Zombies Give Rise to Critical Thinking

By Dana Yanulavich

This article first appeared in the spring 2013 issue of Live & Learn, Excelsior College’s magazine.

If you think the zombie is a dead subject, think again! The undead are on the rise, not only in popular TV shows such as “The Walking Dead,” but also in contemporary movies such as the teen romance, “Warm Bodies.” The never-say-die attitude of these timeless monsters is even the subject of a new Excelsior course, ENG 315 Zombies in Literature and Popular Culture.

Zombie- Featured draft1_GG44480The brains behind this course are from Excelsior’s School of Liberal Arts — Tracy Caldwell, program director and faculty advisor for the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program, and Scott Dalrymple, the school’s dean. Caldwell explains, “We’re both English majors and big fans of ‘The Walking Dead.’ We would have these protracted conversations that the show was good, but it was also touching on social commentary and psychological issues.” When Caldwell suggested to the dean that zombies would be a great subject for a humanities class, he told her to pursue it if she could find someone to develop a worthy course.

Carly Cate was just the person for the job. “She’s a huge zombie aficionado,” Caldwell explains. Cate eagerly devoured the assignment as course designer, and developed a curriculum that draws on current popular interests to deliver a course that is rich in historical and literary content and delves deeply into the social, psychological, and political ramifications of the zombie concept. Make no bones about it: This is not a gut course.

“I knew that Excelsior wanted something academic, an approach which would curtail the initial raised eyebrow of people who might scoff at the idea of an actual course about make-believe,” explains Cate. “In order to do so, I had to avoid some of the pitfalls I had seen in some of the courses I looked at [at other institutions] and present my subject as serious.”

Other courses come with prerequisites, but this may be the only Excelsior class that comes with a disclaimer, warning students of the inherent violence in the subject matter. But that caveat aside, this course is like any other humanities offering. Using literature and film as a platform to stimulate critical thinking, the course is replete with weekly discussions, quizzes, projects, and midterm and final exams.

A Sign of the Times?

What has spawned a recent resurgence in all things zombie? It may be a reflection of current events and modern anxieties.

“The 21st century is just rife with reasons to be concerned about the end of the world,” observes Caldwell. “This interest in zombies is a manifestation of contemporary social concerns.” Course designer Cate agrees, adding, “Some people have linked the renewed interest in the undead from a cult following to mainstream media to major catastrophic events such as 9/11. Even more recently, we have seen a great focus on not just anticipating the end of the world, but actually preparing for it as one might prepare for battle. Throughout history, there have always been various predictions of the end of the world, but I do have to think that things such as terrorism, nuclear warfare, and economic crises must strike a major chord with some people and their solution is to be proactive, in their own way.”

Even the Centers for Disease Control took advantage of popular interest in the brain-eating denizens when its Office of Public Health and Preparedness and Response issued guidelines on how to survive a zombie apocalypse. The thinking there, of course, was to capitalize on contemporary interests to make important points regarding overall emergency preparedness. If you’re prepared for the zombie apocalypse, then you’re well equipped for the likes of hurricanes, pandemics, earthquakes, or terrorist attacks.

Like a natural disaster such as Hurricane Katrina, the zombie apocalypse could bring a complete breakdown of society, raising all sorts of ethical and moral dilemmas. By partaking in zombie-themed distractions/entertainment/media such as movies and novels, people may find a venue for dealing with their own fears and anxieties. As brain-sucking ghouls are conquered by heroes in various forms, it can be seen as a metaphor for man dealing with his own fear of death, disease, asteroids, or any other number of natural and man-made disasters seemingly outside his control.

Bring on the Monsters!

In planning for future courses that draw on popular interests, Dean Dalrymple notes, “On the humanities side, we ask, ‘What are people reading now? What are people interested in?’ Things like horror literature and science fiction are increasingly popular. A lot of the folks who read Harry Potter novels, or read them to their kids, are taking college classes now.”

Dalrymple says that by tapping into interesting topics, students are more engaged and consequently have the potential to learn more. Caldwell concurs, adding, “The most effective course and the best education is something that is personally relevant to the student. And while zombies may be fun and interesting, a lot of the questions about what makes you human — what are the differences between you and a zombie — really make you think about who you are, who you want to be, who’s important to you.”

Course designer Cate adds, “I hope that students will learn to find the academic side of even a subject that does not seem academic. If students are able to watch zombie movies, TV, or read zombie-themed books and really consider the survival strategies of the characters, the leadership qualities, or whether or not the author is presenting an adequate portrayal of the undead, that student is engaging with that material in a way they wouldn’t have before.”

The zombies course is proof positive that interesting topics resonate with students: in the January term three sections of the course quickly filled up and it’s proven popular with nursing students in particular, perhaps because of the tie-ins with emergency preparedness.

Based on this ongoing assessment of contemporary interests, the College has other popular culture courses in the works. In May, students will be able to sink their teeth into ENG 320 Vampires in Literature and Film and in the fall, a course on pirates is ready to set sail. The pirates course promises to be truly a interdisciplinary endeavor, covering content ranging from the novel “Treasure Island” to current events like piracy off the coast of Somalia. Other ideas that are being considered include science fiction and fantasy literature.

“If vampires are as popular as zombies, we’ll just keep the monsters coming,” Dalrymple quips.


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