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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 7, 2008

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

College on CD

Education never ends. If you stop trying to learn, you learn anyway -- but you aren't in control of any part of the process.

Our brains are built to learn. Anything you do repeatedly, your brain learns how to do without engaging your conscious attention.

That's why all of us who drive cars have the experience of "waking up" and wondering where we are -- at fifty miles an hour. Our brain has done a fine job of doing all the routine tasks of driving, while our conscious mind was off on its own, thinking deep thoughts.

OK, maybe the thoughts aren't always deep, and that conscious mind is notoriously unreliable. You're cleaning up a small mess and you think: I've got to get another roll of paper towels. You head for the cupboard and open it and ... what was I here to do? What was I looking for? You have to reconstruct what you were just doing in order to have a hope of remembering what you were about to do.

Meanwhile, though, your brain carried out your instruction to "go to the cupboard and open the door." That's because your brain has learned the go-to-cupboard-and-open-door instruction set.

So, without paying attention, we constantly train and re-train our brains.

For instance, computer keyboards. Mostly, keyboard layouts have settled down into some basic patterns. Of course the QWERTY layout is constant, but even the placement of the Control, Alt, and Caps Lock keys has become standardized.

To my chagrin, since I hate the lower-left Control key placement, and I never use Caps Lock at all -- that's where I want the Control key to be. But I've learned to live with it.

But when they're designing smaller computers -- like the Asus Eee PC mini-laptop that I just bought -- they have to cram all the necessary keys into a smaller space, and they make compromises.

Sometimes they make really bad ones -- or at least ones that don't work for the way my brain has been trained.

On the Eee, in order to fit the standard upside-down-T formation of cursor-arrow keys, they moved the Right Shift key over to the far side of the Up Arrow key.

This meant that my touch-typist brain, which has been finding the Right Shift key in a certain location for 44 years now, kept hitting the Up Arrow key when I wanted to capitalize or shift another key.

Now, I know from experience (that Control/Caps Lock key problem) that I can learn a new pattern and it will become a new habit.

But I don't want to learn a new placement for the Right Shift key because all the other computers I use will still have the normal pattern.

Instead, I decided to make the computer learn to do what I wanted it to do.

So I went to PC Magazine's website and paid a tiny amount of money to download a program called "TradeKeys," written by Gregory A. Wolking. (You can find it at http://snipurl.com/3ont6, or use the full name: http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,1560750,00.asp.)

I told my new Eee to make the Up Arrow key into a second Right Shift key. Of course, then I didn't have an Up Arrow key. What would I do about my habit of using that inverted-T formation?

Well, it turns out that the only time I use those keys in a habitual way is playing Tetris. So I won't play Tetris on that machine. Meanwhile, for other uses -- which are nonhabitual -- I made the Windows keys, which I never use for anything at all, into new Up Arrow keys.

And while I was at it, I taught the Eee to make the Caps Lock key into a second Left Control key. Then, on the remote chance that I might someday want to use Caps Lock, I turned the Scroll Lock key, whose purpose I have never known and never needed to know, into Caps Lock.

All of this work so that I don't have to learn something new.

But it's a proven fact that if we keep learning, making our brain forge new pathways, we are more likely to be able to postpone the effects of senility. (I'm not talking about Alzheimer's here, just normal senile dementia.)

Also, there's simply the sheer pleasure of learning things. I'm one of those odd people who loved school. Not the stupidity of school -- the bureaucracy, the niggling rules designed to dehumanize students, the lazy or incompetent teachers who were and are far too common, or the other students who are just marking time. I loved the textbooks, the courses, the good teachers, the fellow students who cared and were fully engaged in the subject.

That's why I went back to grad school twice, in pursuit of a doctorate that was meaningless to my career, but would have marked a milestone that I would have cared about.

The first time, I found myself pursuing a literature degree in an English Department that was being taken over by the deep dumbness of deconstructionism; since I was the student who kept asking awkward questions that showed my skepticism about this phony fits-anything "critical method," the faculty declined to give me a leave of absence when I needed to take a semester to write a novel and earn a living.

The second time, in a graduate writing program, I was stunned when the teacher came to me and explained that the other students didn't like the harshness of my criticisms in the writing workshop.

Since I was never harsh, merely accurate, and the teacher should have known that and affirmed it, I dropped out with contempt for the students who preferred praise to learning, and for the unavoidable teacher who actually listened to the lazy students in order to silence the rigorous one.

Meanwhile, I watched professor friends struggle with a system that increasingly penalizes good teachers and rewards often phony "research," so that tenured faculty is increasingly dominated by people who are really good at the publication game but indifferent, when not awful, as teachers.

