Updated June 29, 2012
Not every teacher is a great teacher. Not every course is a great course. So, this list is my effort to help you separate the winners from the losers.
This list of the best academic podcasts and webcasts is a work-in-progress. As I discover new courses and lectures, I add to the list. Your comments and suggestions are always welcome. Also, please let me know if you find errors or a broken link. You can contact me by leaving a comment at the end of the page. Newcomers can get up to speed by reading Getting started.
For a description of my criteria for choosing a course or lecture for this list, click here. Remember: these are my opinions only. For other possible courses, check out the links to the right and the courses listed here.
A warning: The internet is a changeable place and universities can change their websites without warning. Universities that have removed online offerings include UC San Diego, UC Berkeley, UCLA and Harvard. Courses can and do disappear, so if you find something you are interested in, don’t delay, download today.
Introduction to Biological Anthropology (iTunes), Terrence Deacon, UC Berkeley
Deacon’s class is a fascinating mix of biology, genetics, animal ethology and anthropology, as he works his way from single-celled organisms up to human physiology and the evolution of culture. He emphasizes how humans are related to all of the other lifeforms on our planet, and how Darwin’s theories help explain our place in the world.
Prehistory and the Birth of Civilization (audio), Tara Carter, UCSD
Carter relates the story of hominid evolution and the birth of social organization with infectious enthusiasm. Along the way you’ll learn about how we know Lucy walked upright, and why we think humans stopped foraging and started farming. The syllabus is here.
World Prehistory (feed) Tara Carter, UCSD
Archaeologist Tara Carter covers the tools and methods of archeology and then goes on to discuss how these tools help us learn about early societies and shed light on questions like how humans arrived in the Americas and invented agriculture.
Classical archaeology iTunes–Jennifer Lockett, Texas Christian University
Indiana Jen, AKA Jennifer Lockett, a gives a rousing introduction to Roman archaeology in this series of lectures. If you have a video iPod, you can also see the slides that go along with these enhanced MP3 lectures.
The Early Christian Church (website), David Miano, UCSD
This course gives the historical background to the rise of Christianity, and historical sources on the life of Jesus. I especially recommend lectures 6 and 7, which analyze the synoptic Gospels, and shows how they provide evidence for the differing beliefs of different early Christian communities. As an extra bonus, you can download the course powerpoint slides.
Great Sites of the Ancient World (YouTube, YouTube,), multiple speakers, University of Pennsylvania
This series of 2 lectures looks at the history and archaeology of ancient Ur and Troy. See: Abraham’s hometown and other archaeological tales.
History of the Byzantine Empire (feed), Matthew Herbst, UCSD
Historian Matthew Herbst is a masterful lecturer who combines vast knowledge of his subject with dramatic delivery. He answers questions like these: How did the Byzantine Empire managed to last 1000 years? What were the challenges it faced and surmounted? How does its legacy still affect us today? The syllabus is here. See The rise of monasticism.
Introduction to Ancient Greek History (website, iTunes), Donald Kagan, Yale University
Donald Kagan, a renowned Yale classics professor, has been thinking about the ancient Greeks for a lifetime and you can get a taste of his learning in this course. See: Introduction to Ancient Greek History.
Jerusalem: The Holy City ( iTunes video), Robert Cargill, UCLA
How did a provincial hill-town, with no significant natural resources and far from major trade routes, become a holy city for millions of people? That’s the question Cargill seeks to answer in this fascinating course, which is part history, part archaeology, part close reading of the Bible.
Myths and Realities about the Roman Gladiator (iTunes), Garrett Fagan, Pennsylvania State University
With his Irish brogue and mordant sense of humor, Fagan separates the historical facts from the fanciful fictions that surround the gladiator. See: The truth about the Roman gladiator.
Formations of Modern Art (feed) William Norman Bryson, UCSD
Art historian William Norman Bryson gives a lively and entertaining introduction to the French Impressionists and other moderns. Sadly, the podcasts are not available in video. However, you can see the images he discusses at the course website. (See earlier post A different take on the Impressionists.)
Human Behavioral Biology (iTunes),Robert Sapolsky, Stanford
In this course Sapolsky serves up nature in all its gory glory, and narrates the tale of scientific breakthroughs as a series of fights between feuding scientists who call each other nasty names while trashing each other’s ideas. Along the way, you get an introduction to socio-biology, genetics, ethology, neuroscience and endocrinology.
