It’s the start of a new semester, which means school’s back in full swing. Maybe you’re deep into a dreaded weed-out class, or a mandatory gen ed course that’s less than thrilling, when your mind wanders off … pondering important questions like, “Is Quidditch hard to play in real life? When is the final season of Game of Thrones already?”
The good news is, you can have these questions answered at universities across the country—and get credit for it. Each semester, professors come up with some pretty cool and ingenious courses that tap into pop culture and fun lifestyles and turn them into serious learning experiences. Listening to Beyoncé? Going out for a sail? Watching sci-fi horror films like Alien? Sign us up!
Here are some of the coolest classes you’ll wish you could take.
Study resources for the courses you’re actually taking—whenever you need them.Start here
1. The Real Game of Thrones—Culture, Society, and Religion in the Middle Ages
Harvard University–Boston, Massachusetts
When Racha Kirakosian taught medieval literature at the University of Oxford, “students would say, ‘Oh, this is like Game of Thrones.’ And I would say, ‘Well, if anything, it’s the other way around,’” she told The Harvard Crimson. Then she started watching the show. “Isn’t it partly our job [as professors] to use that interest and go deeper?” she said to TIME.
The result is The Real Game of Thrones—Culture, Society, and Religion in the Middle Ages, at Harvard University, where Kirakosian is now an associate professor of German and the Study of Religion. The course (which drew such an enthusiastic response last fall that she removed the class cap of 50 students) covers medieval history and culture from 400 to 1500 CE, using the show as a jumping-off point for discussion. In examining gendered roles, for example, they look at characters such as Sansa Stark, Brienne of Tarth, and Cersei Lannister, with clips from the show.
“In a way, it’s our world in a nutshell,” Kirakosian said in The Harvard Crimson.
Extra credit: In other Ivy League Game of Thrones news, Dartmouth College’s fall course catalog includes the English course Game of Thrones: Re-Imagining Medieval History as an Allegory of the Present, in which, according to the course description, “class participants will devote scrupulous interpretive attention” to the works in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and to the adaptation of that series by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss as the show Game of Thrones.
2. Ice Cream 101: Introduction to Frozen Desserts
Penn State–State College, Pennsylvania
Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences’ annual Ice Cream Short Course, which takes students “from cow to cone,” draws ice cream professionals from small manufacturers to big names like Baskin-Robbins, Ben & Jerry’s, and Häagen-Dazs. But if you’re an amateur ice cream enthusiast—and who isn’t, really?—Penn State also offers Ice Cream 101: Introduction to Frozen Desserts. The two-and-a-half-day class is open to “ice cream lovers, entrepreneurs, and small-business owners with little or no ice cream manufacturing experience” and includes a mix of lectures and hands-on learning. (Hopefully hands on a cone or cup.)
Extra credit: The University of Wisconsin-Madison, which established the first dairy school in the United States in 1890, also offers Ice Cream Makers Short Courses in November 2018 and February 2019. The course, one of many of the school’s dairy and frozen desserts offerings, covers manufacturing and processing, as well as quality evaluation—we’ll be outside with a spoon—with students manufacturing several hundred gallons of ice cream.
Oberlin College–Oberlin, Ohio
You won’t need a flying broomstick to play Quidditch for the Oberlin Obliviators, the liberal arts college’s club sport team. However, junior Janine Chouinard notes, “Real-life Quidditch has a lot of rules!”
Chouinard is instructing the first Quidditch course with Obliviators co-captains Haley Gee (a junior) and Isaac Hoffman (a senior) at Oberlin’s Experimental College (ExCo), a student organization and college department that sponsors for-credit courses taught by Oberlin students and community members.
Quidditch is a “full contact sport which includes aspects of basketball, rugby, and dodgeball,” but previous sports experience isn’t a prerequisite. One of the questions on the class application form is “Tell us a fun Harry Potter fact or a fun fact about yourself.”
Chouinard, who learned the game at Obliviators practices, where students can also receive instruction, says she’s hoping to attract new team members who otherwise might be intimidated to try the sport. Quidditch students are encouraged to join the team, which plays against other local teams that aren’t part of the US Quidditch (USQ) organization.
