SDSU Offers Its First Zombies Class To Reanimate Students
Friday, March 28, 2014
Aired 3/28/14 on KPBS News.
KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando audits the SDSU Zombies class and speaks with professor Emily Hicks about how zombies are reanimating students.
Zombies are everywhere in pop culture. "The Walking Dead" is a hit on TV, Brad Pitt just saved the world from them in "World War Z," and killing zombies is almost a rite of passage in video games. So with zombies not looking to shamble off into the sunset maybe it’s time to put them to better use. That’s what San Diego State is doing this semester.
Zombies always reflect the times that spawn them. In 1968, George A. Romero used them to comment on racism in “Night of the Living Dead.” In the '70s he resurrected them to address consumerism; in the '80s to condemn vivisection. In 2004, zombies became a metaphor for apathy in Edgar Wright’s “Shaun of the Dead.”
This year, San Diego State wanted to combat student apathy by offering a class with irresistible pop culture appeal.
"The name of the class is one word: Zombies," SDSU professor Emily Hicks said.
This is the first time Hicks is teaching a class on the undead and like Romero before her, she understands that zombies are just a jumping off point. Romero saw them as a blank slate for social commentary; Hicks sees them as a teaching tool to bring topics back to life. For instance, students that had grown bored with issues of racism and classism, or who felt singled out as examples because they were economically challenged are now engaging in vigorous discussions on the topics.
"We’re talking about blood and guts and all kinds of things that are sort of leveling so I’ve found that some students are tired talking about multicultural issues in general in my other classes but not in the zombies class," Hicks said.
Zombies are also a great tool for addressing societal collapse. People want popular entertainment to explore their apocalyptic fears but they don’t want it to be too real says author Max Brooks.
"But when you do a zombie movie or a zombie book, you can have those same apocalyptic fantasies, society breaking down, government disintegrating, people turning on each other, but if the catalyst is fictional, if it’s a zombie then you can still sleep at night," Brooks said.
Brooks’ Zombie Survival Guide is assigned reading for San Diego State students, and they’re ravenous for such content. You won’t find any brain-dead kids in this class, everyone’s synapses are firing away and that’s exactly what Hicks had hoped for.
"I have fallen in love with this class because everything we want as teachers for our students to do which is to get engaged, to take notes, to prepare for classes in between classes, to always want to get up on stage and show us whatever they’ve discovered, explain what they are going to write about — all those things happen in this class without me saying anything," Hicks said.
San Diego State isn’t the first institution to let zombies shamble into the classroom. The University of Baltimore was one of the first to offer zombie classes back in 2010. There’s also been a surge in scholarly books with zombie in the title. Two of them — American Gothic Zombie and Race, Oppression and the Zombie — are required reading for Hicks’ class.
Students also watch films. Like the Canadian film "Pontypool," which is unique in suggesting that zombieism spreads through language. The film inspires students to use their brains to consider how words gain their meaning and how that meaning can breakdown.
Professor Hicks likes the way zombies are reanimating her students.
"I have taught here 30 years and I have never had students so excited about writing a mid-term," Hicks said.
One student wants to look at zombies through the lens of capitalism, another wants to use a video game to explore the notion of trans-human. Christina Chovan wants to explore how we define ourselves as human.
"What makes a person a person. Is everything really such a binary opposition, is there some kind of a gray area to where we all are zombies in some way or another," Chovan said.
That’s what’s scary. Zombies are the "other," but they also used to be us. Couple that with an end of days scenario, and you have a perfect metaphor for all our fears from AIDS to the economic crisis. That strikes a cord with student Jeremiah Wessling.
"I think it kind of speaks for the times that we all feel kind of helpless right now," Wessling said. "There’s a lot of things going on and a lot of people are scared so they kind of want to prepare themselves for end times and it’s kind of fascinating to see how the world will change and how we will change."
The mantra of most zombie films is aim for the head. San Diego State took that to heart, aiming for the minds of their students through the blood and gore of the zombie apocalypse.