Special courses during online-only period offer students needed break from majors

Students who have ever wondered about the psychology of designing theme parks, the evolving observance of Christmas in America or how music festivals serve as sites of activism and education are in luck.

Wrapped gifts and a decorated Christmas tree near a fireplaceView print quality image
A class on Christmas in America is among special course offerings for students during the online-only instruction period. Photo by Getty Images

Indiana University Bloomington is offering these special course topics and more through the College of Arts and Sciences during the fall and spring intensive sessions, and the winter session. Other schools, such as The Media School, the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, and the Luddy School of Computing, Informatics and Engineering have offered special courses, too, starting with a pre-fall session.

All of the classes are online, during the period when no on-campus classes are being conducted as part of IU's COVID-19 safety planning. The fall intensive session is Nov. 30 to Dec. 20, the winter session is Dec. 21 through Feb. 7, and the spring intensive session is Jan. 19 to Feb. 7. Students can register up until the start of classes for each session.

Through the courses, students will earn additional credit hours for no extra cost as part of IU's flat tuition rate.

The College of Arts and Sciences asked faculty for creative courses that are typically not offered during the regular semester. Students and faculty have been adjusting to different teaching and learning modalities, the pandemic, and political and social stresses, so courses that offered a break were encouraged, said Rick Van Kooten, executive dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

"It's an exciting educational opportunity, a way to keep the students engaged and do something interesting that may not fill major requirements. Sometimes you need a break from your regular course fare," Van Kooten said.

Among the course offerings are current events topics, such as the biology of COVID-19, the policing of Black men and criminal justice reform. Some focus on practical skills, such as job and internship searches, public communication, and geographic information science. Other courses explore personal interests such as conspiracy theories, literary fiction or the art of journal writing.

The special course sessions allow faculty to try out ideas. Michael McGerr, the Paul V. McNutt Professor in the Department of History, said he has wanted to teach a class on the history of Christmas in America for a long time.

"The history of Christmas is bound up, not only in changing religious attitudes, but also in the development of capitalism, slavery, consumerism and politics," McGerr said. "Historians use the holiday as a means of understanding social class relations, family life and material culture, from trees and decorations to Christmas music and films."

Studying Christmas will help students analyze complex, long-term change, understand people different from themselves and study the nature of power.

"I wanted to do something at once serious and fun for students at the end of a long, unusual year," McGerr said.

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The special course Food Poverty and Policy might appeal to students because of local food insecurity initiatives, such as the Monroe County Food Train. Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

Andrew Libby, a senior lecturer in human biology, is teaching Food Policy and Poverty during the fall intensive session. It's similar to a course he's taught previously during the Intensive Freshman Seminar Program.

"The course has generally received positive evaluations from students, so I thought it might be attractive to IU students generally," Libby said.

He thinks it also should have appeal because of the proliferation of food-related initiatives on campus, and it offers insight into why people are food insecure -- something he witnessed firsthand working at Hoosier Hills Food Bank about 20 years ago.

"Understanding why this is the case, especially in an agricultura state where there are endless fields of corn stretching to the horizon, was confusing to me, so I began to try and understand why we produce, distribute and consume the food that we do," Libby said.

Such an examination can also be helpful with long-term public health concerns, such as childhood obesity.

"Understanding our food system from farm to table is one way to understand why there is childhood obesity, and what we might be able to do to address this problem," Libby said.

Students should check with their advisors to make sure taking any of these special courses won't interfere with current courses they are finishing, Van Kooten said.