Ghost Investigation Techniques at the community college?
December 18, 2010 4:11 PM   Subscribe

Flipping through a local community college's 'Lifelong Learning' course catalogue for the winter, I found two courses being offered on ghost hunting techniques and methods. This seems to be a crazily inappropriate class for a public college to offer, even in a non-college credit, lifelong learning course. But is it wrong?

There are two (!) courses offered - the first is a one-day session which will allow fee payers to "join a real-life local paranormal investigator for an evening to get the real picture of how the job is done - not the exaggerated TV version!", while the second has four sessions, which is investigator training, on topics including: "equipment, evidence, analysis, documentation, investigation protocol, protection, historical research, liability and ethics."

If these classes were being offered at a community center or something, I would not care at all, but it seems like having them affiliated with a well-established, public college in the area gives a patina of legitimacy to these courses. The courses are not terribly expensive ($15 and $40), but still, this just is not sitting right with me. Is it my curmudgeon showing, or is this plainly wrongity-wrong for a public school to do (or am I curmudgeoning again?)

I'm inclined to contact the Attorney General of MI (oh, right - I'm in Michigan!) and file a consumer complaint, but I don't know if I can do that, given that I have not and will not being consuming this product. Should I speak up? To whom? The school?
posted by palindromic to Education (45 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
In one way I suppose it's fulfilling the community college mandate, giving students info and, it sounds like, training for possible careers...but yikes. If it were my community college I'd probably write to a member of the board of trustees. In MI I think they are publicly elected officials and so responsible to you, the taxpayer.
posted by philokalia at 4:18 PM on December 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure that the sort of person who would sign up to take a continuing-ed class on ghost hunting as a serious, career-related venture requires the university's "patina of legitimacy."

Otherwise, it's probably just people having fun with it. Seriously, I would love to take a four-day class in ghost hunting.
posted by griphus at 4:24 PM on December 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

Is this the type of thing where anyone can come in and teach a workshop or workshop series? My local State University does a "Communiversity" program that's chock full of classes like this, along with stuff like Beginning Yoga or Thai Cooking. If it's similar to that, then I say what's the problem?
I agree, it's a bit weird, but if you don't like it, then don't take the course.
posted by piedmont at 4:25 PM on December 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Maybe the classes actually teach a sound scientific approach to evidence collection? If the methods used can be applied to gathering good data in general, there could be some real value there, even if the specific topic is a little odd. Maybe the whole point is to attract people interested in these things and secretly teach them scientific methods to critically evaluate their world?

But that's also a little optimistic.

I'd go ahead and sigh to myself if I saw these classes being offered, but I don't think it's worth an uproar.
posted by Menthol at 4:26 PM on December 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Imagine if, instead of ghosts, it was "unicorn hunting techniques." Bullshit, right? Same thing. So, if you feel strongly about it, do something.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:33 PM on December 18, 2010

These are for fun. THey are not offered for credit. I fail to see the problem. Some people believe in ghosts, some might just be interested and think it would be a fun way to spend a day or two. What do you care? Would you also campaign to get them to remove any classes dealing with religious beliefs?

For the record I believe in neither ghosts nor religion, but I think it would be really inappropriate to raise a fuss about completely optional community classes in either category.
posted by ohsnapdragon at 4:33 PM on December 18, 2010 [7 favorites]

I don't think anyone who would see a ghost-hunting course as imbued with a 'patina of legitimacy' under any circumstances.

sounds like it's just for sh*ts & giggles. take a chill pill, yo!
posted by custard heart at 4:34 PM on December 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would contact the school first to see how these courses come about. It could be the kind of course where an instructor pays a fee to the school for classroom space and the school and the instructor divide the registration fees (or some similar agreement where they both make money). Some schools do this to make money on empty classrooms. So a program like this (while you might not like the content) could be generating money for the school to help it provide other services.

Also, if there is an interest in ghost hunting in your community the class will fill and meet the needs of the community. If no one is interested, the class most likely won't be offered again.
posted by NoraCharles at 4:34 PM on December 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

If this is anything like the Lifelong Learning type program here, it also has such intellectually rigorous classes as Basketweaving and Furniture Refinishing.

Lighten up, dude.
posted by crankylex at 4:41 PM on December 18, 2010 [8 favorites]

This is something that would make Carl Sagan's ghost cry.

Seriously though, if it were me, I would probably write a letter to the school to complain. It is different from classes like "furniture refinishing" in that furniture refinishing actually exists and is useful.

