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Being Human: Life Lessons from the Frontiers of Science

Being Human: Life Lessons from the Frontiers of Science

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Being Human: Life Lessons from the Frontiers of Science

Course No. 1686
Professor Robert Sapolsky, Ph.D.
Stanford University
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4.5 out of 5
52 Reviews
88% of reviewers would recommend this series
Course No. 1686
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Course Overview

Understanding our humanity—the very essence of who we are and how we live our lives—is one of the deepest mysteries and biggest challenges in modern science.

Why do we have bad moods? Why are we capable of having such strange and vivid dreams? How can metaphors and symbols in our language hold such a powerful sway on our thoughts and actions?

As we learn more about the mechanisms of human behavior through evolutionary biology, neuroscience, anthropology, psychology, sociology, and other related fields, we're discovering just how intriguing the human species is. And while scientists are continually uncovering deep similarities between our behavior and that of other animals, they're also finding a wealth of insights into everything that makes us unique from any other species on Earth.

Join acclaimed neurobiologist and award-winning Professor Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University for a surprising, amusing, and undeniably fascinating study of what makes you you. Being Human: Life Lessons from the Frontiers of Science is a 12-lecture course that takes you to the front lines of scientific research and offers you a new perspective on the supposedly quirky nature of being ourselves. Thought-provoking, witty, and sometimes myth-shattering, this course is sure to have you thinking about, observing, and even appreciating your own life in novel ways.

Explore Mysterious, Everyday Human Behaviors

"The more science learns about the mechanisms of human behavior, the more intriguing our species becomes," notes Dr. Sapolsky, a renowned neuroscientist and primatologist. Whether we're falling in love, performing a spiritual ritual, or enjoying poetry and fashion, our brains have a unique aptitude for handling complex patterns of experience and conduct. And when it comes to our behavior, it is the nature of humans to be remarkably unconstrained by our nature.

Being Human explores this intrigue by investigating a series of topics that concern both mysterious and sometimes even mundane aspects of human behavior.

  • Bad moods: We've all gotten into an argument with another person at some point in our lives, one that can completely ruin our outlook on the day. But when you pause and consider the anatomy of a bad mood from a scientific perspective, you find that different parts of the brain actually recover from conflict at different speeds—and as a result, just when you thought it was over with, the argument starts all over again.
  • Nostalgia: Why do we sometimes long for the fashions, foods, and music of our youths? Why are we sometimes resistant to change after we reach a certain point in our lives? The answers lie in research findings in psychology and neurobiology, which have revealed new information about our desire for stability and habitual behaviors.
  • Dreams: Scientists are now closer than ever before to understanding just why our dreams can sometimes be extremely bizarre. The key lies in the frontal cortex of the brain that, during dreaming, decreases its activity and opens the gates for dreamlike imagery that seems so unconnected to our everyday experiences.

Bold Experiments, Fascinating Case Studies

Central to our increased understanding of human behavior is the intriguing research behind it. Being Human is filled with stories of bold experiments and case studies—some of them conducted in the field by Professor Sapolsky himself—that illuminate the intricacies of our behavior.

  • Junk-food monkeys: Professor Sapolsky recounts his study of East African baboons that turned from their natural diet in favor of trash from a nearby tourist lodge. Their experience with a Western diet highlights how its negative effects (such as soaring levels of insulin) and positive effects (such as decreased infant mortality) can cross species.
  • Mind-controlling parasites: Central to our understanding of how parasites can change human behavior is the study of similar parasites in other parts of the natural world. You'll encounter one extraordinary parasite that makes rats become attracted to the smell of cats. What does this say about our own brain's susceptibility to foreign influences?
  • Replacing love with technology: Is new technology necessarily better for healthy development? To answer this question, you'll investigate one historical case in which the health of premature children, born into wealthy families, suffered because they were raised using a state-of-the-art machine instead of with the love and care of a mother.

