Wednesday, April 11, 2007

... to boldly go where no class has gone before

Have you ever wandered into space during English class?

Most of us are guilty of this habit. But, on your way to other worlds, has Spock ever lectured you on theories of philosophy?

This space odyssey figure might be accomplishing just that at Georgetown University's "Star Trek and Philosophy" class in Washington, D.C. In this course, students can expect to question the possibility of time travel, ponder the ethical questions of human computers, and maybe even psychoanalyze Capt. Kirk.

Many colleges are now offering similar -- and interesting -- variations on subjects that can sometimes seem mundane.

For example, students are no longer flocking to the typical Chemistry 101 class at Frostburg State University in Frostburg, Md., but are flooding "The Science of Harry Potter" course. And at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., professors are taking social sciences to new levels with "Real Fakes," a class strictly reserved for America's obsession of everything from cosmetic surgery to the Osbournes to artificial intelligence.

But are these classes just easy alternatives, or are they strategically challenging students with unique subject matter?

The hope is that appealing courses are going to attract and engage students even before class begins. Prof. George R. Plitnik, the mastermind behind "The Science of Harry Potter" at Frostburg, has even had to expand his program to accommodate the students' appetite. The syllabus, however, still promises to be as challenging as the subject is charming, and students will be expected to evaluate the books' magic by grounding their own knowledge in the scientific veracity.

Not every college student is a Potter fan, but the course is unique in that it can open minds to the way we interpret the abstract. It challenges students to muse over the imaginary and pose them against reality in order to gain a dynamic understanding of any subject. In this sense, Plitnik's classes rouse both traditional learning and traditional thinking in a setting where students might be more eager to expand their template of knowledge. By spicing up the learning system, these "unique" classes might intrigue students in fields they previously deemed too lackluster or arduous.

On the other hand, these somewhat bizarre-sounding courses still cost precious scholarship money, government grants and funding from the college itself. With some students repaying their education loans decades after graduation, is it fair that their money might be going to classes like "Ghost Hunting 101" at Lane Community College in Eugene, Ore.?

Teaching curriculum devoted to the possibility of flying broomsticks and chasing Casper might be entertaining, but some argue there is little value in such knowledge in the "real world." Oppositions to such courses argue that intellectual professors should be focusing their education on areas more applicable to life after college.

Some courses might have applications hidden beneath obscurity, but others are obviously geared toward specific majors. In Iowa City, Iowa, the University of Iowa's course "American Vacation" explores how race, class and history affect the vacations Americans take. While many students might find the option both informative and interesting, the class's scope is geared for majors in advertisement, family planning and sociology.

Other programs can be utilized by a much larger spectrum. Students searching for a viable alternative to the conventional English 101 class can enroll in "Art of Walking" offered at Centre College in Danville, Ky. Undergrads must be prepared to dive into the literary likes of Friedrich Nietzsche and Immanuel Kant, but they also need to bring their Nikes. Walking with their professor and his dog most of the semester, students discuss the conceptual transcendence walking can give philosophers and literally follow the habits of such writers, but they also get some fresh air and hopefully a fresh perspective on classic literature.

Finding new ways to teach the same subject matter can add vigor to traditional themes. Some may even make complex disciplines more palatable. This doesn't have to equate with juvenile Shakespeare books, but if walking helps students understand literature by literally putting them in the philosophers' shoes, then perhaps we should be promoting untraditional courses more often.

Locally, Yakima Valley Community College offers some intriguing classes, too. "Anthropology 198: Youth Subcultures" takes an analytical approach to viewing the mindsets, actions and trends in prominent youth subcultures with a focus on skinheads, mods, goths and punks. The three-credit course in social sciences explores the influences that help shape these subcultures and how they can in turn pressure greater cultures. An experiential focus is incorporated within the syllabus along with documentaries, performance footage and musical impacts.

"The Bible as Literature" is another three-credit alternative. This English selection takes a deep look at the famous book from a literary standpoint. It's not Sunday school though; you study the cultural influence, artistry and philosophical impact the Bible has had on a global scale.

Other in-state options are more peculiar. For example, have you ever put extensive thought into how mountains move, why we pursue happiness, or even what really happens when you get old and wrinkly? At The Evergreen State College in Olympia, professors direct a course titled the "Extraordinary Science of Everyday Experience: A Day in the Life" in which students can expect to answer these questions and many like them through a comprehensive exploration behind everyday experiences. The course is especially creative in that most of the program involves the journey of two hypothetical people who are experiencing the world while students try to analyze their events and predict how they will turn out. Students can pose questions about almost any occurrence, but they're challenged to comprehend them through the scientific method. Suddenly, simple happenings like sleeping become much more complex when students are asked to elucidate the scientific reasoning behind exactly how and why organisms rest.

Classes like this can invigorate young minds to start questioning the workings of nature and probe the bigger questions. It may be obscure, but some argue it might also be more effective because of it.

Some organizations, however, fear that such bizarre-sounding classes are not only useless to the participants, but are actually detrimental to our education system. Each year, the Young America's Foundation compiles the "Dirty Dozen," a list of the oddest and most disconcerting college offerings according to their standards. This year, the Virginia-based Web site awarded Occidental College of Los Angeles and its course -- "The Phallus," a study of the science and theory surrounding the male physiology -- as the No. 1 "troubling" class offering.

Other courses that made the list include "Queer Musicology" at University of California-Los Angeles and "Whiteness: The Other Side of Racism," offered by Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass.

The titles of these classes are surprising to many; some are appalled by the subject matter while others are intrigued by the angle of vision. But where do the classes stand in the greater context?

"The Phallus" is understandably sparking skepticism, but the study is logically placed as part of the comprehensive curriculum of Occidental's Women Studies/Gender Studies. The college maintains the class as one part of a wider field of study that entails a disciplinary emphasis on gender issues. Some advocates support the college's stance on gender majors and argue that just because a class is controversial doesn't mean society should shy away from exploring it. In contrast, others question the credibility in receiving course credit for learning about cultural integration of the male genitalia.

The Dirty Dozen compilation includes classes at some of America's most honored universities, including Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and University of California-Berkeley. Even our own University of Washington in Seattle made No. 6 with its option "Border Crossings, Borderlands: Transnational Feminist Perspectives on Immigration." The foundation says the college is out-of-line with its alternative take on national security and that such teachings are "troubling instances of leftist activism supplanting traditional scholarship."

Are liberal college teachings overstepping boundaries, dumbing down our educational curriculum? I would have to disagree. On the basis of a dynamic education, shouldn't we support learning alternate views of dealing with such critical issues as border security? Similarly, I don't know the underlying motives of the University of California-Los Angeles or Mount Holyoke College, but I do know they have aided in opening the discussions of racism and sexuality to a larger arena of learning.

The foundation's Web site proudly displays a flowing American flag banner and rants about the fallacies of studying Marxism and even Swarthmore College's "Nonviolent Responses to Terrorism" in Swarthmore, Pa.

But perhaps the organization is flying its flag too far from the principles of democracy. Obviously, these ideologies are contestable "right" answers to solving the world's problems, but aren't they at least worth knowing, understanding? How can we disclose the value of these courses if we refuse to even consider their applicability as alternative thinking?

If led by the right professor, I think Spock and stimulation can coincide in the classroom. College courses that are controversial or entertaining don't have to translate to uninformative or simplified education. And, who knows, maybe the next breakthrough in psychological reasoning is resting in the cockpit of the starship Enterprise, hypothetically speaking, of course.