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He’s Ready for His Historical Close-up

USC College history professor brings lessons of the American Revolution and the origins of U.S. democracy to a larger audience

He’s Ready for His Historical Close-up

When The Teaching Company pounded the campus pavement, searching for just the right scholar, they handpicked Peter Mancall, professor of history and anthropology at USC College.

Mancall had it all, recruiters determined. He’s a gifted professor. He’s enthusiastic, a great communicator and to top if off, captivating. They eventually asked Mancall — an expert on early American and Native American history — to teach a course on a subject about which he is passionate, the American Revolution.

Called “Origins and Ideologies of the American Revolution,” Mancall’s 48-lecture series details the political movement that ended British control and created a new nation — the United States of America.

For Mancall, the company’s choice could be considered, well, revolutionary.

“I could be, I may be, I probably am, fairly obscure to most people,” said Mancall, director of the USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute, who has written four books and edited eight others. “I know that. But The Teaching Company said they didn’t care about that.”

In fact, the company doesn’t consider a professor’s publications or status as a media darling. Instead, they are looking for old-fashioned, off-the-charts-excellent teaching skills.

To find Mancall, recruiters traveled from Chantilly, Va., where the company is headquartered, and surveyed professors and students about exceptional lecturers at USC.

“We’re looking for the very best lecturers in the entire country, not just in one school,” said Lucinda Robb, a vice president at the company, which offers lectures for general audiences in various formats, from DVDs and CDs to audio downloads available on the company’s Web site. “We travel the country from Harvard to Stanford.”

Of the nation’s nearly 500,000 college professors, the company identifies what they believe to be the top 1 percent, based on teaching awards, published evaluations and just word-of-mouth.

“Students are brutally honest,” Robb said, “but they are very often spot-on.”

Mancall is the first USC faculty member recruited by the company, which has offered lectures from “the best university professors in the country” for nearly two decades.

The selection process sounded as brutal as casting the starring role in a major motion picture.

“I got a call from this company in Chantilly, Virginia asking if one of their scouts could sit in on my class,” Mancall recalled. “I said, ‘Sure.’ ”

Then company officials and longtime customers scrutinized a recording of Mancall’s lecture. Based on tapes, one in 20 professors are invited to the studio for an audition. Mancall made the cut.

“I did a 30-minute lecture at their studio near [Washington,] D.C. and went home again,” Mancall said. The company then sent the audition recording to hundreds of longtime customers, who rated the quality. In the end, one in 5,000 professors are chosen, company officials said.

“A few months later, they contacted me again,” Mancall recalled. “This time they asked, ‘Would you like to do a course with us?’ ”

The lectures were taped in 30-minute sessions to make it easy for commuters. No credit or degrees are offered with the course. The lectures appeal to the intellectually curious.

Mancall's course is particularly appealing these days because Americans are thirsty to learn more about the country’s roots. The course on the American Revolution this year coincides with the 230th birthday of the Declaration of Independence and in 2007, the 220th birthday of the U.S. Constitution.

“In post-9/11, Americans are very interested in getting back to fundamentals,” said Jay Tate, who produced Mancall's course. “For all of us, as Americans, considering the American Revolution anew addresses that need and desire in a direct way.”

Tate said Mancall's course has exceptional range.

“It takes us from the first stirrings of the discontent, way back in 1760, through to the build up to war,” Tate said. “Then, it takes us through the war itself, the creation of lasting institutions during and after the war, and the more than a decade of difficulties through which the revolutionary generation struggled before it was clear that those institutions would indeed work.”

In order to understand American government today, one must understand what shaped it.

“Most people haven’t read the Declaration of Independence since high school,” Mancall said. “And they remember the beginning of it, but they don’t really think about what it means. So in the course I talk about what does it mean that all men are created equal? What does it mean that they have a right to abolish government and create a new one?”

The course opens a debate about what kind of world Americans want to inhabit.

“Do we want a world with a small government or a world with a big government?” Mancall asked. “What would the advantages of one be as opposed to the other? These are debates you can pick up in the L.A. Times every day. They’re debates that play themselves out every day. Not just because it’s an election season. They’re just basic to how we live.”

It took three weeks to videotape the lectures in front of cameras inside the company’s studio. Although Mancall enjoyed the experience, he missed his students.

“We’re drawn to USC, in part, because the students are so smart and they challenge what we think,” Mancall said. “Teaching is really back and forth. When I did these lectures I missed that. It’s not like teaching in the way that I do it.”

But there was one aspect he could get used to.

“I’ll be honest,” he said. “I didn’t mind not having to grade mid-term exams.”