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January 13, 2005

Teaching Company

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Another round of sales has begun at the Teaching Company. The big news this month is a new History of Human Language by the Berkeley prof John McWhorter. McWhorter has made a name for himself in recent years with commentary on current events. But he's a well-respected academic linguist with plenty of impressive credentials too. I've treated myself to a copy of his series, which sounds yummy.

A few humble tips for those new to the Teaching Company:

  • Relax. You can't lose. If you don't like the package you order, send it back. The Teaching Company will refund your money.

  • Buy a series that appeals to you, but only when it's on sale. The retail price of a Teaching Company package is very fair, make no mistake. Compare the cost of a Teaching Company series to the cost of a college course. But nearly all the courses are put on sale at some point during the year. And when they're on sale, they're outrageously good values.

  • Look for these names, all of whose work I've found wonderful: Taylor, Greenberg, Allitt, Sapolsky, Messenger, Kors, Zarefsky. I hope I'm not forgetting any of the profs whose work I've liked ...

  • Please type "Teaching Company" into the search box in the blog's left-hand column. You'll turn up specific reviews by me, for whatever they're worth. But you'll turn up a lot of helpful and generous recommendations from visitors as well.

  • When you've gone through a series, why not pass it along -- to a friend, or to your local library? You'll probably never go through the course again, and it's a Good Thing to share the pleasure ...

On my morning commute, I'm making my way through some of Robert Greenberg's "Great Masters" profile/biographies of composers. Greenberg's got a goofball, exuberant style, which wins over the Regular Joe in me. But he also delivers substantial goods: solid history and context; well-presented and comprehensible analyses; enthusiastic appreciations ... And he's a showman in his own right, with a fabulously good instinct for what we need to know and when we need to know it, and for how to deliver the material in a way that'll stay with a listener after the series is over. He's a phenomenon. Thanks to him I'm a little less stupid than I used to be.

I don't know whether or not this is yet another function of age, but I've found in recent years that I can't retain much that's delivered by speakers who don't know how to sell their wares. Is this something you've noticed too? (Incidentally, Blowhard Francis Morrone is an excellent speaker and presenter. Check out this page for Francis' schedule of talks and walking tours. Wait: it's a little out-of-date. Francis? Are you out there, Francis? Your page needs updating. Anyway, you can sign up for email notifications of Francis' gigs on the same page.) I've gone through a number of series from the Teaching Company that were perfectly good -- well-organized, intelligent, etc. -- but that I managed to retain squat from, either because I didn't like the prof (for whatever quirky reason), or because I found him/her uninspiring.

I'm finding it interesting to compare Greenberg, for instance, to another classical-music lecturer I tried recently: the guy behind this package from B&N's "Portable Professor" series. The course has a concept that interests me: pull apart classical music and discuss it not from the point of view of history, but in terms of the music's elements -- sonority, duration, texture, etc. And it's a well-organized look at the material. But I couldn't make it through the series. It wasn't having any impact on me. It just wasn't sticking.

Sad to say, but I found the prof a priss; he came across as a caricature of a stick-up-his-butt academic. (He may in reality be the warmest, most lovable guy in the world. I'm talking only about how his work here struck me.) I couldn't help thinking, "Uptightness alert! This is why many people react badly to intellectuals, and to classical music too." He was obviously reading his lectures, which lacked spark and spontaneity. And no one ever seemed to have clued him into the basic fact that what works when spoken isn't the same thing as what works in the pages of The New York Review of Books. His talks were full of "In sum"s and "therefore"s. Dude: loosen up! Call me superficial, but if a prof doesn't know how to make his material hum, I find myself thinking: "Good lord, man, learn how to present your goods to the public! That's a big part of your job!" By the way, I've enjoyed some of the "Portable Professor" courses: this one, this one, and this one.

tbone3.jpg T-Bone liked dice and the nightlife

I'm confusing my lousy ears at the same time as I'm listening to Greenberg on classical music by continuing to explore the blues. Currently in heaviest rotation: T-Bone Walker, rapidly becoming a Major Fave. A guitarist-vocalist-songwriter-bandleader out of Texas and California, T-Bone was one of those artists who hold something in reserve yet find ways of letting you know what that something-held-in-reserve is. (In his case, it's sexy and a little scary.) Though he can boogie with the best, T-Bone seems most at home with romance and crooning -- with Nat King Cole-style dreaminess, though there's a sinister glint of Ike Turner ever present in the background.

If you've heard a version of "Stormy Monday" that struck you as a classic, then you've probably heard T-Bone Walker. This is a man who can take a lady on a very nice date but who isn't going to like being refused what's rightfully his at the end of the evening. And T-Bone's guitar work is as landmark as Charlie Christian's. In his exuberant-yet-restrained, insolent-yet-relaxed way, he makes as much use of sonic texture as as he does of the notes. He's a true showman. But he's not going to bother with all that fast-playing bullshit. What's the point of losing your cool? Instead, T-Bone's going to ride the music with humor and style. He's also going to plant a bomb in it, and he's going to set that bomb off if and when he damn well sees fit.

