, 2004 09:38 PM

Yeah, that post was long, but I'm still not finished.

Your link to Niel DeGrasse Tyson's course reminded me of my favorite thing about Robert Hazen. I saw Tyson's show on TV and it seemed to be the usual mode of scientific education, where the professor tells you about the universe and you listen.

I don't know if his TC course is like that, but Hazen's course is very different.

He doesn't tell you how old the universe is, he tells you how Henrietta Leavitt measured Cepheid variables. He doesn't tell you the principles of friction, he tells you about Count Rumford and his cannons. And so on.

The course, in other words, is largely about the clever and often tricky ways in which scientists made their discoveries, rather than just the discoveries themselves.

I really am going to listen to that one again.

Posted by: Brian on December 4, 2004 10:04 PM

Good lord, plus you retain what you've heard! That puts you way ahead of me. I love the courses, but am at an age now where the stuff keeps the brain alive but otherwise makes no impact. I liked that Hazen course too. You're right, it's one of those cases where you've picked up a bit of this and that over the years but have never assembled it into anything semi-coherent. And he does a great job of doing that. There's a brandnew, immense biology survey out that I'm itching to try. I wonder how it is.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 5, 2004 12:21 AM

I adore Seth Lehrer's set on the history of the English language. My son got in the car one day and pronounced him the most enthusiastic teacher he'd ever heard. He's funny and so interesting, and he never makes a flub at all -- I can't believe he's not reading the lectures, but there's an audience, so surely he's not doing that. He's wonderful at what he does, whatever it is he's doing.

Posted by: missgrundy on December 5, 2004 04:41 AM

Good lord, plus you retain what you've heard! That puts you way ahead of me.

Well, thank you, but to be honest I did have to google "Cepheid variables".

Posted by: Brian on December 5, 2004 08:20 AM

I really enjoyed Fagan's (Roman History) accent as well. He made a couple of interesting analogies which stayed with me. Due to the paucity of source materials he compared the study of ancient history to looking into the palace of Versailles through keyholes. Some things are clear and visible, others things are hard to decipher and entire wings and rooms are totally invisible. I think the number that I have heard is that something like 5% of source material from the ancient world survives. The other analogy he made was in talking about the unwieldy looking Roman Constituion. It was not a written document, but a way of doing things which combined innovation with conservation. I believe they added assembilies and made changes without deleting old assembilies or doing away with prior customs.Preserving old ways to the point that it looks incredibly complex and unworkable to outsiders(historians) but was effective for Rome. He compared it to an eccentric old man with an amazingly cluttered kitchen full of appliances, new and old. Baffling to the outsider but comprehensible and very functionable to the old man.

Brian, I am happy to see that you enjoyed Saccio as well. I believe he is an actor and director as well as a professor. His lectures are brilliant because they fuse intellectual insights with great theatrical delivery. The best lecturers seem to be great story tellers.Enthusiasm for the subject combined with eloquence is delightful. Rufus Fears, who I recommended above, has these qualities as well.

I read that Neil deGrasse Tyson grew up in a tough neighborhood in the Bronx where the peer pressure was greater to an outstanding athlete than a scientist. It's great to see a Black guy from the Bronx as a preeminent Astrophysicist.

I just began reading Aristotle's ethics and listening to Father Koterski's course on the same. After two lectures I am very impressed by his organization, delivery, and insight.

I am going to put Hazen on my list.I have to hear him talk about a "Cepheid variable" ! To quote the esteemed intellectual Emil Faber "Knowledge is Good"

Posted by: Mark on December 5, 2004 11:22 AM

I'm a big fan of the Teaching Company, as well. Speaking of their products price fluctuations, I'd mention Barnes & Noble has a similar product right now called Portable Professor. There are about 20 titles, mainly on history and philosophy with a small smattering of the humanities and science, all priced at $40 American. The quality and depth of the courses isn't quite like the Teaching Company, but it's a decent alternative if a title you like doesn't happen to be on sale at TC.

Posted by: Max Leibman on December 5, 2004 07:17 PM

I too am enthusiastic about the teaching company and similar resources. For pleasure, but also as a student. Some examples of other (mostly free) audio or video resources (that aren't already covered by Teaching Company): archives the lectures of several of its undergraduate courses. General psychology, Intro to Anatomy, Intro to General Astronomy, all courses that don't require too much requisite knowledge. Things like biology obviously require a lot more effort, but BIO1B has some good lectures that are self contained units, evolutionary theory for example. The current semester/year isn't always the most engaging presentation, so switch to previous semesters as required.

A lot of schools are doing this now, and it is neat to be able to do a refresher of a topic by watching a lecture at 3am or whenever.

Talk format:

Things like,,, etc.

Radio Shows:

philosophy talk, the connection, etc.

I use XI Net Transport and Wisecroft Ripper to turn anything that doesn't require video into mp3, to listen to in the car or wherever.

Posted by: Shai on December 6, 2004 02:24 AM

And I'm going off on an even bigger tangent, but in case anyone is interested I bought a Pimsleur audio language course (Hebrew in this case) and found it totally unuseful by itself, but somewhat useful, if overpriced in conjunction with other language resources (realistically a more formal language course or a little bit of background with the language).

I'm working through the Japanese I right now while I take an intro Japanese course, but I came across something even better for Japanese than Pimsleur. Some 1980s tv series created by the Japan Foundation titled Let's Learn Japanese. It's not available for purchase anymore but I found it for ahem.. "free" (here) on a file sharing network. It's funny and incredibly corny, but a welcome break from straight vocab repetition.

