Off Courses

College professors are trying to lure students with elective classes filled with all manner of pop culture references and unconventional materials

January 27, 2008|By Abigail Tucker | Abigail Tucker,Sun Reporter

With the spring term just around the corner, Professor George Plitnik is looking forward to donning his wizard outfit again.

"I wear it to pass out the syllabus - that really makes an impression," said the Frostburg State University physics instructor, who teaches a class on the science of Harry Potter. Later on in the semester he may masquerade as Severus Snape, using dry ice to create classroom smoke.

In between costume changes, though, Plitnik will also reference intimidating general science topics - magnetic fields, fiber optics, quantum entanglement - as a means of explaining various Potter phenomena. Past classes have explored, for instance, whether modern geneticists could engineer a creature like Fluffy, the three-headed dog.

Such questions are not always easily answered.

"There's always a rush to get into the class, but some drop because they see how much work is involved," Plitnik said.

At colleges across Maryland, the start of the new semester means plunging into a smorgasbord of peculiar academic offerings - classes that are hyper-specific, steeped in popular culture or focused on unconventional materials, like Tarot cards or comic strips.

Towson University, for instance, periodically offers both "Chemistry of Dangerous Drugs" and "Drugs in the Americas." The College of Notre Dame of Maryland brings students "From Homer to Star Wars: The Epic Tradition in Western Literature," and this semester the Johns Hopkins University presents "Drinking Parties, Homoeroticism and Gender Politics."

"Related films will be incorporated," a description of this last course promises.

Professors claim that the oddball classes pique students' interest and prime them for academic inquiry, and that vital intellectual themes and analytical methods underlie the eccentric subject matter.

"I think that many of the students find the novelty of these courses innately attractive, when compared to other more traditional offerings, like `British Literature to 1800' or `American Realism'," said T. Ross Leasure, who teaches "Literature of the Queer" and "Science Fiction: The Human [in the] Machine" at Salisbury University.

"These courses sort of shine most brightly in the curriculum," he said. "I often get students who are there because they want to be there as much as they have to be there."

Critics, however, say that niche classes may steal valuable hours from students who should be developing the broader topical knowledge and skills that employers value. Studying topics like the physics of flying broomsticks, for instance, may not promote a familiarity with global culture, quantitative literacy and oral and written communication skills, according to Debra Humphreys, a spokesperson for the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

"For a long time there was a trend in general education, an `anything goes' approach, and I think the pendulum has swung back a bit," Humphreys said. "Not that institutions are returning to the traditional canon, but they're trying to get students to achieve a set of learning outcomes."

Colleges have encouraged off-the-wall coursework since the 1990s, or even earlier, said Sara Lipka, a reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education who covers student affairs. Recent emphasis on interdisciplinary learning has propelled the trend, and classes synthesized across subject areas often have very strange titles. Take "Women, Science and Radiation," a Towson class that scrutinizes "bias in physical science using the feminist critique."

Narrowly focused classes also reflect the shrinking scope of professors' private research interests, as they delve into increasingly obscure subjects, says Lipka.

"It speaks to a general post-modern trend toward the fragmentation of knowledge and intense specialization," Lipka said.

But professors defend their teaching strategies. B.D. Wortham, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland's architecture school, last year introduced an honors class devoted to Homer Simpson's fictional hometown.

"Springfield, USA" definitely raised some colleagues' eyebrows, Wortham admits. And yes, weekly class meetings did begin with watching an episode of The Simpsons.

But more than just the cartoon, the class dissected the American landscape through the study of both the imaginary Springfield and several dozen real Springfields - from small towns to state capitals - scattered across America.

Structuring the class around the animated show "allowed the students access to difficult topics like gentrification and race," Wortham said. "There was laughter in the room, and humor, and then we would transition into the nitty-gritty of a topic" - like urban poverty or the environmental sustainability - "and the students were more comfortable talking about it than they would be in other forums."

Besides, some creatively titled classes aren't as kooky as they sound, said Herb Kessler, a Johns Hopkins professor who teaches "The Face of God (And Other Body Parts)."

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