Stress and Coping: What Baboons Can Teach Us – iTunes – Robert Sapolsky, Stanford
Stanford stress researcher, Robert Sapolsky takes us along to the Serengeti of East Africa where he studies our close relatives, the baboons. Like us, the baboons of the Serengeti have a pretty easy time of it meeting their basic needs. It takes them only about four hours a day to forage for their daily calories. That gives them between eight and 12 hours a day to “devote to making each other miserable.” Sapolsky goes on to explain the baboon social structure, and what it can teach us about avoiding stress in our own lives. You can also catch Sapolsky on Google video, giving a lecture entitled Stress, Neurodegeneration and Individual Differences. Also, don’t miss his two great lectures on the neurobiology of sex here and here.
The Future of the Internet,- iTunes – Ramesh Johari, Stanford
So, do you feel at a loss when your geeky friends start discussing things like net neutrality, TCP/IP and throttling bandwidth? Do you wonder why your Internet speed sometimes slows to a crawl? Learn about all this and more from this Stanford University’s short course. Johari explains all the technical stuff along with a fascinating overview of Internet economics. You’ll even learn how to speed up your own Internet connection.
Introduction to Computer Science | Programming Methodology (website, iTunes, YouTube) Mehran Sahami, Stanford University
Mehran Sahami is the kind of teacher we all wish we’d had in school: enthusiastic, funny and clearly in love with his subject. He has a bag of candy on his desk to reward students who ask good questions, and it seems like all the questions are good. The course focuses on programing fundamentals using the Java language, and it starts out gently using a programmable online robot named Karel. Each lecture is also available in transcript, which is a big plus for non-native English speakers. The website has links to the free software you’ll need to do the homework. But unlike the two other offerings below, there is no online support group for when you (inevitably) get stuck.
Introduction to Computer Science and Programming (website, iTunes) Eric Grimson, John Guttag, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
This course focuses on programing fundamentals using the Python language, a modern open source language often used in web development. Grimson starts out the course with an interesting overview of computing philosophy and theory before plunging into how to program in Python. The website has links to a free textbook on Python and to the free software you’ll need to do the problem sets, and to a very helpful and active study group website where your fellow students can answer questions.
Introduction to Computer Science I (website, iTunes) David Malan, Harvard University
With his leading-man good looks and flamboyant style, it’s easy to see why David Malan’s Harvard courses are so popular. He starts out this course by getting a student to rip a phonebook in half to illustrate the power of computer algorithms. His videos are a lot of fun to watch, but they’re only the beginning of the educational journey. You get links to the software you’ll need to do the projects, as well as detailed problem set specifications. The website also includes videos of section meetings where a grad student delves deeper into programming nitty gritty, and videos of problem set “walkthroughs” that help you get started on each problem set. Other helpful materials include lecture transcripts and detailed lecture notes. There is also a very active and helpful CS50 Google Group of other course participants that can help you over the tough spots.
European Cultural History, 1660-1870 (website) George Mosse, University of Wisconsin
This is an overview of European cultural history from the enlightenment to the avant-garde. Mosse, who died in 1999, was an energetic and entertaining lecturer who clearly loved his subject. He stresses that in order to understand the way people perceive reality, one has to look at myths and symbols.
History of Information (website) Paul Duguid and Geoffrey Nunburg, UC Berkeley
Professors Geoffrey Nunburg and Paul Duguid team up to offer this survey of information technologies from the invention of writing to Wikipedia and text messaging. Along the way you’ll learn about Gutenberg, and what really happened when he invented movable type, and how radio evolved from its earliest beginnings as a ship to shore communications tool.
Intellectual History of the United States since 1865 (iTunes audio, iTunes video) Richard Candida Smith, UC Berkeley
This is a history course with a difference. Instead of focusing on events, trends and personalities, the course aims to examine ideas, and then trace how those ideas affected the way people understood their lives, and the political and economic choices they made. A 2007 course syllabus is here.
Western Movies: Myth, Ideology, and Genre (iTunes), Richard Slotkin, Wesleyan University
The myth of the American frontier and what it meant to Americans in the twentieth century is the subject of this course. Slotkin, a well known author and culture critic, gave this course in early 2008 just before his retirement. Check it out — this is a master teacher at the top of his form, weaving themes from history, cultural theory and literature into the discussion of Western movies made during their heyday from 1939 to 1974. See post: Western Movies: Myth, Ideology, and Genre.
American Economic History –Spring08 Website–Fall08 Website, iTunes audio, Brad DeLong, UC Berkeley
Who were the real economic winners from slavery? (It’s not what you think.) What caused the Great Depression? What might cause another one? The answers, plus much more to ponder, are in this course. For how to download the audio portions of the Spring08 version of this course, see this link.
