Academics and Research / Current Issue

In a class by themselves: DU instructors get creative with out-of-the-ordinary courses

University teaching and learning has come a long way in the past few decades — just ask psychology Professor Emeritus Bernie Spilka. “When I arrived in 1957, classroom practices were not only more traditional, but much more formal,” he says. Male faculty wore jackets and conservative shirts and ties in the classroom. The dominant teaching method was lecture with questions and comments. And expulsions from a course were common for poor behavior or improper dress.

But during the 1960s, things started to change: New, more active faculty with new ideas were introduced to the University. “We became more motivated to try different ideas and methods,” Spilka says. “Simple lecturing was still present but markedly reduced. The ‘old guard’ was retiring and dying off, and DU changed radically and much for the better.”

And DU’s progress hasn’t slowed down since.

Now, many courses are anything but traditional. Think classes taught via satellite. Think reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban for homework, or comparing two different kinds of sauvignon blanc during class.

All this while some students “dress up” for class in sweatpants and flip-flops.

Oh, how times have changed.

We asked students and academic departments around the University about some of their coolest and most outside-the-box courses. Here’s a sampling.


Heavy Metal and the Re-Enchantment of Modern Life

Instructor: Jarl Ahlkvist, lecturer in the arts, humanities and social sciences

The gist: The undergraduate course uses heavy metal and culture as a lens through which to examine ways in which modern life is “disenchanted,” or devoid of mystery, and the possibilities for “re-enchanting” our individual and collective experiences, Ahlkvist says.

Welcome to the dark side: Heavy metal’s key themes and iconography are concerned with the unknown, the deviant and the taboo. “Heavy metal discusses openly, often in vivid detail, things that mainstream culture prefers us not to: death, mutilation, hypocrisy, environmental/nuclear devastation, suicide, genocide, sexual/violent crime, obsession, abuse and alienation,” Ahlkvist says.

What the homework looks like: Listening to a range of heavy metal music, from Black Sabbath to Mastodon; watching documentary, biographical and concert films; analyzing album cover artwork and song lyrics; attending a metal performance; and participating in the virtual “headbanger” scene online.

If you like this: Try Ahlkvist’s other class, the History of Progressive Rock.


Why Do We Fall in Love?

Instructor: Professor Howard Markman, psychology

Lovin’ it with Dr. Love: Markman, commonly referred to as “Dr. Love,” teaches this course in addition to running a couples clinic in DU’s psychology department, writing bestselling books about relationships and appearing on talk shows.

The gist: The class looks at the science of love — falling in love, staying in love and repairing love — with the aid of state-of-the-art research from experts.

Tough love, baby: Students come into the undergraduate core class thinking it will be an easy “A,” but it’s anything but — there’s a lot of work. It’s an advanced-level psychology course, after all.

When students teach the teacher: Students have to end the course with their own research and a presentation on a subject of their choice. “Early on, students conducted a lot of research on using the Internet to meet people before I became acquainted with [the concept],” Markman says.

Best part: As part of a Valentine’s Day assignment, students can interview their parents about aspects of their relationship, including their favorite love song. Students can make a CD of their own favorite song and their parents’, then write an essay about the similarities between the two.


Wine Festival

Instructor: Eric Lane, director of operations, School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management

The gist: Students have six to eight weeks to plan and execute two world-class wine events. Students assume various administrative, sales and marketing, and operational positions for the remainder of the class.

A newbie: Fall 2009 was the first time the undergraduate course was offered. Because the class — and the festival — was considered a smash success, it will be offered each fall going forward.

A welcome difference: It’s all about “real-life” work. Students don’t have to worry about lectures, tests or writing papers. They are evaluated instead on their personal contributions, their reflections and the collaborative “bible” they produce detailing what went into the event.

Why it’s cool: Students get to eat great food, try fine wines and then participate in really high-class events. They interact with vendors, campus entities and guests during the course of the events, Lane says.

The question students are asking: How are we going to pull this off in such a short time?


Sustainability and Human Society

Instructor: Lisa Dale, lecturer in the arts, humanities and social sciences

The gist: It’s considered a “gateway” class designed to introduce undergraduate students to all facets of sustainability. It’s all part of DU’s new sustainability minor.

Part of a bigger picture: After completing the course, students can select sustainability classes that complement their majors. The last part of the minor is a capstone, where students work in a group setting to complete a project.

Join the club: DU is one of a growing number of universities in the country to offer such a program based on sustainability.

Get it while it’s hot: “I used to walk into my classes and students didn’t know what sustainability was,” Dale says. “Now, it’s the buzz. It’s in the papers, in the news, every day.”

In case you were curious: Sustainability is defined as meeting the needs of the current generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.


C-SPAN Distance Learning

Instructor: C-SPAN contributor Steve Scully

The gist: The undergraduate class — taught via broadband stream — offers a chance to learn about the government, the media and their relationship with each other not from a social sciences professor or a textbook, but from people in the field.

Why it’s popular: This is the only distance-learning course of its kind in the country. DU students also connect with students from Pace University, George Mason University and the University of the District of Columbia. “DU students have a front row seat to history,” Scully says.

A chance at fame: Classes often are aired on CSPAN3.

Whom students interact with: Senators Bob Dole and George McGovern, veteran journalist Helen Thomas, Fox News correspondent James Rosen and former White House Chief of Staff Thomas “Mack” McLarty have all been guests. And that’s just a small sampling.

When politics are funny: Scully is known for lightening the mood by ending classes with clips of Jon Stewart and “Saturday Night Live” political skits.

An opportunity unmatched: “At one point a student asked Newt Gingrich if he would ever consider running for president,” says Erin Conroy (BA journalism ’06), who took the class in 2005 and now works for the Associated Press in New York City. “A journalism major at the time, I remember recognizing this as a rare opportunity many accomplished reporters would envy.”