Rethink What It Means to Be Human

In addition to these and other experiments and studies, every lecture of Being Human showcases the brilliant mind and celebrated teaching style that have made Professor Sapolsky one of the most acclaimed members of The Great Courses faculty. He has also been the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including a MacArthur "genius" fellowship, Stanford University's Bing Award for Teaching Excellence, and an award for outstanding teaching from the Associated Students of Stanford University.

As we learn more about the evolutionary and physiological roots of humans, we eventually have to ask ourselves: Am I just another primate? Is "me" just a bunch of brain cells?

"Much of what you'll learn in Being Human will be surprising," says Professor Sapolsky. "Some of it will be amusing. But I'm sure every lecture will have you rethinking what it means to be human."

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12 lectures
 |  29 minutes each
  • 1
    What's So Special about Being Human?
    Humans are, from an evolutionary perspective, certainly the most unique species on Earth. Start the course by learning how to approach the subject of human behavior. You may be surprised to discover that there are plenty of ways in which we have the same behavioral aspects as other animals—and also behaviors for which there is no precedent in the animal kingdom. x
  • 2
    Junk-Food Monkeys
    What happens when nonhuman primates get to eat like Westernized humans? And what does it say about the costs—and surprising benefits—of our diets? Find out the answers in this lecture, which focuses on a fascinating study of East African baboons who abandoned their natural diet to gorge on garbage from a local tourist lodge. x
  • 3
    The Burden of Being Burden-Free
    Investigate the latest anthropological and scientific understanding behind a pervasive part of our everyday lives: stress. You'll discover what makes psychological stress so damaging to health, where individual differences in stress come from, the nature of disorders including toxic hostility and clinical depression, and why it's impossible to be completely free of stress. x
  • 4
    Bugs in the Brain
    Professor Sapolsky introduces you to parasites that exploit their hosts by altering their behavior. After looking at studies, including mites that make ants find food for them and worms that drive crickets to suicide, focus on how rabies and toxoplasmosis can literally change the wiring of the brain in mammals—including humans. x
  • 5
    Poverty's Remains
    Turn to an intriguing historical case of doctors who, failing to appreciate the impact of poverty on our bodies, invented an imaginary disease whose preventive methods killed thousands of people. It's a peek into an odd corner of medical history that reveals startling lessons about the socioeconomics of medicine. x
  • 6
    Why Are Dreams Dreamlike?
    Why does your brain generate sensory imagery while you sleep? Here, examine the neurology of sleeping and dreaming. Also, discover how the key to strange dreams lies in your frontal cortex, which, when it goes completely offline, allows the rest of your brain to run wild. x
  • 7
    The Pleasures and Pains of "Maybe"
    For a long time, scientists thought that the neurotransmitter dopamine was directly related to pleasure. But it turns out that dopamine is more about the anticipation of reward than the reward itself. Here, plunge into the neuroscience behind why we're willing to deal with such long delays in gratification, and what it says about the potential of humans to experience both magnificent levels of motivation—and crippling levels of addiction. x
  • 8
    How the Other Half Heals
    Learn about the intricate relationship between personal health and socioeconomic status. You'll learn how poverty is terrible for your health in unexpected ways, why some diseases (including polio) were more prevalent among the wealthy, and how shifting views of childcare in the 20th century showed that successful infant development relies not just on food, warmth, and the latest technology—but on social contact and love. x
  • 9
    Why We Want the Bodies Back
    Why do human bodies remain important after the life within them has gone? Is it a sign of affirmation, mourning, reverence? Or something else? Explore some of the world's diverse rituals and beliefs about the treatment of dead bodies, from Alaska to Israel to Sudan and beyond. x
  • 10
    Anatomy of a Bad Mood
    Learn what happens when you or others are in a bad mood by exploring some theories about emotion; explore the role of facial expressions in emotional feedback; and change the way you think about tense arguments. x
  • 11
    This Is Your Brain on Metaphors
    Dr. Sapolsky explains how metaphors work on the brain to actually change your opinions, assessments, and even action; investigates how we register disgust and pain in key regions of the brain; and shows metaphors' intriguing hold on our hearts and minds at work in politics and international events. x
  • 12
    Sushi and Middle Age
    Consider the brain science behind nostalgia. Why do we, as well as members of other species, tend to avoid novelty over time in favor of the familiar? Taking you through some rather eccentric research of his own, Professor Sapolsky uncovers some startling facts about the psychology, neurobiology, and evolution of this phenomenon. x