The Economic History of the Twentieth Century (website), Brad DeLong, UC Berkeley
DeLong surveys the “long 20th century,” beginning about 1870, and talks about the revolutions (in productivity and otherwise) that made our world. For more, and how to download the audio files, see: When the modern world began.
EconTalk — iTunes – Website — Russ Roberts, George Mason University
Every week Professor Roberts delves into a topic in economics with a guest. The conversations are often lively and fun and always informative, touching on some topic in economics and how economic theory can help explain the real world.
Financial Markets –website– Robert Shiller, Yale University
Shiller is a calm, conversational lecturer — rather like a patient uncle who wants to make sure you understand the complex concepts he is presenting. Even if you find the math daunting (math-phobes should just skip lecture 2), there’s plenty of great food for thought in this course. Topics include risk management, behavioral finance, and lots more.
International Political Economy (readings, iTunes, feed) James Morrison, Middlebury College
This course is about the intersection of economics and politics in the international arena. It starts with classic theorists like Adam Smith, and moves on to modern perspectives. There’s a lot of meat in this course, and to really understand what Morrison is saying, I sometimes had to listen to the lecture more than once. (Note: lecture 2 is missing, but you can find lecture 2 of the 2009 version of the course on iTunes.)
Introduction to Economics ( website, iTunes) J. Bradford DeLong, UC Berkeley
If you’ve been thinking of brushing up on your freshman economics, or if you have never had the chance to learn the basic principles of the dismal science, here’s your chance. DeLong is making his lecture notes, slides and problem sets available to the general public on his course website. This is especially useful when DeLong begins to use mathematical models, as you can go back and review his equations. Also, his dry sense of humor sets just the right tone for an introduction to the fundamentals of economics.
Psychology and Economics (iTunes audio, iTunes video, YouTube), Daniel Acland, UC Berkeley
What happens when a bunch of psychologists try to investigate the assumptions about human behavior that underlie the discipline of economics? You get Behavioral Economics, a fascinating mix of economics and psychology explored in this class. See post: Introduction to Behavioral Economics.
Understanding the Financial Crisis (iTunes, YouTube), multiple speakers, University of California, Davis.
This may be the best academic webcast yet on the current world-wide financial mess. Three professors talk about the background and possible future of the financial crisis. (See post: The best financial crisis lectures yet)
China: Traditions and Transformations (website) Peter Bol, William Kirby, Harvard University
The course is team-taught by two China scholars, Peter Bol, who focuses on China’s history and culture, and William Kirby, who explains how the history and traditions play out in modern China.Their interaction makes the classroom lively and often playful, and they make good use of the Extension School’s video interface, which displays visual slides alongside the lecture video. Their maps, photos and illustrations greatly enhance the lectures. The 2009 syllabus is here.
European Civilization from the Renaissance to the Present (iTunes audio, iTunes video, YouTube) Thomas Laqueur , UC Berkeley
Professor Thomas Laqueur gives an enthusiastic and insightful tour of modern European history. This is one class really worth watching in video so you can see the slides (works of art, architecture and maps) that go along with the lectures.
European Civilization from the Renaissance to the Present (iTunes) Margaret Anderson, UC Berkeley
Professor Anderson gives another great version of this course with different readings and different emphasis. If you’re a history buff, you’ll want to listen to both. Anderson is a dynamic lecturer and makes each period come alive, with references to art and literature. The syllabus is here.
France Since 1871 –website– John Merriman, Yale
In this course Merriman explains how France became the fascinating and perplexing place it is today: a country that famously celebrates liberty and revolution yet regulates details of daily life such as what name you can legally choose for your child.
Nationalism in Eastern Europe (iTunes), T. Mills Kelly, George Mason University
Kelly has an engaging teaching style and his interaction with students adds verve and energy to the podcasts of 7 lectures from this 2007 course. Kelly covers the history of Eastern Europe in the 20th century, from World War II to the fall of Communism in 1989. (See Nationalism in Eastern Europe.)
The Rise and Fall of the Second Reich (iTunes) Margaret Anderson, UC Berkeley
This fascinating course gives the background for understanding German culture, romanticism, the origins of the first world war and the tragic rise of National Socialism. Anderson is a dynamic lecturer and makes each period come alive, with references to art and literature.
