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Memes, blood, violence: A look at next semester's most interesting classes

There are few things most students dread more than sitting through a boring 8:30 a.m. lecture filled with dull PowerPoints and low lighting. But what if there was an alternative option, like a class that examined meme culture or hip hop or even the underground market for human organs?

The Chronicle took a look at some of the most interesting classes offered this year, which can help you fulfill requirements without wanting to stab your eyes out with your pencil. 

“Taboo Markets”

This course—taught by Kieran Healy, associate professor of sociology—explores the social organizations of controversial markets such as those for alcohol, drugs, sex work, gambling and organs. Cross-listed under the sociology, international comparative studies and ethics departments, it aims to consider the creation, expansion and regulation of these markets. 

“Exchange is a basic feature of human life. But it takes many forms,” Healy wrote in an email. “Understanding how the boundary between markets and gifts really works is a central problem across the social sciences.”

He explained that he developed the course after writing a book on the market exchange of blood and organs, with the goal of teaching about “buying and selling weird things in general.” 

Although Healy has taught the course on and off for the past six years, “Taboo Markets” has not been offered in a while, so he is refreshing the syllabus this year. Topics covered will include trading in babies, domestic labor and care work, human blood, eggs, sperm and pollution rights. 

Healy noted that students may enjoy his course because it is an interesting topic that connects to students’ lives in unexpected ways. Plus, there’s no calculus involved. 

“Deciding how a class of person, service or thing is to be exchanged is one of the keys to organizing human society,” he explained. 

“Hashtags, Memes, Digital Tribes”

If you’re addicted to the “Duke Memes for Gothic Teens” Facebook page, this class is for you. Led by Negar Mottahedeh, associate professor of literature, it aims to study digital life and creative group expression by examining images, captions and hyperlinked tags. Students will also study digital tribes such as communities of te deaf, oil rig workers, Hindu worshipers and prison wives to learn about how these groups connect online. 

“The course considers online fandoms and tribes in terms of their cultural and communal activities,” Mottahedeh said. “Each student follows a fandom or a tribe and does a deep dive into their life online.”

“Hashtags, Memes, Digital Tribes” is cross-listed as a course in literature, visual and media studies, Asian and Middle East studies, arts of the moving image, visual and media studies and gender, sexuality and feminist studies.

Mottahedeh noted that although this can seem irrelevant at first, examining a whole population’s online activity uncovers patterns and a separate culture. For example, delving into images and selfies posted by the tribe of prison wives reveals how they are using technology almost as a replacement for their husbands. 

“Out of research into patterns and behaviors and rituals, students derive something like an underlying mythology and underlying self understanding of the tribe that brings the tribe together and drives the activities of the tribe forward,” Mottahedeh said. 

She developed the course three years ago after realizing the growing number of digital tribes and fandoms online. Through the class, students have the chance to examine some popular fandoms like those surrounding One Direction and Justin Bieber and will also develop research skills. 

This topic is important because it can provide insights into how social movements today function, Mottahedeh explained. 

“If you know how fandoms behave, you basically know how social movements will behave online,” she said. 

“Banality of Evil”

Taught by Renee Ragin, a Ph.D. student in the literature department, this class focuses on the perpetrators of crimes and violence throughout history using international case studies. 

“The class is about perpetrators,” she said. “The argument is that instead of studying catastrophe through victim-centered narratives, this does the opposite.” 

She noted that students will examine different media like film, legal texts, autobiography and psychiatric evaluations to explore how perpetrators depict themselves and how others depict them. 

This is her first time teaching the course, which is cross-listed in global cultural studies, arts of the moving image, Asian and Middle Eastern studies and international comparative studies. 

She explained that she had the idea for the class after noticing the language used to describe perpetrators of catastrophic events. She became interested in examining where that language came from and how perpetrators are represented in media. 

“I think that most societies, at least if we think about most Western societies, are focused on the victim, particularly in the context of trauma and justice-based assessments of a catastrophe,” she said.  

Because events are usually narrated through the stories of the survivor, this often leaves out the perpetrator's perspective, which could be useful in gaining insight into how and why horrific events happen, Ragin explained. 

The course will examine historical events like the Armenian and Rwandan genocides as well as the Ku Klux Klan in the South after the Civil War—topics that students will be familiar with, but might not have thought about from the perpetrator's point of view. 

“I think it will be challenging in terms of how students think about ethics and morals, and who is worthy of analyzing,” Ragin said. “It will be good chance to have interdisciplinary scholarship.” 

“History of Hip Hop”

What could be better than an entire class devoted to your favorite music genre? Mark Anthony Neal, professor of African and African American studies, leads a course that examines the social and cultural foundations of hip hop and its prominent innovators and innovations. It also considers the debates surrounding hip hop’s increased influence. 

Neal teaches the class with Grammy Award-winning producer Patrick Douthit, better known as 9th Wonder. This will be their eighth time teaching the course since they developed it in 2010 after participating on several panel discussions about hip hop, such as the “Sampling Motown” panel at the Nasher Museum of Art in 2008.

“The class offers a free and open exchange of ideas, as well as insights to the music industry and Black culture,” Neal wrote in an email. 

He noted that the class focuses on African American history and culture, using hip hop as a portal to examine historical events like the Great Migration, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 and deindustrialization in urban centers. 

The class is known for its guest lecturers and performers like jazz pianist Jason Moran, author Joan Morgan and hip hop artist Blitz the Ambassador. This year, Neal said the rapper Murs will visit in February. 

“Premodern Memes”

Taught by Astrid Giugni, instructor of English, this course delves into imagery and artifacts that are taken out of context and repurposed. Students will work in groups to do research on the movement of textual imagery, culminating in a group project. 

Topics will include Renaissance artwork that took images out of original context—either because they were being repurposed for a different church or because they were considered inappropriate—as well as contemporary discussions around Confederate monuments. For instance, students will consider how these monuments are being seen as completely separate from their historical background. 

This is Giugni’s first year teaching the course, which she developed around her research on iconoclasm in the Renaissance period. 

She noted that she wants students to gain insight into how the media can shape images through how they present them. 

“I hope they gain an awareness about how we think about images and how we think about textual snippets when they are removed from context,” she said. “[This class is] a closer reflection on the ethics of sharing images and sharing textual artifacts and how this is not just a contemporary phenomenon, but that it has shared a long history.”


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