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Charting New Courses To Make Subjects Click

Georgetown University Professor Linda Wetzel discusses philosopher Bertrand Russell using the television show
Georgetown University Professor Linda Wetzel discusses philosopher Bertrand Russell using the television show "Star Trek" as a framework. "The show can display the philosophy, doing the job for you in a way that a thousand words can't," she said. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

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"In regards to a very thorough effort to figure out what we want our graduates to be able to do and how do we know we are doing it, I think there are very, very few institutions that do it in a serious way," said Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University.

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"It is at the beginning stages, and I would have to say that the so-called leading colleges and universities have not been leaders in this effort," Bok added. "If anything, they have not shown as much interest as second- and third-tier colleges. So we have a long way to go."

Wetzel's class and other seemingly unorthodox courses -- including the University of Wisconsin at Madison's "Soap Operas and Social Change," a look at gender roles -- are often derided by some faculty as lightweight and by students as "easy A's." Some might be, but many, including Wetzel's classes, are tough, her students say.

George Plitnik, a physics professor at Frostburg State University in Maryland, said some students take his course, "The Science of Harry Potter," a physics course for non-majors, thinking they can breeze through. Some drop out after the first few weeks and move to an easier section.

Those who stay learn about physics by examining concepts raised in the Potter books. For example, a wizard's ability to "apparate," or move almost instantly from one place to another, is tackled by looking at the notion of wormholes, theoretical tunnels in space through which matter can supposedly move.

It might seem silly to those outside academia that a student can take "Baseball in American History" instead of "History of the U.S.," said Jim Foster, interim provost of George Fox University in Newberg, Ore. But history is a methodology, not just content, and the methods of historians can be learned in the baseball course, he said.

A course titled "Detective Fiction" isn't exactly the equivalent of "British Literature to 1660," but literary criticism is taught in both courses, and that may be the "most important teaching goal, more important than specific content," he said.

"One way of getting into what is going on in a student's everyday life is looking at pop culture," Fink said. Wetzel and other professors "doing similar things are trying to build a bridge between what the discipline has in it and everyday life. To me, that's a good sign.

Wetzel said "Star Trek" was a factor in her decision to become a philosopher. For many years, it was difficult for her to get students to get their minds around Descartes' writings in which he questions the existence of the entire external world. Getting them to understand the concept through "Star Trek" helps.

"I took the course because my best friend is a Trekkie," said Jack Dealy, 22, a senior. "The course shows you that you can critically think about something in a different way."

For a unit on personal identity, Wetzel will show the episode "Second Chances," in which the character Cmdr. William Riker finds that a duplicate of himself has been living on another planet.

Students say her approach, while seemingly different from the typical philosophy course, teaches the same complex theme but in a more accessible way.

"Professor Wetzel is less structured and has more fun with assignments," said Logan Rhyne, 20, a junior. "But the class is far from easy."

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