Story posted February 17, 2010
It's not uncommon for a professor to receive an "outside" request to sit in on a class. In fact, the practice is actively encouraged during spring Open House and Parent's Weekend.
Scott MacEachern, Professor of Anthropology, got such an inquiry two years ago from a representative of The Teaching Company, a multimedia company that produces videotaped courses taught by top professors from institutions including Oxford, Harvard, and Princeton Universities.
The scholar scout was impressed with MacEachern's teaching and expertise and invited him to do a video audition and course development proposal. The result is a highly engaging 48-lecture audio/video-lecture course, Origin of Civilization, which is now part of The Teaching Company's roster.
"Well, I had to wear a tie," quipped MacEachern of his experience teaching to a crowd of one—a camera. "It was a little strange talking to a teleprompter. You have no feedback, no conversations with students. But I was happy with the overall experience. The people at The Teaching Company were great to work with."
Using archaeological research as a lens for studying human development across the globe, MacEachern examines the formation of early states and civilizations. Among the regions studied are Mesopotamia, the eastern Mediterranean, different parts of Asia, Mesoamerica, and sub-Saharan Africa.
"One of the things I was most happy with was the inclusion of ancient civilizations in sub-Saharan Africa," said MacEachern. "In courses on early civilizations, Africa tends to get ignored." MacEachern's knowledge of early African civilizations is firsthand: He has worked there since 1981, and co-led one of the largest archaeological programs ever undertaken in Central Africa. Read story.
Because of the audience—generally, much older than Bowdoin students and from varying academic backgrounds—MacEachern had to develop the course from "scratch," an enterprise that took the better part of his winter break. Producing the project was labor-intensive, including dozens of hours of taping time, and development of supplements, including a 180-page primer, slides, and maps.
"This is a very different kind of course than what I teach at Bowdoin in terms of geographical scope," notes MacEachern, "and it's not an easy way to teach people, with the lack of interactivity. But what I'm doing in either case is to bring a body of knowledge about ancient states to an audience. I love teaching about this work, and I'm always glad when people want to learn about it."