Laurier classes highlighted as ‘cool’

Graphic by Joshua Awolade
Graphic by Joshua Awolade

Two courses at Wilfrid Laurier University have been dubbed some of the coolest classes in Canada.
An article published in the Huffington Post compiled by Rebecca Zamon called “Coolest Classes In Canada Will Make You Wish You Were Still a Student” features a list of courses offered at universities across the country.

The first is a second-year criminology course offered at the Brantford campus called Gangsters, Goodfellas and Wiseguys: A Criminological Study of Organized Crime.

The course was developed by Ken Dowler, associate professor and chair of criminology, who began teaching it in 2007 as a special topics course. In 2008 it became a second-year course and has been run ever since.

“We max every year,” Dowler explained, referring to the capacity of the course sections. “We never had a section where it wasn’t full.”

Part of this is because there are no prerequisites to take the course, and so it attracts students from across disciplines.

“I teach in a way that you don’t need a background in criminology to take the course,” he continued.

Due to the popularity of the course, they have now developed two other courses that cover other parts of organized crime: outlaw bikers and international organized crime.

Dowler explained that the idea for the course came from personal interest.

“My favourite show at the time was The Sopranos. I enjoyed watching The Sopranos and I also liked the movie Goodfellas.”

Accordingly, he tries to incorporate popular culture references into the course to help students relate to the material. For example, when explaining the concept of money laundering, he uses examples from Breaking Bad.

“I’m teaching concepts as well as real life history behind it,” he said. “I hope that I make it somewhat relevant to them.”

In the course, Dowler said he focuses on the five families in New York and talks about specific characters such as Al Capone and Lucky Luciano.

“I think the students see that I have a passion for it and that helps, especially when you’re teaching so many people in one class.”

Dowler believes that it is the first of its kind to be offered at universities. Western University has developed a similar course using his syllabus.

The second course from Laurier that was listed is a first-year arts seminar called “History Whodunits.”

Susan Neylan, associate professor of Canadian culture and societal history, Aboriginal peoples and Western Canada, is currently developing the course which will be taught for the first time in the winter term.

“I’m a historian and so essentially it’s a course designed around the approach that historians often take, the historical method,” she explained. “Basically it’s a problems-based course trying to impart teaching how to argue with evidence.”

In the course, students will be looking at three real historical case studies which are all ambiguous in terms of an “answer.” One, she explained, will be from the 18th century and involves students trying to determine who burned down Montreal in 1734. A Portuguese-born, black woman was executed for the crime, but students will need to examine real documents and analyse evidence to decide if she was the right person.

They will also be looking at case studies from the 19th and 20th century.

There will be 22 students in the class and it has been full for a while, Neylan said.

“I’m hoping that it can be a bit of skills development and also win them over to how cool history is,” she said.

“Historians are detectives,” Neylan said. “We have some ideas of answers in our mind, but we go into the archives with questions and we’re looking for evidence and we let the evidence tells us where we should go to next.”

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