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Your professor

Robert Sapolsky

About Your Professor

Robert Sapolsky, Ph.D.
Stanford University
Dr. Robert Sapolsky is John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn Professor of Biological Sciences at Stanford University and Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery in Stanford's School of Medicine. Professor Sapolsky earned his A.B. summa cum laude in Biological Anthropology from Harvard University and his Ph.D. in Neuroendocrinology from The Rockefeller University in New York. He is also a research associate at the Institute of...
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Also By This Professor


Being Human: Life Lessons from the Frontiers of Science is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 52.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Collection of Oddities that Is Not for Everyone This is a hard review to write because I completely recognize the quality of the production, the enthusiasm of the presenter and the interesting nature of the material. I do not want to downgrade the course just because it was not entirely to my personal tastes—I see where the right listener might find this course wonderful. Essentially, this is a collection of unusual, sometimes macabre and sometimes frightening, stories with a biological or psychological twist. Topics range from stories about body snatching to burial rituals to parasites to humanity's use of metaphors. There is little, if any, theme, but the professor admitted that this was intended to be a sample pack of topics so the lack of theme cannot be held against him. I found many of the topics at least mildly disturbing and was reminded somewhat of a collection of oddities from a circus sideshow. Again, this is likely more a reflection of my personal tastes than any fault of the professor. I decided to try this course even though it is outside of my usual areas of interest just to try something different. I cannot say that I disliked the course, but I can say that there are other courses much more to my liking such as history and business courses. If you are interested in scientific and medical oddities, then you may really enjoy this course.
Date published: 2015-08-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from
Date published: 2015-05-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Entertaining and informative I purchased the audio download version and listened to it while gardening three years ago. It was so interesting and entertaining, that ever since that time, Sapolsky and planting corn are connected for me! I could weed all day with lectures like his to listen to. Highly recommend.
Date published: 2015-04-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Really Interesting I remember buying one of Professor Sapolsky's first presentations many years ago! (Topic: Behavior) This is a really enlightening presentation and I have learned so much again from him. People of all ages and professions will find this course enlightening.
Date published: 2015-03-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Highly recommended Prof Sapolsky is an inspiring teacher. Highly recommended.
Date published: 2015-03-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Please Sir, May I Have Some More? This course consists of 12 unrelated lectures on topics that interest Sapolsky. I doubt that any of these topics could even fill out a 6-lecture course by themselves and, therefore, we never would have gotten them if they weren't packaged together. I found each lecture a delightful introduction to a very interesting topic. While sometimes the science was a little thin, each lecture makes you think and challenges any preconceptions you may have had. My only disappointment was that there were only 12 lectures. Surely Sapolsky has thoughts on other topics and I, for one, would love to hear them.
Date published: 2015-01-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from
Date published: 2014-11-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from
Date published: 2014-10-10
Rated 3 out of 5 by from
Date published: 2014-06-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Being Human: Life Lessons for the Frontiers of Sci I'm a long time purchaser of Great Courses. This is the 1st review I've done. I enjoyed this class so much, I just felt I needed to make a comment. Professor Sapolsky is very knowledgeable and presented this in a humorous, enjoyable manner. I enjoyed this course tremendously -
Date published: 2014-06-11
Rated 4 out of 5 by from
Date published: 2014-05-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Live in an enriched environment I own a lot of Great Courses and have enjoyed them all. I hesitatingly rate things the best as is covered in this course (listen to the end) tastes can and do and don't change. At this moment, this is one of the best. I own other courses from Professor Sapolsky and found this a worthy overview of some of his deeper explorations, but also a wonderful call to continue to explore all that is going on. Listen to it for the content, listen to it for the motivation. Whether teasing gravity in a hang glider or titrating to tickle some other passion, you will enjoy this course.
