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12 College Classes We Wish Our Schools Had Offered

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I took a course last semester called "Research Methods and Theory." It was as exciting as it sounds. I would much rather have been taking one of these 12 classes. From pop culture to maple syrup, these aren't your average lectures.

1. The Horror Film in Context (Bowdoin)

With Halloween approaching, you will probably soon discover my love of scary movies "“ especially bad ones (Chopping Mall, anyone?) That's why I wish Bowdoin's course "The Horror Film in Context" was offered as a graduate class at Iowa State. It's not about the psyche of Freddy and Jason, however "“ students taking the class can expect to discuss why society is infatuated with horror movies and death in general.

2. Simpsons and Philosophy (Cal-Berkeley)

three-eyed-fish.jpegI'm sure my husband is considering enrolling at the University of California at Berkeley as we speak, just to take "Simpsons and Philosophy." You'll need to know more than Simpsons trivia "“ the class takes an in-depth look at how the long-running cartoon depicts social issues such as racism and politics. Passing the class, which includes writing a 22-minute show for the final exam, earns students two credits.

3. Maple Syrup "“ The Real Thing (Alfred)

maple.jpgChances are you probably don't spend too much brain power pondering maple syrup, besides wondering whether it's most delicious on French toast or pancakes. Alfred University in New York is changing that for all students who take the course "Maple Syrup "“ The Real Thing." It covers every aspect of the sweet breakfast topping, from production to products to, yes, recipes.

4. The Science of Harry Potter (Frostburg State)

HarryPotter_small.jpgAnother course near and dear to my heart is "The Science of Harry Potter," offered at Frostburg State University in Maryland. This class combines the fantastical with the physical by asking if some of the seemingly impossible things in the popular series could actually be plausible. Think about it: if there is a possibility that an invisibility cloak or a flying broomstick could actually exist, wouldn't you want to know?

5. Oprah Winfrey "“ The Tycoon (U. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)

oprah.jpgOprah is conquering the world. The talk show, the book club, the magazine"¦ and now, history class? The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign offered "History 298: Oprah Winfrey "“ the Tycoon" in its class schedule several years ago. Like many of the other courses on this list, the class was more than meets the eye. Although it appears to be about the famous talk show queen, the class uses Oprah's cultural rise to study race, class and gender issues.

6. Far Side Entomology (Oregon State)

thefarside.gifI took an entomology class during my undergrad and found it much more interesting than I thought I would. Imagine how enthralled I would have been with Oregon State's "Far Side Entomology," which used Gary Larson's Far Side cartoons to study insects. Larson's tactic of giving his insects human qualities make them more relatable, which in turn gave students research ideas and questions they may have not otherwise thought of. Before you commence transfer proceedings, know that this class is no longer offered.

7. History of Electronic Dance Music (UCLA)

ccmusic.jpgDo you still love C+C Music Factory? Get pumped to Deee-Lite's "Groove is in the Heart" while driving? Then the UCLA's "History of Electronic Dance Music" would probably be a cakewalk for you. According to the syllabus, "Class lectures will deal with the historical narratives told about the music, musical form and technique in dance music, the political and cultural implications of the relentless hedonism of the dance floor, the influence of chemicals and technology on music production and consumption, and the aesthetic possibilities and pitfalls when popular music is no longer synonymous with popular song."

8. The Future is Lost: TV Series as Cultural Phenomenon (Tufts)

Lost-logo.jpgNext February is a very important month. Why, you ask? Because it's when Lost returns. If, like me, you're desperately jonesing for a Lost fix NOW, go ahead and enroll at Tufts University, the home of a 13-week Lost seminar. Be prepared to talk about more than Jack's propensity for crying and Sawyer's offensive nicknames for the other Lostaways, though. Topics include thematic complexity, mechanical complexity, literary references and philosophies. The course culminates with students pitching an idea for a television series to the rest of their classmates.

9. Goldberg's Canon: Makin' Whoopi (Bates)

whoopi.jpgIf you're excited about Whoopi Goldberg's The View debut, it's too bad you missed out on Bates College's "Goldberg's Canon: Makin' Whoopi," the only course anywhere (that I could find) dedicated to the former Caryn Johnson. As far as I can tell, the last time the class was offered was the 2003-04 school year, so anyone wanting to discuss her "controversial persona as an antagonistic public figure" (so says the syllabus) is out of luck for now.

10. Muppet Magic: Jim Henson's Art (UC-Santa Cruz)

muppets.jpgFor some reason, I feel like the ratio of mental_floss readers who grew up watching and learning from Sesame Street is probably high. Thus, by my theory, most of us would be thrilled to count Theater Arts 80L, "Muppet Magic: Jim Henson's Art" at the University of California Santa Cruz as part of our course load. The class studies how Muppets have changed television, film and art since Jim Henson created them.

11. Getting Dressed (Princeton)

fashion.jpgSeriously, some days getting dressed takes a lot more effort than it should. Enter Princeton's "Getting Dressed" class, a freshmen-only course that lets students discuss controversial topics such as jeans, baseball caps, tattoos, flip-flops and Chuck Taylors. It's more complicated than just figuring out what to wear in the morning, though. The class discussed how people use fashion to do everything from study history to assess character. Although it doesn't appear that the class is offered any longer, Princeton does offer other interesting-sounding freshmen seminars, including "Google and Ye Shall Find?" and "Good to be Shifty: American Swindlers."

