Course Review – The Ancient Greeks – Coursera #History #Learning

The Ancient Greeks 

This is another interesting free course run via Coursera, created by The Wesleyan University and presented by Professor Andrew Szegedy-Maszak. It’s a good starting point with which to learn about some of the battles, significant persons, and events of Ancient Greece.

Over 7 weeks the course covers:

Prehistory to Homer

The Archaic Age (ca. 800-500 BCE)

Two City-States: Sparta and Athens

Democracy. The Persian Wars

“The Great 50 Years” (ca. 480-431 BCE)

The Peloponnesian War I

The End of the War, the End of the Century

We learn about Homer, Socrates, Thucydides, Critias, Herotodus, and the major players in the array of battles, laws, political systems and arrangements and shenanigans which went on during this important period in European history.   There is one video on women in Greek society but other than fairly brief mentions women and the lower classes aren’t discussed in detail (to be fair this IS a short course and there is not a lot of info remaining about the common man and woman in Greek society).

The course comprises of informative videos and reading. I have to confess I didn’t do much of the reading (partly as I’ve done some in the past and partly because I didn’t have a lot of time) and I would have got more out of this had I done so – my bad.

I’d recommend doing at least some of the readings, and watching all the videos. There are quizzes to be completed at the end of each section – and these count as the grading for the course so MUST be completed.

The tutor was very engaging, easy to listen to and obviously is very well informed on this historical era.  There were a couple of issues with sound quality – but I have found this an issue with Coursera before (but to be fair the course is free).

Coursera is a good way to pick up cheap or free ‘taster’ courses (One can pay for the course and gain a certificate – otherwise you can an acknowledgement of completion but no actual certificate. The cost of this is not much.)

Overall I enjoyed this and would certainly look out for more courses from this university and tutor.

4 stars.




Magic in the Middle Ages – Course Review

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#Coursera #Fantasy #Medieval

3.5 stars out of 5.

I’d been looking at this particular Coursera Course for a while, as it looked pretty interesting and good research for the books.

Here’s the summary from the Cousera website About this course: Magical thought has always attracted human imagination. In this course we will introduce you to the Middle Ages through a wide conception of magic. Students will have an approach to medieval culture, beliefs and practices from the perspective of History and History of Science. Popular magic, as well as learned magic (alchemy, geomancy and necromancy) will be addressed. Moreover, we will also deal with how eastern practices and texts influenced western culture. In July 2016, the course will contain a brand-new module devoted to astrology. Magic in the Middle Ages offers a captivating overview of medieval society and promotes reflection about certain stereotypes associated with this period.’

So did it fulfil this? Yes and no.

Let’s start with the ‘yes’. There was a lot of information to be learned in only 5 weeks – personally I would have liked another week or so. That said I was actually doing another, totally unrelated course at the same time and probably didn’t do this justice. The lectures were taught via video (and I’ll cover that later), with transcripts available, plus some selected reading, tests and two short assignments.

Each week covered a slightly different topic:

Unit 1 – Introduction to Medieval Magic

Unit 2 – Magic and Heresy

Unit 3 – From Magic to Witchcraft

Unit 4 – Magic in Islam

Unit 5 – Astrology and Geomancy

Of these the first three were the most interesting, although it was also interesting to see how Islam viewed magic – as opposed to the far more negative view of the Western Christian views. This particular module was probably the trickiest (not least because of the more unfamiliar names and terms) and I think more time could have been spent comparing the different cultural and religious outlooks, had the course been longer.

Magic permeated the Middle Ages, be it ‘healing’ magic, natural magic, or the more sinister type. In many ways it ran alongside religion, although it goes without saying that the religions of the day weren’t happy about it.  To us, in the modern world, much of it seems really odd, and for many secular societies or individual the whole concept of magic and religion is very outdated. Yet it was important to those who dwelt in a world not ordered by science and technology, where seasonal changes, illness, and belief could literally be a matter of life and death.  Magic was a way of trying to control what was often uncontrollable, to even the odds in a dangerous world. Religion and magic shared many aspects and Christianity itself (and Islam) hold many magical elements – including miracles, foresight and much more.

