It is Halloween time again, and the pumpkins have arrayed themselves on the porches of my little town. We have had our hard freeze already and the trees are bright red and orange and the haunted corn maze is open on the university farm. There are also haunted houses in several of the county courthouses just across the border in Iowa, and trick-or-treating arranged for dormitories and a car dealership (trick-or-trunk! on Saturday afternoon), and a painted windows competition downtown. On campus we spent the several days dodging zombies on campus, as the students settled into the once-a-semester "Humans vs. Zombies" game week. Zombies are really big on campus, and we'll be running the high school summer school program again next year, and I hope this time I will be able to attend some of the events.
I have never been that into zombies. A lot of my friends are, but until this past summer I really wasn't all that interested. I don't like gory films, and scary ones I enjoy are more along the lines of "Silence of the Lambs" than "Alien." But I cheered on the plans for the summer program and went to see the film version of World War Z with a friend (we go to see apocalyptic films, regardless of whether they are reputed to be good or bad). I had never read the book (again, lack of interest in zombies) but friends who were into them had told me it was really good, and I knew the book had been considered one of the best science fiction works of the decade. About a week after the movie I decided to investigate the book online and read the excerpts provided by Amazon. Within an hour I was off to the bookstore to buy myself a copy, finally putting it down at 2:30 when I couldn't keep my eyes open any more.
What does this have to do with teaching? It is the weekend before Halloween, after all, but I wanted to talk about why I have selected World War Z as a textbook for a class in the spring. Aside from the fact I want to have an excuse to read it again, I think it will be a great choice for my Interdisciplinary Studies class.
Some ten years ago, during a year I was away from campus, the university approved a framework for a self-designed major which would allow us to supplement the major offerings we have and give students the opportunity to focus their study according to their interests. But the major is not just a conglomeration of courses; the students have to develop a program that emphasizes cross-disciplinary connections in their chosen field. They start with an "Introduction to Interdisciplinary Studies," and finish with a capstone course, which provides a methodological framework, a start and a finish to the major, and a chance to support their major as a coherent program.
Last year I was asked to teach the introductory course, and given a pretty open brief. The main things I needed to accomplish were to have students write a proposal for an interdisciplinary major (some of the students in the class have already done this, and others are not interdisciplinary majors but are taking the class because they are interested in strengthening their abilities in interdisciplinary thinking), practice writing with a series of short papers, identify questions and appropriate disciplinary approaches to answering them in a variety of topics. To inspire the latter, traditionally the instructor has assigned a few books (three or more) on topics that provide a starting point for the discussion in class.
Last year I cut the number of books down to two and added in the weekday edition of the New York Times as an easy way to keep up on current developments, no matter the area of interest. And we do have a variety of interests in these classes. Several students take interdisciplinary minors and expand them to majors; these include Women's and Gender Studies, Asian Studies, Environmental Studies, and Film Studies, as well as Biochemistry (which is not a regular major, although there are courses and a minor), International Development, and others. We also have students who develop majors from courses that are not coordinated but might go together; I have advised Middle Eastern Studies and Hispanic Studies majors. So almost any books might have relevance. Last year I taught the Japanese novel The Housekeeper and the Professor and A History of the World in Six Glasses. This year I have tentatively selected Manahatta, about the ecological history of the island of Manhattan, and World War Z.
The Max Brooks book will be an excellent book for those interested in international relations or a(n inter)discipline that builds on historical material. It is a wonderful set of primary documents, and your analysis and knowledge of the war is not biased by knowing "how it turned out" and "who is the good guys and who is the bad guys" and "history is written by the victors" so the space is open for some discussion of history as process rather than history as results. In addition, health is obviously a big thing (I am going to have in a statistician who maps epidemics to explain that process as an example of disciplinary application to a topic; she maps epidemics in ticks, but it is the same methodology), as is Asian Studies and environmental studies. People interested in film studies will have the opportunity to talk about how this unfilmable book was made into a film. Plus it is a fun thing to read, and may even attract some students who skim the textbook shelves looking for classes with interesting books as an indication of an interesting class.
Because of our fascination with zombies, long established on campus, we have much expertise to draw upon. Sadly, Steven Schlozman won't be around to lead the brain dissection lab as he did last summer, and I am not about to try doing it myself (but I might talk with someone who does do pathology -- I am friends with such a person on facebook -- and have her come in and talk about laboratory work). I also have the possibility of people talking about "why zombies are relevant to modern society" and "what zombies mean" so I am set if I want visiting speakers. I think this has promise to be a really enjoyable and pedagogically valuable class.
What is the most "fun" textbook you have ever had assigned to you? What do you look for when selecting one? My students last year in another class spent most of their comment sheets complaining about how boring the textbook was, so I will change it up next year when I teach the class again. I selected one that was rather dry, to be completely honest, because the content was strong. Was that a really silly thing to do?