In Praise of Zombies

We need to talk about zombies.

In a recent article in Inside Higher Education about the precipitous decline in the number of English majors at my institution, the University of Maryland, College Park, the undead rear their charred and mutilated heads. Our zombie friends, we are informed, promise (or threaten) to help lure resistant students back into the English major:

Cartwright said there’s a demonstrated interest in updated versions of Great Books courses, but also in what he said some have called “zombie courses” — pejoratively, not descriptively. Those include courses on such popular genres as science fiction, fantasy literature, J.R.R. Tolkein, regional literature or children’s literature.

Cartwright said there’s some feeling among his colleagues that such offerings equate to “dumbing down” the curriculum.

Zombies might increase enrollments, but it seems that there are fears that more majors might come at a terrible price: a “dumbing down” of the curriculum.

As someone who has taught a variety of zombie courses, both at UMD and elsewhere, as someone who will undoubtedly teach more, and who will enthusiastically help spread the zombie plague across College Park, I’m always alert to possible misunderstandings about what such courses look like, what their justification for existing is, and what kind of intellectual demands they make on students. The common presupposition is that courses on popular genres and forms — such as comics, science fiction, and television — eat the brains of students. They represent a zombification of the curriculum, a submission to inexorable market pressures, which might be understood as part of a broader corporate takeover of the university. We used to trade in rigorous knowledge; now we deliver edu-tainment to the slovenly, capricious undergraduate masses, who punish us in our teaching evaluations if we don’t pander to them.

There are two sorts of degradation involved in letting curricular zombies eat our brains. On the one hand, we’re allegedly abandoning Great Books or culturally serious texts in favor of lousy popular works. On the other hand, we’re hollowing out the methodological core of literary studies. That is, we used to trade in aesthetically sensitive close analysis of difficult or historically important texts. Now, we’re allegedly doing little more than teaching cultural history or adopting cultural studies methodologies (methods that can be applied to anything, from cereal boxes to Shakespeare). We’re all becoming less intelligent versions of Murray Siskind from Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise.

These are serious concerns and deserve a careful reply. If zombie courses were only about putting butts in seats, we should not teach them at the university level. If such courses were little more than examples of cultural studies or cultural history, we might need to have a discussion about the proper disciplinary boundaries of literary study. (Although, I should say I am in favor of accepting the broadest possible conception of literary study, and see nothing wrong with having cultural studies be integrated into literature departments. Frankly, I thought these questions of disciplinary boundaries were settled in the eighties. In any event, actually existing literature departments, including the department at Maryland, teach much more than Great Books: we teach film, linguistics, rhetoric, digital humanities, among other dynamic subfields.)

Over the last few years, I’ve taught comics at the undergraduate and graduate level as well as a range of science fiction classes. I’ve also taught courses on canonical twentieth-century fiction and courses on various avant-garde and experimental literatures. So I feel as if I have something to say about the way zombie courses tend to go, and how zombie courses compare to more traditional literature classes. My experience has been that, while they do — fortunately — get butts in seats, courses on popular genres and art forms can sometimes be much harder for students to adjust to. Many students have a harder time learning (for example) how to read comics critically than they do canonical works. They know how they’re supposed to talk about Virginia Woolf; they initially have no idea — or only a very shallow idea — about how to respond to Alison Bechdel. Indeed, many students come into the classroom assuming that we’ll be reading what they regard as canonical within a popular art form, or that we’ll be reading for plot, or that every week will be pure fun. As my students quickly learn, the reality of the zombie classroom is very different.

In my SF and comics classes, the first couple weeks are invariably partly devoted to disabusing students of these ideas, to helping them learn to suspend other ways of reading, and to teaching them to read art forms they thought they understood with new eyes. My pedagogical aim is to re-channel the considerable passion students bring into such classes toward more critically focused ends.

Which isn’t in any way to disparage zombie courses, but to sing their praises. These courses can be the most intellectually rigorous and aesthetically transformative classes that college students take. And the nature of this transformation isn’t only about alienating them from their naive enjoyment of popular genres. I can’t speak for others, but my method of teaching these materials is practically old fashioned. (This isn’t, it should go without saying, the only valid way to teach popular art.) I insist that the reason we’re reading comics isn’t in order to learn something about the culture, but because many of the books I assign are masterpieces. And they’re masterpieces you can’t just read casually or unthinkingly. You need to learn to read, for example, Chris Ware’s Building Stories. To fully appreciate Ware’s brilliance, you need to become familiar with the history of comics and become comfortable reading a variety of comics styles and formats. At more advanced levels, you need to develop the capacity to assess critically sophisticated theories about the poetics of comics. None of this is, as many of my students will attest, easy to do.

Giving students access to an important, brilliant, historically significant corpus of art seems to be an entirely appropriate activity for the undergraduate classroom at a university. After you have taken a Zombie Course, you may discover you have actually just taken a Great Books (or in the case of Ware, a Great Box) course without realizing it, and you may also decide that any Great Books course worthy of its name cannot afford to ignore the recent surge of brilliant zombie art. If anything, we need more Zombie Courses than we have, and one hopes — in time — even full-blown Zombie Majors (or at the least Zombie Double-Majors).

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