Finally Caught Up!

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A couple of weeks ago, I noted my eagerness to begin the European history portion of Scott Powell's A First History for Adults curriculum -- only to find myself unable to listen to either of the first two lectures until Sunday.

Fortunately, as I also noted, taking the course does not suffer from the limits of yesterday's telephone technology. Scott Powell also makes good use of the Internet:

As a scientist, I have a weekly schedule that is all but impossible to set down in stone. Experiments can, and usually do, take longer than I expect, whether because I'm having "one of those days" when apparently everything that can go wrong does -- or because I've hit a mother lode of data and thus in no mood to stop. Sometimes, a shared facility I need to use opens up unexpectedly, requiring me to be flexible in order to get things done.

Still, at other times, I simply find that I have to spend a lot more time reading or thinking about a particular topic than I had anticipated beforehand. This all is just the tip of the iceberg for the planning nightmare I have to contend with. Soon, I may have to perform experiments during the wee hours on top of all that.

Fortunately for me -- and this is what allows me to give A First History for Adults a go at all -- I don't have to worry about exactly when a given weekly lecture occurs because if I cannot listen to a lecture live, I will be able to download it from the Internet to hear it at my convenience. As a new customer of Mr. Powell's I appreciate his innovative use of technology already, and look forward to studying history the way I should have learned it in the first place. [bold added]
Little did I know that I'd be "attending" my first lecture via laptop and my second via iPod! Sure enough, though, I wound up in the lab until ten or eleven on the day of the first lecture, and not getting home until after the second lecture started -- on top of still not having gotten to the first one yet!

Before talking about the lectures themselves, though, I was particularly pleased with the way I found to erase my attendance deficit today. Inspired to rethink how I use my time by David Allen's Getting Things Done -- which Powell himself recommends to the busy professionals in his market demographic -- I realized that a part of my lab routine at the end of the day was a perfect candidate to double as "class time".

This time -- sometimes as much as two hours -- is divided between short waits and mundane tasks not requiring a whole lot of brain power, and it occurs at the end of the day, when I am a little on the tired side. On top of that, I often have to shuttle around between rooms in different parts of the building. Can you think of worse time to get anything requiring mental effort done? I didn't think so.

Other than squeezing in whatever minor tasks I happened to need to do on a given day (and was able to fit in), I was often in the past exasperated by how slowly this part of the day went because I wasn't always able to engage my mind in anything that interesting -- and annoyed at the feeling that I was "losing time".

I killed two birds with one stone today by loading my iPod with the mp3's of the second lecture of the course. I got myself caught up with the course and kept my mind engaged during both the mundane tasks and the scraps of time in between. And I saved an hour and a half of my evening for other things.

My mind being engaged was the best part of this. The lectures in this course succeed where too many history classes I remember have failed: They are interesting. This is because Powell's approach towards the material, which he calls "periodization", makes his audience able to easily grasp the underlying story (and therefore also to discern and remember the important actors, times, places, and events). Kyle Haight describes how this approach allowed him to improve his understanding of American history through an earlier course:
Scott's periodization techniques let me take a bunch of historical facts and integrate them together into a multi-layered narrative flow. This not only makes it easier to retain the facts themselves, it provides a context for judging their significance. Which events are critical turning points, and which are simply the playing out of decisions already made? (The answers may surprise you; they did me.) The final periodization, in which the overall course of American history is boiled down into an essentialized flow-chart that fits on a single sheet of paper, is ingenious on so many levels that words fail me.

Before taking the course, I knew the facts of history. Now I know how to watch those facts live and breathe, and breed new facts as the story of history progresses.
The second paragraph strikes a chord with me. I was astounded to find myself wondering what would happen next at a couple of points during the lecture I heard today, and looking forward to the next one.

Scott Powell's technique, by making history intelligible, makes history come alive.

-- CAV


Darren said...

I found out about the GTD method a few weeks ago while trying to find software that would help me manage all of the todo's I have to get done. I haven't heard much about David Allen's methods, but I can say that his work has spawned a lot of great software that's making my life a lot easier.