The Roman Empire (iTunes) Isabelle Pafford, UC Berkeley
This class looks at the history of Rome from the late Republic to the rule of Constantine. It gives a fascinating overview of Roman culture and institutions as well as the history. She also teaches The Ancient Mediterranean World (iTunes).
Western Civilization, 1715-Present (Youtube), Lynn Hunt, UCLA
Hunt brings new insights to this subject and helps me think about history in new ways. She usually begins each lecture with a musical selection, and describes how the arts are bound up with the political and social histories of each era. See post: A great Western Civ course from UCLA.
History of Iran to the Safavid Period (iTunes) Richard Bulliet, Columbia University
Although Bulliet is sometimes halting in his delivery, his wide ranging narrative is captivating. Learn about the early development of copper smelting and the domestication of the camel, along with the political and social history of Iran through the mid 18th century. See The History of Iran from Columbia University.
American History from the Civil War (iTunes), Jennifer Burns, UC Berkeley
This 2006 course covers the big events from Reconstruction to the attacks of 9/11. It is especially strong in its coverage of Barry Goldwater and the rise of conservatism.
American Immigrant Experience (iTunes audio, iTunes video), Carl Mason, UC Berkeley
This American history survey course has a novel slant. Demographer Carl Mason emphasizes the role of immigration and population pressure in American history, although he also covers the key events and ideologies of each period. See: The American Immigrant Experience.
The American Revolution (website, iTunes audio, iTunes video), Joann Freeman, Yale University
One of the many joys of this course is that it revels in historical complexities and provides some of the taste and texture of the revolutionary era. Freeman, a teacher who clearly loves her subject, quotes from contemporary letters and diaries that reveal the different attitudes of colonial and British observers.
BackStory (website, iTunes), Ed Ayers, Peter Onuf and Brian Balogh, Virginia Foundation for the Humanities
This public radio show and podcast about US history keeps getting better and better. Three history profs tackle an issue from the headlines and explore its background in the American past.
The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877 (website) David Blight, Yale University
Blight is an eloquent speaker who uses the poetry, speeches and letters of the Civil War era to dramatize his talks. If you’ve ever wondered why so many people find the US Civil War so endlessly fascinating, this course is the answer.
Colonial and Revolutionary America (iTunes) Jack Rakove, Stanford University
Rakove is a genial, conversational speaker who sprinkles jokes and asides about his favorite baseball team (the Chicago Cubs) into the lecture. You feel like you’re listening to a conversation, and not someone droning through a prepared text. He gives a good overview of the social history (how ordinary people lived) as well as the more familiar political history.
The United States in the 20th Century (feed), Michael Parrish, UCSD
Parrish gives a fascinating overview of US history in the 20th century. He gives the biographies of key figures and touches on important legal and political changes. Even if you’re up to speed on US history, you’ll encounter some surprises. Did you know that Teddy Roosevelt was an avid amateur ornithologist and could imitate the songs of about 50 birds?
The Americas in the Age of Revolution, 1776-1836 (website, YouTube) Marshall Eakin, Vanderbilt University
This short course (6 lectures) reminds us that what we in the US call “the American Revolution,” was really only one of many American revolutions, which took place also in South America and the Caribbean. Poor audio mars the recording of lecture 3.
MMW 4 New Ideas/Clash of Cultures (fall 2010 feed, current feed) Matthew Herbst, UCSD,
MMW (Making of the Modern World) is a 6-part course that covers world history, from the earliest hominids to the present day. Matthew Herbst, a masterful teacher, leads this tour through world history from 1200 to 1750. (See earlier post Making of the Modern World at UCSD.)
World War and Society in the 20th Century: World War II (website), Charles Maier, Harvard University
This course seeks to present World War II in its broad historical context, including the origins of the war and its aftermath. Maier is a thoughtful lecturer who works hard to make the study of the past relevant to the present.
Conceptual Foundations of International Politics (feed, YouTube) multiple speakers, Columbia University
This course from Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs is a great overview of the political theory and practical issues facing foreign policy makers. Don’t miss the lecture entitled American Foreign Policy in Historical Perspective by Professor Stephen Sestanovich, who argues that American foreign policy ignored the opinions of allies long before George W. Bush came on the scene. The syllabus is here.
History of the International System – iTunes –James Sheehan, Stanford University
These lectures are an overview of the 20th century, with an emphasis on the development of the international system — how nations define their self interest and their relations with other nations. Sheehan gives historical shape and texture to many of the theoretical issues in international relations such as sovereignty, strategy and real politique. Lecture 23, in which Sheehan discusses the background to the attacks of September 11, 2001, is particularly illuminating.
