Six UMD professors use zombies to impart real lessons in each department's academic tenets

David Cole has a philosophical conclusion: Killing a zombie is "morally inexcusable." The head of the philosophy department at the University of Minnesota Duluth delivered his finding, based on philosophy principles, to an overflow audience Thurs...

Dressed as zombies, University of Minnesota Duluth student Caitlin Ward (left) and alumna Jessica Smith, both of Duluth, applaud a presentation during Zombie Fest, a symposium featuring six UMD faculty members Thursday night on campus. (Clint Austin /

David Cole has a philosophical conclusion: Killing a zombie is "morally inexcusable."

The head of the philosophy department at the University of Minnesota Duluth delivered his finding, based on philosophy principles, to an overflow audience Thursday at the 368-seat Bohannon Hall on campus.

Cole was one of six UMD professors who parlayed today's pop culture fascination with zombies into real lessons in their fields. They called it Zombie Fest.

With two biology experts taking their turns, sophomore UMD biology major Morgan Reno said they were "making it sound feasible" that zombies could exist. That statement came with the same wry smile each lecturer showed.

Fellow sophomore Jenna Peterson caught the real gist of the evening, bringing some fun to serious lessons about making determinations in fields of study. "I remember some of the biology," she said of John Dahl's talk on "How do you make a zombie?" -- using examples of real neurological diseases in humans that could lead to what one might call zombie-ism.


He took the audience on a path from a rare disease called Kuru in New Guinea to modern-day mad cow disease, both derived from humans or animals eating brain tissue.

"Smart animals don't eat brains," Dahl surmised.

John Schwetman from the English department talked about our interest in zombies as a "trope," meaning something we like to think about, dwell upon, "in a non-literal manner." Zombies get us thinking hard about "end of world issues," he said, and thus the fascination.

And so it went as Scott Carlson from the psychology department talked about how zombies would be classified under the American Psychiatric Association's rules for diagnosing a mental disorder.

Tim Craig, head of the biology department, warned that "zombies are real and you're likely to encounter them," and then spoke about how parasites and fungi can control their much larger hosts and continue their selfish cycle of life.

Edward Downs from the communication department spoke about zombie-themed video games and how they may be actually preparing players for real-world combat.

The event was Dahl's brainchild. He once spoke with a student who mentioned the 2006 novel "World War Z," which is subtitled "An Oral History of the Zombie War" and is a fictional account of a "zombie pandemic." It's a follow-up to author Max Brooks' 2003 book, "The Zombie Survival Guide."

Brooks is credited with helping revive interest in all things zombie, as can be evidenced around Duluth this month with people flocking to the Zinema's Sunday showing of AMC's "Zombieland," various zombie "crawls" or tonight's 7:30 p.m. zombie "tag" on the Lakewalk (check-in is 6 p.m. at Leif Erickson Park).


And then Dahl got to talking with Cole, who was teaching about the ethics of killing zombies framing the larger question about the "definition of being alive," Dahl said.

On Thursday, Cole humorously went through the steps in determining, ethically, where zombies stand compared to human behavior. He said "zombies are disabled human beings," leading to the moral wrong of killing them.

Dahl was beginning to get thoughts about a three-person talk and started talking to more faculty members about it. Carlson thought an e-mail Dahl sent approaching the idea was a prank, because Carlson had been known for his zombie talks at his previous job.

With more professors on board, thing began to roll. "Somehow it magically came together," Dahl said.

Not everyone was on board. Dahl said he probably described the event poorly when he approached Chancellor Lynn Black about moderating the symposium. "He didn't poo-poo it," but he wasn't convinced enough to take part.

Other reactions ranged from a "good response" to "sounds weird."

Dahl said he was careful to keep things somewhat academic, saying the core of Thursday's talks had each department's fundamental teachings in mind.

And while there were laughs, many parts felt like an everyday lecture on the tenets of each department.


Dahl also sees it as a way to meet colleagues in other departments at UMD, but "fun is definitely a goal."

"On paper, I think it's brilliant," he said before the forum. "I'm just hoping we can pull it off."

As students filled the hall, some fashioned as zombies, Dahl expressed relief. "I think this is extra credit at work," he said. He welcomed everyone, including the zombies, stressing inclusiveness. "But no eating in class," he said.

Eating would come afterward, and Dahl was looking forward to gelatin snacks shaped as brains. "It's delicious," he said.

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