Rest assured, Harry Potter fans, there’s also a Snitch in the game. “Someone dresses up in all yellow and wears a flag football, and the game doesn’t end until one of the Seekers—there’s one from each team—catches the Snitch!” says Chouinard.
Extra credit: Other Harry Potter classes for Muggles include The Legacy of Harry Potter at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, and University of Central Florida’s popular Harry Potter Studies. Tison Pugh, the professor who teaches at UCF, told UCF Today that he was initially dismissive of the series. “Any skepticism vanished after I read the very first line—‘Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.’ It’s one of the best opening lines in all of literature, and it’s my job to read a lot of literature,” he said.
Oberlin College–Oberlin, Ohio
Oberlin’s Experimental College is chock-full of innovative offerings like the Quidditch class, but one other in particular stands out. “Spongebobology. So mysterious. So beautiful. So wet,” reads the course description. Juniors Nigel Law and Lindsay Mahowald, who are teaching the third semester of this class that does a deep dive into SpongeBob SquarePants, met as freshmen and realized they shared a love of the show. Both made frequent conversational references to the animated series. “It sort of gradually dawned us that not only were our references turning into interesting discussions but that plenty of our peers likely had experiences and opinions that would make them even more interesting,” says Law. Oberlin’s Experimental College (ExCo) program let them test the theory.
“Our students have approached the subject matter with just the right combination of excitement and seriousness,” says Mahowald. “We’ve had people turn in thoughtful essays describing the gay relationship between SpongeBob and Squidward, write original spec scripts that blew our minds, and articulate complicated thematic arguments during class discussions that have made us reexamine our own understanding of the show.” She adds, “We’re so excited to jump back in this fall with what we’re sure will be another crop of ‘good noodles!’”
Extra credit: First-year students at the University of Georgia can learn about marine science, thanks to “the most famous sponge in the world,” according to the description for The Marine Science of SpongeBob SquarePants class. The course, one of the university’s First-Year Odyssey Seminars for small groups of about 15–18 students, “examines the antics of SpongeBob, Gary, Patrick, Squidward, Plankton, Mr. Krabs and the denizens of Bikini Bottom in the context of their real-life counterparts,” says the course listing. “Students will relate the creative liberties of the SpongeBob cartoon world to the real world of Marine Science, learning about the biology of the cartoon cast, embracing sustainable fishery practices with a field trip for sushi, and developing the ability to enjoy this cartoon classic with a scientific eye.”
University of Virginia–Charlottesville, Virginia
The Dracula class at University of Virginia is so popular that the wait-list once had 1,600 students. What’s surprising about this class, taught by Stanley Stepanic, associate professor in Slavic Languages and Literatures, isn’t its popularity but that Bram Stoker’s Dracula isn’t required reading. Stephanic says in a Course Hero video that he uses the vampire “as a frame for human experience” that covers such topics as history, anthropology, English, sociology, pop culture, psychology, economics, and folklore.
“The big takeaway is that the vampire is an expression of the human species itself,” Stepanic told EdSurge. “It has over time become a mirror for what we are, or for things we strive to be and haven’t achieved.” The vampire has retained its relevancy because it has changed over time, symbolizing everything from the sexual revolution in the ’70s to the breakdown of the nuclear family in the ’80s to racial identity in the ’90s, he says.
Stepanic told EdSurge that he’s always had a fascination with ghosts and skeletons, and he even dressed up as Dracula for his birthday party when he was 5 or 6. The class is fun as well; one student told Course Hero that he and a friend who also took the class play a game in which they try to spot the most likely vampire in a crowd. Curious to learn more? Watch the video of the lecture Stepanic delivered when he visited Course Hero headquarters in 2017, or see study resources for the class on Course Hero.
Extra credit: The University of Arizona’s College of Social & Behavioral Sciences offers an English class called Nonhuman Subjects: Monsters, Aliens, Ghosts, and Others, which examines how “‘monstrous’ symbolic figures in our chosen literary works reflect historical and ideological changes.” At the University of Pennsylvania, coursework for Monsters in Film & Literature can include books by Mary Shelley and Octavia Butler and film viewings of Nosferatu, 28 Weeks Later, and Alien. (You can also see study resources for Monsters in Film & Literature on Course Hero.)
