5 online courses to train your brain during self-quarantine

The Great Courses Plus is a subscription service offering streaming video lectures and course literature — essentially, the material of a college course, minus the homework — on a wide variety of topics. Any of these five courses can help turn a dreary day of self-isolation into a day of learning and exploration.

As an aside, The Great Courses Plus offers a free trial for 14 days — the same length of time you’ll be self-isolating if you’ve just arrived from outside Cordova.

Detail from “Pancake Tuesday” by Boris Kustodiev. Image courtesy of Google Cultural Institute

Classics of Russian Literature

Taught by Irwin Weil, professor emeritus in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature, Northwestern University.

Reaching from the dawn of Kievan Russia to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, this 18-hour course adopts a sweeping scope that is only appropriate to its subject. Presented with tweedy earnestness by Prof. Weil, “Classics of Russian Literature” applies the great man theory to literary history, focusing more on individual authors than on movements. Many of the lectures in this course, surveying the lives of authors like Pushkin, Gogol and Tolstoy, could be watched as stand-alone videos.

Take this course if… you’re interested in the Russian literary greats but find them unapproachable.

“Ani’s Judgment” from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Pagan World: Ancient Religions Before Christianity

Taught by Hans-Friedrich Mueller, professor of Ancient and Modern Literature, Union College.


It’s easy to forget that the ancient gods who populate literary epics and Marvel movies were once a palpable presence in day-to-day life — beings who had to be placated with sacrifices, just as surely as we now pay our taxes or our utility bills. The unusually coiffed Prof. Mueller brings a genuine enthusiasm to the study of pre-Christian religions, focusing less on highflown priestly rites than on the ways religious belief tied in to dining, marriage, statecraft and other everyday activities.

Take this course if… you’re curious what the worship of Zeus, Thor or Marduk looked like in daily life.

Detail from “Saint Sebastian Interceding for the Plague-Stricken” by Josse Lieferinxe. Image courtesy of Walters Art Museum/Wikimedia Commons

The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague

Taught by Dorsey Armstrong, associate professor of English and Medieval Literature, Purdue University.

In the 14th century, a mysterious illness entered Europe, killing perhaps more than half of its population. This 12-hour course considers the Black Death from all angles — its epidemiology, its impact on art and politics, and modern speculation about its origins. With a lively speaking style and a penchant for gallows humor that keeps the material from growing unbearably bleak, Assoc. Prof. Armstrong makes accounts of this ancient pandemic seem startlingly immediate.

Take this course if… you’d like a reminder that it really could be worse.

Photo courtesy of Maksym Kaharlytskyi/Unsplash

The Instant Sommelier: Choosing Your Best Wine

Taught by Paul Wagner, instructor of Viticulture and Winery Technology, Napa Valley College.

What does it mean if a wine is “tannic” or “full-bodied”? What’s the difference between Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio? What wines go with what foods? This brief three-hour course eschews scholarly discourses on the history of wine for practical advice on how to avoid making a fool of yourself. Even for non-drinkers, “The Instant Sommelier” offers a cornucopia of surprising trivia — for instance, that some high-quality Sauvignon Blancs are described by experts as having a “cat pee” aroma.

Take this course if… you like some wines more than others, but couldn’t say why.

George Orwell. Photo courtesy of BBC/Wikimedia Commons

George Orwell: A Sage for All Seasons

Taught by Michael Shelden, professor of English, Indiana State University.

Was there ever an author as universally praised as George Orwell? A socialist beloved by conservatives and a patriot cheered by the anti-patriotic, Orwell has become one of the most widely appropriated figures in all of literature. It’s surprising, then, that so few people really know him outside of his touchstone works, “Animal Farm” and “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” This 10-hour course, delivered with the straightforwardness of a news broadcast, sheds light on Orwell’s experiences fighting in a Marxist militia during the Spanish Civil War, his brushes with Stalin’s secret police and his time living semi-homeless in England and France.

Take this course if… you’ve read “Animal Farm” or “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” but none of Orwell’s other books.