Helping Students Take a Bite Out of Global Cultures

Thomas Garza stands in the front of a classroom of students holding a book and gesturing to the screen behind him.
Thomas Garza reads a passage to his introduction to Slavic Civilization course, “The Vampire in Slavic Cultures.” Photo Credit: Trent Lesikar

Vampires have been around for centuries, or at least the myth of the vampire has. Every other fall, students at the University of Texas at Austin get the chance to explore this myth, from origins to present day, in “The Vampire in Slavic Cultures,” an introduction to Slavic Civilization course that carries a Global Cultures Flag.

The course examines the vampire in the cultures of Russia and Eastern Europe, including manifestations in literature, religion, art, film and common practices from its origins to present day, according to the description in the course catalogue. Participants are asked to separate historical fact from popular fiction, and form opinions about the place of the vampire in Slavic and East European cultures, particularly in contrast to the more familiar portraits in US and Western European cultures.

Thomas Garza, an associate professor in the Department of Slavic and Eurasian Studies housed within the College of Liberal Arts, has taught the course since 1997. He said that, although the course once pulled in only 25–30 students, it has grown to fill 250-seat lecture halls at its largest.

“It’s kind of taken on a life like a vampire, and I still love teaching it every time comes up,” Garza said.

A fan of vampires since he was young, Garza said an overnight trip to Transylvania in the summer of 1988 cemented the idea of the mythical creature as a teaching mechanism in his mind. Today, he said the course is designed to interweave history, religion, geography and pop culture.

Over the years, he said he has noticed the impact pop culture has on class discussions and expectations. From the heavy gothic student population of the late 1990s to the Twilight Mania of the mid-2000s, he added that there is an “aha moment” every year where students realize the vampire myth is not just one of pop culture, but is one that goes back thousands of years and spans the globe.

Although the course’s readings and materials are drawn mostly from Slavic and Eastern European sources, Garza stressed the importance of students having easy to grasp pop culture ideas, like Dracula and even Twilight, to ground themselves in the discussion.

A student who took the course in Fall 2017 wrote in their end-of-semester survey that assignments, like response papers, were especially helpful in seeing a greater dialogue between the historical and cultural circumstances surrounding the portrayal of vampires.

“We learned about Slavic and other European cultures everyday as well as new ways to approach thinking about cultures other than our own,” another student who took the class in Fall of 2017 wrote in their end-of-semester survey. “The professor always encouraged us to think outside of our comfort zone about our beliefs and those of others.”

According to the Global Cultures Flag Canvas page, the Global Cultures Flag is meant to challenge students to explore beliefs and practices of non-U.S. cultural communities in relation to their own cultural experiences so that they engage in an active process of self-reflection and self-awareness.

“Student do need these pivots to hold on to and to ground a text in these ideas they find familiar,” Garza explained. “So, the story of Dracula is one, more or less, that they have heard in some way. If they can use that as a face for the original Dracula story that really happened in the 1400s, it gives them a way to hold on to that story by using something more familiar.”

Garza said he wants students to walk away from the course having learned how to pick up big concepts rather than details. He said he is less interested in them memorizing date specifics than in students realizing the myth of the vampire is bigger than what they walked into class thinking it was. He said he believes the Global Cultures Flag helps accomplish this by bringing global awareness to UT students through exposing them to material they might not have had access to in their high school or domestic lives.

“To show them material is not inaccessible to them and they do have the resources to look at something as completely foreign, completely exotic as a Russian medieval text on vampires and get it, be able to understand it, and make something with it is why I really love what the Global Flag carries,” Garza said.

If you would like to know more about the Flags program at UT Austin, you can find more information at the Center for the Skills & Experience Flags website.

If you are a professor at UT, you can find resources to help teach the Global Cultures Flag through Canvas. We also provide resources and ideas to help you teach each of the other Flags on Canvas.

By Hope Lenamon, Graduate Assistant for CSEF

The Center for the Skills & Experience Flags provides resources and support for the general education shared by all undergraduates at UT Austin.