Get an A for Performing Voodoo

In New Zealand, Massey University is offering a class (a.k.a. a “paper”) which examines attitudes toward magic.

The university’s new magic and witchcraft paper allows students to make voodoo dolls or “magical curse tablets” for their first assignment.

It was devised by senior classics lecturer Gina Salapata, who said it involved staff across the history, classics and religious studies departments. “These things are not just made up. The format of a curse or spell must be based on real examples from the classical period and reflect the beliefs of the practitioners.”

A course outline says it will help highlight “beliefs, values, structures and tensions” within societies studied. These include ancient Greece and Rome, medieval Europe, modern Europe and Maori society at the time of European colonisation.

The students aren’t taking this seriously or anything.

But everyone else seems to be.

Blog reader philosophia, who is taking the paper, says this:

…One of the other students even got an email from a relative saying they didn’t know she was a witch…

… Apparently the Wiccans and neo-Pagans feel we’re dabbling with Forces Beyond Our Understanding, the Christians think we’re going to hell, and there’s a whole group of other individuals who think that Arts degrees are a soft option and should be abolished…

And there’s this dude:

“I have two main concerns. The credibility of our education system relies on studies that are relevant to New Zealand’s social and economic future. This paper clearly doesn’t fit that criteria. Secondly, I have to question the appropriateness of a course on magic, which doesn’t exactly fit comfortably with our country’s profound Christian Heritage,” says [Family Party deputy leader Paul] Adams.

Christian heritage? Who knew.

In any case, that class sounds much more interesting than the Biochemistry elective I took…

  • llewelly

    Uhh, you do know that New Zealand is in the Great Southern Ocean, don’t you? That is, the very Ocean beneath which is the city of R’lyeh …

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ miller

    Our college has classes on the history of magic too. It’s not a big deal. It’s just more history, really. Sounds like a completely legitimate project to assign.

    Imagine the reaction when they find out that we also have LGBT and feminist classes. Also, a seminar on bioterrorism.

  • http://agersomnia.blogspot.com Agersomnia

    I’d love to dabble with Forces Beyond Our Understanding too! so sad the Hellmouth Coven Wiccan Preparatory(here look for comments 5, 12, 17…)hasn’t yet opened it’s doors in America.

  • justin jm

    llewelly said…

    Uhh, you do know that New Zealand is in the Great Southern Ocean, don’t you? That is, the very Ocean beneath which is the city of R’lyeh …

    I thought R’lyeh was located closer to South America, near the Pacific pole of inaccessibility.

  • http://travelfork.blogspot.com/ Sabayon

    That sounds like a completely incredible class. Really there is nothing like doing something vaguely naughty to get students interested in history, and magical practices are as much a part of human history as what are now considered more orthodox religious practices.

  • Aj

    The class seems reasonable and quite clearly this is a publicity stunt. I like that instead of just writing up about a spell or curse, students get to do it, I think it’s a good idea. That they have to explain that it will be based on research of historical practices pretty much proves the “Arts degrees are soft options”. It’s probably going to be stopped, too many people believe in magic.

  • http://atheistself.blogspot.com David W.

    Aw, man! I took a class on Vampires when I was at the University of Chicago, and NOBODY accused me of being a vampire. :-(

  • http://agersomnia.blogspot.com Agersomnia

    @David W.:

    But of course! Everybody knows that to be a vampire you don’t take a course. You join the Vampire Church and you must pay $20 dlls. to get your vampire bible first!

  • David D.G.

    I guess it falls to me to be the token curmudgeon, then.

    Frankly, I think it’s a pretty stupid idea for a course/project/paper. It’s certainly not “dangerous,” or anything like that, and I’m not the least bit concerned about any blasphemy potential; however, I find it quite absurd to give college students course credit for this sort of nonsense. What next — course credit for creating new superheroes by mixing up the powers of those in the comic books? That’s about as appropriate as what they’re doing here.

    Researching and writing about the “curses” as practiced in voodoo and similar cultural practices is a perfectly legitimate sort of study (as part of anything from sociology to history to literature), but creating their own curses by means of cut-and-paste of various curse elements seems to me no more legitimate academic study than a collage of magazine-photo cutouts qualifies as classical art. It has no sensible application, and it adds nothing to the research that one cannot get from just analyzing the original material in its own cultural context. It’s nothing more than playful make-work, and these kids are getting college credit for it. Ludicrous!

    ~David D.G.

  • http://globalizati.wordpress.com globalizati

    What’s wrong with biochemistry?

  • philosophia

    @ David D. G.

    “Frankly, I think it’s a pretty stupid idea for a course/project/paper…creating their own curses by means of cut-and-paste of various curse elements seems to me no more legitimate academic study than a collage of magazine-photo cutouts qualifies as classical art. It has no sensible application, and it adds nothing to the research that one cannot get from just analyzing the original material in its own cultural context. It’s nothing more than playful make-work, and these kids are getting college credit for it. Ludicrous!”

    Apparently a few things need to be clarified. Firstly, this was one of several assignment options, and is only worth a portion of the overall mark for the paper. Secondly, the majority of the course is, as you say, studying “magic” in its own cultural context, and therefore perfectly legitimate by your own admission. Thirdly, I must add that for the record I chose not to do this particular option because I thought it would be too difficult. Do you have any idea how complicated these things actually are? It’s far from mere “cut and paste”. Besides which, I fail to see why asking students to apply their knowledge to a practical project is a bad thing; fun doesnt necessarily equal easy or worthless, you know.


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