As my reward for having gotten through 2020 without any major ructions, while at the same time staying productive, I have given myself the prezzie of a year’s worth of Masterclass courses on YouTube. I reckoned that learning from people who are experts in their fields, be it music, art, cooking, cinematography or whatever, would be interesting and worthwhile. This was after checking out the online learning environment for a good year before I committed. There are snake oil salesmen out there, people! Caveat emptor, there’s a sucker born every minute, there’s no free lunch, and so on. So I did the homework.
You want to be my teacher? Better know your stuff.
There are many learning channels and platforms on which you can watch informational and documentary videos – referred to as factual media/video on demand/streaming video – some for free, some not, some associated with universities, some not – for instance CuriosityStream and The Great Courses Plus, and MasterClass. However, I judge information on where it comes from. I check out the credentials, qualifications and experience of the presenter and (or) the developer, and I’ll only watch or do their courses if they are experts and if the information is actually new to me. (I don’t like dumbed down stuff.) If a vidcast presenter or a vlogger has only a name and no verifiable details, then I’m not interested.
So I was definitely interested when I saw the raft of names listed as instructors on Masterclass: Margaret Atwood, Ken Burns, Deadmau5, Frank Gehry, Werner Herzog, Spike Lee, Annie Leibovitz, David Lynch, Steve Martin, Gordon Ramsey, etc., etc., and…Neil Gaiman!
But of course, being me, it was not enough to be impressed by the presenters. It had to be affordable. My question was: What will I get for my money?
Nothing is simple online
These people might be really great at what they do, but presenting a course and being an instructor is different from doing the things you are famous for. (I know, I was an instructor for more than ten years, and hated every single day of it.)
For one, you need a curriculum, learning modules and course contents. And everything needs to be pitched at exactly the right level of difficulty for the participants you have in mind. And there is some awful crud out there, believe me.
Once you have the info, then you need to present it in a way which engages the viewer, which, in the case of YouTube, is made more difficult because the participants are not in front of you. So you have to use your past experience when you are designing the course, to judge where to pause and pay more attention, where to repeat a point, where to clarify, where to draw the similarities and differences. So, before getting on with it, I really, really wondered, as someone who had done this more often than they care to remember, how good this type of course could possibly be.
And bear in mind, learning as an adult is totally different from learning as a child. I’m not talking about Adult Literacy, or Adult Basic Education. I’m talking about adults who already know a great deal about some things, learning something new – “Andragogy”, to be precise.
Adults who undertake this kind of learning, whether for work or personal development, need;
- Control, involvement, relevance to past experience, problem-solving, and
- Immediate practical application: “How can I use this information now?”
This last one is critical. How many self-help books or reference books have you read, and how many on-job training sessions have you sat through, without applying what you learned, and forgot it all in an instant? I’ll bet many.
At least, I thought, with MasterClass there is no attempt to fake or promise some kind of outcome or achieved competence. It cannot be done in this format without having assessments under real exam conditions. At the most, the instructors can put questions to the participants, and set exercises and provide answers in the accompanying workbook. If the participants are confused and have questions of their own, they can join an online forum and discuss it amongst themselves. Having decided that it seems legit, I thought, let me try.
Thus, I hauled out my credit card and got going.
Long story to get to the actual announcement: It works.
I’ve done two MasterClass courses since enrolling in April 2021: Songwriting with St. Vincent and The Art of Storytelling with Neil Gaiman.
(For those of you who don’t know Neil Gaiman, he and Terry Pratchett wrote the hit TV series Good Omens, and he is famous for his Fantasy books for adults and for children. Those are the most common of all his achievements, but the list is just too long to go into here. I mean, really, he is very famous and also a little bit controversial.)
The production quality of the presentations and the workbooks of both the courses is superb. The content is excellent, and at times quite difficult. I have already learned things that have made the subscription worth the money. The contents of both courses is interesting, relevant, and focused on problem-solving and practical applications.
What I learned on Neil Gaiman’s course, specifically, has changed the way I look at books. I could immediately get to grips with applying what I’ve learned. Was it a bit of a curveball? Yes, I spent a few days experimenting with the new information, but I’m glad of it.
The course: The Art of Storytelling
It’s funny to be back in the classroom. I realized yet again that a teacher or instructor, at whom you sit staring for hours on end, should be a good example of the things that they teach their students. Apart from being a writer, Neil Gaiman is Professor in the Arts at Bard College in New York, and has been teaching there since 2014. (Lucky students!) So I was fairly sure he’d get the course design aspects right. He did. At the very least, someone who stands in front of a class should be well-spoken and personable. He is.
Neil Gaiman pronounces his name “gay-mun”; “mun” as in “sun”, in the same way as my surname, Bijman, is pronounced in Dutch as “bay-mun”. He introduces himself and then you spend the next 19 lessons (modules) looking at him in what appears to be his library or study, copies of his own books conveniently at hand on the shelves, as if it were just the two of you seated across from each other over a nice cup of tea. (St. Vincent presented her lessons in her studio, very impressive with all the equipment, gadgets and instruments.)