Some people believe in ghosts

People can believe in whatever they want. Doesn't make it true.
posted by Lobster Garden at 4:47 PM on December 18, 2010 [5 favorites]

Austin Community College offers a lot of its Continuing Ed courses through private companies like this - they don't even necessarily use ACC's facilities or anything. My dojo has a "class" offered, and we have our own space, instructors, etc. It's just a reasonably-priced way to advertise, for us.

It's a way for the school to get a little revenue, an advertising tool for the companies offering classes, and does a service to the community by offering one-stop shopping for a wide variety of classes. There's really no "respectability" involved, as long as it's purely part of the not-for-credit side of the school.
posted by restless_nomad at 4:48 PM on December 18, 2010

Basketweaving and Furniture Refinishing are skills. This is pure bullshit. It's no different from teaching a course on Alchemy, Astrology, or why the sun goes around the earth.

You should absolutely be outraged. Write the college department, write the Dean of the college, and write your state legistature (who presumably provides some of the money). Oh, and don't forget your local newspapers and TV stations. There's nothing like some bad press to get the attention of a school administrator.
posted by chrisamiller at 4:49 PM on December 18, 2010 [5 favorites]

I just don't see who's hurt by this. It brings in revenue, it's a distraction and maybe a little bit of fun, and who knows, people might actually learn something. Certainly might draw in people who'd never think of going to a class otherwise, and that's got to be a good thing.
posted by lemniskate at 4:53 PM on December 18, 2010 [3 favorites]

Maybe the classes actually teach a sound scientific approach to evidence collection? If the methods used can be applied to gathering good data in general, there could be some real value there, even if the specific topic is a little odd.

If you do choose to contact an administrator about this, and they support any suggestion that this has any value in terms of "research methods", this would be worthy of much outrage, as far as I'm concerned. However, if you ask an administrator what the purpose or objectives are for this course (and I think that this would be a great way to pursue your concern), and they say that it's just for social purposes, then I don't think there's much issue.
posted by kch at 5:06 PM on December 18, 2010

Well, there's nothing in the language of the descriptions that specifically endorses the existence of ghosts. Maybe it's just a sort of gimmick to wrap a for-fun forensics/scientific method course in.

Either way I'd take it. If it turned out to be taught by some psychic whack job, then I'm pretty sure it'd be a whole lot of fun for someone as... full of questions as you (it seems) and I would be.
posted by cmoj at 5:06 PM on December 18, 2010

If you are a community member and think it's inappropriate to offer such a course through your CC, write a letter to the Dean/Provost/President of the college, or whoever is the appropriate administrator in charge of approving courses. Tell them you think it brings down the reputation of the CC to be associated with this kind of baloney.
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:25 PM on December 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

There are far far far more scammy bullshitty classes at every turn, many of which have a carefully faked patina of legitimacy and promise careers that don't exist. If this school's reputation is important to you, or the non-existence of ghosts is a pet concern of yours, then have at it. But this is pretty low on the scale of harmful bullshit to get worked up over.
posted by Metroid Baby at 5:25 PM on December 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seems pretty normal to me. The (well-known, semi prestigious) universities I went to offered continuing ed classes like these that were also sometimes used as undergrad electives (no credit, but still required). I remember taking massage, kung fu and some sort of cooking class that way.
posted by joan_holloway at 5:27 PM on December 18, 2010

My well-respected local community college system is currently offering non-credit continuing ed courses such as Exploring Crystals and Their Metaphysical Uses, Intro to Homeopathy, Reiki, Self-Hypnosis, and Divorce 101. I think the tax-paying public generally understands the difference between "fun" classes like these and academic degree programs.
posted by candyland at 5:38 PM on December 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Doesn't tax money support community colleges? I thought that tuition only covered part of the cost of offering classes. If that's true, then this isn't appropriate.
posted by amtho at 5:45 PM on December 18, 2010

Tell the local newspaper if you want to stir up some trouble— if this is receiving public funding, this is exactly where higher education cuts can be made *without* any loss to the school or community, and without cutting the jobs of teachers who are well, actually teaching something that can make a difference.

In contrast, massage, basketweaving and furniture refinishing are all worthwhile skills that can lead to productive employment—not employment that takes advantage of vulnerable people for money. And one could argue that there is also harm being done by making it look as though pseudoscience is real science, thereby perpetuating lack of critical thinking which absolutely causes a host of problems.
posted by Maias at 5:54 PM on December 18, 2010 [5 favorites]

I just don't see who's hurt by this

We live in a society where huge swaths of people believe in ghosts, detox diet plans, vaccine-autism links, and faith-healing. Do you know what these all have in common? They're symptoms of a lack of critical thinking and lack of scientific illiteracy. Many of them are also dangerous.