6. American Witches
Tufts University Experimental College–Medford, Massachusetts
American Witches at Tufts University Experimental College (established in 1964 as an incubator to test new, for-credit, participation-based courses) explores the American depiction of witchcraft, from the Salem witch trials to TV shows like Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Bewitched! and American Horror Story. “Witches represent so many things in American history, literature, and culture!” says the course’s professor, Christine Payson. “Examining what Americans are thinking, saying, and creating when they talk about witches gives the class chances to explore gender, religion, race, law, history, literature, and film.”
In class, students dig in to what really happened at the Salem witch trials; McCarthyism and the political “witch hunt” of the era; witches on the big screen, with a discussion of The Wizard of Oz; and witchcraft and the history of American slavery, through Maryse Condé’s book I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem. “The field trip to the Salem Witch Museum is definitely a highlight!” Payson says. “What I hope folks get out of the class [is] a deeper, more informed curiosity about what stories Americans tell ourselves, and each other, about our country’s history.”
Extra credit: At Amherst College in Massachusetts, students can take Witch Hunt! Magic and Belief in Renaissance Literature to learn why magic evoked fear on both sides of the Atlantic in the 16th and 17th centuries. Los Angeles City College’s Anthropology of Religion, Magic and Witchcraft explores “mythology, symbolism, shamanism, traditional healing, altered states of consciousness, magic, divination, witchcraft, and the question of cults” across cultures.
7. All the Single Ladies
Tufts University Experimental College–Medford, Massachusetts
After teaching a class on single women in 19th-century literature, Lauren Wilwerding found that the reading discussions often led to conversations with students about gender and marital status in today’s culture. So she created a new course “focused on contemporary issues,” All the Single Ladies: Women at the Edge of Culture and History, where students examine the unmarried woman in literature, from William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own to Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder.
For example, one week the class examines media representations of the “career girl” and explores sex and sexual harassment in the workplace through Bridget Jones’s Diary, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Jane the Virgin. Students are also asked to bring in a current event to discuss in class. “One of my larger goals for this course is to demonstrate how to close the gap between what students talk about over lattes in the campus cafe and what they discuss in classrooms,” Wilwerding says. “I think it can often feel like those two parts of life are divorced—the latest season of The Bachelor doesn’t seem like fodder for serious discussion. But, if you use classroom skills to examine those pop culture products that can seem obvious, we learn something about underlying ideologies.”
Extra credit: What about love? For a course on how the concept of couples has changed, there’s Modern Love, one of the Harvard College Writing Program’s one-term expository writing courses. This course asks, “What happens when society expands the options for living and loving? What happens to the courtship plot when women choose not to be wives, or when people who once couldn’t marry now can?” The class texts range from Edith Wharton to “Brokeback Mountain” to the viral New Yorker short story “Cat Person.”
8. Brain Like Berkeley: An Insight into the Artistry of Frank Ocean
UC Berkeley–Berkeley, California
When Frank Ocean name-checked UC Berkeley in “Novacane,” off his 2011 Nostalgia, Ultra release, the singer couldn’t have known that the lyrics would eventually be dissected in a class at the college.
Brain Like Berkeley: An Insight into the Artistry of Frank Ocean, a Berkeley DeCal (Democratic Education at Cal) student-taught course, was created by second-year students Preya Gill and Deborah Chang, former roommates who bonded over their love of Ocean’s music. “We hope that people will gain a greater understanding of Frank Ocean’s artistry and the way he challenges hyper-masculinity and gender politics,” Gill told Berkeley News. Ocean’s mother and brother both shared tweets about the class. “Frank Ocean’s mom thinks our course is amazing,” Gill said on Twitter.
Extra credit: Frank Ocean isn’t the only musician to get a DeCal course at UC Berkeley: Students can also sign up for The Music, Lyrics and Art of Radiohead, Can’t Tell Me Nothing: The Development of Kanye West’s Artistry, and a Drake class called Started From the Bottom: The Artistic Evolution of Aubrey Drake Graham.