If you want to taste-test the genius that is T-Bone Walker, you could do worse than start here.



posted by Michael at January 13, 2005


Okay, after listening to you push these courses for a couple of years(are you getting a comission for this?) I think I've found the time to give one or two a try. My question is, CD or DVD? I've got a half hour commute now which could be just as well filled with words as with music, and the lower price of the CD sets is certainly appealing. But how much will I miss out on by giving up the visual component, and by dividing my attention between driving and listening?

I think I'm more inclined to spring for the DVD on historical and art-related subjects, and stick with audio only on economics and philosophy. Have you tried both formats? Which works better for you?

Posted by: Nate on January 13, 2005 4:58 PM

2Blowhards is, as you suspect, a fully-registered subsidiary of The Teaching Company ...

I'm still at the dinosaur-ish phase where I'm getting used to listening to the series on CD instead of audiotape. A step backwards, as far as I'm concerned, but the way the world seems to be going.

It seems to me that the key thing is when and how you're most likely to make use of them. I probably wouldn't be finding much sitting-at-the-TV time. On the other hand, I've got a 50 minute commute on workdays that's very handy for listening. So I listen to 'em, I don't watch 'em. I don't know about you, but I can never find more time in a day. But I sometimes manage to make better use of what little time is there.

I think, btw, that a few of the courses that depend heavily on visuals (calculs, a few art-history series) are available only as DVDs...

Mark, who did a Guest Posting about his faves a while back, has enjoyed watching a bunch of them on DVD while exercising.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 13, 2005 5:26 PM

Agree that Greenberg is a goofball well worth listening to. In one of his TC lecture series, he took apart and put together again one of my favorite pieces--Strauss' Death and Transfiguration--in terrific fashion. Program music is somewhat accessible by its nature--sort of John Williams soundtrack music from a pre-movie era--but Greenberg's explication added a lot to my understanding.

Posted by: fenster on January 13, 2005 10:37 PM

I love Greenberg. I rave about him on my blog, too. I just finished listening to the Life & Works of Robert & Clara Schumann and will probably begin the Life and Works of Liszt next week. I've liked other of the Teaching Company lectures, but the music ones are my favorite.

Posted by: Waterfall on January 13, 2005 10:51 PM

Google for "Modern Scholar." Their course on the History of Rome, for example, is as good as any TTC course. I love Greenberg's Bach course, by the way, and Seth Lerer's History of the English language has treats enough even for those who think they are already familiar with the topic.

Posted by: John on January 15, 2005 1:35 AM

John -- They are good, you're right, thanks. Actually, they're the same thing as the B&N "Portable Professor" series -- B&N seems to have bought the rights to repackage the Modern Scholar line under their own name. And the B&N version is about half the price of the Modern Scholar version. Like you, I liked their History of Rome, and I liked it better than the Teaching Company's version.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 15, 2005 12:16 PM


I have used Teachco products in both audio and video formats. Each format has its advatanges, which mostly have to do with how you use them. I use the audio while driving, taking walks and also while shaving, folding clothes and other mundane household tasks. The video while exercising and when I have time to sit down and actually watch something. i agree with Michael that the key is how you will best be able to utilize them. One big advantage for me with the video versions is that I find my attention and comprehension, for whatever reason ,seems to rise when I am able to see the professor when he speaks. Also they show bullets to emphasize certain points or show maps in History courses and I find these valuable in terms of comprehension. I do find it helpful to review the course guidebooks before or after lectures and some of these maps and bullet points are reproduced in the course guidebooks.

The effusive praise for Greenberg is well deserved. I think the company would be well served by putting a free lecture excerpt by Greenberg on their website.

Michael- I really enjoyed your December posts on Blues music. In fact I veered away from my classical music phase and have been in a major Blues phase since. I have been listening particularly to Delta and Delta influenced Bluesmen. The slide guitar, gruff vocals and hypnotic beat have really moved me lately. Yesterday I got a copy of the Francis Davis Book "History of The Blues", which you recommended. I am only 30 pages into it but I am enjoying it immensely. Twenty years ago I made it to a Blues festival in Missisippi and it was a very memorable and enjoyable experience. I remember the same sense of stange mystery and wonder that you described. Its refreshing in an increasingly homoginized USA to encounter regional cultural differences. I am eager for another trip to the Delta.

Several years ago I bought a Guitarist buddy of mine a T-bone Walker box set from Mosaic records. he raved about T-bone so much that I got a copy myself. Great stuff!

Posted by: Mark on January 15, 2005 3:07 PM

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Posted by: online poker on February 10, 2005 11:17 PM

I was very pleased to find your reviews of The Teaching Company online. Most of your emphasis seems to be on Greenberg, but for those like me who prefer history, let me highly recommend the courses by Teofilo Ruiz, Elizabeth Vandiver, Kenneth Harl and Garrett Fagan. They are so addicting and well done that I have listened to them several times each! I do prefer the DVD format but have been buy courses since they were out on tape. Alas, Rufus Fears and Bob Brier lecture as if to a ninth grade class, and this was especially disappointing as ancient history is my favorite. The above recommended professors teach at a college level.

Posted by: alice wyndham on February 11, 2005 1:48 PM

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