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Gut Reactions

In some college classes, what you learn is not par for the course

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When Middlebury College professor Jason Mittell pitched a 200-level film and media culture course called “Urban American and Serial Television: Watching ‘The Wire’” to the school’s curriculum committee, none of its members questioned the class’ academic merits. Although the course wasn’t standard collegiate fare — it was designed around HBO’s critically acclaimed drama “The Wire” — the committee understood that the television series presents an accurate, if bleak, portrayal of a struggling American city.

The committee also recognized that the show provided a springboard for discussions of both contemporary urban American society and the aesthetic practices of modern television. Its sole concern was how much time students would need to spend watching the epic series.

While national news media made a big deal of the course when it was first offered in 2009, Mittell is hardly the first professor to use popular media or other subjects attractive to today’s college students to drive a course. Colleges increasingly welcome classes whose subject matter may seem more suited to the coffeehouse than the academy, and Bob Cluss, Middlebury’s dean of curriculum, welcomes the trend.

“More and more, there’s an appreciation that excellent content can be found in interesting places,” Cluss says. “There’s been a trend of moving away from the more traditional canon, if you will.”

What I’d like to know is, where the hell were these classes when I was suffering through Professor No-Sweat McNett’s interminable intro to anthropology course? While I did take a number of classes on interesting topics — such as white-collar crime; drugs and alcohol in contemporary culture; and sports in society — I never saw classes on gardening, the apocalypse or how to become a rock star in my college catalog.

Today’s college students have access to as many wacky courses as kicked kegs at a frat party. Despite the appearance of academic flimsiness, these offbeat courses are just as rigorous as their more conventional cousins, Cluss insists. He believes their interdisciplinary nature mirrors our interconnected and ever-shrinking world. Still, just try explaining to parents why they’re paying $50,000 a year for their kid to learn about comic books and circus freaks.

Here are some college classes currently offered in Vermont we wish we could take.

Burlington College

WCN 234 — 2001: Space Odyssey and the Philosophy of Everyday Life

It’s a safe bet that if you ’ve seen Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s seminal film 2001: A Space Odyssey, you still don’t have a clue what it means. Unless you watched it while you were high, in which case you probably can’t remember your brilliant analysis of the movie anyway.

But if you take Didier Delmas’ class, you’ll be that much closer to deciphering the meaning of the film. According to the course description, the class “will explore 2001 as a battle between rationalism and relativism — or, more particularly, as the film suggests through its music and graphics, between the conflicting philosophies of René Descartes and Friedrich Nietzsche — that continually challenges viewers with the questions: Do we make nature or does nature make us?” Got that? If you don’t, fret not. Delmas also examines parodic takes on the movie, and students get to make their own 2001 spoofs.

Castleton State College

CRJ 3140 — Mass Murderers and Serial Killers

Murder is always a hot topic on college campuses, though not always for good reasons. Remember the shootings in Virginia Tech and the University of Alabama in Huntsville? This course explores mass killings like those perpetrated by deeply disgruntled and disturbed people, but also the work of more premeditated murderers Son of Sam and the Green River Killer. You may not be able to sleep so well after Laurie Rosenzweig’s class, but at least you’ll learn how serial killers got that way.

Champlain College

EDG 310 — Interactive Storytelling

Contemporary video games are nothing without the story. That’s why you don’t see gamers today spending hours diddling with Pong or Pac-Man. Today’s video games have intricate plotlines and complicated character arcs. Donkey Kong they ain’t. Take the Xbox 360 game Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Conviction (yes, that Tom Clancy, of crime-thriller fame). The plot description on Wikipedia is longer than this article.

At Champlain, Erik Esckilsen, a journalism and creative writing instructor, will help students in the college’s Game Design program “transform stories in games from simplistic, clunky add-ons into mature, compelling art forms.” I guess that’s how you explain it to the parents — it’s art!

Green Mountain College

PHI 3000 — The Grateful Dead & Philosophy

You can’t be a hippie college in Vermont without offering a course on the sagacity of Jerry Garcia. The faculty at Green Mountain College (recently voted greenest college in the nation by Sierra magazine) understands this. Hence a course that teases out the philosophical themes that influenced the metamorphosis of Deadhead culture and seeks to grasp the nature of psychedelic experiences. According to the course description, students in Joe Markowski’s class will “further” their exploration of “the interfaces between philosophy and pop culture.” You don’t need to get what Jerry was talking about; you just need to be, man. And don’t worry: “No prerequisites required for this trip.”

