Inviting monsters into the online classroom

Not long ago, we were looking to create a new online course that would engage students in serious discussions about sociology, ethics, psychology, and epidemiology.

Colleges are using connections to pop culture to draw interest to online courses.

The answer, obviously, was to create an online course on zombies.

Yes, zombies. Both of us are fans of The Walking Dead, AMC’s popular television series about a post-apocalyptic America, as well as other literature and films about zombies.

We realized that all joking aside, an online course on zombies would allow us to explore serious subjects in an engaging manner.

Many students say that ENG 315: Zombies in Literature and Popular Culture is the best class they’ve taken at Excelsior College.

Lured in by the title, they’re often surprised at the depth of knowledge they acquire while studying apocalyptic scenarios from historical, sociological and psychological perspectives.

After first exploring the cross-cultural history of zombies, students apply this knowledge to contemporary issues such as religion, mercy killing, Stockholm Syndrome, and worker exploitation.

In addition to watching The Walking Dead, the class reads selections from The Living Dead, a zombie anthology edited by John Joseph Adams. We also explore themes and symbols in Alden Bell’s The Reapers are the Angels, a haunting novel detailing the life of a girl who sees a zombie-filled world as one of opportunity rather than threat.

Fighting personal demons and chance encounters, she focuses on helping a developmentally disabled man find his family.

Students particularly enjoy the online discussion boards that form the heart of the course.

Here, with the guidance of the instructor, students learn from each other, exploring theories and strategies for both understanding the zombie apocalypse and surviving it.

The online course runs every eight weeks. Since its premiere in January 2013, we’ve filled multiple sections with eager students of all ages and backgrounds.

Frankly, some higher ed colleagues roll their eyes at the course. How serious could it be?

Those folks should study more history. Not so long ago, the very idea of studying novels seemed preposterous.

In the 18th Century, books like Tom Jones were typically viewed as scandalous wastes of time; serious people only read theology. Much more recently, the study of film– any sort of film– was ridiculed by “serious” academics.

We believe that if you can find a way to engage students in meaningful discussions that stretch their intellectual horizons, you ought to do it.

We’ve built upon the success of Zombies with similarly provocative courses.

ENG 320: Vampires in Literature and Film engages students with works by Bram Stoker and Anne Rice. HIS 290: Pirates on the High Seas challenges students to reconcile the images of pirates in Treasure Island and Pirates of the Caribbean with today’s real-life (and decidedly less cuddly) pirates.

We’re running out of monsters, so we may not add more courses in this particular vein. But we’ll continue to search for ways to engage students in ways that seem relevant and interesting to them.

Sometimes a bit of blood makes the educational medicine go down.

Scott Dalrymple is Dean of the School of Liberal Arts at Excelsior College, where Tracy Caldwell is Program Director of the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program.

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