International Politics (readings, lectures) James Morrison, Middlebury College
Morrison gives a lively tour of the major international relations theorists, with lots of useful examples. Then he presents case studies, like the Cold War and World War II, to test the explanatory power of the theories. He wraps up the course with an overview of current issues like terrorism and globalization.
International Politics (feed) Daniel Deudney, Johns Hopkins
Deudney introduces us to the modern thinkers who have written about international relations and profoundly influenced foreign policy makers. You’ll learn about the realists, the neo-realists, the neo-conservatives, the balance of power theorists the liberal theorists and more. Still, be prepared for a fair amount of frustration. The podcasts appear to start about halfway through the semester, and then jump around with some podcasts seeming to be out of order. Nonetheless, they are well worth listening to, especially the final podcast which gives sobering food for thought about the challenges of fighting small terrorist groups, and keeping that fight from turning our country into a garrison state.
Center for Jewish History — Website
Here you will find audio and video recordings of events at New York’s Center for Jewish History. Programs include Michael Walzer speaking on “The Anomalies of Jewish Identity,” a panel discussion on Jewish journalists in America and a symposium on the impact of Baruch Spinoza.
Samuel and Althea Stroum Lectures in Jewish Studies – Website — University of Washington
This is an annual lecture series at the University of Washington. Here are audio and video recordings of eight of these series. I especially recommend the May 2006 series in which Anita Norich of the University of Michigan speaking about Sholem Aleichem’s famous character, Tevye the milkman, and how film adaptations of the Tevye stories reflect Jewish culture in America.
The Shalom Hartman Institute —iTunes– Blip.tv –
This world renowned educational institution provides continuing studies for rabbis and Jewish studies scholars from around the world. Its founder, philosopher and Rabbi David Hartman, is the author of numerous books and a prominent advocate for religious pluralism. A number of the Institute’s lectures, including many by Rabbi Hartman, are available in audio and video at the institute’s website. Check out this post for a preview of some of the offerings.
Conversations with History (website, iTunes, Youtube), Harry Kreisler, Institute of International Studies at University of California, Berkeley.
This is the podcast of Kreisler’s TV interview show, which features prominent academics and journalists who give thoughtful background to the usual media storylines. See: Conversations with History.
This site aggregates lots of great content from universities and think tanks into “channels.” Unfortunately, you have to join ($4.99/month) to download lectures or view “premium” content.
WGBH Forum Network –feed– –iTunes– –website–
This lecture series includes a range of academic, arts and business leaders. Recent selections have included Pulitzer prize-winning military reporter Thomas Ricks, speaking on Fiasco: American Military Adventure in Iraq, and Professor William Freehling speaking on Road to Disunion: Why the South Left.
Videos from the Googleplex –Website–
These are lectures given by prominent academics, inventors and writers who visit the Google campus. For starters, check out The Paradox of Choice – Why More Is Less (website), a talk by psychologist Barry Schwartz, a professor at Swarthmore College, who argues that too much choice is bad for you.
American Literature I: From beginnings to the Civil War (website, iTunes, Youtube) Cyrus Patell, New York University
Cyrus Patell, is a delight to listen to as he challenges, exhorts and explains his way through early American literature. His explanations of the historical background, combined with close reading of selected texts, gives added insight to anyone who wants to understand American history and culture.
The Epic (iTunes), Maura Bridget Nolan and Charles Altieri, UC Berkeley
The grand tale known as the epic is an ancient genre that goes back to the dawn of literature. Think of the heroes battling for glory in the Aeneid, or the fall of Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost. To get an overview of these grand tales in western literature and see how they reflected their cultures, check out this fascinating, fast paced course.
The Book of Job and the problem of Evil (iTunes part 1, iTunes part 2), Ralph Williams, University of Michigan
You probably can’t get a better introduction to the Book of Job than this dramatic 2-part lecture. Williams talks about the book and its structure, but more important, he gives dramatic readings from the book and explores its emotional and philosophic core.
Faerie and Fantasy (website) Corey Olsen, Washington College
Olsen guides his students through the world of English fantasy, beginning with Chaucer and other medievals and moving into the modern fantasy of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Olsen also includes these lectures in his iTunes feed, the Tolkien Professor. See Fantasy in Middle English, Chaucer and beyond.
