A monstrous lesson
Freak shows, robots, dinosaurs, parasites, serial killers and birth defects. These topics may not seem like typical materials to study in a class, but for the Monstrous Body course, the more abnormal the better.
The course, offered since 2004, combines the knowledge of English professor Bruce Beasley and geology professor Thor Hansen. Looking to confront the science, literature and mythology of monsters in the natural world, the class combines two disciplines to get all of the gritty details, according to the course syllabus.
The class is one big scary movie as it takes and studies dinosaurs, diseases, zombies and giants. Hansen said he is open to covering just about anything, even the sexual habits of monsters and humans.
“The only place I’ve seen monster stuff is in media and movies, so it’s cool to get an academic look at it, and really start digging deep,” junior Oliver Dougherty said.
The literary aspect is taught by Beasley three times a week and allows the class to get an in-depth look at monsters in novels. The class becomes an open forum for discussion and the student interpretation of what the text is doing, Beasley said.
“One of the things we love to do in this class is talk about how much difference we have inside of us, and how much we identify with the monster and [that] difference,” Beasley said.
For some it is easy to address those similarities, but for others they repress those feelings because everyone subconsciously tries to put their best foot forward, senior Jenai Kirkpatrick said.
While Beasley has monstrous thoughts on the brain, Hansen lets the class in on all the grim details, teaching on the other two days of the week and addressing material similar to the novels the class is reading. The twist is he applies a unique scientific scope to the lessons.
Hansen takes on the science behind what is monstrous and the various ways the monstrous embodies itself in the natural world, Beasley said.
“What are the causes? What are the facts? What does the evidence suggest?” Hansen asked.
Learning the creepy facts are just part of the course; there are more complex ways to understand monsters, Hansen said.
“I’d like them to have a feel for how a scientist approaches a subject versus how a poet approaches a posed subject,” Hansen said.
The class has been discussing so-called “freak shows,” with Hansen designing a lecture on deformities to echo what the class read in the book “Geek Love” by Katherine Dunn, Hansen said. Students get all of the gory details of freaks as they talk about sticking nails through the tongue and sucking stomach acid through their nose, freshman Bethany Rice said.
“We learned about conjoined twins and birth defects,” sophomore Halee Harrell said. “It was really strange and weird to see.”
During the course Beasley and Hansen aim to address society’s most relevant fears. They’ve updated their course material this quarter to add artificial intelligence as the idea of robots is increasingly becoming more real and frightening in America, Beasley said.
“Mythology, poetry, film, fiction and fairytales all arise out of things a culture is terrified of at a particular moment,” Beasley said.
Studying these monsters and how they are constructed causes a reconsideration of what it means to be normal in different times, cultures, genders and sexual preferences, Beasley said.
“Monster myths are a way of coming to terms with difference, accepting difference into ourselves,” Beasley said. “But in the process you often find yourself identifying with the monster rather than defining yourself in opposition.”
The idea of “normal” is not something generally questioned, Kirkpatrick said. Everyone seems to agree on what it means and studying monsters has allowed the class to question it, Kirkpatrick said.
The interdisciplinary factor presents students with two different standpoints, one scientific and one social, Harrell said.
The standpoints stem from the two perspectives from which the class is taught. The professors become students as they step into each other’s lectures in order to better understand one another, Hansen said.
After looking at how Beasley runs things, Hansen saw they think in very different ways. Beasley’s train of thought is somewhat alien to him, Hansen said.
“I’m endlessly fascinated by seeing Bruce’s approach to things. He’ll talk about these books and ask people to give their interpretation to the book. Who is the villain? Who is the person you sympathize with? What are their motivations,” Hansen said.
The term “monstrous” is defined as what is opposite to the norm, Beasley said. The course looks at the disturbed, distraught and exaggerated in order to find the boundaries from which normal end and abnormal begins.
One of the great things about studying monsters is that you can shape your own notions of what is normal, and more importantly, what is abnormal, Beasley said.