Date published: 2014-01-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating Professor Sapolsky is a knowledgeable and engaging lecturer. He is able to integrate information across different disciplines, and provide examples that tie the science he speaks about to everyday life. I liked this so much I bought a copy for a friend.
Date published: 2013-11-20
Rated 4 out of 5 by from How unique are we humans? Professor Sapolsky starts a lecture with a story. The story sounds familiar. Is he talking about us, or a member of our family, or a neighbor? No. He's talking about primates. Do baboons have the same metabolic reaction to junk food as we do? Are parasites smarter that we are? What is the value of "maybe?" These are just a couple of the questions Professor Sapolsky answers. For interesting insights into human behavior, this is a fun course. We learn so much about ourselves and enjoy the journey.
Date published: 2013-09-21
Rated 4 out of 5 by from being human The content of these courses is very interesting if somewhat anecdotal. It only whetted my appetite for more. However I was disappointed in the delivery of some of the lectures. It seemed like the prof was addressing 7th grade instead of college-level. He even used the "word" "bestest"!
Date published: 2013-09-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Exceeded my expectations I have already enjoyed some of Prof. Sapolsky's Great Courses so for this one to be better than expected is very high praise. He makes neuroscience, biology and human behavior understandable and enjoyable--possibly the best lecturer I've ever listened to. I never would've been admitted to Stanford, but The Great Courses makes it possible for me to be his student and benefit from his genius and teaching abilities.
Date published: 2013-07-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Immensely Enjoyable What a fascinating sampler of Neurology! Professor Sapolsky's presentation style had me on the edge of my seat in anticipation for that next nugget of fact that feeds my curiosity. I can't help but tell everyone what I learned from his course. I look forward to his other material.
Date published: 2013-04-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thoroughly enjoyable and informative! This course is fascinating. I listen to it over and over, as it is packed with so much information. I really enjoy Sapolsky's style and find him easy to follow and listen to. I will definitely be listening to more of his courses.
Date published: 2013-02-25
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Entertaining This course was not what I expected when I purchased it. Dr. Sapolsky is a fascinating lecturer and I look forward to hearing more of his courses. I don't think he takes a breath when he speaks as I found it very difficult to find a place to pause the lectures. I could not find a coherent theme to the lectures in the course but found most of the material fresh and interesting.
Date published: 2013-02-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Enjoyable Course I actually came back on the site to see what other courses this professor has since I enjoyed this one so much. Then I decided to write my first review. The course was enjoyable but what made it different for me was I found myself discussing some of the points later with friends. The professor starts each lecture with a story or question and finishes with the same point, but you now have a better understanding of the initial question. This method works well for understanding what the purpose and points are for each lecture. I had the audio version and listened in my car and never felt I was missing anything by not having a video version. The lectures are entertaining, funny at times, and for the most part very relevant in day to day living. I’ll have to admit, if I were to review all the other courses I have listened to, I would give most of them 5 stars like I did this one, but this one was good enough for me to actually write a review about it.
Date published: 2013-01-09
Rated 1 out of 5 by from A Disappointment Professor Sapolsky discussed various topics in his lecture series, but was overly repetitive, and slow to reach the point. He admittedly entertained by giving examples that draw attention for their shocking and sometimes disgusting nature. It is the sort of drama that draws individuals to yellow press and grade B movies. Much of the content appears in various BBC and PBS documentaries - though there with with less drama and more enlightenment.
Date published: 2012-12-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This is a course not to be missed. Definitely the best purchase to date. This course is an unusual kind of overview of our humanity from the perspective of a neuroscientist. Prof. Sapolsky is humane and human and the best presenter around. Don’t miss it.
