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One of the best and funniest student evaluations I have ever received read: “if this professor taught a course on Hell and how to get there I would take it.” This generous compliment sounded like a good course idea, and a year or so later, Dr. Caroline Perkins and I successfully proposed an honors seminar called “Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory in Literature and Culture.” Like other programs described in previous issues of Honors in Practice, the Marshall University Honors Program is built on team-taught interdisciplinary seminars— in this case Classics and English—and emphasizes student leadership and collaborative learning.
Presumably “what happens to us after we die” is one of humanity’s oldest questions. Nonetheless, we wondered about the type of student a class about life after death might attract in the millennial age. While text-oriented Baby Boomers and Generation X professors are likely to seek stories of the afterlife in classical epics and scripture, our tech-savvy Generation Y students, fans of Twilight and players of MMORPGs, may well have other ideas not only about where to find stories about the afterlife but about the definition of the term. Also, while the topic sounds interesting enough, the course implicitly promises to waver between eternal bliss and perpetual damnation, to acquaint students with angels as well as devils, and at some point to evoke terror; after all, we are talking about dying. Most of all, we recognized that, like other college experiences, the course might question cherished beliefs, overtly or subtly, depending not so much on our presentation of the material as on the individual student’s reaction to it. Fortunately my teaching partner skillfully wrapped up our first day’s discussion with a simple summary, which turned out to be a fitting description of our semester: “we bring the literature, you bring the culture.” We have taught “Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory in Literature and Culture” twice now, meeting once a week for two and a half hours and maintaining the momentum of the seminar during the week with postings on our web discussion board.