I realized that the problem was me: Since I valued rigorous teaching of true and/or useful things, and it was clear that literature and writing departments nationwide were abandoning any such process, I was like a guy trying to buy a gourmet meal at Burger King. Who's the idiot?

So I stopped trying to go to school (though, having found a wonderfully eccentric liberal arts college that has not abandoned the kind of teaching I love, I do teach one semester out of four at Southern Virginia University).

Instead, I continued my lifelong habit of reading rigorous books by intelligent writers. Truth to tell, that has always been the real source of education anyway. And when I disagree with the writer or have serious doubts, I can note my objections in the margin and the writer never knows about it, and therefore doesn't penalize me for being too "harsh" or taking up too much of the class's time in attempted dialogue.

But -- and I know this will be obvious -- reading a book isn't social. There's no conversation. The flow is only one way; my marginalia are never taken into account by the writer.

I miss the classroom. Or rather, I miss being a student in the classroom of a wise and enthusiastic teacher. Such teachers still exist -- but I don't think my family -- or the other students -- would understand if, at age 57, I enrolled in Jay Wentworth's classes at Appalachian State or Francois Camoin's at the University of Utah; and Fred Chappell, Ed Vasta, and Norman Council have all retired (from UNC-G, Notre Dame, and U of U, respectively).

So I'm in Barnes & Noble and I spot a display of heavily discounted courses in the "Portable Professor" series. Two of them look interesting, so I buy them. One is a sixteen-lecture, eight-cd course on Roman history, called To Rule Mankind and Make the World Obey, and the other is When Gods Walked the Earth: Myths of Ancient Greece.

Now, at my age, and after all my reading, I actually know quite a bit about both subjects. But I've never taken a course in either. I'm not after information, per se, because I already own books that are more in-depth. What I want is something like the classroom experience.

And no, of course there's no dialogue with the cds any more than with a book. But it's oral, I'm listening. And within its limitations, the first course I listened to -- the Greek myths course -- does a surprisingly good job.

I've read (but not recently) the Iliad and the Odyssey, as well as the plays of Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, and Aristophanes that the teacher refers to, but not Hesiod or the more obscure sources of myths. I can't say whether the teacher, Peter Meineck, does a perfect job of making things clear to students who haven't read Homer or the Greek plays, but I believe he does, and I certainly had no problems with the stories from Hesiod's Theogony.

In taking a course, the quality of the teacher is the foremost consideration, and even though I'd like it to be, it's not just about what the teacher knows. It makes a huge difference if the teacher can present information in a clear and interesting -- no, let's be honest, entertaining -- way. The course has to be organized in an intelligible way, rather than being a mere infodump.

Meineck is a very good teacher on all counts. I've been listening to the course while driving twenty-minute errands at five-thirty in the morning, and not only do the lectures keep me awake, I actually retain what I've been taught.

In fact, Meineck does a better job of helping me find meaning in the mythic aspects of Homer than did the teacher who "taught" me the Iliad in college, in person.

Meineck has a homely British accent that is quite charming. And, like all teachers, he has quirks -- sentences and phrases he repeats more as filler or punctuation than for any content they might have. "This is important" gets said more than it should, and sometimes about things that aren't important. But that's part of having a human teacher.

Here's the thing. ("Here's the thing" is one of my own repetitive phrases, by the way, which my own students mock.) Meineck may have written out the lectures, but it doesn't sound like that. It sounds like he's talking from a really good set of notes, but that the actual sentences are coming out of his head afresh. In those circumstances, filler and marker phrases are unavoidable.

Potentially more annoying is his occasional moments of illiteracy. Most of what registers in my mind as mispronunciation is quite possibly the difference between British and American pronunciations. The Brits are utterly negligent of the pronunciation of the original language -- they have always made hash of other languages when they pick up names and words.

But there's simply no way that even a Brit could really pronounce the word progenitor as "PROJ-uh-NAY-tor." Meineck repeatedly turns the i to an a.

But language snob though I am, I'm only a snob about written language (a writer -- or editor -- who can't handle lay/lie or who/whom earns a sneer from me). When we're speaking, the rules relax. And I actually have a great well of affection for people who mispronounce words because they learned them from reading alone.

I happen to live in a sub-culture where the word progenitor is relatively common and adults all know how to pronounce it. That's because of Mormons' obsession with genealogy. (And even Mormons often pronounce genealogy as if it were written geneology, and we definitely should know better!)

Meineck apparently learned progenitor by reading alone. And I think it's something to be proud of, when your reading vocabulary leaves your oral vocabulary behind and strikes out on its own.