Date published: 2012-12-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Lots of Fun This is the most entertaining course I have ever bought from Teaching Company. As I knew from other courses, Sapolsky is a fantastic lecturer. There were times I had to stop the recording because I couldn't stop laughing. I suppose I should give this course only 4 stars, because it doesn't have the structure that you get from most of Sapolsky's other courses (or any other TeachCo course.) Ordinarily a TeachCo course gives you a sense that you have to some degree thoroughly covered a particular topic. This is just a random collection of fun facts to know and tell. The facts are however, extremely fun, and there is no point in criticizing a course that clearly accomplishes what it sets out to do. Listen and enjoy the nearest thing to a guilty pleasure you will get from TeachCo.
Date published: 2012-11-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from 12 Entertaining Sessions with a Gifted Professor Some have been confused because this course doesn't follow a traditional college-style curriculum. Fair enough. Perhaps this should be clearer in the course description. That being said, this course was fascinating, entertaining, and a great value. Professor Sapolsky is the rare genius who is both a leader in his field and an endlessly captivating storyteller. The course's subtitle, "Life Lessons from the Frontiers of Science," is an excellent description of these twelve loosely associated discussions of some of the most recent areas of exploration in experimental psychology and neurobiology. In each lesson, professor Sapolsky explains recent thinking about topics such as reward behavior, bad moods, cravings, dreams, etc., then highlights recent research that in many cases debunks those theories. Sapolsky's style is to tell stories that in some cases start to lead you in the wrong direction, then present recent findings that throw you for a loop and show that current thinking leads in a different direction. One reviewer described this course as more like an office-hours bull session with a great professor. I would concur with that, but that's not a criticism. It is in fact the most endearing thing about this course. I literally laughed out loud many times while listening. I suspect most people buy The Great Courses not because they are looking for a traditional degree, but because they choose to spend their free time enriching their minds. Being Human delivers on that promise in spades. I raced through these lectures and can't wait for the next course from this great professor.
Date published: 2012-11-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from AMUSING, INFORMATIVE This review refers to the DVDs. I acquired this set of twelve lectures simply on basis of my opinion that Dr Sapolsky is among the stars in TGC stable. Little did I realize this set appears to be a departure from a formal presentation of hard science clothed in entertaining humor. I think it may be best described as something more akin to a dormitory bull session from our undergraduate days led by a gifted intellect. The good doctor has selected twelve largely random subjects to discuss and offer judgements on while bringing us up to date on what he believes is the current state of scientific knowledge or opinion about them. There is no particular order here to the material handled. It's more like what was on his mind when his presentations were made at TGC studio. As you might expect, his coverage is entertaining while he imparts some useful information on a diverse group of subjects. Some of the material, however, is quite serious and his comments are thoughtful. In that respect, this set is a worthwhile investment with the humor thrown in as an added value. Life and academia don't have to be deadly serious all the time. If one wishes a series of brief journeys in the sunshine of a brilliant mind, these trips are well worth considering which is why I gave them five stars and heartily recommend them.
Date published: 2012-10-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from wonderful professor i viewed this course more as entertainment, perfect between watching other, more intellectuallly challenging topics, and in this regard it was perfect. also i do think i gained some new insight into "being human". but then professor sapolsky could probably read you a dictionary and it would still be fun ...a true gem of a professor :).
Date published: 2012-09-10
Rated 3 out of 5 by from I Never Would Have Predicted Stress and Your Body is one of the very best courses among TGC. Sapolsky shows in that course teaching at its finest. He is at the top of the field, bringing his science to bear in clear, relevant, and well structured ways. Along with virtually all other reviewers, I gave that course five stars. I believed, as obviously did others, that any other offering of Sapolsky's was worth studying, too. Just learning his observations on important topics would be valuable. So, I, with great anticipation, purchased Being Human. I never would have predicted that it would fall so short. If it weren't Sapolsky, with the smattering of smart and worthwhile thinking he brings to all his work, I'd give this course an even lower grade. Here are the problems. First, it isn't a coherent course. It's just a group of odds and ends, in which the professor very lightly touches on a variety of topics. Second, the topics really aren't on the frontier of science, as the marketing suggests. These are matters that interest Sapolsky and perhaps many of us, but the science