Literature of Crisis — iTunes – Marsh McCall and Martin Evans, Stanford University
This course looks at defining crises in people’s lives and their reflection in literature, starting with Socrates in ancient Greece and ending with Voltaire’s Candide in the 18th century. The two professors who team teaches this class are full of enthusiasm for their subject and impart lots of interesting historical background.
Shakespeare After All: The Later Plays (website) Marjorie Garber, Harvard University
Garber’s style is conversational and analytic, and she pays attention to subjects like Shakespeare’s imagery, how gender is constructed in Shakespeare’s plays, and Shakespeare’s use of irony. Plays covered include Troilus and Cressida, Othello, Macbeth and King Lear. The fall 2008 syllabus is here.
Shakespeare’s Principal Plays (iTunes), Ralph Williams, University of Michigan
Williams’ speaking style, with its dramatic voice modulations and significant pauses, can take some getting used to, but it’s worth the effort. It’s as though he were an actor himself, declaiming lines from the plays and bringing the characters’ emotions into his voice. Plays covered include Richard II, I&II Henry IV, Henry V, Twelfth Night, As You Like It, Othello, King Lear, Hamlet, Antony and Cleopatra, Measure for Measure, A Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest. Unfortunately the course suffers from substandard audio, and sometimes it’s hard to make out what Williams is saying. (For more from Williams, check out this website.)
The Tolkien Professor ( iTunes), Corey Olsen, Washington College
This podcast is a loving look at all things Tolkien, and includes the audio recordings of his spring 2010 Tolkien Course (website). If you’re a Tolkien lover, don’t miss it.
Listening to Music (website, audio feed, video feed), Craig Wright, Yale University
This introduction to music course covers basics like rhythm and melody, and goes on to major genres like the symphony and the opera. Examples come from jazz and rock and roll as well as the classical repertoire.
Music (website, iTunes), multiple speakers, McGill University
This video lecture series has great production values: beautiful camera-work and high fidelity sound. You can listen to members of McGill’s faculty and guest lecturers talk about music and then perform excerpts to illustrate their points.
American Political Thought since the Civil War – Website– Wilson Carey McWilliams, Haverford College
In the course of these lectures McWilliams looks at the main thinkers and writers on American politics including Henry Adams, W.E.B. DuBois, and John Dewey. You can follow the readings using the syllabus, also available at the website.
East Asia Thought (feed) Victor Magagna, UC San Diego
In this summer session course political science professor Victor Magagna explores the world of East Asian political thought, and how the Eastern political tradition continues to influence political and business leaders in Asia today.
Existentialism (website) Walter Kaufmann, Princeton University
You can get a taste of the late WalterKaufmann’s thought and his mordant wit in this series of these three lectures on existentialism which he delivered in 1960. (See Why study philosophy?)
General Philosophy (iTunes) Peter Millican, Oxford University
This course is a series of 17 clips which appear to correspond to the first 3 weeks of an 8 week course (lecture slides available here.) Millican gives a quickie tour of the Western philosophical greats from the pre-Socratics to David Hume. He makes sense of these debates over ideas by giving a historical context for the philosophers he discusses.
Isaiah Berlin Centenary (iTunes, feed ) Isaiah Berlin, Oxford University
These lectures by the renowned philosopher Isaiah Berlin were originally broadcast in the 1950s. See: Jean-Jacques Rousseau: enemy of liberty.
Justice: An Introduction to Moral and Political Philosophy (website), Michael Sandel, Harvard University
Are starving men in a lifeboat morally justified if they murder and eat one of the crew? Can you put a dollar value on human life? Can you harvest a healthy man’s organs in order to save other people? Sandel challenges his students with these and other questions and brings to bear readings from Kant, Mill, Aristotle and others. The syllabus is here. Links to many of the readings are here.
Maimonides Mini Course – Website — Lenn Goodman, Vanderbilt University
This five-part lecture series is an introduction to the life and thought of Maimonides, the great 12th-century Jewish philosopher.
Reading Political Philosophy: From Machiavelli to Mill (iTunes), multiple speakers, Open University.
This podcast series gives the background for understanding and appreciating the great political philosophers. See: Machiavelli: not such a bad guy.
Quantum Physics Made Relatively Simple – website– Hans Bethe
In 1999, at age 93, Nobel laureate Hans Bethe gave this series of lectures about quantum physics to fellow residents of the Kendal of Ithaca retirement community. Because he was speaking to a lay audience, he kept the concepts simple and relatively math-free. Listening to his soft, German-accented English, is like touching a piece of history. Along with his discussion of quantum theory, he relates anecdotes about his fellow physicists (eg Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein) and puts their discoveries in context.