The topics were certainly engaging and thought provoking – especially the fact that many suffered imprisonment, torture and death for ‘heresy’ simply because of malice, ignorance or wishing to maintain older beliefs.  If the ‘magic’ wasn’t of the right sort, then people suffered. It was interesting to see the differing types of magic, and practitioners – from the wealthy intellectual court astronomers and magicians to the simple ‘cunning folk’. This builds on past study, at least for me. I’d agree it’s a good foundation for further research.

Was it useful  for writing fantasy? Yes, I think so as it gave a broad outline of medieval magical ideas to build on, and the prejudice surrounding them.

So the ‘no’.

The sound quality was bloody awful. The mix of tutors were all heavily accented and the recordings were of poor quality, with echoes, background noises, random volume changes and at one point a random question about King Arthur popped up on screen and froze the vid until it was answered. I found it far easier to just read the transcripts, but even then they were a little choppy.

As you’ve probably guessed I feel that the course should have been a bit longer – everything was a bit rushed. To be fair I didn’t utilise the discussion forum much.

The second assignment was a bit confusing – the grading questions were different to the points asked for discussion.

Overall a 3.5 for this – mostly because of the awful technical issues. Clean up the sound quality and this would be an engaging course.


Greek and Roman Mythology – Course – Review

Greek and Roman Mythology – Coursera

Greek and Roman mythology is fascinating, in many ways it is at the core of many Western traditional stories.  Even today we are enchanted by such tales of heroes, monsters, errant gods, and the goings on of those far removed and yet ever close. Hercules, Odysseus, the Trojan horse, Oedipus, and much more. The terms have fallen into modern usages – An odyssey denoting an epic journey, a Herculean task, a Trojan horse for a gift which is not all it seems.  Such tales spawned others – and in many ways influence modern heroic fiction.

I’ve studied Classics in the past – although it was more for the historical perspective and so this course really appealed.  I’ve also studied with Coursera – an online organisation which offers courses from a variety of sources, including the University of Pennsylvania who provide this particular course.

Myths intrigue me, I read a lot of mythic fiction, and write it too in my Tales of Erana series.

This is what the Coursera site says about the course ‘Myths are traditional stories that have endured over a long time. Some of them have to do with events of great importance, such as the founding of a nation. Others tell the stories of great heroes and heroines and their exploits and courage in the face of adversity. Still others are simple tales about otherwise unremarkable people who get into trouble or do some great deed. What are we to make of all these tales, and why do people seem to like to hear them? This course will focus on the myths of ancient Greece and Rome, as a way of exploring the nature of myth and the function it plays for individuals, societies, and nations. We will also pay some attention to the way the Greeks and Romans themselves understood their own myths. Are myths subtle codes that contain some universal truth? Are they a window on the deep recesses of a particular culture? Are they a set of blinders that all of us wear, though we do not realize it? Or are they just entertaining stories that people like to tell over and over? This course will investigate these questions through a variety of topics, including the creation of the universe, the relationship between gods and mortals, human nature, religion, the family, sex, love, madness, and death.’ (Coursera Website)

Does the course deliver? Yes it does. The tutor Peter Stuck is engaging, obviously knows his subject and is enthusiastic. The course is presented through a combination of videos, reading materials, quizzes, two essays and some discussion forums. The course recommends 10 hours a week of study – in truth it’s probably slightly more as some of the reading is quite long.

The subjects covered range from how the myths were perceived, the notion of pietas (duty, honour, loyalty) to religion, to food, to concept of the hero, what it meant to be a man in that society, the notion of how to treat one’s guests (or not) and familial ties. The reading includes The Odyssey – possibly THE epic adventure of antiquity and one of my first introductions to ancient Greek literature during my Diploma in Classics – so this was a very welcome re-read; The Aeneid – the tale of Aeneas and the struggle of the survivors of Troy and their quest for a new homeland – which lead (apparently) to the founding of Rome. Julius Caesar and Augustus traced their ancestry back to Aeneas and through him back to his immortal mother Venus; to the Oresteia (the tragic tale of Agamemnon after he returns from Troy); Oedipus the King (the tragic play so famous in which fate and prophecy play such a terrible role). Plus several more.

