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University undead? Students study zombies in new course

Some students at the University of Baltimore are tapping into the zombie zeitgeist sweeping the nation — and they aren’t the only ones getting an off-the-beaten-path education.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Is a living, breathing human being qualified to teach a college course about the undead? For University of Baltimore professor Arnold Blumberg, the answer is yes. Blumberg, 39, is currently teaching a curious course titled “Media Genres: Zombies,” in which his roughly 45 students feast on books, comics and 16 zombie films, including the 1932 Bela Lugosi classic “White Zombie,” which Blumberg regards as “filled with atmosphere and very creepy.”

This is a class that taps into the zombie zeitgeist sweeping the nation — and it’s just one of several like it around the country serving up an off-the-beaten-path education to hungry students. Blumberg speaks about his syllabus — and zombies, of course — with bright fan boy enthusiasm.“I've always enjoyed horror, and I've always found zombies more interesting and exciting than a lot of other fantasy monsters,” he told “The idea of a monster that is so very human and yet inhuman at the same time — I can only guess those things hooked me as a kid in the same way they've attracted generations of fans and moviegoers.”

In addition to the ever-ubiquitous cinema and small-screen vampires, zombies are just kinda hot right now. They inspired the best-selling 2009 literary mashup “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”; they’ll give the “True Blood” cast a run for its money when they appear in the AMC show “The Walking Dead,” which is a TV adaptation of a comic book series of the same name; there’s the “Dead Rising” and “Left 4 Dead” video game series, and even a Zombie Con in Irondale, Mo., this past summer.

Blumberg jumped at the chance to teach the course, which looks at zombies from the 1930s to the present from an academic standpoint. The class has already received national and international attention.

“We’ve gotten calls from Los Angeles and Boston,” said Jonathan Shorr, director of the School of Communications Design at the University of Baltimore. Someone from Belgrade, Serbia, even contacted the school to ask if the class was available online, Shorr said.

From pop culture to classroom
While Blumberg’s course may attract a crowd with particularly strong stomachs, it’s certainly not the first of its kind. Columbia College in Chicago and Simpson College in Iowa also offer courses pertaining to the undead.

And in a larger context, Blumberg’s zombie class aligns well with a spate of other offbeat courses at universities across the country. At Georgetown University, students have the option of enrolling in the “Philosophy and Star Trek” course. Students at Bowdoin College in Maine can take classes called “The Souls of Animals” and “Tolkien’s Middle Ages.”

In 2007, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s comparative media studies program began offering a course titled “American Pro Wrestling.” The same department also offered a course in 2008 exploring American soap operas.

“It was understood that wrestling is a very significant cultural phenomena,” said David Thorburn, professor of literature and comparative media studies, when asked about MIT’s decision to offer such a course. “The normal reaction for people, when they see in the curriculum things that come from their ordinary lives, like television or wrestling or sports events ... is to think the teacher is pandering to the students, or that the class is intellectually dubious. But it would make perfect sense if a film student or an anthropology student decided to take courses in this sort of thing. They would be learning about other aspects of popular culture.”

A no-brainer? College enrollment rates were at an all-time high in 2009, with more than 70 percent of high school graduates enrolling, according to a Labor Department report released in April. So perhaps it makes sense for schools to further diversify the courses they offer.

“These seemingly offbeat courses perform the same kind of function as other liberal arts courses, and that is to train you as a critical thinker and reader,” says Thomas S. Davis, assistant professor of English at Ohio State University. “You are learning to be a more discerning reader of cultural texts and phenomena, and that’s a good thing.”

That’s why Blumberg’s zombie course was a natural fit for student Darin Malfi. Malfi, 30, already knew of the professor through “Zombiemania,” a 2006 book Blumberg co-wrote with Andrew Hershberger, so the course was something of an ... uhh ... no-brainer.

“The class teaches you how to look at popular culture critically,” says Malfi. “All of the things he’s teaching, you can apply it to any medium of pop culture and see where it’s coming from.” Blumberg, who credits the notorious 1968 movie “Night of the Living Dead” with being his first zombie film experience, shrugs off the notion that his class is merely frivolous. “It would be irresponsible to not teach this kind of course,” he explained. “Young people are completely swamped with messages on their computers, on their smart phones, on their televisions. Why not to give them the tools they need to be able to analyze things around them properly?”