Plato, Mormons and ‘King of the Hill’ – it Must be Summer at Boise State

by Kathleen Tuck

Ah, summer. The season seems to engender a whole different mindset in the classroom, as evidenced by some of the creative ways faculty approach course content.

You’ll find plenty of students enrolled in traditional accounting, writing and math courses. But many others are pondering the true motivation behind Pixar film characters, taking field trips to Arrowrock Dam and downtown Caldwell to see up-close the workings of local government, or wondering whether it is appropriate to kiss a Chinese business associate on the cheek or simply bow.

Chris Innes, a philosophy instructor who bases summer workshops on the animated “King of the Hill” sitcom and hit Pixar films like “Cars” and “Shrek,” said that approaching his discipline from a popular angle helps extend philosophy to those who might otherwise avoid the subject.

“Intentionally or not, the producers of these cartoons are saying something,” Innes said. “It’s part of our culture, so it can’t be far from their way of thinking. I use the writings of Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes, Plato and others to explain the philosophy and politics in the films.”

To use a “King of the Hill” example, participants analyze Hank’s deep conservatism, Dale’s many conspiracy theories, and the importance of masculinity and feminism as seen in the protagonist’s interactions with his extended family. Students also delve into the conflict between authority and the individual as experienced by the ogre Shrek and the importance of respecting other’s needs and wishes as communicated in “Cars.”

Communication professor Peter Wollheim uses a similar approach in a series of summer workshops based on Hollywood’s representation of various sub-sets of people. Courses with names like “Mormons in the Movies” and “Hollywood and the Presidency” regularly draw healthy enrollments.

Wollheim said the workshops encourage students to look at the extent to which certain groups of people are stereotyped in film, and to examine how their own ideas about areas like religion or politics are formed.

While these subjects can invite controversy, Wollheim said he works to keep students focused. “We try to keep it on the level of what are accurate or inaccurate portrayals,” he said. In the case of “Mormons in the Movies,” he noted that even active church members say they sometimes recognize a grain of truth in the stereotypes.

A similar creative approach is repeated in classes across campus, including a new workshop titled “Bow, Shake Hands or Kiss? Doing Business in China,” aimed at helping travelers to China avoid embarrassing gaffes. How should you greet a Chinese business associate, how do you answer personal questions posed by your Chinese host, and when is it OK to discuss sensitive topics such as human rights or Tibetan independence?

In late June and early July, students interested in Boise’s history and the city’s inner workings will participate in the second year of “Investigate Boise,” a field school focused on the history and politics of vital issues that shape metropolitan growth. Held downtown in the new Center on Main, the summer program combines lectures, guest presentations, interpretive walks and bus tours of sites across the valley.

So, whether you’re looking for an extra elective credit or simply want to expand your mind, check out the host of summer courses offered this summer.

Enrollment in Boise State’s summer session is already at an all-time high, with 6,840 students currently taking courses (up 7.2 percent from last year). Students continue to enroll for the final five-week session that starts July 12 and for the workshops that take place throughout the summer

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