From Bob Dylan to Harry Potter: A look at some of Duke's most unorthodox Spring courses

Duke offers hundreds of undergraduate courses every semester, and it can be hard to sift through them all. So The Chronicle read the course catalog for Spring 2019 and picked out four unusual courses that stood out.

These courses, in topics ranging from Wakandan tech to American national security, are open to students of all majors.

Registration windows for undergraduate students will open starting Nov. 1.

ENGLISH 390S-1.01: Single American Author: Bob Dylan
TuTh 4:40–5:55 p.m., ALP/CZ, W

This special topics course will analyze not books or essays but songs—specifically, the entire discography of American musician Bob Dylan, the first singer-songwriter to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

“What’s great about listening to (or studying) Dylan is that his imagination is so rich and estranging,” wrote Taylor Black, assistant professor of English who will be teaching the course, in an email. “His songs are full of forgotten figures, archaic ideas and sayings and unsettled spirits. Once you get past what we already know about Dylan, you find yourself in a kind of dream state, feeling around in the dark, talking to ghosts.”

A legendary figure in music, Dylan recently became controversial for ignoring the Nobel Committee’s announcement and not attending the ceremony in Stockholm due to "other commitments."

“He’s a hard object to study because he is so slippery and recalcitrant,” Black wrote. “He judges his audience before it can judge him.”

The class is open to both “Dylan devotees as well as those with little to no knowledge of his catalog,” according to its course description.

I&E 590-05: Hacking for Defense
Th 6:30–9:00 p.m., cross-listed POLSCI, PUBPOL, SCISOC

In this class, the instructors will not assign your homework—the military will.

“We’re basically building startups to solve national security problems,” said Tommy Sowers, visiting assistant professor of the practice and one of the course’s instructors. Steven McClelland, the Pratt executive in residence, will teach the Stanford-originated course with Sowers.

Students will receive problems from real-world clients—most of whom are part of the special operations community near Duke—and solve them in teams that are often funded well beyond the semester.

“It’s really like 21st-century ROTC, where students can serve their country building products, software, hardware, but in a way that really matters," Sowers said. 

The class is intended for seniors, alumni and graduate students in Trinity, Pratt or the Fuqua Business School.

LIT 390S-04: Brains, Everywhere
TuTh 3:05–4:20 p.m., SS, EI/STS, cross-listed LSGS, GSF, NEUROSCI, ROMST

In teaching this course, Antonio Viego, associate professor of literature and Romance studies, wrote in an email that he hopes to bridge neuroscience with the humanities.

“As someone who works in the theoretical humanities, I wanted to explore the potential intersections between neuroscience and critical theory,” he wrote in an email.

Viego added that a “neuro-revolution” has been brewing for decades—as our understanding of the brain increases, conversations about the brain have been seeping into the social sciences and the humanities, creating “neuro-societies,” “neuro-cultures” and “neuro-subjects.”

“I have also been very interested [in] what my training as a critical theorist could bring to discussions about brain imaging and how we ‘read’ these images,” Viego wrote. “What reading practices do we bring to brain imaging?”

This course is geared toward neuroscience and humanities students alike, he wrote.

ME 490-03: Materials Science of Science Fiction
MW 3:05–4:20 p.m.

In this Pratt course, students will study the properties and manufacture of vibranium—the rare, powerful metal in the Marvel movie “Black Panther.”

“I’ve been thinking about this sort of class for a while because I love science fiction and thought it would be fun to look at the science of science fiction in a rigorous way,” wrote Christine Payne, associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science and the instructor of the course, in an email. “The materials science aspect came together when I saw ‘Black Panther,’ since vibranium is such a good example of a material that enables the story.”

Besides vibranium, the course will also examine the nanotechnology of Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age,” as well as the 3D printers of Kelly Robson’s “We Who Live in the Heart.”

“The class would be good for anyone interested in materials science,” Payne wrote. “I’d love to have a mix of majors in the class.”

Students will need a basic knowledge of physics, chemistry and calculus, as well as permission from Payne and Donald Bliss, the director of undergraduate studies for mechanical engineering, to enroll.

RELIGION 266S: Harry Potter and Religion
WF 10:05–11:20 a.m., CZ

J.K. Rowling’s fantasy series, loved by millions of children and praised for its Christian allegory, has been accused of spreading occult and Satanist ideas for decades. And this course will try to uncover why.

“Using a popular series like Harry Potter as a lens can be a great way to explore more abstract topics like the history of science or definitions of religion and religious experience,” wrote Chris Howell, a graduate student in American religion who will be teaching the course next spring, in an email.

To study those abstract topics, the course will examine the scientific themes, the religious basis and the cultural debates of the series—both the books and their movie adaptations.

“I hope the course will appeal to students with a wide variety of interests,” Howell wrote. “Students who like fantasy literature will likely enjoy it. But students with interests in historical topics, or the relation of technology to religion, or the culture wars in America concerning children’s literature and education, or the literary use of Christian themes like death and resurrection, etc., will all find in the class something that interests them.”


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