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Sociology, with a Sci-fi Twist

Michael Hershey
Graduate Assistant, College of Liberal Arts

Professor Trammell teaches Monsters and Modernism

Jack Trammell, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of the Sociology, Criminal Justice, and Human Services Department, presents monsters in pop culture through an episode of Star Trek where a shape-shifting monster terrorizes the crew of the Enterprise.

This spring, Jack Trammell, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of the Sociology, Criminal Justice and Human Services Department, offered a sociology class that filled up quickly—despite it sounding more like a science fiction course. Monsters and Modernism is currently a special topics class, but the enthusiasm it has evoked from students might help it become a mainstay in the course catalog. Teaching about Dracula and Godzilla will certainly get students’ attention, but there’s more to the class than sci-fi.

japanese-oni.pngThe course takes participants on a journey through time and space, from the humanoid monsters of Egypt and Mesopotamia to Ancient Greece and Odysseus’ Cyclops, through Biblical monsters like the Leviathan, all the way to contemporary menaces. The class explores how monsters in folklore are used to spike adrenaline or even incite prejudice.

Trammell explains that “when you scratch away the monster at the surface level, we approach what Emmanuel Kant called the ‘monstrous sublime,’ the terrifyingly beautiful. For example, a concept of God so amazing that we are scared, amazed, and in wonder all at the same time.” Many cultures have independently formed legends about similar, dragon-like creatures, yet without reference to each other’s myths. Trammell is fascinated by this sociological phenomenon.

Colby Duvall, C’23, saw the class listing and was immediately intrigued by the topic and how it related to sociology. Duvall, a double major in criminal justice and sociology, has always liked shows featuring cryptid creatures, such as Supernatural and The X-Files. Fellow criminal justice and sociology major Haley Otero, C’23, was equally fascinated by the class, remembering the demons and beasts in the Japanese TV shows that she and her brother used to watch.

One of the first assignments was for the students to research a legendary creature they’re interested in. This had students looking into zombies, the Minotaur, dragons, and so much more. Otero wrote hers about the oni, demons who date back to the fourteenth century in Japanese literature, noting that “the same entity has been a source of comedy and horror, a hero and villain, and been around for centuries, but still holds cultural significance today.”

This class dives into paradoxes like this to understand the cultural and historical underpinnings that contribute to such complex characters. Why do we think of Count Dracula as a legendary villain, yet in Romania the real-life Vlad Dracul is viewed as a national hero? In previous years, Trammell has taken students to Romania to explore the place that inspired the facts and fiction of the famous Count and hopes to renew these trips for future classes.

Duvall likes the creative thinking that the class involves, remarking “even from the first day of class, our ice breaker was ‘what is your favorite monster?’ and from there we’ve been asking why they catch our attention and how can we all share an understanding for something that never physically existed?”

The goal of the liberal arts is to promote creative thinking and problem-solving, to never accept information at face value, and help students formulate unique opinions based on research and experience. There is always a new way to look at things, and Trammell has struck a chord with his students by looking monsters dead in the eye.

Caption for photo in text: Japanese oni have come in all shapes, sizes, and colors over the centuries. Originally thought to be monsters, people in oni masks now lead parades and ceremonies to ward off evil spirits.

Michael Hershey
Graduate Assistant, College of Liberal Arts