Paranormal subjects typically lie outside the circle of academic respectability. One can argue that they have been deliberately marginalized to keep them diminished in credibility. But, with the majority of the population of the U.S. subscribing to at least one paranormal belief, I’d argue we should be discussing these phenomena in an intellectual context. Things are changing. But for a while now, non-credit, community education classes have been providing a certain degree of legitimacy to these subject areas.
In recent news on paranormal-themed websites, I’ve heard that David Halperin, retired professor of religious studies, is teaching a non-credit course about UFOs and alien visitation at Duke University. Entitled UFOs–Encounter, Mystery, Myth, he writes about it here. These kinds of continuing education courses, aimed at those with leisure time for enrichment activities, are very common. In this situation, at least we see a qualified teacher. He’s qualified in both instruction and in UFO lore. I suspect this course will be interesting and worthwhile. Here is the summary:
This course rests on two premises: (1) UFOs are a myth; (2) myths are real. UFOs became a feature of the cultural landscape 71 years ago. They’ve been debunked innumerable times, yet remain firmly fixed in our shared consciousness. In the changed socio-political environment since the 2016 election they’ve achieved a surprising new respectability. We’ll explore these “visitors from inner space” from a psychological and religious perspective, asking the essential question –not “Where do they come from?” or “How do they fly?” but, “What do they mean?” –for us as individuals, as a culture, as a species.
In 1996, Dr. Halperin taught a seminar (for credit) called “Special Topics in Mysticism: Heavenly Ascensions and UFO Abductions.” Recall that he’s a religious studies professor, so this is entirely in his wheelhouse. Yet, there is a desire for a sanctioning of these subjects by those who are not in academia. Several people sign up for non-credit (non-degree) offerings at their local institutions. Some just want to learn fun stuff. Others may be a bit more serious and consider themselves legitimate paranormal investigators based on their completion of a 6-hour class.
Back in 2010, I wrote about the prevalence of paranormal-themed subjects in continuing (mis)education classes. I had found that those teaching these low-cost, just for leisure classes at my local community college were hardly reputable.
Every year for the past few years, under “General Interest”, classes are offered in “Developing Your Sixth Sense” and “Ghosts 101”. Seminar sessions include the topics of “Guardian Angels”, “Dreams and their Meanings”, “Feng Shui” and “The Fascinating Realm of Fairies”
All these courses are taught by the same person. With a tiny hope that maybe these topics are presented in a historical, non-reality-based context, I checked local sources to find out who this instructor was. She is a local psychic and ghostie. She very much believes this fantasy world to be real. An internet search on her name revealed no paranormal business associations or expertise.
A few years back, I signed up for two of these classes on ghosts and the paranormal. Sadly (well, maybe not so sadly), the instructor (from a local amateur paranormal group) could not fill the class and it was canceled. I had been looking forward to seeing the content (and possibly sparring with the teacher). I never tried again and I haven’t perused the catalogs lately. But, I suspect many paranormalists are still volunteering to teach these classes and call themselves “Adjunct Professors” which gains major paranormal street cred. Ghost hunters salivate over any association with a university as it gains them a much-needed boost to their scientifical reputation.
Mysterious Universe goes overboard in suggesting that Dr. Halperin’s class holds some undue weight with the headline UFO Studies to be Taught at Major University While the MU writer jokingly suggests this could become part of a degree in ufology, these offerings are old news. Paranormal-themed classes are hardly a new thing for non-credit public education offerings, even by reputable universities. And it has nothing to do with credits towards any degree, nor will it go that direction in the future. There are, however, some unaccredited schools that offer such “degrees”. That’s not the topic of this post.
Continuing education classes promoting the paranormal have existed for at least 10 years (probably more like 20) and still remain prevalent. You can check out Communicating with Angels and Tarot Reading at Harper College in Palatine, Illinois for about $65. Harper College probably wins the prize for continuing miseducation as they have an entire Paranormal Studies noncredit program started by Mary Marshall, a paranormal investigator and self-proclaimed psychic, who has no other discernable educational qualifications. Harper also has Ralph Sarchie teaching “Demonology” classes (page 66) at $114 a pop! My advice is — don’t bother. Other past or present courses offered are Outdoor Paranormal Investigation, Ghosts and Spirit Entities: Global Perspectives, More Than Mere Ghost Stories: Investigating Forklore (sic), and History Of The Paranormal. These may be interesting, but note that the instructors are promoting paranormal views and almost never have any academic credentials.
