Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Prof in a box: give the gift of knowledge

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Interesting idea for a gift, no? (The comments at the link to the left are worth reading, BTW.)

Thomas Benton, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, describes the process by which the Teaching Company produces its recorded college-level courses for popular consumption:

[L]ecturers are chosen on the basis of “teaching awards, published evaluations of professors, newspaper write-ups of the best teachers on campus, and other sources.” Selected professors are invited to give a sample lecture, which is then reviewed by the company’s regular customers. The most favored professors are brought to a special studio near Washington, where their lecture series is recorded and filmed.

It all sounds rather exciting, like the academic equivalent of being discovered in a coffee shop by a Hollywood casting director.

Yes indeed! And there I was, last April, toiling away at Teaching Company World Headquarters in Chantilly, Virginia, to produce a set of lectures on cosmology and particle physics. These are now available as Dark Matter, Dark Energy: The Dark Side of the Universe, a series of 24 half-hour lectures aimed at anyone with a DVD player and a smidgen of curiosity about the natural world. In plenty of time for Christmas, I may add.

Even though the lectures are nominally about dark matter and dark energy, I used them as an excuse to cover lots of fun stuff about general relativity, particle physics within and beyond the Standard Model, and the early universe. Here is the lecture outline:

  1. Fundamental Building Blocks
  2. The Smooth, Expanding Universe
  3. Space, Time, and Gravity
  4. Cosmology in Einstein’s Universe
  5. Galaxies and Clusters
  6. Gravitational Lensing
  7. Atoms and Particles
  8. The Standard Model of Particle Physics
  9. Relic Particles from the Big Bang
  10. Primordial Nucleosynthesis
  11. The Cosmic Microwave Background
  12. Dark Stars and Black Holes
  13. WIMPs and Supersymmetry
  14. The Accelerating Universe
  15. The Geometry of Space
  16. Smooth Tension and Acceleration
  17. Vacuum Energy
  18. Quintessence
  19. Was Einstein Right?
  20. Inflation
  21. Strings and Extra Dimensions
  22. Beyond the Observable Universe
  23. Future Experiments
  24. The Past and Future of the Dark Side

The Teaching Company does a great job with production, so there are plenty of riveting graphics along the way. The actual lectures are given in a tiny studio in front of just a couple of people, which is not my preferred mode of speaking; I much prefer to have a real audience that will laugh and furrow their brows in puzzlement, as appropriate. So I don’t think my delivery was as sprightly as it could have been, especially in the first couple of lectures when I was getting used to the process. But there’s always the content, I suppose. And I wear a variety of fetching jackets and ties throughout the lectures, so in addition to deep insights about the workings of the universe, you also get a fashion show.

If cosmology isn’t your thing, the Teaching Company has an impressive array of courses on all sorts of stuff, from ancient history to modern jazz. It’s been getting good reviews, such as a recent Wall Street Journal article that refers to we lecturers as “reputable and often quite talented,” which I think is good. As Benton goes on to say:

Even as more and more people find higher education financially out of reach, or impractical to continue beyond early adulthood, recorded lectures — combined with the increasing availability of online lecture content and Web resources like the Wikipedia and countless blogs — are bringing on the Golden Age of the autodidact. I can’t help thinking that Diderot would approve, and I wish academe would do more to encourage such activities.

I’m sure Diderot would indeed approve, if he could just figure out how to work the remote on the DVD player.

Written by Leisureguy

10 September 2007 at 10:36 am

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