Colleges are supposed to be places where people learn useful skills, but they're also supposed to be places where people learn to think. By offering classes like this, you're undermining that core mission and doing society a great disservice.

Please, fight this, and enlist the help of others to get this course removed.
posted by chrisamiller at 6:00 PM on December 18, 2010 [12 favorites]

want to favorite Maias' answer more than once. It's actually pretty shocking how many people seem unable to draw a distinction between things like basket weaving and kung fu, which are REAL, and ghost hunting, which is fake. What is written in the course catalog, as you describe it, is that "ghost hunting" is an actual "profession," and that is wrong, and possibly fraud.
posted by drjimmy11 at 6:00 PM on December 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Here is an example of such a class. It comes with "snacks and entertainment" and touts the fact that the person responsible was on a TV show.

Seriously, this is community entertainment. Nothing nefarious about it.
posted by griphus at 6:11 PM on December 18, 2010

And before you mention that this doesn't belong in a college, it very clearly makes money for them. I doubt they'd be doing this out of the goodness of their hearts and to further their well-known reputation for ghost hunting courses. And I'm pretty sure that a Community College in Michigan could use all the money it can get.
posted by griphus at 6:16 PM on December 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm sorry, just because they serve snacks and feature a TV host doesn't mean that people don't take it seriously. The problem is that the educated (typically middle and upper classes) have social capital that teaches them things like "this course [or college] is just a joke" and "the editorial page is where opinion is allowed." People who don't have that advantage often don't know this— sometimes even if they are very smart.

You can be hugely suckered by expensive trade schools and classes and politicians if you don't know these often-assumed things that "everyone knows" that are basically absorbed from the atmosphere if you grow up in a home with college educated parents. People who grow up in this environment have no idea what other people don't know. For example, I know of someone who turned down a football scholarship at Columbia for one at a poor quality local college because he simply thought college is college and had no idea of vastly differing reputations of Ivy League and other schools. [Whether someone like that would have been able to survive at Columbia is an entirely different issue].

In this case, the fact that the guy was on TV makes him *more* credible to people who don't know much because they think he wouldn't have gotten there if someone hadn't vetted him.
posted by Maias at 6:33 PM on December 18, 2010 [4 favorites]

It's no different from teaching a course on Alchemy, Astrology...

Actually this is probably worse, since knowing about alchemy and astrology can help students of the humanities (and maybe in other fields?) understand certain long-standing aspects of why we think the way we do, or why the world of knowledge is the way it is. Knowing about astrology, for instance, can help you understand nuances in art and literature, especially works created when such things were common knowledge. Knowing the history of alchemy is probably required for people who study the history of science.

But it's not like a ghost-hunting class is going to give you insight into the 19th century Spiritualist movement, or Dickens, or anything. It's just bunk.
posted by Sara C. at 6:38 PM on December 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Generally, "lifelong learning" programs (which they offer at a lot of schools) are classes that any member of the public can take simply by paying the fee. They are not eligible for any sort of credit at any institution. They are not part of the official curriculum; there is no admission requirement or admission process. A friend of mine is an administrator at a community college and we were talking a while ago about the ones at her school. She says the courses at her school are fairly typical: They are not taught by university faculty or vetted by anyone. (If you want to teach one, you draw up a description and you get permission to teach it.) They are, essentially, recreational activities for the community and revenue generators for the college. The classes at her school tend to run the gamut from "how to flirt" to "nature poems in the 20th century". Some of them are practical (you will often seen photography classes or dance classes); many are deeply silly (how to flirt, for instance, or sometimes things like local ghost history, or--apparently--ghost-hunting).

If this is an offering in one of those sorts of course catalogs--which it sounds like to me--there's no more reason to be angry about it than you would be angered by a someone having a monthly D&D group at the local library. It's a community resource being used to entertain people. You could complain to the regents--but I wouldn't, personally because these are not "courses" in any traditional educational sense, for all they take place at a community college. They are simply a revenue stream for the university and a community relations endeavor. People take classes they think are fun at the community college (usually during semester breaks, in my experience, cause I've taken some, too) and have a good time, meet new people, occasionally learn something, while the college makes a little money and the instructor gets practice public speaking.
posted by crush-onastick at 6:42 PM on December 18, 2010 [5 favorites]