Paranormal Phenomenon

Instructor: Chip Reichardt, psychology professor

The gist: By studying ghosts, UFOs and other fringe occurrences, students learn to think about alternative explanations for events.

Why it’s outside-the-box: “Not many courses in college address paranormal phenomena, even though people are really interested in the topic. The reason is that faculty don’t believe in paranormal phenomena, with good reason,” Reichardt says. “We need to teach students how to think, and I use the course for that purpose.”

A meaningful experience: “The class talked about the state of the human mind and how easy it is to come up with false conclusions based on limited evidence and preconceived beliefs. It was an elective core class, but it changed the way I think,” says Jesus Corral (BA international studies ’07).

What the homework looks like: Writing about angels, ghosts, near-death experiences, UFOs, life after death and ESP.


Introduction to Book Publishing

Instructor: Elizabeth Geiser, English lecturer

Motto: People still love books.

The gist: The course introduces students to every aspect and function of book publishing.

Why it’s outside-the-box: Students meet top executives in each phase of the publishing process. As a final “exam,” they interview a key executive to discuss and examine how a particular book from that company actually got published.

What the homework looks like: Creating ads for books; going to Denver’s famous independent bookstore, the Tattered Cover, for book readings and signings; learning to proofread and edit; and attending a symposium featuring an author and the editor who edited his or her book.

A world where editors are praised: At a past symposium, best-selling thriller author Stephen White told students that his editor actually mapped out a room he described in one of his books and told White that if he kept it the way he described, he’d have his character walk right into the wall.

Fun fact: The University of Denver hosts one of two graduate-level publishing institutes in the country. Geiser was the director of the exclusive Denver Publishing Institute for 33 years.


Dead Sea Scrolls

Instructor: Alison Schofield, assistant professor of religious studies

An expert in the field: Schofield belongs to a select group of scholars who study the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Who’s taking it: Undergraduate and graduate students.

The gist: Students study the Dead Sea Scrolls, a cache of more than 900 manuscripts dating from B.C. 250 to 68 A.D. that were discovered in caves along the Dead Sea between 1947-56. The scrolls offer a rare window into early Judaism and Christianity.

Why it’s popular: Nothing is as intriguing as a conspiracy theory — unless it’s multiple conspiracy theories. “It addressed something that in today’s society has a lot of misconceptions and myth-like qualities about it,” says Victoria Jaramillo (BA journalism ’08).

Why it’s outside-the-box: In the digital imagery lab, students get to examine and manipulate high-resolution images of the scrolls to see what hidden secrets they can find. “There are only a few schools on the planet with access to these digital resources on texts and artifacts that are still under current debate,” Schofield explains.

Best part: “It involves a lot of hands-on work, allowing students the opportunity to read and try to interpret the scrolls for themselves,” Jaramillo says. “This was particularly interesting in comparison to classes where all the legwork is done for you.”

The question students are asking: Who wrote the scrolls?


Topics in Literature: Harry Potter

Instructor: Jenn Zukowski Boughn, University College lecturer

Who’s taking it: It’s an arts and culture graduate course offered sporadically through University College (intended for Muggles).

The gist: Finding out everything you ever wanted to learn about Harry Potter and understanding the cultural importance of the work as a modern epic.

Why it’s popular: Students are reading the Harry Potter series — and getting graduate credit for it. Isn’t that reason enough?

Students may be surprised to learn: There were many fantasy novels written about wizards’ schools before J.K. Rowling’s series, and Rowling alludes to other literature in her writing.

Young at heart: In addition to reading all seven Harry Potter books, students must also read books such as Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

What the homework’s like: One assignment is to complete a folklore scavenger hunt, finding the origins of folklore (such as turning men into pigs, a grail quest, Merlin, rats and centaurs) and locating their existence and relevance in the Harry Potter series.


Popular Poetry: YouTube, Hip-Hop, Bob Dylan and the Beats

Instructor: David Daniels, lecturer in the University Writing Program

The gist: The first-year seminar focuses on 20th century popular poetry and song lyrics.

Why it’s popular: Students can talk about something that affects their everyday lives –such as hip-hop songs — in an intellectual way, of course.

Why it’s outside-the-box: The course tackles topics that aren’t typically taught in academic settings, such as the role of popular music in forming subcultural identities, or the role of YouTube in expanding the realm of poetry, Daniels explains.

Best part: “I was impressed by my students’ ability to treat rather familiar topics, such as the Black Eyed Peas or Bob Dylan, in such new, invigorating and intellectually stimulating ways,” Daniels says.


Forensic Pathology

Instructor: Professor Phillip Danielson (PhD ’96), biological sciences

The gist: The undergraduate class focuses specifically on the investigation of sudden, unnatural, unexplained or violent deaths. Students learn how to determine the cause of death, the identity of the deceased, the nature and severity of injury, and the timing of the injury relative to the time of death.

What students are learning: Decomposing bodies, blood spatter, knife wounds, ligature marks, fingerprints, DNA charts, skulls and bones are popular conversation topics.

Elementary, my dear Watson: “Long ago, it was the author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who had a considerable influence on popularizing the use of scientific crime-detection  methods through his fictional character Sherlock Holmes,” Danielson says. “It was in the stories of Sherlock Holmes that the public was introduced to the fields of serology, fingerprinting and firearm identification long before the value of these techniques was recognized and accepted by the criminal justice system. More recently, TV shows like ‘CSI’ have continued this tradition and in the process have attracted a mass audience to the field.”

Grossology 101: A former student said she couldn’t eat anything during the class. Perhaps it had something to do with the real human skull that sat on Danielson’s desk.


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