The video lectures made me think about some of the books in a new way, by focusing on aspects I may not have initially seen, and seeing the greater whole of the stories. Homer was incredibly influential and the later works often copy (or attempt to) his style and incredible narrative versatility. The books cover a period far removed from ideals and ideas of today, yet still something resonates – the challenge, the struggle and the emotions of the characters, the fight to be something more, and in some cases to survive. Of course much is different – Hesiod’s Theogony is not favourable to women, there are of course slaves in these societies, the gods are many and walk with humans, often begetting offspring in one form or another, and playing with the lives of mortals, ritual is important and there is violence – a lot of it. Actually that’s not so different from today and for much the same reasons – greed, honour, territory, religion etc.

These are not books for the faint hearted, or for those who are shocked by violence, sex, double crossing, murder, betrayal and such like. Themes in fact which tend to pervade our media – watch any soap opera and these themes are there in abundance. The influence of these authors and their work is monumental and this course helps to show why. Why this works need to be preserved and celebrated and why these cultures are so important to our own. These books are real heroic fiction, they are at the core of heroes and monsters, and of fantasy as we know it.

So, you ask, is it expensive? No it’s free. You can pay a small fee and get a certificate of completion (assuming you’ve done all the quizzes to an acceptable standard and one of the assignments) but it can be completed simply for the pleasure of it.

Is there anything I didn’t like? I did find the workload quite heavy – with work, writing, and family life commitments can be difficult to find the time and energy to put it but others may find that easier. I also didn’t use the forums much, although that was personal choice.

The course does not require any prior experience in the subject (but it helps) and assumes a level of literacy and intelligence in order to discuss and appreciate the themes and topics.

Would I recommend this? Yes, without a doubt to anyone interested in mythology, Greek and Roman literature or religion, fans of heroic fiction, and historians of the period.

#Mythology #Coursera #HeroicFiction #Fantasy #GreekandRoman

Plagues, Witches and War: The Worlds of Historical Fiction – Course Review

I was introduced to Coursera by my partner who suggested the writing course – Crafting an Effective Writer – might be of use to me. These MOOCs or Massive Open Online Courses are free and provide an insight into various subjects, from history and writing to science and philosophy.  The writing course was fairly basic but it never hurts to go over what one knows and fill in gaps. That course will be discussed elsewhere.  Below is my review of the Historical Fiction course run by the University of Virginia and Professor Holsinger.

Plagues, Witches, and War: The Worlds of Historical Fiction

This course appealed to me as a reader of historical fiction and a writer of fantasy. There are elements shared by both genres and it is never bad to consider how someone else sees the world in their books.  The course begins with an overview of the origins of the historical novel, and what is expected within the genre. Historical fiction is diverse, from romance to tragedy and semi-biographical accounts.

Definition: “A genre of imaginative narratives set in the past whose authors make a deliberate effort to convey chronologically remote settings, cultures, and personages with accuracy, plausibility and depth,” Bruce Holsinger.

So what does this mean? Fiction set in a real scenario, for example ancient Rome, or Civil War America featuring fictional characters, or even real persons speaking with the author’s voice. One of the visiting authors discussed emotions – emotions rarely change and thus it is plausible to assume a character would feel a certain way in a certain situation. The characters, or scenarios are not real, but the background is, as it were.  Some well known Historical Fiction texts would be Gone with the Wind, The Other Boleyn Girl, or The Last of the Mohicans. As you can see these are a diverse mix of subjects by diverse authors.

Historical Fiction continues to be a popular genre but in many ways it is very complex. World building is necessary in any novel but in the worlds of Historical Fiction the world is often there, for the researcher to find. It needs to be convincing – the ‘accuracy’ factor of Professor Holsinger’s definition. The key is research – what did people of that era eat? How did they live? What transport did they use? What religion did they follow? Whilst this is the case in world building for other genres because this world is real the accuracy needs to be there. Unconvincing scenarios will throw a reader out of the story. Research is more important here than perhaps elsewhere.