12. Biblical Model for Home and Family (Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary)

A real controversy exists around the "Biblical Model for Home and Family" course at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. The class, for females only, teaches cooking, sewing, and says that wives should submit graciously to their husbands. OK, what I said at the beginning of this article was wrong: I'd much rather sit through "Research Methods and Theory" than learn how to "submit graciously."

So, what's the craziest class you've ever taken?

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10 Regional Twists on Trick-or-Treating
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Walk around any given American neighborhood on the night of October 31, and you’ll likely hear choruses of "trick-or-treat" chiming through the area. The sing-songy phrase is synonymous with Halloween in some parts of the world, but it's not the only way kids get sweets from their neighbors this time of year. From the Philippines to the American Midwest, here are some regional door-to-door traditions you may not have heard of.

1. PANGANGALULUWA // THE PHILIPPINES

Rice cakes wrapped in leaves.
Suman

The earliest form of trick-or-treating on Halloween can be traced back to Europe in the Middle Ages. Kids would don costumes and go door-to-door offering prayers for dead relatives in exchange for snacks called "soul cakes." When the cake was eaten, tradition held that a soul was ferried from purgatory into heaven. Souling has disappeared from Ireland and the UK, but a version of it lives on halfway across the world in the Philippines. During All Saints Day on November 1, Filipino children taking part in Pangangaluluwa will visit local houses and sing hymns for alms. The songs often relate to souls in purgatory, and carolers will play the part of the souls by asking for prayers. Kids are sometimes given rice cakes called suman, a callback to the soul cakes from centuries past.

2. PÃO-POR-DEUS // PORTUGAL

Raw dough.
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Instead of trick-or-treating, kids in Portugal go door-to-door saying pão-por-deus ("bread for god") in exchange for goodies on All Saints Day. Some homeowners give out money or candy, while others offer actual baked goods.

3. HALLOWEEN APPLES // WESTERN CANADA

Kids trick-or-treating.
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If they're not calling out "trick-or-treat" on their neighbors’ doorsteps on Halloween night, you may hear children in western Canada saying "Halloween apples!" The phrase is left over from a time when apples were a common Halloween treat and giving out loose items on the holiday wasn't considered taboo.

4. ST. MARTIN'S DAY // THE NETHERLANDS

The Dutch wait several days after Halloween to do their own take on trick-or-treating. On the night of November 11, St. Martin's Day, children in the Netherlands take to the streets with their homemade lanterns in hand. These lanterns were traditionally carved from beets or turnips, but today they’re most commonly made from paper. And the kids who partake don’t get away with shouting a few words at each home they visit—they’re expected to sing songs to receive their sugary rewards.

5. A PENNY FOR THE GUY // THE UK

Guy Fawkes Night celebration.

Peter Trimming, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Guy Fawkes Night is seen by some as the English Protestants’ answer to the Catholic holidays associated with Halloween, so it makes sense that it has its own spin on trick-or-treating. November 5 marks the day of Guy Fawkes’s failed assassination attempt on King James as part of the Gunpowder Plot. To celebrate the occasion, children will tour the neighborhood asking for "a penny for the guy." Sometimes they’ll carry pictures of the would-be-assassin which are burned in the bonfires lit later at night.

6. TRICKS FOR TREATS // ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI

Kids knocking on a door in costume.
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If kids in the St. Louis area hope to go home with a full bag of candy on Halloween, they must be willing to tickle some funny bones. Saying "tricks-for-treats" followed by a joke replaces the classic trick-or-treat mantra in this Midwestern city. There’s no criteria for the quality or the subject of the joke, but spooky material (What’s a skeleton’s favorite instrument? The trombone!) earns brownie points.

7. ME DA PARA MI CALAVERITA // MEXICO

Sugar skulls with decoration.
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While Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is completely separate from Halloween, the two holidays share a few things in common. Mexicans celebrate the day by dressing up, eating sweet treats, and in some parts of the country, going house-to-house. Children knocking on doors will say "me da para mi calaverita" or "give me money for my little skull," a reference to the decorated sugar skulls sold in markets at this time of year.

8. HALLOWEEN! // QUEBEC, CANADA

Kids dressed up for Halloween.
iStock

Trick-or-treaters like to keep things simple in the Canadian province of Quebec. In place of the alliterative exclamation, they shout “Halloween!” at each home they visit. Adults local to the area might remember saying "la charité s’il-vous-plaît "(French for “charity, please”) when going door-to-door on Halloween, but this saying has largely fallen out of fashion.

9. SWEET OR SOUR // GERMANY

Little girl trick-or-treating.
iStock

Halloween is only just beginning to gain popularity in Germany. Where it is celebrated, the holiday looks a lot like it does in America, but Germans have managed to inject some local character into their version of trick-or-treat. In exchange for candy, kids sometimes sing out "süß oder saures"—or "sweet and sour" in English.

10. TRIQUI, TRIQUI HALLOWEEN // COLOMBIA

Kids dressed up for Halloween.
Rubí Flórez, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Kids in Colombia anticipate dressing up and prowling the streets on Halloween just as much as kids do in the States. There are a few significant variations on the annual tradition: Instead of visiting private residencies, they're more likely to ask for candy from store owners and the security guards of apartment buildings. And instead of saying trick-or-treat, they recite this Spanish rhyme:

Triqui triqui Halloween
Quiero dulces para mí
Si no hay dulces para mí
Se le crece la naríz

In short, it means that if the grownups don't give the kids the candy they're asking for, their noses will grow. Tricky, tricky indeed

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Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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