Anyway, the quirks make this more like a real classroom experience, and that's what I bought the course for.

How much have I learned that I didn't know? Maybe a quarter of the material is new to me. But that's why I chose this course as my test case. After all, how could I evaluate a course in a subject where I knew nothing? I could be lied to continuously and have no idea.

Meineck is, where I already know something, accurate. Where judgment and opinion come in, he alludes to differing opinions and makes it clear when he is speaking his own private views. His lectures are clear, concise, and logically organized. And because he's theatrically talented and trained, when he reads passages from (translations of) Homer, Hesiod, and the playwrights, he makes them come to life.

I have been listening to audiobooks for years, and I love them. The Portable Professor series is not the same thing, even though it's delivered using the same medium. I can't compare this series or even this particular course to other recorded lectures, because I've never listened to any others.

But I can tell you this: I have ordered a translation of Hesiod to read on my own, and I think I'm going to reread the Odyssey as well, since I was so young when I read it the first time.

And I have also ordered several more Portable Professor courses from Barnes & Noble online. (http://www.bn.com.)


Speaking of Barnes & Noble online, I'm a much more frequent customer of Amazon.com, mostly because Amazon showed me the respect of letting me make my author website, www.hatrack.com, a gateway that kicks back a bit of the purchase price to me.

There are a couple of irritating things about the Barnes and Noble site. For one thing, the official name of the story is Barnes & Noble, but of course you can't use the ampersand in a web address. So they tell you to type in www.bn.com -- but the address in your browser says it's barnesandnoble.com. It always makes me nervous when the address I type turns out to be a redirect.

But the really irritating thing is that the B&N homepage runs a continuous scrolling graphic that demands so much computer time that it makes my mouse jumpy (not the physical mouse, of course; it's not hopping around on my desk; I'm speaking of the pointer on screen), so it took me nearly a minute to keep stabbing at a button -- any button -- onscreen in order to get away from that graphic.

Don't these people test their web graphics on real machines before abusing their customers this way?

Anyway, in order to get the full list of Portable Professor offerings, don't go to the B&N website directly. Use this address -- yes, it's a redirect! -- .

Or you can use the whole address, if you like typing:


Back when Mitt Romney was a candidate -- or one of the top names mentioned for McCain's veep choice -- a lot of silly things were said about the Mormon Church. After 178 years of intensive missionary work, it's amazing how little most people know about Mormonism!

Many of the things that were said were malicious -- there's a whole industry of people making up lies about Mormons, though I'm sure their motives are pure. (I guess they figure that lying is justified as long as the lies keep people from going to hell because they joined the Mormon Church.)

But most of the misinformation is inadvertent. People have heard things, or mingled their idea of Mormons with the Amish or the Moonies or some other religious group; or they have correct but partial information.

What's this with Mormons and polygamy? And how did a fully integrated church get a reputation for racism? Why do they "oppress" women?

All these ideas are actually related to history, but what's usually lacking is context and meaning.

This Friday night from 7 to 9 p.m., at an open house at the Mormon Church at 3719 Pinetop Road (across from Claxton Elementary), I will be doing four half-hour sessions precisely for the purpose of answering such questions. My sessions are not designed to convert anybody. I'm not selling anything. Donations will not be accepted. I will simply deal with whatever you may have heard and tell you the facts, insofar as I know them. And usually I do.

You can come to the open house, go straight to my session, and leave when it's over. You will come away with more correct information -- and fewer false or partial ideas about Mormonism.

The overall open house definitely has a missionary purpose, but since our missionary work consists of telling what we believe and letting people decide whether or not they believe it, too, it's quite safe to come. You will not be seized and programmed with a new religion. (The idea of Mormonism as a brainwashing cult is just silly -- brainwashed "converts" would be no use in our community.)

You might simply enjoy seeing what else is on offer, on the theory that you have no hope of understanding a community until you see what they choose to say about themselves, as well as what others say about them.

Here's the secret: If you don't want the Mormon missionaries to come to your house, don't give them your address. (They may still happen to knock on your door as they randomly canvass neighborhoods, but that would be coincidence, not conspiracy, and you can smile at them and say "no thanks" and they'll go on to somebody who's interested.)

So there it is: A chance to relieve ignorance about one of the groups in America that Politically Correct people still feel free to hate and ridicule, because Mormons are one of the religious groups openly working to protect traditional values. Since Rhino readers are quite likely to be supporting the same side as the Mormons on a lot of important social and political issues (though probably not all!), you might as well find out who we actually are.

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