If there were a zombie apocalypse, would you have the necessary resources to survive? While a rising of the undead has never actually happened, the idea of the zombie has been popularized on a multitude of mediums. Associate Professor, Dr. Brian Lain, created a course titled "Zombies as Rhetorical Figures" which recently won the Outstanding Online Teacher and Course Award from the Center for Learning Experimentation, Application, and Research (CLEAR).
The award recognizes excellence in the design of online courses and the facilitation of the instructional experience using educational technology. The course, next offered in Summer 2019, will feature a specialized logo to signify that the course is outstanding and has met nationally recognized standards.
Dr. Brian Richardson, the Department of Communication Studies Chair, stated "Dr. Lain has put in a lot of time and effort to make the zombie centered course engaging, interactive and educational for students. I'm pleased to see his efforts rewarded with this esteemed recognition from CLEAR". Ian Etheridge, a student who took the course in Summer 2018, described his experience as eye opening stating, "the course really challenges the way you understand the zombie and power relations".
When interviewed about winning the Outstanding Online Teacher and Course Award, Dr. Lain discussed the class and his reaction to being recognized by the university.
What inspired you to create a zombie rhetoric class?
I was attracted to the ubiquity and openness of the zombie. It is at once an empty vessel that can be used to represent anything and, at the same time, so full of past historical meaning (slavery, colonialism, white supremacy, white virginity, religious persecution, etc.) that you can never actually say enough about the figure. The zombie has moved so much over the past 70 years that it is hard to even say can and cannot be a zombie and yet, everyone knows what it is, chances are you even have one on your phone (either trying to eat your plants or on your Netflix account).
What does the class entail?
We track the virtual zombie through a number of different media (films, TV shows, graphic novels, even video games). Zombie media are not actually about the apocalypse or even about the future, like all horror stories, it's about the present and it's about the living (not the dead). One of the course goals is to survive the zombie apocalypse. What do I mean by that? Well you will need to take the class, but I'm not afraid of the Umbrella Corporation or the Rage Virus.
After a student takes your class, what do you expect for them to take away?
I hope when they see zombie media they ask two questions:
1. What does this figure represent (who is being othered)?
2. What is necessary of me to survive this (how does it affect me or what does it want)?
Students start to see the narrative under the story. After the course, I have had students say, now I want to do this for Pirates, or Superheroes, or even the Planet of the Apes. That's when I know they are getting the idea.
Has the class changed over the years that it has been offered?
Yes, definitely. It started as a face-to-face course. With the move to offering the course online, it opened up new possibilities of using technology to track the zombie. The zombie, unlike other classic figures of horror such as Dracula or Frankenstein, has no real literary origin because the zombie was imagined through film. Last summer I did my own survivor blog as if I was experiencing the zombie apocalypse, filming, my reactions as I went through the major questions of the course (colonialism, gender, race, family, society). This summer, I am going to ask the same of the students.
What is your favorite part of teaching that course?
Working with students. The course has a "choose your own adventure" element and students can decide their own readings, viewing, and how they post their responses. Something about the topic or the figure brings out really creative student work, and I love that. When it begins, it's all about this figure (which is already dead) but by the end, it's all about the students (who are very much alive).
What is your favorite zombie?
Great question. I love the zombies that don't call themselves zombies. It's sort of a rule that great zombie media avoid the use of the word itself (Romero's Night of the Living Dead never uses the word, they are called "walkers" in the Walking Dead). Is Pirates of the Caribbean a zombie movie? I am excited to see the Night Walkers in Game of Thrones this spring. Has GOT been a zombie story all along? If Marvel's Avengers come back from Thanos's apocalypse, will they be zombies? If we know Stan Lee is dead and keep seeing him in Marvel movies, is he a zombie? These are the things that keep me up at night.
What was your reaction when you won the award?
I was humbled and surprised. I have been fortunate to have incredible help from the nter for Learning Experimentation, Application, and Research. I am not a coder or programmer, I just take the suggestions I have been given by their incredible instructional designers and put them into play. The course barely resembles what it started as, all of that revision and redesign had a lot of help from staff, faculty, and students. The course is still not complete. I guess the course has a life of its own, and like the figure it tracks, it won't die (its evolving if you like The Walking Dead). It's becoming infectious and the award was uncanny.