It’s natural that a Silicon Valley-based Jesuit university would offer classes like biostatistics, intermediate Latin, technology ethics, or artificial intelligence labs.

But at Santa Clara University, tucked alongside such staples are niche offerings that might seem more like fodder for TikTok than a college classroom. Upon closer inspection though, even classes that explore cults in America, the Winchester Mystery House, or African-American satire are steeped in such Jesuit priorities as social justice, care for the whole person, and solidarity with those whom society marginalizes.

“A few years ago, I taught a student who told me he never realized that the things that he cared about were something he was allowed to actually study,” said Danielle Morgan, an associate professor of English. That personal connection allows students to be vulnerable and “really engage in the kind of rigor it takes to make pop culture meaningful.”

Danielle Morgan (photo by Santa Clara University)

African American Satire
When Morgan was little, her uncle Kevin would spend hours with her, watching and analyzing videos of Eddie Murphy on Saturday Night Live or movies featuring Black comics. Years later, when one of her Ph.D. dissertation advisors at Cornell University asked Morgan what topic she could happily devote long hours to, she replied “comedy.” That support paved the way for what would become her passion: African American comedy and cultural studies. Students who sign up for her class hoping to spend ten popcorn-filled weeks watching sitcoms or Chris Rock standup quickly learn, however, that “nothing is ‘just jokes,’” and that comedy often reflects profound imbalances in societal power structures. The class often leads to “productive discomfort,” but even amid tricky or nuanced conversations, “students are so willing to listen” and speak respectfully to one another, said Morgan. With the proliferation of TikTok and social media clips, comedy “is everywhere.” She continued, “We view comedians as truth tellers, so it’s important for us to think about the context of the truths that comedians are sharing with us.”

Christina Zanfagna (photo by SCU)

History of Hip Hop
In Christina Zanfagna’s History of Hip Hop class, students question the male-, East-Coast-based origin narrative of hip-hop, and consider its roots as a quintessentially Black American musical culture through sources as diverse as girls’ jump rope rhymes, West African music, Jamaican sound system culture, West Coast boogaloo dance, and even European electronic and Latinx music. Among other revelations, studying the history of their favorite Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, or Kendrick Lamar music “gives students a way to learn how to talk about difference” and brings collegiate critical thinking skills to music that students might feel is “disconnected from their university life.”

Zanfagna found her way to hip hop in high school through San Francisco’s local rap scene, and a love of Gospel-singing that she shared with her mom. That led to discovering “holy hip hop” at New York University; an internship at the international public radio station Afropop Worldwide; and a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology at UCLA. Her students learn how historically, hip hop has not only reflected society, but also shaped it, leading to discussions of issues like cultural appropriation, stereotyping and archetypes, racism, Black Lives Matter, gender politics, LGBTQ+ issues, and class dynamics. Zanfagna explained, “Students get to understand what’s at stake when you tell a particular history. Who gets to shine? Who gets left out? What are the silences in that history?”

Kathryn Barush (photo by SCU)

D.I.Y Pilgrimages
Most people think of pilgrimages as lengthy treks across long distances to visit holy places. Jesuit School of Theology Professor Kathryn Barush has spent twenty years researching how things like a scaled-down Camino de Santiago mapped onto a backyard in the Pacific Northwest, or a dashboard shrine on a bus that used to transport prisoners, can serve the same contemplative, spiritual and health benefits as a long-distance pilgrimage.

“The medieval idea of experiencing a sacred journey through painting or doing art took on a renewed relevance during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Barush.

Students in her courses learn to expand their concept of transformative and healing spiritual journeys. One student studying hospital chaplaincy noticed that a shared rooftop courtyard between a newborn and palliative unit was a “liminal space” where both joy and despair roamed. The student designed a labyrinth for people to be together in that space during such huge life moments, thus bringing a new dimension to the numerous references in St. Ignatius of Loyola’s autobiography to himself and others as “pilgrims.”

Jim Bennett (photo by SCU)

Cults and their Haters
Alongside the most notorious cults, such as those led by Charles Manson or Jim Jones, are hundreds of “new religious movements” that have been labeled cults over the decades, especially in the 1970s. In Religious Studies Professor Jim Bennett’s Inventing Religion in America class, students learn about the origins and beliefs of religions that seem strange or unusual, and “are especially surprised to see how pushing behind the pejorative word ‘cult’ can bring them to new levels of understanding, and humanize subjects,” said Bennett.

Bennett became interested in the anticult movement as part of his teaching on new U.S. religious movements. He believes humanizing those who seek solace in different religious expression is at the heart of the Jesuit commitment to “cura personalis and Imago Dei, which challenges us to care for and see God in others, especially those we want to ‘other.’”

Hooria Jazaieri (photo by SCU)

Emotions in the Workplace
Prior to becoming a business professor, Hooria Jazaieri was a psychotherapist who helped people with bipolar, borderline, depression, and anxiety disorders. Her long-standing interest in emotions led to her developing a research program on ways that experiences and expressions of emotion in the workplace affect employees, teams, and organizations— including how emotional expression can help or harm the vital asset of “reputation.” These include people’s use of everyday objects, such as wristbands and bread tags, to indicate their willingness to share or listen to emotional experiences.

Jazaieri’s students enjoy learning about her unconventional research projects, including the use of video ethnography to study emotional expression in baseball. “Emotions such as compassion are central to our experiences as humans in the world,” said Jazaieri. “It’s important to remember that the root of compassion is suffering, how we contribute to the suffering of others, how we can work toward alleviating suffering, and how we can cultivate compassion in our lives, including at work.”

Amy Lueck (photo by SCU)

Winchester Mystery House
San Francisco Bay Area residents have long heard the lore of Sarah Winchester, heir to the Winchester rifle fortune, and her “crazy” obsession constructing a 24,000 square-foot mansion in San Jose. Associate professor of English Amy Lueck saw many misrepresentations in the lore, including erasure of the site’s Indigenous heritage and of Winchester’s positive feminist attributes. She now teaches the hidden history of this iconic site to her senior writing students, inviting them to find other sites of importance to them—parks, statues, even shopping malls—and write about how such places structure their interaction and emotion in certain ways, including furthering social injustice. “It’s really important to develop students as critical consumers of places as texts,” said Lueck, who also studies other nontraditional sources of historical text including yearbooks.

Ricardo Cortez (photo by SCU)

Lowrider Culture
When Ricardo Cortez was growing up in San Jose, one of his hobbies was making small models of lowrider cars —older, character-filled cars modified with weights or weakened springs so the body sat closer to the road. His parents and extended family—although not lowriders themselves— had come of age amid the artistic and activist Chicano culture that was the backdrop of lowriding that began in the 1930s and 1940s (Cortez’s grandfather had known and supported Cesar Chavez in rallies for farmworker rights).

Fast forward to today, and Cortez, director of marketing for Santa Clara’s Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship, is a burgeoning historian and expert in lowrider culture, including authoring a children’s book, The ABC’s of Lowriding, that has become a hit with kids and parents alike.

As a board member of the United Lowrider Council of San Jose, he’s gone to numerous area schools to share the artistry, history, and cultural pride of lowriders, and invited lowrider enthusiasts to attend recent SCU-recruitment events. Students love learning historical facts, like how using surplus World War II-era plane actuators enabled lowriders to pump their cars up and down —a way both to show off and to avoid tickets from police hoping to criminalize lowriding. Nowadays, with California on the cusp of removing cruising bans statewide, “there’s almost a renaissance in terms of lowrider education,” Cortez said. “People are really embracing the culture again.”

By Deborah Lohse, Director of Media and Internal Communications, Santa Clara University