Posted by: Shai on December 6, 2004 02:43 AM

I find most Wall Street types to be extremely shallow. Exhibit One - Mark. Mark obviously didn't waste time taking any "frivolous" liberal arts courses while racing through business school on this way to a big bucks investment banking job. Now he realizes that he knows absolutely nothing about the world around him, so he needs to pull himself away from TV, BMW test-drives and his health club to listen to some Teaching Company lectures. Fortunately, the Impressionist paintings appear "beautifully" on his large screen TV. Concept2 Rowing Machine -- give me a break!

Posted by: Bob on December 6, 2004 02:58 PM


I have a degree in History and have been interested in the liberal arts since High school. I'm 46. I have not attended business school and have never watched much T.V.

Big screen T.V.'s are fairly ubiquitous and are hardly some sign of elite social status. Ever been to a Best Buy? I mentioned it because Art and Aesthetics are a big part of this site. I mention the concept2 because I'm pretty enthusiatic about the product which I think offers real value. Does it really seem to you that these would be expected to impress readers of this site?

You are correct regarding my ignorance of the world around me. I have been attempting to rectify that for some time but it seems the more I learn the more aware of my ignorance I become, but that's ok because I'm enjoying the process.The Teaching Company has been only a part of that process. Socrates said that he had no knowledge other than the fact of his own ignorance. I do spend a fair amount of time reading non-business related materials. Anyway I'm not all that interested in convincing you of my lack of shallowness.I could well be very shallow compared to you, I certainly am in comparison with some people I know. But in fairness to them they tend to avoid gratuitous assertions.

I don't work on Wall street but suspect you are correct that quite a few of them are shallow. On the other hand there are several famous money managers who are anything but shallow. Most likely its a mixed bag.

It would be interesting and maybe enlightening to find out how you have managed to avoid the shallowness you see in me and other Wall Street types.That would be of greater interest than any "yuppie scum" retort.

Posted by: Mark on December 6, 2004 06:32 PM

What i'd like to know, Bob, do you have any idea about investment banking? And how you manage your money (if you have any)? I guess - intuitively; it doesn't require any studying, those Wall St types learn it on their stairmaster watching big screen TV, right?

Of course, all of the above in assertion (probably unfounded, but I'm willing to give you benefit of a doubt) that you yourself so knowledgeble in all subjects Mark studies thru TC that you can give better lectures.

Posted by: Tatyana on December 6, 2004 09:12 PM

Bob, you really let yourself in for that one!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 7, 2004 11:50 AM

In the bay area, a lot of the teaching company courses are available from libraries. They do tend to be the tapes though.

The courses that I liked best were the US History, the classical music course, the history of the english language, and the philosophy course done by the guys other than the Robinson course(which I disliked).

Now that I don't drive to work, I don't listen to the tapes as much.

Posted by: joe o on December 7, 2004 07:41 PM

Tatyana – Yes I have money, although I’m not rich nor am I obsessed with getting rich. I’ve always managed by own money by doing my own research. I don’t believe it’s really that hard to do. I subscribe to Jack Welsh’s view of Wall Street that “never has so much money been made by so many people with so little talent.” So, to address your statement, it does take some studying, but no special talent. Shallow people with inflated egos and little talent making outrageous sums is appalling.

Second, I can’t give lectures as well as those of the TC and didn’t imply that I could. Lifelong learning is a noble pursuit and the TC can be a part of that. My harangue was directed not at users of the TC’s products, but at people who NEED the TC’s products.

Mark – You’ve defended yourself and that was to be expected. You state, however, that you “don’t work on Wall Street” and “suspect” certain things about people that do. It certainly appears like you are trying hard to put some distance between yourself and other financial types. In fact, most investors, investment bankers, brokers and money managers don’t work on Wall Street. Michael Milken worked on Wilshire Blvd, for example. Wall Street has become a generic term characterizing the financial industry and saying you don’t physically work there doesn’t mean you’re not a part of it.

I must say your response was with a different voice than your original email to Michael. Maybe I’m wrong about you, but since you’re not interested in convincing me of your lack of shallowness, then there’s nothing more to be said.

Posted by: Bob on December 7, 2004 10:56 PM


Mark mentioned having a History degree in his opening post. You then proceed to assert that he "obviously didn't waste any time on liberal arts courses"
Did you even read his post before lashing out? Your other assertions seem equally baseless.You seem rather shallow and sanctimonious to me.

Posted by: James on December 8, 2004 12:51 PM

James - My post where I asserted Mark didn't waste time on liberal arts courses was posted BEFORE Mark's response where he revealed he had a History degree. I rather think it is you, and not I, who needs to read the posts before "lashing out".

Posted by: Bob on December 8, 2004 05:06 PM

Tweeeeeet! Enough, and thanks to everyone. Mark's a smart guy who took the time to share with us his reactions to a bunch of TeachCo lecture series -- let's thank him for it. Any further dissings here will be deleted.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 8, 2004 05:28 PM

Michael- Thanks much for the compliment, the opportunity to post, and the great work you do with the site.

Bob- I will only point out that I wrote about my History degree in the fourth paragraph of my original post.


Posted by: Mark on December 8, 2004 05:53 PM


He revealed that he had a History degree in his opening post, which was obviously before any comment on your part. My point stands.

Posted by: james on December 9, 2004 01:55 PM

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