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Courses Under the Radar

At a school like Michigan State University, where majors number in the hundreds, it can be daunting to decide what classes to take each semester. With so many programs and areas of study, there’s sure to be some diverse offerings. Here’s a sampling of classes with some unusual topics.

HDFS 445 Human Sexuality

The name is pretty self-explanatory – for an hour and a half twice a week students talk about everything from the male and female anatomies to the work of Alfred Kinsey, a professor who pioneered the study of human sexuality in the 1950s, and everything in between. Taught by human development and family studies professor Rebecca Wright, the class is set up to encourage conversations about sexuality among students, whether it’s in the classroom or at the bus stop. Questions have included subjects like “Do women find it easier to achieve orgasm if they’re on top?” and “Is it a deal-breaker if she spits or swallows?” Kelsey Nover, a communications junior currently enrolled in the class, said it is more than just talking about what might normally be considered taboo subjects.

“The point of the class is to gain sexual knowledge and intelligence,” Nover said. “It’s a lot of fun because everyone in class speaks up and we have a lot of interesting discussions.” The proof is in the numbers: despite an early start at 8 a.m., Nover said there is almost always complete attendance.

RCAH 390 Section 002 Language and Culture: Linguistic, Cultural and Biodiversity in the Work of J.R.R. Tolkien

One of the core classes of the Residential College in Arts and Humanities curriculum is RCAH 390: Language and Culture. This semester, section two of the course is all about J.R.R. Tolkien, the mastermind behind the Lord of the Rings (LOTR) series.

“I picked this class because I had seen the LOTR movies but never read the books,” said arts and humanities and psychology junior Orli Ginsburg. “This class was a good chance to read them and it sounded unique.”

Students in the class recently read excerpts from The Silmarillion and The Fellowship of the Ring and they’ve also watched a documentary on “Ringers” – extreme LOTR fans in the same vein as Star Trek “Trekkies” that dress up as different characters and collect memorabilia from the book and movie versions. The emphasis of the class is not just on the Lord of the Rings, but on the way Tolkien uses language in his writings. One surprising fact taught in the class was that Tolkien created entire languages, such as the classic Elvish, and then formed a storyline around them.

Although the course is reading and writing-intensive, Ginsburg said she likes the class .

“The theme of good vs. evil is universal and relatable, even if you aren’t super into fantasy,” said Ginsburg.

HB 409 Introduction to Wine and HB 411 Hospitality Beverages

Wine tasting is one of many unique courses offered at MSU. (Photo credit: Brett Ekblad)

Alcoholic beverages are sure to peak students’ interest, but Dr. Carl Borchgrevink, the professor for both HB 409 and 411, is quick to point out that these classes are not about getting intoxicated. In fact, Introduction to Wine, the prerequisite for Hospitality Beverages, is entirely online. Students watch prerecorded lectures on different types of wine and how they vary according to climate, region, distribution and more.

“The class is open to any MSU student and if they follow the lectures they will get a base knowledge of wine, but they aren’t encouraged to do any sensory tests,” said Borchgrevink.

Students in Introduction to Wine have the option of completing the class within a few weeks. The only requirements are to watch the online lectures and take a test at the end of each video. From there they can arrange a time with Borchgrevink in which to take a final written exam, which could be done anytime before the end of the semester.

After taking Introduction to Wine in the fall, students then have the option of taking Hospitality Beverages in the spring. This time they will get to do some wine and beer tasting but there are some restrictions.

“For Hospitality Beverages they are required to be at least 21 years old, and the most that a student will consume for a sensory test in a given class period is the equivalent of a glass of wine,” said Borchgrevink.

Hospitality Beverages is an academically rigorous survey course that covers not just wine, beer and some spirits but also soft drinks and other nonalcoholic beverages that can be served in a hospitality setting. For this reason, Borchgrevink said that a few surprised students drop the course within the first couple of weeks.

“The emphasis is not on drinking to excess but to appreciate the different flavors and aromas in each beverage and how to pair them with a meal,” said Borchgrevink. “This type of knowledge can be applied to any type of career, not just hospitality business.”

KIN 101 Great Lakes Sailing

This one credit course offered by the Kinesiology department was just what economics junior Daniel Zaharia was looking for.

“I needed one more credit for my schedule and I was interested in sailing so it really just made sense to take it,” said Zaharia.

The course is taught by Captain Joe Smith, whom Zaharia describes as “an old salty captain with a scraggly beard.” With an attendance policy that consists of Captain Smith telling the class “Raise your hand if you’re here” and drowning being the only way to fail, it’s clear this is not your typical college course.

Class meets in a lecture hall on Wednesdays where Captain Smith talks about the various aspects of sailing technique, but Zaharia said, “He tells us he can talk to us for hours about how to sail, or he can take us out on the water for an hour and show us how to sail.” So that’s exactly what they do.

For the first few weekends of the semester, depending on weather conditions, Captain Smith takes his boat and groups of ten students on overnight sailing trips on Lake Michigan near Muskegon. He even throws in an all-you-can-eat French toast breakfast the next morning.

Zaharia said that Captain Smith explains it like this: “If you can sail in Lake Michigan, you can sail anywhere in the world, because the water molecules touch all of the other water molecules in other bodies of water.”

No prior sailing experience is necessary and the class is open to all undergraduate students provided they pay a $150 lab fee (which includes the cost of French toast).

What Else is Out There?

If MSU has classes on sailing and J.R.R. Tolkien’s use of languages, what kinds of unique classes do other universities offer? An article posted on a website called Classes2Careers listed the “Seven Weirdest College Courses You Wish You Took,” which included “Maple Syrup – The Real Thing” at Alfred University in New York where students learn everything about the sweet substance from production to sales, and “The Science of Harry Potter” at Frostburg State University in Maryland where students bring fantasy and reality together and attempt to explain what is and isn’t possible in the realm of Harry Potter. If pancake toppings and wizardry aren’t your thing, there was also “History 298: Oprah Winfrey – The Tycoon” at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where students learn about race, gender, and class issues through the cultural rise of the famous talk show host.

Another article on E! Online has a list of unusual courses that includes “GaGa for Gaga: Sex, Gender and Identity” an introductory freshman writing course at the University of Virginia and “Twilight: The Text and the Fandom” at California State University, where topics of discussion include “vampire lore, the romantic core of the series, female characters and fans and the depiction of men and masculinity.” The article also mentions that at the University of Berkeley a student can take a class about the TV show “Mad Men” as well as “Sex and the City and the Contemporary Woman,” “James Bond: Politics, Pop Culture, Hero,” “Batman as American Mythology” and “The Music, Lyrics and Art of Radiohead.”

Modern college courses have adapted to meet the changing needs and wants of students. While you still can (and probably will) take microeconomics and calculus, options like Introduction to Wine and Human Sexuality can make life a little more interesting. Because, be honest – the first question you expected to hear when you showed up at your Monday 8 a.m. was not “Is it a deal-breaker if she spits or swallows?”

2 Responses to “Courses Under the Radar”

  1. Brianna says:

    LOL, I’ve taken all of these courses except the lord of the rings one… but I did take “Magic and Mysticism” which I think could be equal…

  2. Shelley B says:

    Hi!, I’m new on here and excited to be a part of the conversation .

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