You have a point, Maias. However, I still stand by the fact that causing a ruckus will cause the college to lose the money they would have made from this (assuming this is a profitable venture for them, and I don't see why it wouldn't be,) money that they could have used to fund real education. If stuff like this is a regular source of funding for them -- again, Michigan is fucking broke and god knows community colleges aren't high up on the "to fund" list -- making a stink could cause other such individuals (who may not be as useless) won't want to come by and do their own thing. It's throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
posted by griphus at 6:44 PM on December 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

If this stuff funds other stuff, it's more of an ethical dilemma. But that's what a good reporter should find out if the story is going to be covered.
posted by Maias at 7:05 PM on December 18, 2010

Yeah, unfortunately good reporters don't tend to cover ghost hunting classes at community colleges. It'll be either mob-riling "FOX 12 PROBLEM SOLVERS WANT TO STOP THESE SHENANIGANS" crap, or just lolghosts.
posted by griphus at 7:08 PM on December 18, 2010

a client of mine is a continuing ed arm of a local college. In general, fees at least cover all costs of the program, do not take money away from the school that could be construed as "tax dollars" or grant dollars, etc. being misused, and in many cases might net a few bucks for the school.

I agree that it's not a great topic for them to be taking on, and reflects unfavorably on the school, but unless you're an influential alumnus, donor, or play golf with the chancellor or president regularly, I think you're going to find complaining an exercise in futility.
posted by randomkeystrike at 8:08 PM on December 18, 2010

Perhaps you are even obligated to step in when you see such things. I'm not sure. William Clifford's "The Ethics of Belief" comes to mind:

To sum up: it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.

If a man, holding a belief which he was taught in childhood or persuaded of afterwards, keeps down and pushes away any doubts which arise about it in his mind, purposely avoids the reading of books and the company of men that call into question or discuss it, and regards as impious those questions which cannot easily be asked without disturbing it--the life of that man is one long sin against mankind.

posted by voltairemodern at 9:07 PM on December 18, 2010 [4 favorites]

How is this different than a class on theology?
posted by bottlebrushtree at 10:37 PM on December 18, 2010

How is this different than a class on theology?

Because Theology (or really we might call it Religious Studies) is, when done well, the study of the history, literature, sociology, philosophy, and anthropology of religion. It can be an interesting and worthy field of study regardless of whether you subscribe to the religion's beliefs, because billions of people have had religious affiliations throughout history and learning more about religion helps us to better understand these people and their societies. These ghost hunting classes aren't about the history of ghost-related matters, they are about finding actual ghosts today. A class that explored ghost-related literature and folklore would be kind of interesting; a class that teaches you how to find ghosts in your backyard is a scam.
posted by zachlipton at 11:28 PM on December 18, 2010

The University of Washington's "Experimental College" currently lists Astrology 101 and Flirting 101 in its course catalog. Their about page makes it pretty clear that it's a student-run entity and not any kind of official academic organization, though. I would have no problem with a ghost hunting course taught at the experimental college.

The Center for Lifelong Learning at Henry Ford Community College does present itself as more of a job skills center, so... huh. I note that they list the ghost hunting courses in the "Mind, Body & Spirit -> Multi-Cultural Experiences" section of the catalog. I don't know if that makes it better, or worse.
posted by hades at 12:25 AM on December 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I guess to large extent it would depend upon:
1) the extent to which this course was subsidized by taxpayers
2) whether or not this course was away to utilize unutilized resources and generate revenue which further benefits the college and reduces the taxpayer burden
3) the extent to which the community has a demand for this course - many local colleges are set up to benefit the community and serve their needs and if the community demands it...
4) is this course facilitating one of the goals of the college to open up a forum on any topic and providing a mechanism through which a member of the community can teach? Is it going to be open to everyone or is there going to be some kind of committee to arbitrate?
posted by chinabound at 1:51 AM on December 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

They also teach Reiki.

I think there's at least an argument that ghost hunting is a job skill. There are a lot of people making a living, or something like it, in my region by leading ghost tours, haunted pub tours, talks and slideshows on local hauntings. Having someone share techniques with you, even if they are total BS, is a resume point that might carry water with the credulous ghost hunting audience.

Community education programs are not held to the same standards of academic rigor that credit courses are. IN addition to their job-skills focus, they state that In addition, "CL2 offers continuing education opportunities that allow individuals to keep up to date in their fields, embark on new career tracks, or learn for the sheer joy of personal enrichment", which allows for a course like this to be offered. I think that if there were a standard in place that only academic disciplines with peer-reviewed journals and professional associations recognized by this or that body could be taught, then there might be an argument that this or that is too lightweight to be taught using community college facilities; but there is no such standard for lifelong learning programs. If ghost hunting goes, then certainly Reiki goes, and perhaps standup comedy too. It seems as though by far the largest set of class offerings is in Zumba.