Too frequent to count are universities that offer History, Literature, or Visual Arts electives featuring the occult, horror, and sci-fi themes. Often these are for credit and taught by faculty. I took a Literature of the Occult class as Penn State University as a humanities elective decades ago where I was introduced to Faust, Kabbalah, and the Dybbuk. In my opinion, my electives courses were some of the most enjoyable (and easy A’s) along my way to graduation. I learned a lot!
Rutgers has a long-running course on the History of Witchcraft and Magic in the Women’s Studies department. Similarly, under Afroamerican and African Studies, U of Michigan offers Witchcraft and Spiritual Insecurity in Africa. This course examines spiritual insecurity and methods for studying its relation to central aspects of African life through the ubiquitous witchcraft practices there.
Several professors have been teaching such supernatural/paranormal courses for credit for decades. Many more instructors incorporate paranormal subjects into critical thinking classes. Several of my professor friends say that they regularly taught classes like this. These show up on your transcript and count towards your degree.
Dr. Terence Hines taught a psychology class on Pseudoscience and the Paranormal at Pace U. This course prepared the student to identify the characteristics of pseudoscientific claims and how to critically examine such claims.
Dr. Brian Regal, historian, teaches History of Pseudoscience in America at Kean University. This powerhouse course covers an astonishing array of topics from the Jersey Devil (one specialty of his) and ghost hunting to vaccine denial and eugenics. There are many similar courses that use pseudoscience topics to illustrate how the scientific method should work.
Here is a sampling of other particularly notable and recent examples (in the US – there are scads more worldwide):
Dr. Jeb Card, anthropologist/archaeologist, at Miami University of Ohio, started Monster Hunters, Ufologists, and Vampire Slayers back in 2007 and just this year focused on Bigfoot in Emergent Controversies: Anthropological Perspectives. This course focused on applying critical thinking, scholarship, and intercultural competence to famous alleged mysteries of science and history. As with other offerings mentioned here, the topics are portrayed in a cultural context involving historical evidence, lived experience, incorporation of mass media and academic literature, and assessment through physical, biological, and behavioral scientific analysis – not comparable to any degree to watching Finding Bigfoot.
Dr. Taner Edis teaches Weird Science at Truman U. According to the syllabus, the content is about beliefs that may be popular, but that tends to be rejected in mainstream scientific circles such as Creationism, alien visitation, and parapsychology.
Dr. Barry Markovsky at U of South Carolina teaches Sociology of the Paranormal which includes topics such as mass hysteria, dowsing, UFOs, and near-death experiences. And Dr. Sabina Magliocco, Professor of Sociocultural Anthropology, teaches various supernatural-themed courses in the religious and folklore context.
Dr. Jeffrey Tolbert, Assistant Professor of American Studies and Folklore at Penn State U. Harrisburg campus has a popular class on the History of Monsters, Aliens, and the Supernatural. Students apparently LOVE this class even though they are forced to confront their pre-existing beliefs on these popular culture topics in a more serious context.
This one by Dr. Thor Hansen at Western Washington Uni may be the ultimate class for my tastes – Geology and Society: The Science of Monsters – hitting dinosaurs, aliens, Bigfoot, and sea monsters. It’s a course examining the scientific reality behind common monsters and monstrous things as found in literature and the movies.
In all the “for credit” courses, the professors give the students a fresh, thoughtful, and more critical and intellectual perspective far beyond what they would be exposed to via popular media. There is considerable merit to having frank discussions about these popular ideas at a college level where students receive possibly their first strong push to engage their critical faculties. Because of the fascinating subject matter that feels personally relevant to them, the students remain engaged and motivated to explore the new information and see the all-important societal context of these subjects. I think this is a GREAT thing and I encourage degree students to check out these classes. As for the continuing education, not-for-credit courses, one should come prepared to question the motives of the instructors and the references they provide (or more likely don’t provide). Or, consider that they are just for fun.
Know of more for-credit classes to add to the list? Or, maybe check your local community college for the Spring semester to see if they offer hobby classes to learn more about paranormal topics. Let me know in the comments.
UPDATE: 23-Nov-2019 Several broken links removed.
11 thoughts on “Paranormal education classes showing up at major universities”
Yes, the Skeptic website listed hundreds of pro-Skeptic courses for some time now.
