By Jennifer Trivedi
The zombies were everywhere – on televisions and film screens, in books and online searches, at doors in October. And they caught my attention.
I mostly teach anthropology, but my own research interests encourage me to incorporate disasters and disease outbreaks into my classes. Seeing the CDC’s zombie themed preparedness planning, I wondered how I could bring a zombie apocalypse into the classroom. I began introducing zombies in lectures, using them to capture student interest when discussing concepts like cultural perceptions of death. While the students were interested, I thought I could branch outside the regular lecture format. I have tried more unusual approaches in the classroom before, like group work and discussion in classes of 100 to 150 students, or mixing reading sources from popular culture pieces to academic journal articles. But in the Spring of 2018, I got to teach a 300-level anthropology course at the University of Delaware on Culture, Health, and Environment as a three-hour night class. While the format was intimidating at first, with the idea of keeping undergraduates engaged for three hours on a Monday night, I quickly realized it was also an opportunity.
I am not the first professor to put zombies in the classroom. Many professors teach zombies as a way to engage students across a range of issues (Nail 2009; Morrissette 2014; Pielak and Cohen 2014; Kimble 2016; Smith 2016; Wallin 2016; Wadsworth 2017). The literature on zombie pedagogy includes using zombies as a teaching device to discuss everything from climate change and the environment, to culture and what it means to be human. In many of these cases, zombies are a pedagogical tool to get students excited about other ideas professors want them to learn. As Nancy Wadsworth describes, a “new pedagogical approach offers fertile provocations and a sustained mode of creative critical inquiry that can render political theory more resonant for the Millennial generation” (2017: 5). The zombie apocalypse can also serve as a scenario in which to test theoretical constructs like international relations and real-world problems such as ethnic conflict (Morrissette 2014:3). Zombies can also become a contrasting point compared to humans: “the zombie, being one or turning into one, performs the unadulterated difference between the inhuman in its serial and mindless form, on one side, and the human and its equivalents, the individual and the rational, on the other” (Moraru 2012: 107).
My efforts to introduce zombies into the classroom pulled from all of these techniques – getting students engaged in material in a new way, testing their understanding of theoretical constructs and real-world issues, and contrasting different views of humanity and culture. However, for this undergraduate exercise, I also wanted a few other things for the students – the chance to demonstrate what they had learned throughout the course, show critical thinking skills, and push themselves to think outside the box. Most importantly, I also wanted them to enjoy it.
I divided students into groups and set the scenario: a zombie virus begun in Atlanta had spread, primarily via bites and bodily fluid contamination, making people contagious within 24 hours, dead in 2-21 days, and reanimated in 8-12 hours. These factors were designed to call to mind discussions about other epidemiological outbreaks. Following American popular culture about the undead, the zombies could only be killed by decapitation or destruction of the brain stem. I added that a small number of people showed immunity and a cure was in progress.
Unsurprisingly, my students also brought their own ideas about zombies. As Phil Smith describes: “I have no recollection of any student ever asking me to explain or clarify” what it is like to “imagine that they are ‘the last human survivor of a zombie apocalypse’” (2016: 86-87). These preconceived notions were helpful, allowing the students to have a background outside of our class to help imagine their place in this hypothetical reality. They referenced zombies they had seen in media – unthinking, unfeeling, and unaware of their pre-zombie ties to other people. My students noted that if their family members were zombified it would be emotionally difficult for them. They also referenced behaviors of non-zombie characters in such media like the movie Zombieland (2009) or the videogame Left 4 Dead (2008) when discussing survival needs – even students who admitted they had never shot a gun deemed weapons a necessity in a zombie apocalypse because “you shoot zombies.” Encouraging students to bring their own experiences into the classroom is critical to me as an anthropology professor – it helps students to understand that “culture” is not limited to people outside of the students’ own lives or, more broadly, outside of the United States, and to better understand key concepts by examining them through a lens they already know.
I also added an element of chance to the classroom exercise – a twenty-sided dice rolled for potential good and bad results. An odd number on this first roll, for example, allowed a group to save one person from zombification. Saving someone was important to the students, not only with their focus on winning the game, but also due to a strong desire to not become zombies. To win, a team had to have the highest point total – each person on a team had a number of points assigned to them (starting at five points and then adjusted up or down depending on specific characteristics they had, discussed further below), all of which were added into a team total. Teams lost the points of players who became zombies. So to win, teams had to avoid zombification. It was interesting how students viewed the zombies beyond this – the undead creatures remained “the ultimate foreign Other,” a status to be avoided at all costs (Bishop 2006: 201). Zombies for the students were seen largely as more creature than human, even when students were faced with classmates who were now flesh-eating corpses.
