Aug 3, 2009

They Really Teach This Stuff?

When was the last time you scanned a college course catalogue? If you’re more likely to visualize a thick book with small print than a webpage, I guarantee it’s been a few years. And you may be surprised to know that academic coursework is no longer limited to surveys of American Lit or Psych 101. In fact, your tuition dollars could very well be going to support the study of maple syrup, magic, or the science of superheroes.

My first clue that the nature of academics had changed came when my son started complaining loudly that the Stanford class in wine tasting was scheduled so as to conflict with Algebraic Topology. Wine tasting vs. Algebraic Topology? The latter I understand is a cornerstone of his math major, but which general education requirement does wine tasting fulfill? Foreign language, perhaps—note that the class is tastefully placed within Stanford’s French Department. And how much would we be paying for him to learn the difference between Gallo and Chateau Lafite Rothschild?

The wine tasting experience sent me shuffling off to the internet to see what other classes I may have missed by graduating in the last century. The following are a few I culled from various lists including one recently published by the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required):
  • FRENLANG60D—French Viticulture (Stanford University): Wine tasting. Students must be 21 and bring their own wine glasses.
  • Chemical Engineering 395—Brewing Science and Society (New Mexico State University): Presumably the low brow equivalent of the above. Actually this is rumored to be a difficult class requiring both a research project and several field trips.
  • Tree Climbing (Cornell University): Those suffering from fear of heights are strongly discouraged from enrolling. The class covers numerous venues and different forms of equipment. Note that the instructor lived in a tree for 3 years.
  • EXP0021-The Future is Lost (Tufts): A 13-week seminar on the TV show “Lost.”
  • Joy of Garbage (UC Berkeley and Santa Clara University): One of the professors keeps garbage in his office for a real hands-on experience. Both classes also feature some swell field trips to landfills and sanitation plants.
  • The Art of Walking (Centre College): Students study the work of famous perambulators such as Kant and Nietzsche while given freelance walking assignments. The syllabus clearly states, “…getting lost is discouraged.”
  • Daytime Serials: Family and Social Roles (University of Wisconsin): Offered in conjunction with the Women’s Studies program (!), this class examines the role of soap operas in the family and work lives of those who watch them.
  • The Science of Harry Potter (Frostburg State University): This “honors” science course is geared towards non-science majors and there is no lab work.
  • SYMBSYS230—Psychology of Facebook (Stanford again): The goal of this class is to make students experts on this topic (sounds like a gut to me). Enrolled students must join the professor’s Facebook group.
  • Learning from YouTube (Pitzer College): This class examines the impact on culture that the video streaming site has had. Students are required to upload their own special project.
  • ENG287-The Horror Film in Context (Bowdoin College): Not recommended for the squeamish, the class looks at why society is fascinated with not only horror films but death itself. Yikes.
  • Simpsons and Philosophy (UC Berkeley): This course reviews how the TV cartoon depicts social issues such as racism and politics.
  • HC299-Far Side Entomology (Oregon State): Using the comic strip as a teaching tool, this class explores interactions between humans and insects. Beyond the question of flyswatters and roach motels, I wonder if reading Archy and Mehitabel would count for extra credit?

So, does this list make you want to go back to college or go check on junior’s fall schedule? Or both?


  1. I love it! I just emailed my son to sign up for the Stanford wine class now that he is 21. In my day, the most popular class was Human Sexuality.

    At Harvard Law, we had the "free university classes" No credit, but students taught other students fun subjects. I took ballroom dance and taught a little disco (this was the 70s and 80s)

  2. As it turns out, signing up for the wine tasting class can be extremely challenging. Students sleep outside the instructor's door for days before registration!

  3. Thanks for mentioning my class (Brewing Science and Society) in your blog. Students evaluations do suggest that this is a hard class, but many also report that they learn a lot.

    I must, of course, object to your characterization of this class as low brow. Beer is as complex in its history, production, taste, and aroma as wine, and because of the number of steps involved, beer brewing is more difficult process.

    Many students leave this course appreciating the fine distinctions between American Lagers (most common commercially available beer) and the spectrum of full-flavored brews that range from bitter IPAs to sweet and malty stouts and everything in between.

  4. Thanks for the clarification! Now that I know that Chemical Engineering is the second most potentially lucrative major according to both NACE and PayScale:

    I have newfound respect!