- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 28, 2004

Cultural relevance in education matters a great deal to today’s college students, to judge by the popularity of some nontraditional courses on tap at local institutions of higher learning. Take note:

• “Sex and the Media” is old hat at American University’s School of Communication. “Media @ the Millennium” and “Digital Skills” are new style. The “Millennium” undergraduate course explores journalism in the 21st century, focusing on the influence of technology, business, audience bias and readership, says associate professor Amy Eisman, who also has taught the subject online.

• An undergraduate honors course called “Post 9/11 Resilience” is on the books for next fall at the University of Maryland at College Park’s department of public and community health.

• “Jackie Robinson: Race, Sports and the American Dream,” another undergraduate course, has staying power at George Washington University’s sociology department.

• At Marymount University, the criminal-justice program has “kind of exploded,” says associate professor Monica Robbers — “my real name,” she volunteers. A bachelor of science with a concentration in forensic science was added this fall for the first time. Three full-time faculty members are responsible for 116 majors in the program.

Marymount senior Mary Prince, 21, interns three days a week in the District’s Metropolitan Police Department headquarters reviewing old — “cold” — cases under Detective James Trainum. He is in charge of the Violent Crime Case Review Project, in which 12 area college students track and organize evidence of unsolved or “unpunished” crime cases.

Television played a part in getting Ms. Prince interested in a forensic major, but she now finds crime shows unrealistic: “They close a case in half an hour. … Here you actually see how tedious it can get.”

At GW’s forensic sciences department, said by chairman Moses Schanfield to be the oldest and the largest forensic sciences graduate program in the country, master’s-degree student Mariel Candelario protests that she came to the field “long before ‘CSI.’” She laughs when she says she is dismayed about its current popularity, “because now everyone will get my job.”

Mr. Schanfield, who describes forensic science as a form of public service, says the graduate students he sees are interested in problem solving and community service. Most have undergraduate degrees in the hard sciences.

Like most forensic professors everywhere, GW professor Walter Rowe, who holds a doctorate in chemistry, has professional experience in the field. He credits students as “idealists who want to save the world” and teaches an introductory course for undergraduates that he says is among the more popular courses at the university.

New courses are nearly always chosen by faculty members who have a special interest in topics that coincide with students’ increasing awareness of the world around them.

“Homeland security is a new thing,” says Victor Korenman, the University of Maryland’s associate provost for academic planning. “We have faculty deeply engaged. Their research is being used, and they are excited to talk about it.”

Expanding honors programs allows for more intensive study of some offbeat subjects, as well, he says.

Anxieties about global terrorism influence the introduction of studies on stress and resilience, says Glenn Schiraldi, a professor in the University of Maryland’s department of public and community health who has worked at the Pentagon.

“As far as I can tell, we are the first program in the United States to offer elective stress-management courses, starting back in the 1970s,” says Mr. Schiraldi, explaining the field as an interdisciplinary approach combining traditional medicine, psychology, nutrition, exercise and complementary medicine (yoga, biofeedback mechanisms, etc.).

A UMCP winter-term American studies course called “Perspectives in Popular Culture: Horror and the Idea of Evil” investigates how society uses books and films to deal with real-life fears and concepts of evil.

The changing job market also is responsible for the popularity of certain courses and programs, says Mr. Korenman, noting that enrollment in the criminology department at the University of Maryland has doubled in the past 10 years.

“Students can change quickly,” he adds. “For years, we had a tremendous expansion in computer science, but jobs aren’t there as much now. … It is expected to come back. Students are quite aware of what is out there.” Accounting also is having a resurgence of interest at the university; “Fraud Detection and Control,” an accounting course, is offered in the spring.

And a UMCP English elective titled “Literature in a Wired World” has been fully enrolled since it was introduced in 2002, attracting students such as Lee Finkel, a marketing major whose minor is entrepreneurship.

“I’ve never been a big fan of Shakespeare — reading the big books,” says Mr. Finkel, who describes the contents of the literature course as “a lot about how the medium affects the message.”

Benjamin Fishkind, a Brooklyn-born finance major with a sociology minor at George Washington University, eagerly signed up for the Jackie Robinson course, which was taught the past four years in the fall by its originator, adjunct associate professor Richard Zamoff.

“I think it is unusual to offer the course, but it’s very beneficial,” Mr. Fishkind says. “You find out how he [Jackie Robinson] broke the color barrier and all the factors that came into play. But it’s not so odd because race has been so much of the past hundred years in this country. Usually, sports is led by society, and in this case, sports led society.”

The class also attracted Ann O’Connor, a junior journalism major, who says it is one of the best she has taken to date. “The professor is very concerned that we see it not just as being about Jackie Robinson,” she says.

William Frawley, dean of George Washington University’s Columbian College of Arts and Sciences as well as a professor of anthropology and psychology, takes the long view regarding changes in any campus curriculum.

“Academia is famous for its glacial change,” he says.

In his view, popularity is determined in three ways:

mPressures from the outside world — a rush to study Arabic, for example, arising from attention to Middle Eastern affairs, as well as the introduction of new sciences such bioinformatics, which is using computers to look at genetics

mContinuing demands for traditional courses, such as the history of Western civilization

mA response to local demographics

Public policy — a study of digital democracy, for instance — will be popular in Washington. “But if you were at Cal Tech, it would be thermodynamics,” Mr. Frawley says.

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