Plausibility is an important factor for a writer, even one who writes fantasy, after all much can be explained with magic but not all. Even magic has to have a basis in the possible, to understand the impossible one has to understand the possible. Fantasy worlds are often based around Middle Ages Europe or ancient Eurasian cultures and so knowledge of these eras and cultures is helpful.  Depth of course is a necessity, both in the worlds we create, and read and the characters which inhabit them. Shallow characters are weak, and the reader may end up not caring about their fate. This is true of any fiction. Historical fiction, in its basis in fact, has to work doubly hard to attain this, especially with popular or well-known personages.

There was a conversation on the forums about the ethical side of interpreting real events from the point of view of someone who did not exist, or claiming a person who did exist dealt with situations in such a way which was unreal, or possibly unreal. The key here is FICTION, the writer is not saying it was so, only that is MIGHT have been so. There is, of course, the risk that adherents of the personage may disagree.

One prototype historical story was Xenophone’s Cyropaedia  (4th Century BCE) – a fictionalised account of Cyrus the Great of Persia, although this was not a novel but a fictional political treatise. (George Saintsbury). Saintsbury later assess the Greek and Roman myths, Icelandic myths, the literature of the Middle Ages and Renaissance and culminates in the works of Sir Walter Scott. Although Saintsbury’s work is now little outdated the basis is there for what we now regard as vital for the historical fiction novel (The Historical Novel).  There is some assumption that there is a fictional element within established history and this can be distinguished from historical non-fiction.

The latter parts of the course discuss specific works and feature online interviews with authors who discuss their books.The authors are very frank in their discussions and it is a good insight into the writing process, the importance of research and the motivations of a writer.  As a reader the course offers some excerpts and full novels which, otherwise, I may not have considered.  There is a lot of reading required, in a fairly short timescale, and I admit I fell behind with this. I am not convinced all the reading is necessary. The seminars with the visiting authors are not great quality and at least one I ended up watching with the subtitles on as the video kept dipping out.

Readings include:

The Love Artist by Jane Allison (see review linked below); The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe (dealing with witchcraft); The Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks (dealing with the plague in an English Village); Fever by Mary Bethe Keane (dealing with Mary Mallon – typhoid Mary) and The Ghost Bride by Yangsee Choo (dealing with the Chinese traditions of the afterlife).

Plus supplementary readings from Dickens, Faulkner, Walter Scott, William Wells Brown and several more.

I feel the course could benefit from running for longer, enabling students to keep up with the reading, however this Coursera course is free and a good insight into the genre, writing and research.  I will continue to post the reviews of the reading as I complete it. If you have the time I would recommend this course – I found books I would not otherwise have read and the discussion forums were lively.  As the final assignment was dealing with archival sources and encouraged students to think of a story around the one they sourced who knows, perhaps something will come from that.

So what next? I am signed up for Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World which starts in February. As I am also taking a history course at the same time I expect to be kept very busy!

Writing Course Week 1

I have been searching for a suitable writing course for a while, especially one which was reasonably priced and could be done in my own time. I have studied online before and during my Open University Diploma maintained a job so I know how tricky it can be trying to juggle work, study and other commitments.

I found run by Coursera, who seem to have a large assortment of online courses. Students from all over the world can enroll and participate, there are weekly modules of study, assignments which are peer assessed, quizzes and videos. Each module is worth a certain number of points and 80% is the pass rate for this particular course.

This one looks relatively basic, but it is a start and it is never a wasted endeavor to reinforce what one knows (or thinks they know – which may not be the same) and there is always something new to learn. The guidelines state 4-5 hours a week are needed per block, so that does not cut into work time or writing time too heavily.

Week one- Overview: Becoming a Successful Online Learner is now completed and passed, this was more how to study online as many people would not have participated in such a course before. One exercise involved setting up an online calendar and another was participation in the online forums.

Week 2 is dealing with Subjects and Verbs so this will get down to the writing based work.  There is an online text book, plus various other useful tools.

Watch this space….