The Cornell course: unleashing the inner nerd

January 31, 2010

After three years of hemming and hawing over whether I would get something out of it, I finally caved and decided to enroll in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s home study course. This is the course where you basically read the entire Handbook of Bird Biology, cover to cover, and take open-book written exams on it after each chapter and send them in to be graded and discussed by the course staff. You can take the course as fast or as slowly as you like, and when you’re finished they’ll send you a certificate of completion. There’s no automatic college credit given for completion, although with some finagling and persuasive argument you may be able to bargain some credit from an institution.

The Handbook of Bird Biology is big textbook. The creators seemed to know that, and to make the book slightly less intimidating they don’t even number the pages in typical fashion. The pages are numbered separately in each chapter, so the reader can’t just thumb to the back and say “Good grief, this book is a thousand pages!” or whatever it is. Subtle, but oddly effective.

The book is also quite expensive. To enroll in the course with the book is about $300, but if you already have your own copy it’s only $200. The book retails for a little over a $100, but I’ve borrowed mine from the CSU library for 3 years now, and I just renew it electronically every month. No one else at CSU seems to want to check it out, so this system works for me.

Bridled Titmouse (Baeolophus wollweberi)

Bridled Titmouse (Baeolophus wollweberi), Madera Canyon, Arizona © 2008 Eric DeFonso

I’m also “augmenting” my taking of the course by creating my own syllabus where I do supplementary reads to the chapters in the Handbook, in other ornithology text books or on web sites. I’m an information packrat, and I have the Gill as well as the Proctor & Lynch textbooks on ornithology, and I’ve planned out which chapters to read in those books along with the chapters in the Handbook to improve my contextual understanding of the topics covered. Another highly detailed resource I’ll be using is the Ritchisong ornithology syllabus from Eastern Kentucky University. I’ve found that I learn things really well this way, when I can see the same information but presented in different ways or formats. I think it’s called synthesis. It makes for more work for me I suppose, but my goal is to learn the stuff in and out, and well, if this is what it takes for me to get the most out of it, that’s what I’ll do. It’s fun for me anyway, so I don’t really mind.

So what changed my mind to make me want to take this course in the first place? Well, you may have read about my recent decision to take the Macaulay Library Workshop on Recording this June, from an earlier post. This decision is obviously related to that. I’m really going to take the plunge, and I mean plunge headlong into ornithology. I have another announcement in the coming weeks about things I’m going to do soon that will really put all this into perspective.


One comment

  1. I’m on lesson 8 in this course and loving it. Tougher than I expected!

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