Johnson State College

BIO 1050 — Pretty or Nasty: The World of Cosmetics

What could be better than a college course that begins with a makeover? No, seriously. In Liz Dolci’s class, students will be treated to a makeup session offered by a “representative from a cosmetic company.” This is all in the pursuit of knowledge, mind you. In addition to the makeover, students will learn about the economics of the $18 billion global cosmetics industry. Also taught — safety, ethical and self-esteem issues relating to lipstick, blush and eyeliner. Male students looking for a hot date might do well to sign up for this coed hotbed. But be prepared to talk about your own cosmetic use.

Lyndon State College

MUS 3055 — Rock and Roll: Form and Style

So you want to be a rock star? Who doesn’t? Luckily, Lyndon State recognizes that most of us harbor this secret desire. In this class, taught by bona fide rock star Joe Gittleman, of Mighty Mighty Bosstones fame, and history professor Paul Searls, students will learn the finer points of stage diving, hair swinging and guitar riffing. Extra credit goes to those who collect hot groupies and bring them to class.

Students will also learn about the cultural roots of rock ’n’ roll and historical forces that helped shape the various styles of rock music. Tight pants and leather jackets are optional.

Marlboro College

NSC 596 — Chemistry in the Kitchen

Everyone knows that if you’re not into the natural sciences, the study of chemistry can be as soporific as a bottle of Ambien. But not at Marlboro, where chemistry instruction takes a practical bent. In this class taught by Todd Smith, students learn more than how that three-week-old pizza slice at the back of the fridge came to support a small nation of mold. Topics include what acid is, how bacteria perform fermentation and how heat changes food. In addition to weekly lectures, the course features edible “experiments.” What college kid doesn’t love free food?

Middlebury College

AMST 0283 — From George Washington to John Travolta: Social Dance in Popular Culture

Despite its catchy title, this class, taught by Andrew Wentink, is pretty standard academic fare. It’s less about “Stayin’ Alive” and more about staying awake. We kid. If you want to know how the Lindy Hop influenced postwar race relations, or how the Hustle contributed to sexual promiscuity in the 1970s, this is the course for you. Warning: real work ahead. The class “will involve the investigation of primary source materials including contemporary letters and diaries, dance manuals, newspaper and journal reports, and accounts of social dance in American literature.” If you’re lucky, you might learn how to Charleston.

Norwich University

CJ 424 — Murder: Our Killing Culture

While Castleton’s murder class is specifically about those who kill serially, Penny Shtull’s course at Norwich is just straight up about killing. Of all kinds. Intrafamilial homicide, murder in the workplace, gangland killings. You name it, she covers it. The class isn’t just a prurient examination of murder as entertainment; students taking this course will actually learn “characteristics, trends and the theoretical explanations of homicide.” Don’t worry — no actual killing techniques are taught. That’s a different Norwich class.

St. Michael’s College

FS 114 — A River Runs Through It: The Literature and Craft of Fly-Fishing

“Dear Mom and Dad, College is great. I’m learning how to tie flies. Please send waders, a creel and the new Orvis catalog.” And thus begins the college career of a handful of lucky St. Mike’s freshmen — in a class about fly-fishing. Understandably, Bill Grover’s offering is a perennial favorite. Who wouldn’t want to learn ancient angling techniques while getting college credit? Lest parents think the class isn’t academic enough, the students will apparently “contemplate questions of philosophy, politics, class, gender, science, religion, life cycles and the serious pursuit of leisure.” Extra credit if anyone actually hooks anything.

Sterling College

AS 381 — Special Topics in Applied Science: Introduction to Farrier Science

If you’re a fan of all things equine and aren’t afraid of getting kicked, bitten or head butted by a 1-ton beast, then this class is for you. At Sterling College, all the classes are atypical, so this one on shoeing horses fits right in. Rick Thomas, a certified farrier, takes students through a semester of equine anatomy, physiology, biomechanics and nutrition so that, by the end, they’ll be shoeing horses like cowpokes. That is, if they don’t get stepped on.

University of Vermont

NFS 033 — What’s Brewing in Food Science

What is every college student’s dream? Hint: It’s not ending up in a “Girls Gone Wild” video. Answer? A class completely devoted to beer. The ingredients of beer, the production of beer, the drinking of beer, etc. In Todd Pritchard’s freshman-level food-science class, students learn how beer is made and how the beverage should be consumed responsibly. They’re also taught how to play quarters, beer pong and flip cup. Students can expect to be tested on keg-stand technique.

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