While Beyoncé classes were all the rage for a few years, the Knowles knowledge front has seemed relatively quiet—but not for long. Cornell University Associate Professor Riché Richardson will offer a follow-up course to her Beyoncé Nation class, which examined Queen Bey’s career and her role in shaping black feminism, plus her impact on gender, sexuality, marriage, family, and motherhood. Richardson thinks it’s likely the class will be offered in the next year or two. “The next version would be Beyoncé Nation: The Remix,” she says.
9. 100 Years of Courting, Dating & Hooking Up on College Campuses
New York University–New York, New York
At the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University, the class name stands out among the list of descriptions: 100 Years of Courting, Dating & Hooking Up on College Campuses. “The course was full and had a waiting list last year—it was a really, really fun course—I think the best one I’ve ever taught,” says instructor Julie Avina. The class will be offered again in Spring 2019.
The syllabus states that the class’s objective is to “examine the romantic and sexual behaviors of college students over a century of time within the context of the university and its role as loco parentis (in place of the parent) and will consider how, since the development of youth culture in the early 1900s, college students’ interactions may—or may not—have changed and the pace at which America’s universities responded.” Despite having “hooking up” in the name, the class examines thoughtful topics: how war and public health events such as HIV affected student behaviors, the influence of the Greek system, and technology’s influence on intimacy.
Extra credit: Boston College philosophy professor Kerry Cronin gives her students … you guessed it … extra credit for asking someone out on a date. Known around campus as “the dating professor,” Cronin told the Washington Post that the hookup culture has become so dominant on college campuses that going on a date has become “a weirdly countercultural thing to do.”
The dating assignment, which used to be a mandatory part of Cronin’s course syllabus, resulted in at least one marriage, a baby, and a documentary. When asked what dating has to do with philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, she says she sees conversations about dating fitting in with the big questions posed by her classes, such as, “How should I live my life?” “What kinds of relationships help me to become the kind of person I want to be?”
Xavier University–Cincinnati, Ohio
When was the last time a class made you happy? Jill Segerman’s Happiness class at Xavier University in Cincinnati doesn’t promise happiness, but the course has students try to define what happiness is and how to achieve it. According to the course description, students “will explore these questions and more [while investigating] happiness through the lens of experts, popular writers/researchers, and ourselves. We will also look at happiness from different angles like relationships, health and well-being, economics and work.”
Extra credit: Laurie Santos’ Psychology and the Good Life class, nicknamed the “happiness class,” was the most popular Yale University class ever, with nearly 1,200 students taking it last spring. Students even learned a lesson on “time affluence” by arriving to the lecture to find it canceled with simple instructions: Do something that promotes happiness instead.
11. Sailing, Surfing, Windsurfing, and Wakeboarding
San Diego State University and the University of San Diego–San Diego, California
University of San Diego students can enroll in Sailing, Surfing, Wakeboarding, Stand-Up Paddleboarding, and Windsurfing at Mission Bay Aquatic Center through USD’s education recreation department. “They are all super-fun and educational courses!” says Kevin Straw, director of Mission Bay Aquatic Center. Students at San Diego State University School of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences can also take semester-long recreational classes at the center. For college credit.
(Anyone who didn’t pick this major definitely picked the wrong major. And why do we not live in San Diego again?)
Extra credit: At Clark Honors College at the University of Oregon, students can study Skateboard Culture and Popular Culture, a class about the origins of surf and skate culture and its impact on fashion, music, and lifestyle. Students watch classic skating films such as Dogtown, followed by a discussion of contemporary skaters to “gain a comprehensive understanding of one of America’s greatest counterculture movements.”
12. Medicinal Plant Chemistry
Northern Michigan University–Marquette, Michigan
With the legalization of marijuana for medicinal and recreational use, the substance is legal to some degree in more than half of the U.S. With legalization comes questions of law, medical distribution, and, of course, big business, and universities across the country are offering classes to keep up. (We’ll spare you the “higher education” play on words, but we still have to acknowledge it.)
Northern Michigan University doesn’t just offer a cannabis class but a marijuana major! In 2017, NMU’s Medicinal Plant Chemistry became the first program to offer a 4-year degree; student Alex Roth told The Washington Post, “When my friends hear what my major is, [many of them] laugh and say, ‘Wow. Cool dude. You’re going to get a degree growing marijuana.’ But it’s not an easy degree at all.”
