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