Off the beaten academic track

From Harry Potter to Star Trek, North American universities are incorporating popular culture-inspired courses into their curricula with high hopes that students will feel the benefits in the real world

“Popular culture is something that is a major interest to many faculty members,” says Clarke Mackey, head of the department of film and media studies.
“Popular culture is something that is a major interest to many faculty members,” says Clarke Mackey, head of the department of film and media studies.
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If you want to get credits for studying comic superheroes, the science behind cooking or even Star Trek then you might be in luck.

Universities across North America are modifying their course offerings in hopes of changing dreary traditional courses into more engaging and popular-culture approved substitutes. Just a few decades ago, new courses would include subjects like sociology and women’s studies, but today, students have access to more unconventional subjects.

Harvard University recently opened admission to a culinary course describing phases of matter called Science of the Physical Universe. Students study under some of the world’s most successful chefs who help them create their own delicacies with the incorporation of molecular gastronomic techniques.

Even more unconventional is Game Theory: Applications to Starcraft, which is being offered at the University of California at Berkeley. The class is led by students and aims to educate pupils about life skills that can be learned from the popular computer game.

Those who find themselves reading comic books more than their textbooks will be glad to know about The Cape and the Cowl: The Literary, Televised and Film History of Batman, another similarly avant-garde student-led course offered by Rice University in Houston, Texas.

The Philosophy of Star Trek is offered at Georgetown University and Frostburg State University now offers a course, The Science of Harry Potter, which uses the world of Hogwarts to explain principles of physics.

Donato Santeramo, head of the department of spanish and italian, teaches the interdisciplinary IDIS 200: Introduction to Semiotics and Communication, where students bring in poetry, art and movies to analyse and discuss.

He said that although the subjects of many quirky courses don’t seem to relate to the theory at hand, they’re still useful tools for learning.

“It’s the way one studies them that makes them university-worthy,” Santeramo said, adding that an example could be a course on the TV show The Sopranos in the study of third-generation Italians in New Jersey, and how TV can model the understanding of culture.

“It becomes a tool, a manner of addressing problems that are not only relating to that specific issue but understanding media in general ... [It’s a] means to reach more general ideas.” He said incorporating popular culture can help students pay more attention if they can relate to the material better.

“One can relate to it in terms that are more familiar and thus not as far-fetched, even though the terms remain the same,” he said. “Being able to relate more immediately makes it more approachable.” Pairing pop-culture inspired courses with more traditional subjects not only prepares students for the job market, but for skills that may be necessary years later, such as cultural problems that the courses address.

“What you’re studying can be related to less popular things.” Some universities have gone beyond offering a few quirky courses to offer entire degree programs. At Queen’s, students have the opportunity to major in programs like the new special field concentration, Computing and the Creative Arts (COCA), which combines the technical skills of computer science with the expressive quality of the creative arts.

“It provides a timely bridge between arts and sciences,” Selim Akl, Professor and Director of the School of Computing told the Journal via e-mail. Akl said the course is offered in collaboration with four different arts departments: art, drama, film and media and music.

Bob Tennet, the Undergraduate Chair for Computing, told the Journal via e-mail that COCA is a fairly new concentration but has career prospects with long-established corporations and fields.

“Companies like Apple and Electronic Arts have always focused their hiring on electronic artists, just because they often happen to be the most well-rounded coders as well. There is no lack of jobs for students following these programs,” Tennet said, adding that these include: 3D Game Developer, New Media Artist, Sound Designer, Art Management, 3D Animator, Computer Graphics Designer and Web Developer.

He said the program is popular in part because it allows students to do things not typical to other classes.

“[It] lets students use all kinds of cutting-edge software packages and produce multi-media art for an end-of-term art exhibit,” he said.

Clarke Mackey, head of the film and media studies department, said another non-traditional class offered at Queen’s—interdisciplinary studies 410: Contemporary Cultural Performances in practice—is open to all undergraduate students.

“There are no essays, blogs, readings or exams in this course. Students must work collaboratively in groups to produce performances and art pieces that are shown to the public,” Mackey told the Journal via email. This allows students to think differently about what they learn, he said, adding that though they initially find this difficult, it proves to be a vital life skill.

“Academics are important but it’s nice to have some variation and experiment,” he said, adding that these alternative skills are especially important in today’s job markets.

Although many universities are beginning to integrate social media and technology into teaching material, Mackey said employers these days are looking for people with a broad knowledge of how these work and who can rapidly adapt to advancements in software and design.

“Things are changing so rapidly in the real world about skills that people need to have,” he said. “It’s almost impossible for universities to keep up.”

Although non-traditional courses at Queen’s may not seem as specific as some courses in the US (Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame at the University of South Carolina, anyone?), Mackey said specific examples of pop culture are still frequently brought up in many classes, without creating an entire course on it.

“Popular culture is something that is a major interest to many faculty members,” he said.

“We’re trying to focus on the big questions and how these other things fit into it … I would say over the last two decades pop culture has become an object of study more than it was before.”

With files from Kelly Loeper

Overheard At Queen’s

Guy staring at the Foucault pendulum in Stirling Hall: “I feel like if I touch it I’m going to die.”

“Yeah, I’m at the corner of Division Street and Arch Street.”
—Guy at the corner of University Ave. and Earl St.

Girl 1: “Think about how weird it would be to be a baby ... I think it would be awesome!”
Girl 2: “No man you just sit in your own poo ... There’s a reason we don’t remember that stuff; we’d be scarred for life!”

“That was my first outdoor sex at Queen’s. Behind that bush there.”
—Classy girl near Theological Hall.

Hear something funny on campus? Send your overheards to:
journal_postscript@ams.queensu.ca

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