Gus Van Horn said...

If I recall correctly, you might have blogged it awhile back. I'll take a look at it as I get used to his methods. (But thanks for the tip all the same.)

I am at the moment taking a low-tech approach since you never really can escape paper and I want to avoid investing in something like a PDA or software until I know what my needs really are.

Dinesh Pillay said...

I really wish Powell History was priced with a more global market in mind :( As of right now, its really unaffordable.

- Dinesh.

Gus Van Horn said...

Listening to it, particularly during the Q&A, reminds me of a radio show, and I wondered if it could ever take off to the point that it became a radio or television program, at which point advertisers could pay for part or all or it. (Then, it would be priced for a global market!)

I myself am unsure whether I will be able to afford future installments, but I figure that promoting it now will give it its best chance of growing, if not into a radio program, a more popular product whose larger market size might bring its price down by itself or through some involvement by advertisers.

The Gregor said...

I signed up for the free trial that Powell offers on his website and was impressed with his periodization technique however I was expecting better empirical grounding from an Objectivist. I’m more interested in how we know what we know about history than a rehashing (although very good) of what is currently understood to be history.

Gus Van Horn said...

What do you mean by "empirical grounding"?

To be fair, he is selling a course in history, as opposed to philosophy of history

The Gregor said...

By “empirical grounding”, I mean that there are certain accepted ideas in history with absolutely no evidence in support of them.

One example is the acceptance of the history Christianity in general and especially specific to its integration within the Roman Empire.

You mean I’m supposed to believe that within the span of a few hundred years Rome went from an empire that accepted every religion under the Sun (as long as they permitted Caesar worship) to the endorsement and violent enforcement of what was an obscure off-shoot Jewish cult? Especially after warring with the Jews for over a hundred years (precisely because they wouldn’t permit Caesar worship) and winning, the Roman elite after a few hundred years then tries to convert the whole empire to a cult that no longer worships Caesar but exclusively a dead Jew? I don’t buy it, there has to be more to the story. I think the current understanding of history especially regarding this subject has been tainted by Christian historians or historians accepting the premise of a historical Jesus for far too long.

Gus Van Horn said...

You don't believe that Rome eventually adopted Christianity as its state religion?

Religions are, epistemologically, merely the other side of subjective whim-worship. The method -- blind faith -- is what makes it possible for a different set of gods to become ascendant in a civilization, particularly in a pluralistic society like Rome where some people probably found the certainty of Christianity (as poorly founded as it was) appealing.

I don't have any trouble buying that. There is no substantial, philosophically fundamental shift between worshipping one god and worshipping another.

The Gregor said...

And it's not just Christianity. Basically all of the facts Scott goes over and what one learns in most history classes must be taken on faith unless the teacher takes the time to go into how and why we think that’s the way events happened.

Gus Van Horn said...

I completely disagree with that.

So if Powell doesn't cite a source in his class, he's asking you to take something on faith? What if he does? Will you then say he's asking you to take what the source says on faith? This course is given over the phone, centuries removed from the events in time, and thousands of miles away in space! There is no way he can provide you with "concretes".

Your standard of knowledge logically would require omniscience before anyone could claim NOT to know something based on "faith". Furthermore, it would logically preclude one man teaching another anything.

Man is not omniscient and so can and does end up relying on others for much of his knowledge. He can do this -- and not be guilty of taking things on faith -- by attempting to integrate what one learns from others with the rest of his previously-acquired knowledge and, based on whether it "fits", deciding whether he believes it or not.

A history teacher can lead his students to other sources appropriate to the context of his class, but past a certain point, it rests with the students to consider what they have been taught and decide whether they think it represents knowledge.

In short, man is not reduced to "faith" simply because he takes advantage of an intellectual division of labor.

The Gregor said...

I just mean that more time should be taken to explain the inductive methods used in forming historical (especially ancient) paradigms. Just as a good physics class explains how Newton induced his laws, a good history should do the equivalent.