Students take notes during a class. (Photo by Mark Brown)

How Did That Become a Class?

The English Department probably isn’t the first place you’d expect to find a class about Mars. And yet, Chris Hassel, adjunct professor of English, taught Final Frontier: Mars & Beyond in the spring and is teaching it now. The class reads several texts, from fiction to biography to poetry, all centering on our planetary neighbor, while also considering philosophical questions on how space affects our day-to-day lives in areas such as religion and politics.

Why Mars? Hassel said he wanted to teach a class he would have been interested in taking as an undergraduate.

Those sorts of unique classes, which often either look at old topics in new ways or cover fresh and unusual topics, can provide benefits to both faculty and students. Faculty can share their research and passions, and students can tap into valuable resources in the St. Thomas community and beyond, all while continuing to build strong communication and critical-thinking skills.

“I’m sensing that with St. Thomas, there are some more exciting opportunities, because people have the courage to say, 'Yes,’ a little more often,” Hassel said.

Sharing their passions

“I love dogs,” said Maria Dahmus, program manager in the Office of Sustainability Initiatives in the Center for Global and Local Engagement.

It’s not an uncommon statement, but Dahmus has quite the background to give strength to her claim. She has taught Dogs!: Environment, Society, and Representation, alongside former English professor Paul Lai, three times at St. Thomas. The class examines various ways our society interacts with dogs. Dahmus employs her background in environmental studies to explore how we create urban spaces for dogs, such as dog parks. The class also reads a slew of texts, both fictional and nonfictional, all on man's best friend, including peer-reviewed studies on how dogs can help children with autism.

Professors' passions and research culminating in a class isn’t unusual.

“When you’re doing something that’s really in your wheelhouse and it’s your thing, you get to a point where you say, ‘I’m done with this being my thing. I want to share this with my students and see what they have to say about it,'” said Victoria Young, professor and chair of the Art History Department. “And that’s where, as an instructor, it really gets fun.”

The Art History Department specifically makes room for faculty to translate their research into classes with one-time topics courses. Shelly Nordtorp-Madson, for example, studies shapeshifting, particularly in medieval artwork, and taught A Change of Face: Shapeshifters and Hybrids in Art. Like Young, she said a lot of the fun comes from hearing the fresh perspective students can bring to a topic, such as the non-Western themes that were brought up in her shapeshifters class.

“I go home from class and am completely buzzed,” Nordtorp-Madson said. “Students have got a lot to teach me. They bring up topics I don’t know, often from other cultures.”

Hassel also picked up on the enthusiasm that comes from students finding a topic they could relate to and expand on.

“I was receiving emails from students saying, ‘Go on YouTube. You’ve got to look at this, got to see what SpaceX is doing. Check out the NASA site,'” Hassel said. “That class really made me optimistic about the sort of charisma and enthusiasm that students now have for this kind of endeavor.”

For Amy Muse, department chair and associate professor of English, that sense of ownership is exactly why these off-the-wall classes are taught.

“It’s very important to us to draw people in who wouldn’t ordinarily think of themselves as readers and writers … (or) as people who are fascinated with language,” Muse said.

Across disciplines

Plenty of classes, such as Dahmus’ dog class, also come from combining disciplines to look at topics from a different perspective. That’s exactly what the Aquinas Scholars Honors seminars aim for. The seminars either have two professors from different disciplines teaching together, or have a single professor teaching a class of students from varying backgrounds.

That formula of blending can come up with an infinite number of interesting classes: Excursions in Math & Creative Art (taught by Chris Kachian, professor of music, and Chehrzad Shakiban, professor of mathematics) and Sports & Society (taught by Stephen Laumakis, professor of philosophy and director of the Aquinas Scholars Honors Program, and Ted Riverso, St. Thomas women’s basketball coach from 1985-99 and current Augsburg women’s basketball coach) are just two such classes being taught this semester.

Excursions in Math & Creative Art examines elements of mathematics in all forms of creative art, such as symmetry in music, painting, architecture, poetry or dance. The combination of topics lets students delve into a discipline they otherwise might have not been exposed to.

“These types of courses enable students not only just to memorize a bunch of formulas, but to actually see the beauty of mathematics,” Shakiban said. “Through working with each other, they will feel that they own the course.”

In Sports & Society, the class explores all the different ways sports can impact our society, from what makes a sport a sport, to why we have sports at all, to how sports can have positive or negative ramifications on education.

The diversity of backgrounds creates unique dialogues, which are a learning experience for both students and faculty.

“You get to learn things in disciplines outside of your own, or at least in the near neighborhood of your own, but wouldn’t normally be reading,” Laumakis said. “It keeps your academic interests alive.”

Hassel added that it’s good to see so many classes that are either interdisciplinary or have a cross-discipline feel to them, because that’s how that world works now.

“We’re meant to be innovators, and generally that happens when we cross-pollinate with various ideas that have been around for a while," Hassel said. "You say, ‘Well, why don’t we combine these?’ Or, ‘Why don’t we try this?’ ‘We’ve tried this and this, why don’t we try these two together?’ We’re starting to see that."

Into the community

Another benefit of faculty teaching specifically on their research interests is that they are up to date in that field and have plenty of resources to draw on.

“We’re very interested in helping students think of the Twin Cities as part of campus and making these intellectual connections between the work they’re doing here,” Muse said. “(They’re) not just leaving it in the classroom, but seeing it infused in their everyday lives.” She cited a circus literature course taking a workshop at Circus Juventas and a sports literature course interacting with the Minnesota RollerGirls as examples.

The Excursions in Math & Creative Art makes use of the architecture around St. Thomas' campus, including the Arches and chapels, and Shakiban said they sometimes visit the Minnesota State Capitol and Cathedral of Saint Paul.

When teaching her Theology of Crime, Punishment, and Forgiveness class, Amy Levad, associate theology professor, also purposefully taps into the Twin Cities. The class delves into issues that have to do with mass incarceration and examines the nature of forgiveness and punishment through a Christian lens, so she brings in local people already doing work in those areas. She has had restorative justice circles (which focus on dialogue and reconciliation between communities and offenders) in her class before and, this semester, hopes to have representatives from a community organizations like Northside Achievement Zone and Black Lives Matter.

“We want to connect to vocations. We want to connect to majors, disciplines. We want to connect to bigger problems in the world,” Levad said.

Those connections can be important, Young said, because they help engage students not only in the classwork but possibly with future opportunities.

“You have to network yourself out into your life,” Young said, who has brought architects she has worked with into her classes. “Getting kids internships and having these connections with museums and getting on these trips and meeting architects and other historians – those are just really important moments.”

Solid skills

While many of the topics discussed can be abstract, the goals are not. Most of the faculty interviewed said they want students to come away with better critical-thinking and communication skills.

“The main thing is learning how to speak in public, among your peers, and learning how to marshal evidence and think critically about whatever the subject is,” Laumakis said of the purpose of the Aquinas Scholars Honors seminars.

Dahmus said that looking at dogs in society and having it bring other topics and critical thought to light is part of why she loves the class so much.

“It brings up so much discussion about who we are as people and how we think and why we do what we do,” Dahmus said. “It’s amazing to me how a class about dogs can open up conversations on almost any topic.”

So, while at first blush it might seem strange to take a class on dogs or Mars, the skills cultivated through discussion and exploration can be beneficial in many areas of life.

“Everyone thinks more critically about something that’s kind of an everyday event, and that never, ever hurts,” Young said. “That’s the whole point about sending these students out of St. Thomas, right? They can think critically about things, but yet know what to do with it.”