Extra credit: Many cannabis classes deal with law and medicine, such as UC Davis’s Cannabis and Cannabinoids in Physiology and Medicine class and Vanderbilt Law School’s Marijuana Law & Policy. The University of Cincinnati is offering an Intro to Cannabis horticulture class this fall, created by professor Sue Trusty after attending a cannabis conference. “That is definitely a job avenue now that the legal cannabis industry is coming to Ohio,” she told local news channel WLWT.
13. Wine and Beer in Western Culture
The Ohio State University–Columbus, Ohio
A class that includes beer and wine tastings? Where do we sign up?
The answer is The Ohio State University, where Brian Waters, PhD, teaches a Wine and Beer in Western Culture class offered through the Department of Food Science and Technology. While the lure is surely the tastings, the course objective is to learn about “the terminology, production and practices related to wine, beer and distilled spirits as well as critical historical and cultural events,” according to the syllabus. Waters teaches both a classroom-based and online version of the course, which includes lectures and activities.
Tastings are actually more structured in the online class. “The tastings in the classroom are more free form, and I provide the direction,” Waters says, adding that they’re held off-campus. You also don’t have to be 21 to take the class. “I always have tasting and non-tasting activity choices in each unit,” he notes. There’s also a Distilled Spirits Scavenger Hunt that requires students to go to liquor stores and take photos of specific types of spirits.
A former OSU student who took a previous version of the class recalls “lots of people signed up on the promise of weekly wine tastings” but it was “a rather serious course.” Quite a few didn’t make it past the first week, he says, adding “Upside: The rest of us learned a lot about wine.”
Extra credit: Boston University Metropolitan College offers a Beer and Spirits class with Master of Wine Sandy Block, VP of Beverage at Legal Sea Foods. Students purchase their own wineglass for tasting on the first day—and you don’t have to be a Boston University student to enroll!
14. Calling Bullshit: Data Reasoning in a Digital World
University of Washington–Seattle, Washington
You know those dreaded holiday gatherings? With that relative who tries to bait you with hole-ridden political arguments, or that cousin who praises the health benefits of her restrictive diet while enviously eyeing your apple pie?
Calling Bullshit: Data Reasoning in a Digital World at the University of Washington promises students they’ll be able to provide a “casually racist uncle with an accessible and persuasive explanation of why a claim is bullshit.” Professors Carl Bergstrom from the Department of Biology and Jevin West of the Information School teamed up for ideas about this class, first offered in 2017, even before the term “fake news” was everywhere. “We began developing this course in 2015 in response to our frustrations with the credulity of the scientific and popular presses in reporting research results,” they state on their course website.
Seminars for the 12-week course include Introduction to bullshit, Spotting bullshit, Statistical traps, Big data, and Refuting bullshit. The first assignment is a “bullshit inventory,” for which students “keep track of [their] encounters with bullshit over the course of a week.” According to the professors, “The world is awash in bullshit,” and the 160 students signed up this fall are encouraged to turn a critical eye to guilty parties such as politicians, “startup culture,” advertisers—and even higher education. The professors make a bold claim: “We will be astonished if these skills do not turn out to be among the most useful and most broadly applicable of those that you acquire during the course of your college education.”
And they wouldn’t dare bullshit a class of academically skilled BS spotters, would they?
Extra credit: Bergstrom and West post their syllabus and course materials online and encourage others to use it. Colleges in the U.S. and throughout the world have shown interest in the class, and West told Course Hero that the course is also being offered at other universities around the country this fall. Schools with the BS class this academic year include Macaulay Honors College at CUNY.
Unrelated to the UW class is Communicating Bullshit, a University of Southern Maine course taught by Leonard J. Shedletsky, PhD. According to the syllabus, the class will answer the questions, “What does the concept ‘bullshit’ mean to people?” and “How do we decide that something is bullshit?” On the WMPG podcast “USM Now,” Shedletsky said, “Most people chuckle when I mention the word. Turns out, it takes you on a heck of a ride intellectually.”