In the summer, I stock up. By the end of the school year, I’m spent. I’ve said all my interesting things, and I need to find new interesting things for the following year. Over the summer, I stockpile new interesting things to say, then, come late August, I slowly begin ceding those things to my students. While all the old interesting things can be used again and again with classes who have not yet heard them, I find the electricity of explaining something interesting for the first time adds a necessary dynamic to the classroom. Greatest hits lectures might delight new audiences year after year, but if those greatest hits lectures are to keep a crisp edge, they need to be polished with new material.
In the last two years, I don’t know that I’ve relied upon anything so heavily for new material as the Open Yale courses website. Open Yale is a collection of more than forty full courses, each of which consists of twenty-six one hour lectures which can be viewed as videos, downloaded as mp3s or read in transcript. Since the site began several years ago, a new class has been added every several months.
While Open Yale contains a few duds (I dropped out of Shelley Kagan’s absolutely irresponsible Philosophy 176: Death), the fine classes far outnumber them. Here are a few of my favorites.
1. Donald Kagan, Introduction to Ancient Greek History: Although now retired, Kagan is probably the greatest living historian of the ancients. His course on Greek history is topical, but also arranged chronologically; his lectures move seamlessly from broad claim to minute investigation, zeroing in on the particular and then retreating for scope.
In a lecture on the oracle at Delphi, a moment passes wherein Kagan succinctly distills his philosophy of historical inquiry down to a single five-word maxim, and when he speaks it, it seems as though he is saying it for the first time— even as a man in his 80s, he is still freshly recognizing what he believes. “The higher naiveté… is right,” teaches Kagan, explaining how the sibyl came into her wisdom. He is loathe to disbelieve any claim of a prior epoch if that claim was uncritically credited in its own day. In another lecture, Kagan makes a prophet of Heinrich Schliemann; the long slow retreat from German higher criticism needs to be sped up. Kagan is a great believer and takes historical claims at face value while also digging for a rationale or discreet prejudice which marries this historical claim with that one.
The class is not only instructive in ancient Greek history, but in the historian’s task altogether.
2. Giuseppe Mazzotta, Dante in Translation: In order to understand The Divine Comedy, Dante’s “new encyclopedia,” you’re really best served to learn it sitting under a man with near encyclopedic knowledge of late Medieval and Renaissance sentiment, and that man is Mazzotta.
Mazzotta addresses The Divine Comedy from every conceivable angle— as moral and spiritual progress, as pilgrimage, as Johannine dream, as development of poetic talent, as romance, as liberal arts education. A feverish intensity shoots through his lecturing style, though he is often only whispering. He speaks English as a second language, however, his English vocabulary is probably far greater than my own. His lectures can be incredibly challenging to follow because he is ever careening from one perspective on the book to another. The challenge is part of the delight, though. At times, Mazzotta is doing eight things at once, and only after half an hour does the image behind his scattered intentions (and attentions) begin to emerge. The emergence of that image, a sudden and intuitive recognition of what you’ve been listening to, is overwhelming.
Imbibe Mazzotta, and your lectures will become far more Byzantine.
3. Joane Freeman, The American Revolution: If you don’t have time to listen to a good ten hours of Freeman, at least listen to her introductory lecture wherein she discusses her theory of historical inquiry. The key to a profound study of the American Revolution? Disabuse yourself of the notion that the Revolution was inevitable. To study any event (war, peace, etc) as though it were inevitable is to refuse sympathy with the people who lived through it. Nothing was inevitable by their perspective, and if an historian aims to encounter persons of the past, adopting their limitations is necessary.
Freeman is a microhistorian; she cares about out-of-the-way events and unknown persons to establish an epochal mood. These lectures are liberally salted with diary entries and newspaper clippings, and her careful, patient depiction of the Boston Massacre delves so deeply into the mindsets of those involved, it nearly becomes fiction.
You leave Freeman’s lectures unsure that anything can be learned from a textbook. To study the American Revolution as a series of decisions made by Jefferson and Lincoln and Parliament is to not study it at all.