I personally am enormously in favor of colleges providing community access to their resources and developing programming that interests the community beyond the student body. Though ghost hunting is certainly not a science, it is a 'field' in that it does have its own lore, techniques, assumptions, and historiography. In other words, there's plenty to teach.

IF you do want to converse about it, I suggest just calling the school directly and maybe making an appointment with the programming head. I think you would have an interesting discussion and emerge with more understanding of how the lifelong learning program fits into the college's mission, and perhaps they have discussed this issue internally or in professional conferences and will be able to share their rationale with you.
posted by Miko at 5:51 AM on December 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

The local community college offers adult learning or continuing education fun classes like this all the time. The class offering are very diverse and dependent on whomever suggest/offers to teach the class. I've seen classes on folding paper airplanes, flower arranging, reiki, etc. Heck, I learned to read tarot cards at a class like this!

I have more issue with local businesses teaching "classes" which are nothing more than thinly veiled sales pitches (classes on refinancing, mortgages, creating trusts, etc).

If you don't like it, don't spend your money on the class.
posted by tar0tgr1 at 6:00 AM on December 19, 2010

Mod note: few comments removed - your Ghostbusters joke has been made and deleted already.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:30 AM on December 19, 2010

These are silly people having a silly time that maybe some of them take a little too seriously. Don't you have any silly interests that you take maybe a little too seriously?

I think this is a waste of your time and energy. If you really want to stand on principle to the point of interfering with how others have fun or spend their time, there are greater causes out there to crusade for.
posted by hermitosis at 9:18 AM on December 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think this is really silly. I'm an atheist/skeptic and I don't believe in ghosts in any way, shape, or form. But I think it's this kind of thing that gives atheists and other freethinkers/skeptics a bad name. You really don't need to modify the entire world around you so that it all conforms to your worldview. If you want to sign up and teach a class entitled "Ghost Hunting Is A Scam 101" by all means, you should if you feel strongly about it. But trying to end access for others to a class about ghost hunting smacks too strongly of censorship to me. The answer to ignorant, uninformed, and unscientific speech is more speech, not less.
posted by katyggls at 10:17 AM on December 19, 2010 [5 favorites]

You're curmudgeoning. Any normal institution that needs to care about this CC's accredited classes ( like a university looking at transfer credits and courses) does not care what else goes on there. Like many people have said, community colleges are desperate for money. If your self-righteous crusade to end all silly classes means that the college offers fewer accredited classes, that's a net loss for education in your community.
posted by oneirodynia at 12:31 PM on December 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Another thought occurred to me later, which is that this is exactly why ideals of academic freedom and internal college decision-making exist.

I can understand your feeling that "This isn't widely accepted as scientific fact, so it shouldn't be taught using resources which I contribute to through my taxes" but that argument is a sharp two-edged sword, the same one that could allow schools to get mired in extended attack and controversy whenever a new approach or theory is taught, or whenever something people find controversial, like stem-cell research or global warming or a left-wing interpretation of history, is dealt with in class. If you believe in a liberal approach to thought and in the freedom of the college to make decisions that meet its mission, then sometimes ideas will be trotted out that seem stupid or offensive, and yet the best decision may be to tolerate them. Live by the sword, die by the sword, and that way curricula would become wide open to citizen referendum.

The reason it doesn't usually get far as a direct challenge is that "my tax dollars" is a misconstruction of how taxes work. As soon as the dollars leave your wallet and are paid to the government in taxes, they are no longer "yours" or "mine" but, in theory, the people's, to be dispensed through the representatives the people have put into office.
posted by Miko at 4:00 PM on December 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

If the class guaranteed you'd find a ghost, I could see there being a problem. I could see there being a bigger problem if the class in any way offered a career.

That doesn't sound like what's happening here. It might be worth asking to see a syllabus - a lot of "ghost hunting" groups actually apply skeptical reasoning methods and do more to debunk than they do to prove haunting. You can't know until you see the methods.

And really, to me demanding a $40 for-fun class be shut down because you object to the subject is EXACTLY the same as Christian fundamentalists demanding anthropology courses be shut down because anthro's core teaching is based on evolution. If you don't like it and think it's BS, that's fine, but you have no right to tell other people paying to use a public institution (the same as you) what to think or believe. This is the sort of class where people can vote with their dollars and feet, and it's highly unlikely it uses much of your school's resources.
posted by medea42 at 4:57 PM on December 19, 2010

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