Cryptography to human rights: what the faculty are teaching this fall

John Jones

Editor's Note: Teaching a class? Let us know about it. The following is the first of what we hope will be an ongoing look into some of the unique classes being taught at ASU this fall.

Laughs, adventure, suspense and secret codes – no, we're not talking about the next big Hollywood film; we're talking about a syllabus.

Beyond the basic introductory college courses, such as English 101 and Psychology 101, there are many unique courses offered to students each semester, by a diverse array of faculty who are all experts in their fields.

Here, we take a look at some of the interesting course topics for the Fall 2012 semester.

English 329 – Soldiers, Spies, Bureaucrats: Adventure Literature

Shawna Ross’ literature class includes reading from H. Rider Haggard’s “King Solomon’s Mines” to Florence Marryat’s “The Blood of the Vampire” – all works that illustrate the role of the written word in the British Empire during the late-Victorian age.

“I want undergraduates, in particular, to know that Indiana Jones, Luke Skywalker and Lara Croft weren’t the first action heroes to roam the globe in search of adventures, battles and loot," Ross says. "Nor was Rocky’s famous training montage in Siberia the first time a hero had to travel far away from home to prove his mettle.”

Ross is certain that not only will students enjoy her class, they will leave with a better understanding of how popular literature can transmit ideas about gender, culture, race and power.

“I hope that students will come away from this class with a heightened awareness about the relationship between literature and cultural constructions of morality and justice.”

Theatre 405 – The Oscars

If you’re a fan of movies, chances are you’ve watched the Oscars on television at least once. But do you know why the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was created in the first place? The history of the film industry that we know today is the topic of Guillermo Reyes’ class, The Oscars. 

“For many of us, the Oscars are part of a ritual of growing up, aspiring to do great things, and wanting in a way to shine,” Reyes says. “For others, it's simply an annual event like the Superbowl or the World Series. It comes with cultural expectations.”

Examining how the annual glamorous event became a pillar of the film industry – as well as a look at Oscar's "Best Picture" winners – are all part of the course curriculum.

Mathematics 447 – Cryptography

You’ll need to have some serious math skills to get into John Jones’ Cryptography class. The prerequisites include such classes as Applied Linear Algebra, Mathematical Structures, and Object-Oriented Program & Data. If you can handle that, you’ve got what it takes to crack these codes – because cryptography is the mathematics behind cryptosystems, which are methods for encoding and decoding information to be kept secret.

“Who doesn't want to know how to break secret codes?” says Jones. “One of the things I like about the course is how it brings together various disparate elements. The cryptosystems range from the shift cipher, which dates back to Roman times, to RSA, [an algorithm] which is in use today.”

Jones is also interested in number theory, known as the “Queen of Mathematics,” which was studied for centuries, even before people knew any practical applications for it. “Forty years ago, cryptography changed that,” says Jones. And, for him and others, that’s “proof that all of pure mathematics is worth studying even if applications aren't apparent – the applications will eventually catch up to the theory.”

Theatre 405 – Great Comedy Films

From the title of the class, one might assume that Christopher Lamont’s Great Comedy Films is a class where students just sit around watching funny movies. And well, it is – but it’s more than that, too.

“The course is a comprehensive study and interpretation of the cinematic history, and a comprehensive evaluation of the process of the genre of film known as comedy,” explains Lamont.

Lamont developed the course as a brick-and-mortar class, which was turned into an online class three years ago. He has a personal and professional interest in the subject, since not only has he written several comedy screenplays, he also “thinks he’s pretty hilarious.” (He quickly advises to not ask his wife whether he’s funny because “she will tell you different.”)

“The class studies the different types of comedy, how comedy is executed on screen through writing and directing, and also walks through the cinematic history of the comedy film – from the silent films through the gross-out comedies of today,” says Lamont, who adds that he doesn't tell the students in advance what films they will be watching so that they don't jump ahead.

Theatre 405 – Focus on Alfred Hitchcock

LaMont also developed another popular online class for this fall: Focus on Alfred Hitchcock.

Students in this class will learn all about who many consider to be the greatest filmmaker of all time – also known as the “Master of Suspense” – Sir Alfred Hitchcock. Screenings of “Psycho,” “Vertigo,” “Strangers on a Train,” and many other classics are listed on the syllabus.

“No filmmaker has made more films that continue to resonate with an audience than Hitchcock,” says LaMont. “In the class you’ll learn all about his life, his career and the artistry within his films.” 

Sustainability 394 – Human Rights and Sustainability

In LaDawn Haglund's class, Human Rights and Sustainability, she and her students will address "the connections between human rights and environmental sustainability,” explains Haglund.

Wanting to teach her students that some of the most serious threats to human rights are directly correlated to the environment, Hagland says her class also will give students a chance to “explore the evidence related to our reliance on fossil fuels, global food production, and the effects of unchecked materialism on both our environment and our own happiness and well-being.”

Haglund says she likes teaching the class so that she can show students about the thousands of people working toward a better future, and empower them to see that they personally can create a more just and sustainable planet.