Sharing Syllabi: Murder and Culture

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  • posted byRebecca Ann Forrest
  • dateMarch 13, 2014
  • comments1
Human Chalk Outline

Ghost: Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.
Hamlet: Murder!
Ghost: Murder most foul, as in the best it is,
But this most foul, strange, and unnatural.

—Hamlet, William Shakespeare

The study of murder has been a mainstay in psychology and criminology departments for decades. This course was designed to add another piece to the puzzle: the cultural piece. This class takes a cultural look at murder, including how culture is involved leading up to a murder, how culture dictates the ways that murder is investigated, and how culture forms and influences the public’s reaction to murder. Special attention is paid to different cultural contexts, such as age, gender, race, religion, social organization and status, families, and economic status.

This course is being offered as a 399 course in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. Pre-requisites for this course include completion of a minimum of 60 credit hours (junior or senior standing at George Mason University) and completion of the Introduction to Anthropology course. It was first offered in Fall 2013 and 40+ students completed the course.

The course begins with an examination of human sacrifice and ritual murder through the ages. Cultures discussed during this portion of the course include the Aztecs, the Gauls, the Romans, and the Celts. While many students begin the course believing they know what murder is, from this point forward the nuances of killing and the cultural reasons behind it are examined to develop a cultural understanding of individual instances of murder.

The course then shifts to the study of serial killers and mass murderers. Case studies include: “The Vampire of Silesia,” Edmund Emil Kemper III, Ted Bundy, Albert DeSalvo, David Berkowitz, Mark James Robert Essex, Charles Starkweather, Charles Manson and the Manson Family, Jim Jones and Jonestown, Rod Farrell and the Vampire Clan, Mary Bell, Erzebet Bathory, Aileen Wuornos, and Jack the Ripper. While studying specific murder cases, there is also discussion of how anthropology is useful in thinking about murder overall—the way it grounds the study of murder in culture and forces researchers to see murderers not just as people suffering from mental diseases or as people dealing with trauma from childhood, but as products of the culture that the rest of a society calls its own, and a reaction to cultural forces and struggles. As well, we continually define and redefine the term murder throughout the course.

There are three elements that are central to the organization of this course: discussion-based classes, online discussions, and an “information” paper at the beginning of the semester. The information paper, for which credit but no grade is given, allows students to freely express their expectations of the course as well as provide a space for letting the instructor know if they have personal experience with violence that may affect class performance or participation. In previous classes many students have taken the opportunity to share why they are interested in the subject of murder. Some have also confidentially shared their experiences with violence, death, and/or murder. Students in this course are expected to work through and critically respond to material as part of in-class conversation, argument, and debate.

Online discussions were added to the syllabus this semester to further strengthen critical thinking skills and allow students more time to reflect on readings and class discussions. The online discussions serve a three-fold purpose. First, to ensure students are keeping up with reading. While the majority of students find the readings interesting, this course does require more reading than many students are used to. Writing a short post for the online discussion board is important, but it also gives the students an opportunity to read their classmates’ thoughts about the reading. Second, online discussion improves students’ critical thinking skills and prepares them for researching and writing their final paper. Third, I noticed that a handful of students were able to go the entire semester last fall without speaking in class or sharing their thoughts. Online discussions allow students more time to think about the topics at hand and express their thoughts without having to speak in class. Participation in online and in-class discussions counts for 15-20% of the final mark.

Finally, I allow students to propose topics for the last two classes of the course. This past semester they wanted a class dedicated to murder in popular culture, specifically serial killers in popular culture. We discussed fictional serial killers like Hannibal Lecter (introduced in Silence of the Lambs), Patrick Bateman (American Psycho), Dexter Morgan (Dexter), and Joe Carroll (The Following). The course built up to this class meeting where students were expected to critically analyze each character, their actions, and motives, and draw conclusions based on that analysis.

Other than adding online discussions, I adjusted the class this spring to allow students to express their thoughts on the readings. This gives them an outlet for saying “I hated this reading,” “I don’t understand what the author is getting at,” or “I think we should read more articles like this.” Taking a couple of minutes to do this gives students an outlet to vent and then look at the article critically.

In the future I would like to make the transition from studying human sacrifice to mass murder and serial killing smoother. Students seem most interested in mass murder and serial killing so they don’t mind the jolt, but I think connections can be smoother. Any suggestions to address this are most welcome.

Rebecca Ann Forrest, George Mason University

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  1. Anna says:

    See also the following article from InTheCapital:

    Apparently George Mason Students Love Learning About Murder

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