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Here be monsters

Is a man-eating tiger a monster? Is genetically modified corn? How about Walmart? Last semester, Skidmore stu- dents grapplied with these ideas for aca- demic credit.

The one-credit add-on to a wide range of honors courses began with last year’s “Apocalypse,” coordinated by historian Erica Bastress-Dukehart and mathemati- cian Mark Hofmann, who were hosting a faculty-interest group about science literacy. They devised four interdiscipli- nary, team-taught minicourses as add- ons for 16 regular honors courses. Bas- tress-Dukehart taught in the “Plagues and Peoples” section, about pandemics; another section was “Death from the Skies,” addressing scenarios from a me- teor collision to lightning strikes. Stu- dents’ projects were so interesting that faculty were keen to repeat the mini- add-ons this year.

As a self-determined major in envi- ronmental justice, Kelsey Hull ’14 is “drawn to the connections between the subjects and conflicts we study.” A stu- dent in “The Politics of Food,” she also joined the “Monsters” section on GMOs, whose faculty included biology professor Josh Ness, a codirector of this year’s proj- ect. As Ness explains, each “Monsters” section of about a dozen students was taught by the four professors from four regular courses—for example, the “Con- structed Humans” section brought to- gether students from a design course, in- troductory physics, an Italian literature course, and computer programming, while “Natural vs. Supernatural” drew its students from reg- ular courses in Greek mythology, evolutionary bio, Spanish American lit, and religion theory.


For their final projects, students chose their topics and media but were required to incorporate quantitative reasoning. In fact, a residency by Hayley Gillespie, an ecologist and artist who founded the Art Science Gallery in Austin, Texas, helped students plan their projects’ analytics.


That residency and other aspects of the program were funded by Odile Lombard and Marc Mourre, parents of Gaëlle ’11, to help Skidmore provide all students with strong quantitative analysis skills. Chris Kopec codirected “Monsters” and taught in its “Man-eaters” section, which pondered the status of hu- mans as both pred- ator and prey, ask- ing, for example, how our world views and social

orders might change if we extirpated all species who could prey on us. A business professor specializing in law, Kopec of- fered thoughts about “corporate preda- tion” and market competition, while two biologists discussed big cats and preda- tion, and an English professor presented

fictional man-eaters from early literature. Kopec says the prospect of team-teaching with three very different colleagues was daunting, but “it was great! And it’s so interesting to learn from the other facul- ty when it’s their turn to lead class.” She adds with a grin, “Some of us get bored easily, so we love the different format.” Ness says, “It’s not just the faculty crossing disciplines. Even in the regular ‘parent’ courses, the students aren’t nec- essarily majors, so the student body in all the ‘Monsters’ classes was very inter- disciplinary.” For Kelsey Hull, the GMOs class was “a refreshingly unconventional addition to my course load.” She says, “I find it enriching and challenging to engage with unfamiliar people, disci- plines, and perspectives. Getting all those benefits out of a one-hour-a-week course is pretty great.” —SR


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