6 Odd College Courses In America

Academic pursuits: Surfers are making history. i i

Academic pursuits: Surfers are making history. Jason Mooy/Flickr hide caption

itoggle caption Jason Mooy/Flickr
Academic pursuits: Surfers are making history.

Academic pursuits: Surfers are making history.

Jason Mooy/Flickr

About college courses, actor Tom Hanks recently told The Star-Ledger: "I had thought, oh, college, you have to take chemistry and stuff and sit there slogging through work in the library. And then it was like, wait, you can go to college and study theater? And act in plays? This is almost a racket."

Check the catalogs at colleges these days and you will see that you can study theater, act in plays and explore a whole lot more.

Turns out, there are some pretty funky courses.

Such as Harvard's Mythology and Folklore offering: Maledicta — an academic exploration of ritualized verbal abuse.

In the Maledicta course, according to the school catalog, students examine "international traditions of vituperation and cursing in their folkloristic, historical and sociological settings." They learn about practices including Turkish verbal duels, Scottish flyting and African-American "dozens."

See? Cursing and hating on each other can be enlightening. So can studying Beyonce.

At Rutgers University, lecturer Kevin Allred teaches Politicizing Beyonce in the Women's and Gender Studies department. Allred created the course because he believes that Beyonce is more than just another successful performer. She is, he says, "really attempting to create a grand narrative around her persona."

And he sees Beyonce — the singer, fashion maven, celebrity wife and mother — as an agent of social change.

The course "really ends up being a class much more about black feminism and the current political realities of black women and other minority groups in the U.S.," he says, "as opposed to just being a class on Beyonce. But her music is a nice way for students to enter the discussion."

Along with the music, students read black feminist writers such as bell hooks, Alice Walker and Sojourner Truth.

Lots of other colleges have curious-sounding, mind-expanding courses — with some solid thinking behind them — including:

  • The Music of Frank Zappa, offered by Indiana University, traces the influences — and influence — of the innovative musician.
  • SmartPhone Photography, listed in the catalog of Portland Community College, teaches students about composition and lighting.
  • Zombies, an anthropology class at George Mason University, explores the history of zombies and the notion of free will.

The History of Surfing, which is in the academic catalog of the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, is an orphan course — looking for a teacher — at UNCW. The professor who designed it, William Moore, is now at Boston University.

But Paul Townend, chairman of the history department at UNCW, unflinchingly defends the academic side of hanging 10. "Everything, of course, has a history," Townend says. "Teaching undergraduates, we are always in part raising awareness about that — the fact that anything we do came from somewhere, and developed over time."

When it comes to surfing, Townend says, "there are very rich themes: the non-Western history of surfing as a practice, the transmittal of the practice to America and the West, the connections to American counterculture, the commodification of surfing over time."

So, Townend says, "we have used the course as a gateway for getting students to see how historians think, study about culture, cultural interactions and exchanges, and change over time. They get a good exposure to a range of different sources — oral histories, films, and objects as well as more traditional written sources."

William Moore, by the way, is now teaching the course at BU. Look in the catalog under American Studies 363: Surfing and American Culture.

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