Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series and HBO's True Blood may appear to have cornered the market on the popular vampire trend, but it's Duke's own Carlos Rojas who's teaching the topic this fall in a course called "Vampire Chronicles."
An associate professor of Chinese cultural studies and women's studies, Rojas sought a way to combine his research interests—gender, the body, infection, nationalism, and diaspora studies—while linking them to pop culture. The solution?
"They're all kind of related," he says. "Disease, prostitution, sex, desire, vampirism…. I'm trying to keep [the course] relevant, because obviously the topic continues to be a touchstone of popular interest."
Vampires, Rojas says, embody a broad range of topics, from ethnicity and gender, to desire and sexual violence, to commerce and capitalism. Students read about poor Chinese who sold blood for money, unwittingly contributing to the acceleration of the AIDS pandemic in China. They explore the "feminized" vampire, studying the relationship between works featuring female vampires, such as Let the Right One In (a Swedish novel and film recently remade into an American movie, Let Me In) and Anne Rice's Interview With the Vampire, and works influenced by strong female characters, such as Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's lesbian vampires in Carmilla. And they examine the modern vampire as a contemporary metaphor for consumption, power, and sexuality.
The syllabus is organized into four different sections, starting with Dracula (which the professor admits is read by surprisingly few students before they take his class) and other early vampire literature. It then moves on to the image of the vampire in relation to violence, sexual aggression, and death.
The course also delves into the current concerns with global pandemics and widespread disease, such as AIDS and last year's concern with H1N1, likening vampirism to an infectious (and irreversible) disease spread by physical contact
"The relationship between the vampire and this fear of infection is very explicit," says Rojas. "The contemporary resurgence in interest in vampires and vampirism feeds off of a parallel fear of and fascination with the possibility of a viral pandemic."
The current cultural obsession with vampires and the paranormal shows no sign of slowing down. New books and movies surface every day, even finding their own dedicated sections at bookstores such as Barnes & Noble. Though the course is only a year old, Rojas believes his students graduate better equipped to navigate the cross-cultural themes inherent in the story lines.
"I provide them with ways of taking the texts that they're already interested in, be it True Blood, Twilight, or Vampire Diaries, and look at them in a slightly new light," he says. "Basically, combine their hobbies, their interests, with a program of critical inquiry and find some way to bring them together in a productive way."
Carlos Rojas is an associate professor of Chinese cultural studies and women's studies. He received his Ph.D. at Columbia University in 2000 and has since written and co-edited several works, including The Naked Gaze: Reflections on Chinese Modernity (Harvard University Asia Center, 2008) and The Great Wall: A Cultural History (Harvard University Press, 2010).
Dracula, Bram Stoker; The Penguin Book of Vampire Stories, Alan Ryan, ed.; Our Vampires, Ourselves, Nina Auerbach; Blood Read: The Vampire as a Metaphor in Contemporary Culture, Joan Gordon, ed.; Interview With the Vampire, Anne Rice; Chronicle of a Blood Merchant, Yu Hua; I Am Legend, Richard Matheson; and various articles and essays.
Weekly attendance and bulletin-board postings (online); two five-page papers; one final paper, ten to twelve pages.