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Crazy College Courses and Why You Should Take One!

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

In the June 2012 issue of Reader’s Digest (RD), there was an entire section called "That’s Outrageous" devoted to things that should make your blood pressure rise just by thinking about them. It was a mostly humorous piece which included such tidbits as "The Poor Rich," which quoted financial planner Alan Dlugash as saying "People who don’t have money don’t understand the stress [on the wealthy]. Could you imagine what it’s like to say, I got three kids in private school – I have to think about pulling them out? How do you do that?" I have to admit that this piece and a few more made my blood boil by revealing the conservative bent of the magazine (Shea, 2011) and made me angry for an entirely different reason than RD intended.

The one that got me the most was "Tuition Dollar Dump," which listed eight "courses that colleges are asking parents to break the piggy bank for." As a sometimes college professor who has taught such outlandish courses as "Toxic Literacies," and "The Future of Education," and who certainly enjoyed and benefited from my fair share of off-the-wall classes as an undergraduate including some on detective fiction, J.R.R. Tolkien, Chinese myth and fantasy, and sociology of the Other, I feel obliged to address the RD article and explain why some of the most outlandishly titled college courses are not only worth the tuition dollars, but are positive signs that there is hope for the future of humanity.

The Reader’s Digest Entries
A few of the courses mentioned in the RD piece are worthy of mention before moving on to an exploration of other college courses that might seem whacky, but that are really worthwhile. One notable thing about the RD selections is that they provide absolutely no description of the courses they list. This is akin to dismissing a book strictly based on the cover art. Here are a few examples of what you might be missing if you dismiss these courses out of hand.

  • Alien Sex (University of Rochester) – This course is part of the Gender and Women’s Studies department at the University of Rochester and examines different portrayals of gender in fantasy literature. While some may not believe that gender is an issue worthy of study, it certainly is, as gender inequality still permeates our society. As any literature major would tell you, fantasy literature is a perfectly acceptable way in which to examine the underlying tensions and issues in society.
  • Finding Your Patronus (Oregon State University) – This introductory college course uses a familiar work of literature to introduce new college students to the college environment and to examine issues such as leadership and interpersonal relationships (Keathley, July 18, 2011).
  • Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse (Michigan State University) – The textbooks from this class would fit in well on my bookshelf right between When Werewolves Attack and How to Survive a Vampire Attack, as examples of the growing societal disquiet and fear over the loss of humanity and the potential for impending disaster in a post 9/11 world. This course explores human behavior in the face of catastrophic events. In the wake of recent tragedies such as Katrina, and Japan’s recent tsunami disaster and ensuing nuclear meltdown, this class is probably something everyone could benefit from – hopefully not, but certainly worth considering.


(Image from FreakingNews.com)

Other Outrageous Courses You Should Know About

  • Philosophy and Star Trek: (Georgetown University) – Having read both The Physics of Star Trek and The Metaphysics of Star Trek, as well as The Science of the X-Files, I say with great confidence that using popular fiction, film, and TV as a way of framing and understanding complex issues in a variety of disciplines is an extremely effective method of instruction. This course deals with the philosophical issues of time travel and personhood, among others (Wetzel, Course Description).
     

  • Whiteness, The Other Side of Racism (Mount Holyoke College) – Any exploration of white privilege is informative for college students, particularly those most likely to attend a prestigious institution such as Mount Holyoke. Every college student needs to understand the forces that have shaped their own identity as they struggle to find their place in a complex world. This course examines the hidden benefits of whiteness and allows students to see their own privileged position in the world (Lawrence, 2007).
  • The Horror Film in Context: (Bowdoin College) – As a horror aficionado, I can attest to the value of examining the genre as a way of providing insight into the hidden anxieties of our society (Stephen King, Dance Macabre, 1982).  For any who don’t believe that horror provides understanding of the human condition and societal fears, I strongly recommend horror master Stephen King’s treatise on the subject, Dance Macabre. This book is witty, insightful, scary and should be required reading for anyone who is interested in the genre and what its prevalence reveals about us.
  • Underwater Basket Weaving (University of California San Diego) – Everyone’s favorite class to pick on is actually offered at two American universities (Reed College in Portland Oregon is the other). This art course about the practice of the traditional art of basket weaving (Gordon, 2009) explores the art form from historical as well as practical perspectives. The "underwater" part refers to the need to soak the reeds used in the process to make them flexible enough to weave. While you certainly could learn this craft outside of the university, there is little doubt that a well-rounded education must include knowledge beyond the basic three R’s. A course such as "Underwater Basket Weaving" provides students with a chance to use all of their brain, explore other cultures, and work on physical abilities that can become economic opportunities as well as provide a fun outlet in a world that is too often a rat race.

What the RD article fails to take into account is that those creating college courses are well-educated, trained scholars and teachers who have very serious research agendas, but who also understand the audience they are trying to attract. How much more appealing to your average 18 or 19 year old is "Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse" than "Human Behavior and Catastrophic Natural Events"? Which would you rather take? Not only are these courses legitimate intellectual pursuits, they are fun and engaging for the primary audience that they are meant to appeal to. The RD article is an example of sensational journalism meant to prey on people’s ignorance and the anti-intellectual prejudice that those of us in academia must battle on a daily basis.

If you are interested in taking one of these or another "Crazy College Course," check out the lists below to see if there is one offered in your neighborhood and have fun learning something valuable.

Share your craziest college courses or propose a new one on Google+ or Twitter @drjwmarquis.