Zombie studies and basket cases

Underwater basket-weaving? Zombies in Popular Media? Perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss so-called useless or absurd courses, says Glen Wright

September 5, 2017
Zombie on the beach
Source: iStock montage

Ridicule of “Mickey Mouse” university courses has become a summer staple of British tabloids that are starved of proper news during the silly season.

Sensational stories of slipping academic standards generally start to appear after A-level results day in August, with clickbait headlines about “degrees in David Beckham studies” or modules on Miley Cyrus and Beyoncé littering news websites well into the new academic year.

Criticism directed towards perceived curricular decline is as old as the academy itself. In AD1 Rome, Seneca lamented the slide from philosophy towards literary analysis, while the term “underwater basket-weaving” has long been used to belittle courses considered useless or absurd.

In 1919, one American commentator complained that higher education “includes everything nowadays – excepting, of course, Greek and Latin – from plumbing to basket-weaving”; in 1950, another criticised “courses in life-insurance salesmanship, bee culture, square-dancing, traffic direction, first aid, or basket-weaving”.

A 1956 article in American Philatelist describes a fully submerged basket manufacture process used in a remote Alaskan community, although detractors in that decade were generally decrying sham classes set up by US universities for student athletes uninterested in academic study. Such classes apparently persist today; a recent independent investigation into one such scheme details a long-running class where students on the sports teams simply submitted any paper, of any quality, in exchange for a passing grade.

The subaqueous skill again entered popular parlance in the 1960s as young men enrolled at universities in droves to dodge the Vietnam War draft, and a number of universities have since sought to get in on the joke by offering one-off courses and taster sessions.

Meanwhile, in the UK, the University of Leicester used Back to the Future Day (21 October 2015 – the date that Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) travelled to in the 1985 film) to announce a degree in “transtemporal studies”. The course promises “solid employment and steadily increasing wages for at least the next 50 years (apart from a brief recession in the late 2040s)”.

Universities have also offered, without any hint of irony, courses entitled Zombies in Popular Media, How to Watch Television, and What if Harry Potter Is Real? (the wizarding world is “fertile ground for exploring…issues of race, class, gender, time, place, the uses of space and movement, [and] the role of multiculturalism in history”).

In 2014, the University of Pennsylvania’s English department began offering a course entitled Wasting Time on the Internet. The tutor insists that daydreaming and distraction are an integral part of the creative process, but admits that students are yet to produce much work of literary interest.

The critics are free to scoff, but our allegiance to academic freedom apparently requires us to accept that it is bound to produce some basket cases – subaqueous or otherwise.

Glen Wright blogs about the hidden, silly side of higher education at AcademiaObscura.com and tweets at @AcademiaObscura.

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