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The Big Bad Wolf and Other Viral Tales

A new Duke humanities course brings students into the curriculum-building process

Part of the Humanities Writ Large Series

A new humanities course will explore the viral narrative, which could be anything from a classic fairy tale to a popular YouTube video.

A new humanities course that challenges traditional teaching methods by encouraging students to build the curriculum is now being developed at Duke.

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The course, Humanities on Demand, will examine "viral narratives" -- the art of telling stories that endure. Course co-director Michael P. Ryan said he is happy to emphasize well-known, popular stories and authors in the course -- Shakespeare? Little Red Riding Hood?  But he thinks more contemporary forms of storytelling -- like a video uploaded to Youtube and forwarded a zillion times through cyberspace -- will resonate more fully with students, particularly if they select the stories to study.

"The idea of asking students to supply material for a course is very new," said Ryan, one of six American Council of Learned Societies faculty fellows who came to Duke last year. "This was the absolute domain of the professor, a unilateral approach. But it doesn't have to be that way."

Ryan hopes to empower students by encouraging them to submit potential course materials through the course website. The material could be a video, a play, a comic book, a song or any other form of storytelling. Ryan and co-director Jakob Norberg will build the course around the materials.

That said, Ryan isn't ceding total control to students. He and Norberg will decide what materials are used, and if the submissions aren't adequate, they'll select their own.

The website is live now and students are encouraged to submit materials. The course will be taught next spring.

Ryan hopes for a great deal of student interaction; if the idea takes hold, he's thinking bigger. Eventually, he'd like to develop courses that not only solicit input from students, but also their parents and maybe even the general public. Doing so, he says, could help people understand academia more fully.

"What if every university had one course a year where, for example, the public could suggest material for a literature course or a film course?" he says. "This approach could be employed to re-engage the public with the humanities."

Ryan's class is one of six new Emerging Humanities Networks courses under the umbrella of Humanities Writ Large, a five-year, $6 million initiative that aims to redefine the role of the humanities in undergraduate education. Funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the ambitious initiative is attempting to light new fires in the humanities through the hiring of new faculty, the creation of new courses, workshops, seminars and projects, the funding of new humanities research, and experimentation with new and different forms of teaching technology.

The emerging networks courses encourage instructors from myriad disciplines to look for new ways to deliver information. In one class, a psychologist and an English professor will explore how literature can improve doctors' bedside manners. In another, professors in art and economics will examine what drives the price of art. And in a third, faculty in theater, dance, art and Slavic and Eurasian studies will examine how various forms of media influence dance.

The Humanities on Demand course will be taught by faculty in German, literature, music, cultural anthropology, political science, history and religion.

Inviting students to build the curriculum, as Ryan's class will, might not work in all cases, but the creativity and wide-open thinking involved is a natural in the humanities, said Srinivas Aravamudan, dean of the humanities at Duke.

And by soliciting input, instructors are connecting more closely with their students, Aravamudan noted.

"This gets them to understand what students are thinking about, what moves them, which stories they are moved by," he said. "I think it is indicative of where humanities pedagogy is headed in the sense that we are much more open to innovation."

Many of the course's kinks are still being worked out. Ryan doesn't know how many students will submit materials or enroll but is hoping for up to 50 to enroll. Students who submit course material don't have to enroll.  

Duke freshman Benedikt Bscher, a member of the course's steering committee, thinks students will embrace the chance to take a more active role in planning the course.

"There's nothing like this, where you can have a say in the topics," Bscher said. "Students will be very interested in studying issues they're interested in, and not just being lectured at. If you have that input from the students, they'll be more interested and more productive."

Is there a danger of ceding too much control to students? Might the course wind up as a seminar focused entirely on waterskiing squirrels and other viral Internet silliness?

Not if Bscher has a say. He wants to analyze news and social media coverage of recent uprisings in Libya and Syria.

"It seems the Syria crisis is less viral than Libya was at the time in terms of news coverage and people's awareness of what's going on," he said. "Thus, it would be interesting to discuss why that is, and the factors that affect the 'virality' of current news topics."

And if not every student is as serious as Bscher? What if this attempt to involve students falls flat?

"We don't know that it will succeed, which is why it makes sense to try out new things," said Aravamudan, the humanities dean. "If we already knew all the answers, we would never innovate or respond to a changing world."