Physics 10: Physics for Future Presidents (YouTube, website) Richard Muller, UC Berkeley
Muller says that he is serious about the title — this is the physics that he wants every future president to know, and he hopes that he has a future president sitting in his class listening to his lectures. Muller mixes the science with economics, current events and policy debates.
Arming the Donkeys (iTunes) Dan Ariely, Duke University
Ariely, a best-selling author and professor of behavioral economics, is always fun to listen to. He has a lilting, mischievous voice with just a hint of a Hebrew accent– rather like an Israeli leprechaun. Each episode is a short (15 minutes or less) conversation with a researcher who has something interesting to say about the way our minds work.
Close Relationships (website), Thomas Bradbury, UCLA
Bradbury shows what recent psychological research can teach us about how intimate relationships develop and change over time. He moves from initial attraction, to formation of intimate bonds, and then on to how relationships grow or deteriorate. He uses a lot of video clips from his lab and from Hollywood movies to illustrate his points. (The audio on the video is hard to hear, but watching the video feed makes it easier to follow.)
Developmental Psychology (iTunes) Lori Markson, UC Berkeley
This is a fascinating look at how kids grow and develop. I wish I knew this when my kids were small. See especially the lecture entitled The 21st Century Family, which describes research on different parenting styles, contrasting permissive styles with authoritarian styles. Bottom line: it’s best to give a child firm limits, while maintaining some flexibility.
Human Emotion (iTunes) Dacher Keltner, UC Berkeley
You’ll never think about people in the same way after you listen to what psychologists have learned over the last generation about human emotion. Although philosophers since classical times have warned us to follow our reason and not our “passions,” it turns out that our emotions are key to clear thinking, helping us with memory, reasoning and predicting what our fellow humans are thinking and feeling. You will get the most out of this course if you buy the recommended textbook, Understanding Emotions, which is pricey, but you can get it used for about $35.
Introduction to Psychology – Website – Paul Bloom, Yale University
Professor Bloom takes us on a fascinating tour of the highlights of the modern science of the human mind. Even if you’ve listened to some of the more advanced courses on this list, you’ll find new insights in this class.
Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness – Website – Tal Ben-Shahar, Harvard University
Ben-Shahar talks about recent psychological research into what makes people happy. The answers won’t surprise you: it’s about relationships, meaningful work, simplicity and gratitude. Ben-Shahar also gives some easy tips on how to improve your own happiness, such as keeping a gratitude journal.
Psychology of Dreams (iTunes) Eleanor Rosch, UC Berkeley
Are dreams a window into the spirit world, a key to the unconscious or just meaningless noise generated by the sleeping brain? This course surveys the answers given by a range of cultures and by (often disagreeing) modern researchers and therapist. An old syllabus from 2006 is here. (The current syllabus is on the UC Berkeley site accessible only to students.)
The Bible’s Buried Secrets (website), NOVA TV series
In the past 50 years archaeologists have done much to illuminate the world of the Bible and challenge traditional notions of how the Bible was written. This special two-hour edition of the award-winning science program NOVA presents a summary of that research in dramatic form for a popular audience. The website includes extra material, including extended interviews and extra scenes that didn’t make it to the final show. (See post: The Bible’s Buried Secrets on TV & YouTube.)
The Bible Through Literary Eyes (website, YouTube) Robert Alter, UC Berkeley
Does the Bible have literary genres? UC Berkeley literature professor Robert Alter argues that it does in this lecture. Alter is a soft-spoken, careful lecturer who conveys his ideas with great clarity and occasional humor. (It was a special treat for me to discover this lecture because back in the dark ages [circa 1971], Robert Alter was my senior thesis advisor in the UC Berkeley department of comparative literature.)
The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel (website, iTunes), Benjamin Sommer, Jewish Theological Seminary
This series of 4 lectures gives a fascinating glimpse into how the people of the ancient Near East envisioned their gods, and how those ideas are reflected in the Bible. See Does God have a physical body?
The Hebrew Scriptures in Judaism and Christianity (iTunes) Shaye Cohen, Harvard
Cohen gives a lively introduction to the different ways believing Christians and Jews have interpreted the Bible since ancient times. A course like this could be a minefield, given the possible sensitivities of his students and of the wider Internet audience. But Cohen does a great job of treating everyone’s truth claims respectfully. He emphasizes that his course seeks to understand the ways in which believers have read the Bible – without judging the validity of interpretations.