Each student had to list three people from their lives who they wanted in their larger group and culture in this zombie apocalypse scenario. I wanted there to be an emotional tie for students beyond the bounds of a shared class experience, something I thought might be influential when making tough survival decisions. The students surprised me with their insights in the best possible way – pointing to their own bonds with these people and the cultural reinforcement of the importance of those relationships as both a strength and a weakness in the situation.
Students had to list strengths and weaknesses for each group member, each of which resulted in points being added to or deducted from their personal and group totals. This was also when I had to start adapting to the exercise, as students began to raise issues I had not considered, like adding points to a person’s total for having a well-trained dog for protection or hunting or docking points for the desire to not survive the zombie apocalypse. The discussion of potential benefits like animal companionship or the stress of finding oneself in an apocalypse also led to discussions about mental health in the situation, something we had discussed throughout the semester. This emphasis on mental health was reinforced by the guest graduate students who had come to participate in the exercise and who seemed quite focused on their desire to not survive because they thought it would be an uncomfortable and ultimately fruitless endeavor, citing literature like Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (1954). My students pushed back on this nihilism, reigniting a discussion we had been having throughout the semester: “what is health?” Students debated their consideration of mental and physical health, raising questions about whether mental health was equal in importance to physical health, and how this perception varied between cultures, reinforcing the idea that there are no universal definitions of health.
Each group had to decide who they thought was the person most at-risk of being attacked and what should be done with them: should they use resources to protect that person, abandon them and risk their becoming a zombie, or – the culturally unthinkable for many – end that person’s life to prevent their zombification? Once students made this decision, they had to explain it to the class, citing things like the importance of a person’s knowledge and skills or the desire to prevent their becoming zombie. Some groups, though, did abandon people, leading to the first zombies within the class itself. In having these discussions of risk and potential vulnerability, I wanted students to engage in three related discussions building on our previous work in the class: What was more important – the individual or the collective? How would they weigh a person’s strengths and weaknesses against the needs of the group? And is death the worst-case scenario for a person and, if so, what is the cultural context of death as a concept, particularly in contrast to health – i.e. was poor or even simply imperfect physical or mental health preferable to death?
Students also had to choose a location from a pre-determined list of areas we discussed during the semester like Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana (where we looked at climate change and hurricanes and how they had affected the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe), Cape Town/Town Two, South Africa (where we had discussed HIV/AIDS and cultural perceptions of the disease), or Bhopal, India (where students debated the Union Carbide gas leak). They then had to discuss the pros and cons of the area in the context of a zombie apocalypse. Once done, I told students to pass their sheet to the left to be relocated. This forced students to think about two different locations, including questions like population size, natural or man-made hazards, and pre-existing cultural beliefs, behaviors, and power structures. By allowing students to choose one location and to discuss the same set of needs and problems in another location they were assigned, albeit unknowingly, by their peers, I was able to test not only the knowledge they retained of specific locations, but also if there was a pattern to what they were retaining about different locations we discussed.
I wanted students to demonstrate what they remembered about the locations—the people there, and issues that could affect their efforts to survive like climate change, disease spread, or environmental justice and racism. This part of the exercise also required students to weigh different potential risks against one another, just as people do in their real life day-to-day and emergency decisions, a theme we had discussed throughout the semester. Flint, Michigan, for example, was dismissed as a location by one group, citing the water contamination issues and sparking a discussion of the related issues of environmental justice and racism with the conclusion that they remained “unfair,” even in the zombie apocalypse. Some students noted that they were lucky to be able to choose the location of the exercise which, in their mind, made them more likely to be able to survive, but also allowed them to avoid problems like air, water, or soil quality that we had discussed in the context of environmental justice issues.
The groups then had to describe what they felt their group should prioritize, beyond simply having the most people avoid zombification. Throughout the course, we had discussed beliefs and behaviors in different cultures, including how they were important in moments of crises and disaster related to health or environmental hazards. For instance, we can consider how in Hurricane Katrina some people believed that surviving previous storms was an indicator that Katina was manageable and how this belief influenced their behavior by discouraging their evacuation. I also had students think about the supplies they would need to survive and how they would maintain access to those supplies, combining their explanations of what they believed was important with how they would need to behave to get and maintain those supplies believed to be crucial to survival. Dice rolls in the next series of moves determined zombie bites at random, introducing an element of luck that students had to plan around, especially as they organized to see which group members they would send to find ingredients for a zombie vaccine. They had to think about the practical elements of survival both for the larger group and the foragers, determining the best balance for the needs of both. Luck with the dice rolls also determined how successful their foraging group and ultimate vaccine were.
