Last semester, I spent almost every Sunday night watching classic Western films. But it wasn’t for fun or even for a film criticism course — it was part of a class the University of North Carolina Classics Department named “Myth in Greek Literature.”
Over the course of the semester, we read ancient Greek tragedies as well as secondary sources on classical mythology. But we also read a book by contemporary philosopher and University of Chicago professor Robert Pippin on Hollywood Westerns and the “American Myth.” In class discussions and essays, we identified common mythological themes in Greek tragedies and Western films.
This certainly wasn’t a typical course, especially not in a classics department. But it’s just one example of a growing trend of unique college courses being offered across the nation.
Collegiate magazines and newspapers regularly publish articles on “odd” college courses, but the difference in classes like “Myth and the Western” is that they aren’t just electives. These lists tend to include courses on topics like Harry Potter or fencing — courses you wouldn’t be able to take outside of the college environment but that were more for enjoyment than anything else.
But in addition to the typical “odd” elective courses, American colleges and universities have begun offering unusual courses for specific majors or general education requirements, not just electives.
I enrolled in the myth class because I’m a classics major. I didn’t know Westerns were a component until the first day of class. I’m sure more than a few students dropped after learning they’d be tested on John Wayne films.
Unusual courses at other universities vary from philosophy to science classes as well as odd electives.
The anthropology department at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y. offers a course called “Dealing with the Dead.” This title probably brings to mind either the TV show Bones or some sort of psychic attempt to communicate with the deceased, and the actual course description is no less interesting than these false assumptions.
Students create a mummified chicken and visit a local funeral home as part of the course. They also study real human teeth donated by a local dentist. While these unusual class components sound like fun, the course also prepares students for careers in the medical field or as forensic anthropologists.
For undergraduate philosophy students at the University of Scranton, career preparation comes in a much different form. In an honors course aptly titled “Trivium,” students are forced to wear togas and recite selections from Plato’s writings on the campus quad. This semester, they’ll be reciting passages of Plato’s Phaedrus.
In addition to analyzing these ancient texts, students improve their public speaking ability as well. Performances are graded on posture and delivery of the speech. Even though it’s intimidating, many students enroll in the class to prepare themselves for careers in law as well as finance or publishing, all fields in which strong communication skills are necessary for success.
Other professors add levity to typical courses by presenting the material in unusual formats. Fellow correspondent Daniel Horowitz took a literature class at Sarah Lawrence University where the professor recited the entire epic Beowulf on a harp in old English.
Of course, “odd” elective courses are still popular — Pitzer College recently introduced a course titled “Learning from YouTube,” and Michigan State University has a literature course based on the Lord of the Rings novels.
If you have availability in your class schedule next semester, why not enroll in a course like these? You won’t have the opportunity to take unique classes after college, and it will undoubtedly be a memorable experience at least.
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