I’m not just interested in “pro-Skeptic” courses. While useful to develop critical thinking skills, beating students over the head with skepticism could be detrimental. A balanced, broad approach to these pop culture topics is more useful.
I have taken this class. It is a noncredit, but taught by academics and affiliated with a respectable university.
Yep. I stuck to US but Goldsmiths and U of Edinburgh in the UK were notable.
“Beating students over the head with skepticism” can cause a pro-paranormal backlash. After all, the Heroic Believer (who is eventually shown to be Right) vs all the Conspiracy of Naysayers and Opponents is a heady myth in and of itself.
What is a “balanced” class? One that leaves students going home for summer vacation to tell their peers and family that the University of Michigan, say, has a 50/50 view on Nessie/bigfoot/alien visits? That is the worst possible result INHO. And students attending full time academic institutions are not the demographic that believes in paranormal subjects.
Community college classes on the paranormal are often (if not usually) taught by poorly qualified advocates for some aspect of the paranormal… one step up from the “library lectures” which are generally given by proselytiizing lay enthusiasts.
Both CCs and libraries are just trying to get less educated people in the door with these “tabloid” offerings.
And these are the people who are more likely to have paranormal beliefs.
I certainly think universities as well as CC’s would do well to offer psychology classes which deal with real life propaganda, fake news, advertising ploys, lying, pseudoscience, real science, rationality, cons, cults, swindles and the like,
Sadly I think the problem is not these courses, but the ones that re-work the 19th Century notion that ‘White Mans Science’ is ‘incompatible’ with the mentalities of non-whites and non-males from an excuse to exclude those groups from the scientific endeavor into an excuse to exclude science from broader culture.
I can not see that that has anything to do with this post. It’s an entirely different subject altogether.
I really enjoyed this post Sharon. I taught noncredit parapsychology for a good ten years at a community college. I work full time as a spiritual medium and facilitate trainings for the development of psychic and mediumistic abilities internationally. I loved teaching courses at the community college as it put me in touch with vast numbers of people, I normally would not have come in contact with. As a teacher I always try to present alternative explanations and skeptical views. I greatly appreciate your articles as you are extremely open minded. Keep up the nice work.
Hi and thanks for your horrific article bashing all of us instructors in paranormal non-credit courses. I for one hold an M.A. in Intellectual and Cutlural U.S. History from Northeastern Illinois University and have written numerous scholarly articles over my thirty year career, including for the Journral of Perceptual and Motor Skills, the Cornell Hopsitality Journal and the International Journal of Parapsyschology, which (as you probably know since you are such an expert) is an organization of PhDs and MAs in every field imaginable, from Psychology to Physics to Philosophy. Ralph Sarchie, my colleague at Harper, is one of the most experienced Demonologists (you put that in quotes like it’s not an actual thing) working today, with hundreds of cases under his belt. He was trained by Roman Catholic clergy and the late Jesuit scholar Malachi Martin. It was me who recommended him to Harper, and his course was one of the most popular the program ever offered, well worth the $114 that you seem to think is some kind of ridiculous fee. Many of my colleagues teach non-credit courses at local colleges with much more impressive credentials than me. The real tragedies are that no credit is offered for many of these absolutely legitimate courses, and that people like you tell people to “not bother” with even joining a class to learn something from someone with even a bit of knowledge and to share their inquiries and experiences with others in a classroom setting. Appalling..
Appalling? Hmm. I understandably made you angry by digging at your livelihood and passionate belief. But just because you promote such views and have a degree doesn’t make you correct. I stand by everything I said. You could be a PhD and it wouldn’t matter if the content was not legit and supported by existing knowledge.
If you read the article, I say that there is a valuable way to conduct these classes but when there is an obvious belief-based agenda – as with your content and Sarchie’s (who I find completely non-credible because he leads by his faith), this is not intellectually valid instruction. It’s more like religion. “Experienced demonologist” is a nonsensical term. Not only have demons or any supernatural being transcend the ability of science or logic by definition of being “super-natural” but he has no religious credentials from what I can tell to even take the metaphysical view. I actually have no beef with the church teaching about demons or folklorists teaching about ghost stories. In fact, I think the latter is awesome! But when historians or folklorists treat these belief claims as established truth or historical fact, they have crossed the line and invite criticism.
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