After a final series of dice rolls, in which zombies attacked and brought new zombies into their horde, the students returned to their original groups and discussed the exercise, figuring out who had survived; what supplies, skills, and knowledge they still had; what these shifts meant for the group’s survival moving forward; what their successes and failures were; and how these all related to larger cultural, health, and environmental issues. They had to present this information to the class, opening up a larger discussion. This discussion was meant to give students a chance to reflect on what they had learned in the exercise, their decisions throughout the process, and how it related to the class as a whole. I find reflection to be a critical pedagogical tool. Reflective discussion as a group in the classroom has benefits for students ranging from self-examination and promoting individual confidence to enabling students to better learn from others. As Annetta Tsang notes: “Within this supportive community context, students build on each others’ experiences, successes and failures, challenges each others’ views and insights, leading to collective learning, unlearning and relearning” (2011: 15).
Pedagogically, the examples in the zombie assignment served as a space for students to demonstrate that they had retained information from the semester and could apply it to other scenarios. The original discussions of people’s beliefs and behaviors in different cultures, especially as it related to health and environmental issues, were a key part of the class and its goal of having students better understand the intersections of culture, health, and the environment in a diverse range of populations. Allowing the students to apply knowledge from throughout the semester to the zombie apocalypse scenario gave them space to piece together cultural, health, or environmental issues from different contexts. The exercises encouraged students to consider our discussions of environmental justice in Flint with perspectives on long-term contamination in Bhopal, in relation to ideas about health from our conversations about cancer from a medical anthropology perspective, thinking about the diagnosis not just a problem of physical health, but tied intrinsically to gender, identity, and culture. And to take this a step further, the exercise allowed students to think about such constructions in an applied sense – what would these mean in a real world lived experience of the zombie apocalypse – would clean water, avoiding long-term soil contamination, and their cultural constructions of what it meant to be healthy play a role in the supplies they needed to survive?
Students were graded on their participation in the exercise, including groupwork and discussions, which I monitored when they shared with the class, in each groups’ ongoing discussions, and in paperwork students submitted. The students, however, were also quite engaged with who won the game, what elements they thought were fair or not, and how they thought their knowledge from the semester played a role in their success or failure. While sometimes frustrated with things like dice rolls, or game twists like moving locations, the students seemed to enjoy the exercise. They were animated and engaged for the whole period. They clearly demonstrated that they knew the material from the semester and could use critical thinking skills to apply it in new ways, something I was thrilled to see in action. The students themselves asked tough questions – both of each other and me – and pushed themselves and their peers to think about things like group dynamics, their own knowledge and skills both inside and outside of the classroom, and their desire to survive as a group in new ways.
The students also raised questions for me that have pushed me to make modifications to the exercise itself. For example, I had initially planned to let the student zombies retain some thinking skills, allowing them to pick who they wanted to “bite” in attacks and the zombies went after the most valuable group members. But why, my students asked, should the zombies not instead have to figure out who the most at-risk person in a group was and take them? I have since made that change in the exercise.
The exercise underscored to me the value of interactive pedagogical events in class. It revealed how topics trending in popular culture can be leveraged not only to get students engaged with topics like anthropology and disaster research, but also to get students thinking about their lives outside the classroom and how to apply critical thinking skills to important concepts and their application in larger settings. This ability to allow students the space to think critically and engage with real world examples and anthropological concepts, in combination with other literature on zombie pedagogy, underscores the importance of such exercises in the classroom.
Jenn Trivedi is a disaster anthropologist. She earned her Ph.D. and MA in anthropology from the University of Iowa researching short and long-term recovery from Hurricane Katrina in Biloxi, Mississippi. Her research interests include disaster vulnerability, evacuations, recovery efforts, media depictions, and the importance of historical and cultural contexts to our understanding of disaster and response. She has just completed a post-doctoral research position at the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center. While there she worked on the Hazards SEES Type 2: Dynamic Integration of Natural, Human, and Infrastructure Systems for Hurricane Evacuation and Sheltering (NSF #1331269) project in 2016-2018 and taught in the Department of Anthropology in 2017-2018. She has also taught at Illinois State University and Roger Williams University, and as a teaching assistant at the University of Iowa. In both her research and teaching, she maintains an interest in how popular topics like zombies and college football can be used to better understand people’s perceptions of culture, other people, and disasters.
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