Rorie Solberg doesn’t like scary movies or the horror genre in general, but she’s found zombies an amazing tool for classroom engagement.
This fall, the Oregon State University professor is teaching Political Science 110, “Governing After the Zombie Apocalypse.”
Students in the honors college class meet twice a week to figure out how to form a new government in the wake of a fictional pandemic that has wiped out 98% of the population.
“The whole course is basically a constitutional convention,” Solberg said.
After learning about the guiding documents of the United States and numerous other countries, as well as the United Nations Declaration of Rights, student groups create proposals for fresh constitutions, including a new Bill of Rights.
Of course, people occasionally see the course name and sign up with misconceptions, dreams of crossbow bolts dancing in their heads.
“Some students come in and think they’re going to do ‘Walking Dead,’ and it’s, ‘No, we’re past that part,'” Solberg chuckled.
Then again, many constitutions include trial by combat.
Solberg, a professor of public policy in OSU’s political science program, has been with the university since 2002. She’s been teaching her zombipocalypse class, usually once a year, since 2016, well before the novel coronavirus pandemic.
When she created the course, she knew that zombies had been used successfully in several fields to make learning more exciting and interactive.
Solberg also understood that, with modern perspectives, people find it difficult to place themselves in the role of the Founding Fathers when the basic building blocks of the U.S. government were being put in place.
The undead would be the perfect excuse for society to start anew, so Solberg created a catastrophe that causes the government to collapse and leaves society in a state of nature.
“The sort of things,” she said, “that you see in zombie shows — at least, that’s what I’m told.”
Solberg acknowledged that she’s not an accomplished fiction writer and urges people not to pay attention to the science in the scenario. But we know you’re curious, so here’s how it plays out.
Solberg blamed fracking for causing a huge earthquake, leading to a volcanic eruption and the release of a deadly pathogen. (This tale was inspired by scientists’ true-life worries regarding ancient bacteria being exposed from permafrost melting in Siberia.)
Some humans didn’t become zombies but adapted to the virus, with chalky blue skin. The “Blues” think slower but more strategically, have limited mobility and can’t process food as well.
She said the Blues, a new people changed by the pandemic, are a stand-in for minorities so students can explore topics such as difference, power and discrimination. And some students are assigned roles as Blue citizens.
Students are divided into three geographic groups: “Cascadia,” with western Oregon, Washington and British Columbia; “Baja America,” including California and the Baja peninsula; and “Greater Interior Western America,” including eastern Oregon and Washington, and Idaho.
In this fictional zombieverse, each region developed differently after the pandemic, with separate attitudes about issues, including the Blues. The Cascadia region is more welcoming of the periwinkle-hued people, while Baja America has norms of separation, much like the de facto segregation during the Jim Crow era.
“Students have to think about their constituents and what they want,” Solberg said.
Each region creates its own proposal for a constitution, and the best elements are picked and amended into a combined final document for the term.
“I get really interesting and generally well thought out proposals from the groups,” Solberg said, adding that those sometimes include elements from other countries. “Even if students love the U.S. Constitution, they can see what other countries have done that might capture something better.”
What’s happening in the world today shows up in the constitutions, and the right to health care and education are usually present — perhaps unsurprising for college students living through an actual pandemic.
With its name, “Governing After the Zombie Apocalypse” might be perceived as a bit out there. Solberg views it as similar to other courses with experiential learning, such as oral argument simulations in Supreme Court classes, in which students get to inhabit roles to apply their knowledge in a way far different from rote memorization.
“It can bring students to life who aren’t really engaged in constant lectures,” Solberg added.
Siena Buchanan, a first-year student from Eugene, said the class provides insight into the difficulty the Founding Fathers faced in building a new government for the United States and the compromises involved.
“You don’t realize how hard it is until you actually try to do it,” she said. “Our Constitution isn’t perfect by any means, and there are a lot of issues with it.”
Buchanan is an animal sciences major, but she said she’s really enjoying the political science course.
“It’s really fun to actually get to learn about stuff and put it into practice,” she added.