Superhero Science? Zombie Studies? Colleges Offer Offbeat Courses

In the hallowed halls of some of America's most elite — and expensive — educational institutions, students are taking classes in subjects like garbage, superpowers and zombies.

And the sticker price? As much as $5,000 a pop.

The offbeat offerings appear on the rosters of public and private colleges of all stripes at a time when professors are vying for students who have an increasingly large selection of courses to choose from.

Photo Essay: College for the Zany

Environmental studies professor Virginia Matzek has taught "The Joy of Garbage" at Santa Clara University for two years, and has proposed the course at California State University in Sacramento, where she's just accepted a tenure-track position.

She opens by having her class root through several bags of trash — dry, she's quick to point out, minus food remnants like banana peels.

"The first day, the students have to find some joy in garbage," Matzek said. "We go through it as if we were archeologists. ... How societies deal with their waste says something about how they take care of their environment."

For those attending Santa Clara, the per-course cost is about $4,000 to $5,000 within the tuition of $33,000 a year.

But "Garbage" students who think they're taking a fluff course might get a rather rude awakening — and not just because of the stench at the dumps and recycling centers they visit. Matzek says she teaches them cold, hard science using trash and waste as the central focus.

So, for instance, they learn that landfills — and flatulent cows — emit methane, which is a greenhouse gas.

"I think they find it unexpectedly hard," Matzek said. "They take it thinking it's just going to be fun, and I try to make it fun, but it's all solidly grounded in scientific concepts. The 'yuck factor' helps students not naturally good at science to get it."

Matzek isn't the only professor taking a creative approach to learning. There's also "The Science of Superheroes" at the University of California at Irvine.

Michael Dennin is teaching the freshman seminar again this semester, and said the course focuses on the very real principles of physics using the very fictitious superpowers wielded by the likes of Spider-Man, Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman.

"It gives me a chance to talk about real science but in a context that is very familiar to the students," said Dennin.

They study the physics of flying and fluid dynamics that allows Superman to zoom through the air, and discuss spider silk, which Spider-Man relies on for his death-defying swings from skyscraper to skyscraper and real spiders use to spin their webs. (The substance is currently being developed for human use because of its incredible strength.)

Full-time UC Irvine students pay about $1,000 per course as part of their $23,000 annual tuition and fees.

At a time when the cost of college has doubled that of inflation and students are graduating with more debt than ever before, such courses raise questions about what value they lend to a student's overall education and whether they're just a ploy to get people to sign up.

Robert Shireman, executive director of the nonprofit Project on Student Debt, sees nothing wrong with classes like "The Science of Superheroes" because in the case of that one, he said, it's a clever way to teach physics to students who might not otherwise seek out the subject.

But since a growing number of college undergraduates are taking five or six years to graduate, rather than the standard four — which adds to their debt — he advises against taking fun electives unless there's really room for them in the schedule and they're more than just froth.

"If frivolous courses are adding to the time it’s taking to complete your degree, then certainly it’s something that students should be very cautious of," Shireman said. "I would look at the academic content."

Science isn't the only discipline that professors are putting a spin on. At Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, students look at the role of swine in American history.

Karim M. Tiro teaches "A History of the Pig in America," which deconstructs everything from the origin of the 16th-century word "buccaneer" (it comes from "boucans," which were grills on which they cooked pork) to the skirmishes that British colonists had with Native Americans over pigs brought to the New World from the Old.

And if a history class on pigs in America sounds strange, consider a media studies course at Columbia College in Chicago that examines the presence of zombies in pop culture. "Zombies in Popular Media," taught by Brendan P. Riley, covers the fascination with the brain-eating walking dead, which has manifested itself in voodoo in Haiti, movies like "White Zombie" and video games including "Resident Evil."

Or what about "The Zoo: Conservation, Education and Recreation," a class at California State University's newest Channel Islands campus that teaches about the inner workings of a zoo. It's no monkey business, said Alexander W. McNeill, the biomechanics professor who co-runs the course.

The cross-disciplinary class that melds economics and biomechanics studies the zoo as a business and a social institution, analyzing everything from how it is run and where it gets its funding to its dual role as an educational entity and a recreational facility. Most sessions take place at the Santa Barbara Zoo and are led by various people who work there.

"We are trying to get students to understand that organizations like zoos are much more complex than they appear to be at first glance," said McNeill. "There are just so many things to be learned."

He said the zoo class is "enormously popular" and is usually filled a couple of hours into registration. A maximum of 24 students can enroll.

At New York University, Joe Cutbirth has his students study Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert in "Media & Society: Fake News, Politics & Public Policy." NYU undergraduates pay about $48,800 a year in tuition and fees — which includes their $4,000 courses.

Cutbirth's class examines the role of comedians and their spoof newscasts, like "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" and "The Colbert Report," in the public's perception of politics and the media. Students have to choose one of the two shows to watch four times a week.

But those who think the course is just about sitting in front of the TV, beware, says Cutbirth: He assigns lots of reading from complex texts like Sigmund Freud's "Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious" plus requires several papers, billing his as a critical studies class using media satire as the focus. Lessons on literary tools like allegory, parody and the "village idiot" are among those taught.

"We examine what's gone wrong in the country, not in the relationship we have with politics but in the relationship we have with mass media," he said. "I look at the history of political humor and satire... I don't get people saying, 'I didn't get my money's worth.' I get people who say, 'This is too much work.'"

Among other unusual-sounding electives: "Kitchen Ecology" at Hampshire College in South Amherst, Mass., "The Final Four Experience" at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., "American Gun Policy" at the University of Toledo in Ohio, "Foundations of Business: A Christian Perspective" at Lipscomb University in Nashville, and "The Science of Well-Being and Character Strengths" at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

A one-time Vanderbilt University class for freshmen last fall used the hit TV series "Lost," about plane crash victims on a desert island, as the primary "text."

Professor John M. Sloop said the show is "rich for analysis" for a cultural studies class because of its potpourri of characters, religion-versus-science themes and intricate plotlines.

"I wasn't teaching about 'Lost' so much as I was teaching a course about metaphor," he said. "The same way you would use 'Ulysses' or 'Moby Dick,' we watched episodes outside of class to talk about different critical concepts."

Sloop admitted he did take some heat for offering "Lessons From 'Lost': A Case Study."

"Anybody teaching a class like that can expect some ribbing," he said. "You do worry. From the outside, it can sound trite."

And though his 'Lost' students were good and enjoyed the course, Sloop said it was tricky at times to keep them on point.

"Since they loved the show so much, it was often more difficult to get at the critical concepts," he said. "I had to fight that more than I wanted to."