he ultimately resorts to in the lectures is typically thin, hardly groundbreaking, and frequently not particularly new. What surprises and bothers me most perhaps is how casual and average the professor's work is in these lectures. I buy that Sapolsky is a genius, but it doesn't show here. In one lecture, we hear that the hunter gatherer had a greater life expectancy than the subsequent farmer, and then we get a full dose on the perils of the Westernized diet. I fully agree, but the good professor fails to mention the other side of Western life and culture, especially advances in medicine and diet, that have created the greatest leap in longevity in the history of humankind. Sapolsky gives an amazing lecture on all kinds of scary parasites with the intention of getting to the point that perhaps parasites will be able one day to invade and guide the human brain and, thus, human behavior. He raises one possible example, and the lecture ends with little more than speculation behind his hypothesis. He teaches a lecture on why human beings are so committed to getting back the dead bodies of those who were close or of their group. This is an interesting topic, and Sapolsky raises several reasonable explanations. But he offers little or no science, and he is not much better positioned to evaluate the theories than you or I. This same problem plagues the lectures on mood and metaphors. I like the subject of aging, which is the focus of the last lecture. But TTC has far more expert teachers on the topic. It was cute to pose the question about why people as they age are less interested in the newer fads of the day. This was not a very satisfactory way of getting to the issues of the aging process. Is it aging that keeps a 50 year old person from getting a tongue stud, for example, or is it some other factor? Sapolsky gets lost between his curiosity and his science. Don't get me wrong. I still admire this professor and will look for more of his courses. But I will be much more careful about assuming that his having gotten the MacArthur grant means that I'll find his general musings to be worth buying as a course.
Date published: 2012-09-03
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Jumbled topics in search of coherence [Audio Version] I enjoyed Dr. Sapolsky's ‘Stress and Your Body’ course, but found ‘Being Human’ overly diffuse to the point of distraction. The professor’s speaking style often interfered with my paying attention to important content. His breathless, hit-the-ground-running way of talking descended at times to what sounded to me like breathless, hyperactive chatter. But Dr. Sapolsky makes some excellent points. We humans are hard-wired for ‘agenticity’ -- we always look for causes when we have good luck. (I could not find ‘agenticity’ in the dictionary.) We learn (again) that anticipation can often be more satisfying than the goal or reward we are seeking (it’s the journey that is pleasing, not so much the destination). If there is an arc or meme to this course, it may be from his Nelson Mandela quote: ‘Change their hearts, not their minds.’ Is Sapolsky saying we should follow our hearts? What does that really mean? Lecture 11, on metaphors, could have been much better. Perhaps I expected too much. It just didn’t come across to me how truly all-powerful metaphors actually are. This lecture seemed like a colossal, squandered opportunity. In sum, I can barely recommend the course. Sapolsky’s wit is still intact, and I certainly had a few good laughs. He’s presented several interesting notions (I’m not sure they are ‘ideas’). The course simply does not meet TTC’s usual high standards for organization and completeness. In a word, the course is far too ‘informal.’ Don’t expect much more from ‘Being Human’ than what you might hear on a good, intelligent interview on NPR.
Date published: 2012-07-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Phenomenal Like several of the newer courses on this site, this is not really a course in the traditional sense. Instead, Professor Sapolsky speaks about recent studies with striking and very counter-intuitive findings. Professor Sapolsky and the course content is easy to digest and highly entertaining. At 6 hours this course is very short and you're not going to learn much of what is in college textbooks, but nonetheless this has been the most rewarding and enriching of all the courses I've done.
Date published: 2012-06-18
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Just not as good as his Stress course This course is basically a series of disconnected essays, much like a magazine column. OK, but rather short (a problem if, like me, you're looking for audio wallpaper) and lacking any feeling of theme or progression. Professor Sapolsky is great, of course, but this course just isn't up to the standard he set with his Stress course.
Date published: 2012-06-10
  • y_2017, m_5, d_25, h_4
  • bvseo_bulk, prod_bvrr, vn_bulk_1.0.0-hotfix-1
  • cp_2, bvpage2n
  • co_hasreviews, tv_5, tr_47
  • loc_en_US, sid_1686, prod, sort_[SortEntry(order=SUBMISSION_TIME, direction=DESCENDING)]
  • clientName_teachco
  • bvseo_sdk, p_sdk, 3.2.0
  • CLOUD, getContent, 19.05ms

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