When some people think of academia, they tend to imagine stuffy little offices piled high with old textbooks, or perhaps elderly lecturers droning in a monotone before an audience of bored note-takers. However, in truth academia is a living, breathing organism that not only observes mainstream culture but interacts with it and strives to understand just what it is we humans are up to and why. As a result, they sometimes end up with course offerings that might sound unusual, or even silly. Whether or not they are silly is in the eye of the beholder, but just for fun let’s take a look at some current and recent offerings.
1. Game of Thrones-related courses
Well, this one was certainly inevitable. A TV show that has slashed and stabbed its way to the top of the ratings would certainly be noted for its cultural significance. Here is part of a course description from the University of Virginia: “We will compare the ways in which HBO’s approach to the Game of Thrones phenomena both changes and cements aspects that Martin created.
2. Street-fighting mathematics (MIT)
One can’t help but associate the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with the absolute bleeding-edge research and deep thinking in all things technological and mathematical. So what is all this talk of “street-fighting mathematics?” You’ll be relieved to know that it has nothing to do with combat. Actually it’s a course that trains students how to do advanced mathematical calculations in their heads. Which is actually pretty great.
3. Arguing with Judge Judy (Berkeley)
Judge Judy’s TV show is extremely popular, and has earned its eponymous star a net worth in the tens of millions of dollars. But this course isn’t about the judge, or about the legal system. Instead, it looks at the rhetorical and logical devices that are routinely employed on the show: "Did you hit the plaintiff?" respondents often say, "If I woulda hit him, he'd be dead!" This reply avoids answering "yes" or "no" by presenting a perverted form of the logical strategy called "a fortiori" argument "from the stronger" in Latin. In other words, it explores the use of logical fallacies on the show, and how similar fallacies are routinely used in society at large.
4. Philosophy and Star Trek (Georgetown)
Oh, you knew there was going to be a Star Trek course on this list. Few television shows have had as big an impact on human culture as the decades-old, multi-media Star Trek universe. Just as the show asked some fairly deep questions about the human condition, so do many of the Star Trek-related courses. This one at Georgetown certainly uses the show as a vehicle for asking about the self and free will, among other things. And in case you thought it might be an easy course, Professor Wetzel at Georgetown requires class participation and four thousand-word essays.
5. Social significance of clothing (Princeton)
Clothes make the man, so they say. But just what do our clothing choices say about us? This course at Princeton, apparently no longer offered, points out that clothing choices identify us as members of groups, subcultures, organizations and other aspects of society. Among other issues discussed are (or were) court rulings related to wearing religious headgear in the military.
6. The undead .. live! (Cornell)
Vampires. Once the stuff of trashy B-movies, vampires have climbed out of a once obscure niche and into a seat at the cultural big kid’s table, being now intertwined with action, romance and more. This particular course is quite unique, using vampire-related stage plays to take a look at the vampire phenomenon and what motivates it, not just in our modern era but throughout the generations. It’s worth noting that the course description emphasizes the requirement that all class assignments must be properly-constructed and -structured.
7. #SelfieClass (USC)
Welcome to the 21st Century. Selfies are a big deal these days, or at least they are pretty much everywhere. But what do our selfies say about ourselves? What do they say about how we express ourselves? There are many questions to ask. This course at the University of Southern California tiptoes into the strange realm of the selfie. Yes, students need to take selfies as part of the coursework. And yes, the course title is a hashtag.
8. Toy design major (Otis College of Art and Design)
You might not have heard of Otis College, located in Los Angeles. It’s not a big institution, and its offerings are for the most part unremarkable. They do, however, offer one of the more unique majors out there: toy design. It’s hard not to describe the major as being anything less than very cool, with included courses covering life drawing, visual communication, prototyping and more. It’s hard to know what the job prospects are in this field, but toys have always been a major part of society -- and what could be more fun than designing toys?
9. Wasting time on the internet (UPenn)
We consider it time wasted: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and more. But just what is it we’re doing online? How much of what we do in these “time wasting” activities comes from the heart? If we were to assemble a narrative based only on our social media postings, would it be a novel? In addition to reading required texts, the course description
advises that “students will be required to stare at the screen for three hours, only interacting through chat rooms, bots, social media and listservs.” The description adds a final note: “Distraction, multitasking, and aimless drifting is mandatory.” You may not have put much thought into your online content, but it sounds like this course will make you think about it in whole new ways.