A Monstrous Curriculum

Posted on: February 16, 2012

What do Werewolves, Mermaids, Cyborgs, and Dexter have in common?

Answer: German 399.

Three days a week, Dr. Tina Boyer engages ten students in the analysis of literary representations of “monsters” and the monstrous. “People are always a little skeptical about monsters and teaching it as a course,” Boyer explained. “They think it’s perhaps too easy, or about unicorns, but it’s really an investigation of how we as a culture view things that are different from us.”

Operating under the definition of “monster” as anything that induces fear by breaching a cultural taboo, the class’s objective is to examine where that fear came from, where it will lead, and what it means.

Beginning with Norse mythology and medieval epics, the syllabus takes the students on a chronological journey all the way through present-day pop culture. The class analyzes those things that immediately come to mind when one thinks of monsters, such as Dracula, Frankenstein, sea creatures, and Beowulf’s Grendel. However, one might be surprised to find the syllabus contains units on Orientalism, Sickness, and Artificial Intelligence.

While discussing religious identities in the Middle Ages, students were quick to find modern examples. Referencing political cartoons about Radical Terrorists and the Chinese government, Boyer commented that monstrous identities born out of ideological differences are especially prevalent these days. There is a general sentiment of “we are the normal ones, and they are the monsters because they are not like us.”

The same concept is applied to studying perceptions of people with AIDS or people in insane asylums who “are ostracized on account of their handicap.” Even the genre of science fiction communicates this fear of the “other,” as many plots depict the dire repercussions of modern technology gone awry.

Perhaps one of the most interesting subjects of discussion is the topic of Identity Crisis, when the line between “self” and “monster” is blurred. Boyer cites the TV show Dexter; who is the monster there? “When you start identifying with something you shouldn’t be, categories break down and you are forced to examine what really shapes us.”

Throughout the semester “students begin to see that culture is all a matter of perspective and perception, which causes them to look at our own culture a little more critically,” said Boyer, and this challenge has been well-received thus far. “The students are very insightful, they sometimes pose questions I hadn’t thought of and I love that.”

Did we mention the class is taught in German?

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