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Are zombie courses creating mindless, debt-ridden students in higher education?
From English to Anthropology, professors are producing revenue for departments with fun pop culture courses that may not pay off for students. - photo by Eric Schulzke
With college costs rapidly escalating, student debt growing, and the real-world applications of some college degrees increasingly questioned, NPR is raising questions about zombies in the classroom.

Metaphorically speaking, the concern seems to be that charging students exorbitant tuition to fill their minds with pop culture might produce a generation of mental zombies with poor job prospects.

NPR visited Amherst College in western Massachusetts, which, like many colleges, in the 1960s replaced its core curriculum with an open proliferation of choices with few if any requirements.

You don't have to study science at Amherst, not even in general education.

"It's all good stuff as long as it's taught in a rigorous way," Catherine Epstein, history professor and dean of faculty at Amherst, told NPR as she defended several seemingly obscure courses.

NPR also spoke with a more skeptical Michael Polikoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, who listed off a series of dubious courses from around the country, such as "Video Games and the Boundaries of Narrative," "Disney for Grownups," and "Knowing Television."

And then there are zombies. You can, in fact, study zombies at many prominent institutions of higher learning.

At Ohio State University, you can take an anthropology class on zombies from Professor Jeffrey Cohen, who notes that the mythology of zombies has deep roots in many cultures.

"Looking at past societies, we note how the zombie has developed," Cohen writes. "We also explore the parallels and connections that link cannibalism, disease and witchcraft to the undead as well as social rules and rituals. Finally, we explore the place of zombies in contemporary life."

George Mason University in Virginia also offers a zombie anthro course, which "explores how human beings across cultures have historically expressed social anxieties through references to the one particular manifestation of the undead: zombies, figures representing a state in which human beings are animate and affective in the world around them, but lack consciousness or free will."

And don't worry about this being a time waster: the syllabus helpfully notes that the course "fulfills the college requirement in non-Western culture."

At the University of Pennsylvania, you could study zombies through a medical lens if you are Health and Societies major. It is not clear from the department website if the course is offered regularly.

"Using more than a century of 'zombie culture' as a lens, this course surveys the history of western medical knowledge and practice from antiquity to the present, with a particular focus on the technologies that have been used to manage bodies," the syllabus reads, which suggests it may be trying to sneak nutrition in alongside the cotton candy.

At Marylhurst University near Portland, Oregon, you can take a Zombies in literature and film course from Professor Jesse Strommel, who argues that the current obsession with zombies and other forms of grotesque violence reflect a disconnection from our own bodies, a kind of technological living death.

"The zombie is part and parcel of this cultural obsession, but it is also the antidote," Strommel writes in his syllabus. "The zombie threatens to deconstruct us (to eat us), but in an altogether different way from the machine. Whereas machines devour our flesh, the zombie just chews, turning us into zombies, which are the epitome of flesh. Machines take our flesh away. Zombies proffer it back."
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