An Introduction to Islam for Jews (website), Reuven Firestone, Hebrew Union College
You don’t have to be Jewish to learn a lot from Rabbi Reuven Firestone’s fascinating talk. He approaches the subject not as a rabbi, but as a sociologist of religion. He looks at religion an extremely effective way of “organizing and protecting human communities” and of inspiring people to “extraordinary behaviors,” sometimes admirable and sometime malevolent. (See post: You don’t have to be Jewish…)
Introduction to New Testament History and Literature (website, iTunes), Dale Martin, Yale University
With his Texas twang and exhortations such as “doubt everything,” Martin’s speaking style has a passing resemblance to the cadences of a televangelist. But he has a different mission. He wants to teach his students to read the New Testament critically, as historical documents with a context and an agenda.
Introduction to the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible – Website – Christine Hayes, Yale University
Professor Hayes teaches us how to look at the Bible through the lens of modern biblical scholarship, which includes the insights of literary analysis, comparison with other contemporary cultures, and comparative anthropology.
Literature and World of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, (iTunes), John Strong, Missouri State University
This made-for-TV distance learning course includes some fascinating video interviews recorded in Israel at the dig at Lachish (lectures 10, 11 and 15 ). Like the Yale course (above), it discusses the major theories about the origin of the biblical text and the cultural context in the ancient Near East. Strong’s slow, laid-back lecture style sometimes made me impatient, but the interesting material kept me listening.
Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean(feed), Philip Harland, York University
In this podcast Harland presents contemporary Greco-Roman and Jewish sources to give the context of Christianity in its very earliest days. These talks appear to be edited version of classroom lectures as he makes reference to course readings and outside discussions. Harland lectures in a very conversational and accessible style, and brings a scholar’s eye to the issues surrounding the early Jesus movement.
Sin: The Early History of an Idea – Website – iTunes– Paula Fredriksen, Princeton University
This series of three lecturers by renowned biblical scholar Paula Fredriksen describes how early Christian theologians took concepts from Greek philosophy and applied them to the Hebrew Bible and St. Paul’s early writings to create the Christian Church’s ideas about sin and redemption.
Frontiers of Science (website, iTunes) Multiple instructors, Columbia University
This course, originally developed for Columbia undergraduates, is now available for free on the web. The Frontiers of Science website is a beautifully designed resource for students and teachers, including lectures, student activities, problem sets and instructor guides for five subject areas: astronomy, biodiversity, earth science, general science and neuroscience. It even includes an interactive E-textbook called Scientific Habits of Mind.
California Government and Politics (feed), Thad Kousser, UCSD
This political science course gives the real skivvy on how California politics works, including rules of the game, how the political parties are organized, and how politicians use wedge issues to boost their chances of election.
Classical Social Theories –website– YouTube – Alan Macfarlane, Cambridge University
This course covers thinkers from Montesquieu in the 18th century to Ernest Gellner and F.W.Maitland in the 20th century. Macfarlane is an insightful lecturer who has also posted some chapters from his many books on his website. More lectures from MacFarlane are available on iTunes U.
Politics and Warfare (feed) Victor Magagna, UCSD
What features of an international system make war likely? Why do individual citizens agree to risk their lives for the state? These and other questions are explored in this fascinating course. For more see post Politics and Warfare.
Sociology of Mass Communication (website) Gabriel Rossman, UCLA
How does the American entertainment industry work and why does it work that way? Why are media conglomerates getting bigger and bigger? You’ll find the answers in this course. Rossman has an entertaining, conversational style and peppers his lectures with lots of examples. The syllabus has links to many of the assigned readings, which are available for free on the web.
Strategies of survival: lectures on population, disease, war, famine –website– Alan Macfarlane, Cambridge University
Demographers can be a gloomy lot. They spend their time thinking about population explosions, famine and war. But these are not gloomy lectures. Anthropologist Macfarlane talks about theories of population growth, and illustrates the concepts with lots of examples from history and his own research.
How do I choose a course or lecture for this list?
First and foremost, it needs a great teacher. All of the courses and lectures listed here have teachers who know how to interact with an audience. They all express emotion, be it enthusiasm or humor, and they all present their material clearly. If they are disorganized or speak in a dreary monotone, they don’t make the list.
Second, the subject has to pique my interest. I read widely in literature and the social sciences, so most of the courses are in those subject areas. I’ve also thrown in some science courses and lectures that have particularly appealed to me, but that’s not where my main interests lie.<
My ratings represent my subjective impression of how much I enjoyed the classes and/or lectures, and how much I learned.