Pedagogy, Engaged Anthropology, and Zombies

I love zombies! Not only are zombies popular, but in the immortal words of Levi-Strauss, zombies “are good to think with.” Zombies stand (stagger?) as powerful metaphors supporting everything from emergency preparedness to invasive species education. Scholars draw on zombies as part of an engaged pedagogy to spark student interest. This includes Drezner’s Theories of International Politics and Zombies and Harman’s Zombie Capitalism: Global Crisis and the Relevance of Marx. I have also joined the horde by using the zombie apocalypse to teach geospatial analysis. Anthropologists have studied zombies for decades and I draw on this rich tradition as part of my freshman seminar to introduce students to anthropology with an exploration of zombies past, present, and future.

Zora Neale Hurston’s immortal photo of Felicia Felix-Mentor, a zombie from Haiti.

You can access a copy of my syllabus here. The course challenges students to examine cultural reactions to social anxiety (e.g., difference) as revealed through zombie entertainment. The historical roots of the zombie in West Africa and the Caribbean supports a critical investigation of colonialism and imperialism. This includes US intervention in Haiti and challenges naive notions of aid in the present. Explorations of Haitian folklore and specifically Hurston’s Tell My Horse encourages students to embrace “mutual respect between different cultures as an alternative to the racial and gender conflicts” so common in the United States (Rowe 2000:285).

Analyzing zombie cinema supports a critical engagement with the unrecognized ways media can influence our understanding of cultural difference. Students  interrogate the role representation plays in promoting inequality. We pay particular attention to the representation of non-Western peoples in Western media, including Shohat and Stam’s Imperial Imaginary and Lutz and Collins’s Reading National Geographic. The negative stereotypes reserved for indigenous and non-western groups continues a literary tradition (e.g., Kipling) which taught British and American men to think of themselves as the (paternalistic) saviors of global civilization.

Haggard’s “King Solomon’s Mines” and Scouting texts reinforced the role of a white savior for generations.

The course also explores philosophical and ethical aspects of what it means to be human. Zombies bridge oppositional concepts like life and death. Student perspectives regarding oppositional thinking (human/machine, us/them) slowly give way like the glass doors of a mall entrance during the zombie apocalypse. We are forced to encounter wholly new ideas. A consideration of the posthuman emerges, and the understanding that our own natures may prove more monstrous than any undead horde we encounter in the post apocalyptic landscape.

The Greater Threat, Zombies or Black Friday Shoppers?

There is plenty of room for playful engagement with zombies as well. Students examine the role of unlikely heroes such as Shaun of the Dead or Ash Williams from the original Evil Dead and Army of Darkness films. Ultimately, few students ‘convert’ to anthropology because of the course, and I now consider this sort of class to be a form of engaged anthropological pedagogy. Many students leave the course looking for deeper meanings when watching zombie movies or The Walking Dead.

The course attracts considerable media attention. Many are surprised to learn that a zombies course can be rigorous and intellectual, until they understand that zombies are (1) a historical reality and (2) a useful metaphor for thinking about other concepts. The following links include media outlets carrying stories about the course.

Media Coverage of Zombies: Social Anxiety and Popular Culture
Newspapers (most are reprint of Star Ledger article)
The Washington Post
Salt Lake Tribune
The State (South Carolina)
St. Francis Encounter (student newspaper)
Jersey Tribune
Star Ledger – original newspaper article (New Jersey)
New Jersey 101.5
Top News Today

Causal mentions on radio and television networks continue to occur throughout the Greater NYC area, if you know of additional links not listed above, please  email me.

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