Apart from being amazingly knowledgeable and able to explain things clearly and systematically, he comes across as very personable. His voice is well modulated, his pronunciation is precise, his diction perfectly clear. He never says a word out of place, his eyes are warm and he looks directly at you (in a manner of speaking) at precisely the right moments, to make his point. He has a kind smile. He is a handsome man, and looking at him for hours on end is no problem.
Gaiman said so many worthwhile things that I filled 30 pages with my handwritten notes. I have yet to absorb all the ideas. Bear in mind the workbook of the course is 94 well-designed pages long. That alone would have been worth the money.
The cherry on the cake was when he read one of his short stories out loud, and the story was so lovely and just long enough and with such a perfect ending that I just sat there with a snivel and a lump in my throat. Yes, really.
The story is October Tale from the collection “A Calendar of Tales”. It is included in his book Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances (2015). If you do not know Gaiman’s writing, I suggest you start with this collection. Never have the words “It’s OK – I’m good”, sounded so meaningful.
What did I learn?
Some of the things I learned really struck a chord with me; I mean, everything was good, it was all worthwhile, but some things particularly stood out:
I learned about how to get from a book to a script (above you can see the cover of the novel Good Omens as well as the cover of the script of the TV adaptation of Good Omens, both by Neil Gaiman). How the integration between art and text in comic books works, and who does what. How to approach the writing of comedy or humour. What to do when telling stories with dark themes to children. How to deal with criticism. How to figure out what you, as a writer, can and cannot do, and should and shouldn’t do.
I learned some things about the approach to writing and techniques of Terry Pratchett, one of my favourite authors, that made me completely rethink Pratchett’s books, and rethink the collaborations which he had written with Neil Gaiman, Stephen Baxter, and others. I might have to redo my review of his and Baxter’s book, The Long Earth. I did not enjoy it, but now I realize what they were doing.
Learning about the relationship between truth and fiction, and truth in fiction was fascinating, particularly since Good Omens caused an uproar when it was published and when the television series was aired. Sacrilege!!! Heresy!!!! Burn ’em at the stake! Hide your children!!! You would have known what it was about when you read the subtitle of the book: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch.
Prophecies, a Medieval setting, a witch, a name like “Nutter”? Fantasy, obviously. In early Middle English, the word “nice” meant small, precise, and subtle. This became the running gag in the book. Though Agnes’s prophecies came true, no-one knew when they would happen, since they were rather short and written in a kind of witch’s shorthand. So, they may have been accurate – but they were also vague.
But I digress…
The most important thing was that Gaiman did not constantly use the standard terms that I was taught in Literary Theory at university. In other words, he did not hang his course contents on these terms. He meant the participants to learn to do something, rather just understand terminology.
He sometimes briefly referred to a term – “theme”, or “genre” for instance – but on the whole he avoided the usual big-sounding and tricky lingo and talked around these ideas. He very cleverly turned each of the pertinent concepts into questions that the writer and reader should ask and answer.
Instead of explaining a term, he created a process for the participant to go through which would allow them to apply what they have learned practically in their writing. That is what people who do this course want to do. He said that at the introduction.
Also, by asking and answering those questions, they will come to a conclusion about a piece of writing – their own or someone else’s novel. They might decide to stop, reassess or do something over. A critic might rephrase their comment or rethink their point of view entirely. This is what happened to me.
The questions included:
– What is the most important thing in the story?
– And then what happened? (especially this one)
– What is it about?
Through answering these and other questions, the writer and reader will learn the principles of good writing – the do’s and don’ts of being an author.
What’s in your compost heap?
He ended the course with a teasing quote from one of his long short stories/novelettes. He did this to demonstrate one of the principles of storytelling, namely that everything that you have seen and experienced in your life adds to the resources you can call on to write a story – or fills up the so-called “compost heap” from which will come new creations:
“Once, on a mountaintop in China, a man tried to sell me a pot of snow white honey.”
Reference to The Case of Death and Honey, by Neil Gaiman
(Photo by kinkate on Pexels.com)
He is a really good reader. When he finished this, he looked up, with a twinkle in his eye, and a wicked smile, knowing that you, the participant, would be mystified. And that was the end. Doesn’t it make you wonder what really happened to Neil Gaiman in China, and how he turned it into a story? To the very last words of his course, he completely engages the participant. (To answer: read The Case of Death and Honey. The link here is to a .pdf of the story.)
Gaiman’s ideas led me to do some serious thinking about the next book I was going to review, First Person Singular, by Haruki Murakami, which came out earlier this year. In the next post, I’ll be asking some of the questions about this collection of stories for which Murakami’s fans have been waiting so anxiously.
Is it any good? Find out next time.