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WSJ: Phillips visits Zombie Academia

March 4, 2014

WSJ: “Zombie Studies Gain Ground on College Campuses: Students, Professors Study Culture of Living Dead” by Erica E. Phillips begins as a profile of Southern Utah Professor Kyle Bishop and goes on to mention other zombie scholar including, California State University Professor Christopher Moreman, Clemson Professor Sarah Lauro and others before concluding with a quote from WWZ author Max Brooks. Phillips writes:

The last five years have seen 20 new scholarly books with “zombie” in the title or topic category, according to Baker & Taylor, a distributor of academic and other books; in the 10 prior years, there were 10. JSTOR, an online archive of about 2,000 academic journals, says the journals have run 39 articles invoking the undead since 2005, versus seven in the preceding 10 years.

The piece is supplemented by video interview of Professor Bishop: “Zombie Scholars Give Rise to ‘Walking Dead’ Studies
AND
Feed Your Brain with Brains: Six Real Zombie College Classes” also by Erica E. Phillips highlighting six college classes about zombies (UPenn, GMU, Columbia College of Chicago, Peru State and Harvard).

The main article also offers rebut from professors who think they are dumbing down the education. But Phillips sort of scatters around the issue with some ambiguity about the meaning of “survival” (as if any of us know how best to survive the future). When Phillips quotes,

Michael Poliakoff, who directs policy for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, says the proliferation of undergraduate courses in topics like zombies and vampires is helping ruin American students’ brains. Citing various studies, Mr. Poliakoff says many U.S. college graduates still lack proficiency in basic verbal literacy. “What have we given up in order to dabble in the undead?” he says. “We’ve given up survival skills.”

Does Poliakoff mean the same kind of “survival” that Max Brooks means in his “The Zombie Survival Guide” cited in Phillips’ conclusion? I don’t think so. Maybe I am reading it wrong, but Max Brooks wants us to learn Marine-Boy-Scout survival skills and Poliakoff seems to be talking about grammar and core curriculum classic texts.

Phillips seems to be making two connected arguments. On the surface, this is a piece about zombie studies and the various professors experimenting with it and the arguments for and against pop-culture-curricula. But the subtext is that postmodern critical reading is zombie-thinking, in contrast to traditional core texts like Shakespeare (see also dead white European males).

For Bishop, literacy is literacy. Students need to learn to read and we can start with any text. But for culture warriors, Shakespeare is different than Walking Dead. For some, it’s important that students are exposed to Shakespeare in a way that it’s not important that they be exposed to zombies. And yet because of similar reasons, the students can’t (or won’t) read Shakespeare with the same critical mind that they might read zombies. The students can and will ask different questions of popular texts then they might of Shakespeare. And the questions, the engagement with a text, that’s the lesson.

As with most zombie issues, it’s both! Alive and dead! Exactly how much of each a student needs is hard to say. Everyone is different. The Academy is a strange place filled with all sorts of zombies. And Ms. Phillips is hearing from many of these zombies today; her Twitter is abuzz after her article.

A.L. Phillips was grateful:

OMG! The @WSJ just mentioned a book I’m a contributor in!! *dying* (Or is it *undying*?) Zombies in the academy: http://on.wsj.com/MK8wQR

DoctoroftheDead bemoans no mention of course in Baltimore but that tweet started a nice series with Professor Lauro;

Zombie scholars unite!

Drezner, at Tufts, also upset:

Not gonna lie, @EEPhillips_WSJ: I’m wounded that your great zombie story … failed to mention http://www.amazon.com/Theories-International-Politics-Zombies-Drezner/dp/0691147833/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1309103674&sr=8-1

Maybe because Drezner needs to continue his work. His book, “Theories of International Politics and Zombies” is a fabulous introductory primer to exactly what Phillips’s Brooks-quote-conclusion is calling for. Drezner’s work is real political science 101 on international policy as if planning for WWZ-zombie-apocalypse-epidemic-emergency-response. It’s funny and it makes you think about real international political issues aside from zombies.

Still, there is a very real concern that thinking of virus outbreaks as zombies is not the best way to learn political science. There are epistemic implications to worry about, diseased people are still people not zombies. So, Drezner’s zombie-follow-up was a TED talk about the dangers of apocalyptic thinking. And I pondered before if perhaps his Tufts colleague Daniel Dennet didn’t spread his idea of “dangerous memes” to Drezner. Maybe worrying about the danger of memes is itself the dangerous meme? Maybe it’s more important to learn to decode memes than it is to worry about contamination from the content. But that’s a really hard to say, especially with immature readers.

Another WSJ journalist, Spencer Jakab jokes a tweet at Phillips with suggestion of zombie professors. That kind of reference seems like a reference to deadweight professors with tenure. In contrast, Noam Chomsky has an article in Jacobin Magazine: “The Death of American Universities“. Chomsky doesn’t refer to “zombie” this time, (as he did recently when he was questioned by student). Chomsky writes:

universities: how do you ensure “greater worker insecurity”? Crucially, by not guaranteeing employment, by keeping people hanging on a limb than can be sawed off at any time, so that they’d better shut up, take tiny salaries, and do their work; and if they get the gift of being allowed to serve under miserable conditions for another year, they should welcome it and not ask for any more.

There is a deep connection here to Professor Lauro’s argument about zombies as slavery.

Meanwhile, zombie colleges need to attract and satisfy the consumer (the student) with entertaining options. The university is a business and entertainment is a big part of it. Learning to read is a perk.

See more ZombieLaw: category Academics and tag Education.

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