While watching "Breaking Bad" the last few years, University of Colorado English professor Richelle Munkhoff began noticing distinct similarities between the wildly popular television series and her primary teaching focus, William Shakespeare.
Walter White, the chemistry-teacher-turned-drug-kingpin, bares a striking resemblance to Shakespeare's villainous Richard III, Munkhoff said, and the show as a whole has a very tragic structure, much like King Lear.
In addition to the thematic parallels between "Breaking Bad" and major literary works like Shakespeare, Munkhoff will also explore the poems, sonnets and other literature directly referenced in the show during her new class Reading Breaking Bad (Critical Thinking) next semester.
Munkhoff said she'll challenge students to think critically about why the show's writers incorporated Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass into the plot, and why they named an entire episode after the Percy Bysshe Shelley sonnet Ozymandias.
"What does it get the show to incorporate not even just literature, but hardcore, old poetry?" Munkhoff said. "What are they up to when they're really focusing a whole season around a book of poetry? When was the last time you saw a sonnet for a trailer for an episode?"
The class isn't just for fans who want to get together and gush about the show, said Munkhoff, a "Breaking Bad" fan herself. The course, which reached its 20-student cap almost immediately and has a waitlist, will focus mostly on literary works like Machiavelli's Prince, Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Faust, and works by Shelley and Shakespeare.
Students will also analyze key episodes and clips as they relate to literary themes, and are expected to research and write several presentations and essays, as well as a final research project.
Though they'll read some "Breaking Bad" scripts during the course of the semester, Munkhoff said studying the series is like studying Shakespeare. To understand the full meaning of Shakespeare's writing, it's also helpful to see a live performance, which was how Shakespeare intended his writing to be consumed.
The same goes for "Breaking Bad," which uses lighting, music and cinematography on top of the writing and dialogue to tell the story.
Students in the class also will read weekly installments of a Victorian novel. During the Victorian era, many novels were released piece by piece, which left the reader hanging for a week until the next installment came out. The Victorian version of the cliffhanger is mimicked in television series today, Munkhoff said, and in some ways, TV has brought back the way people used to read novels -- in short episodes.
Though the class will be challenging, Munkhoff said, using an Emmy-winning television show to explore complicated literary topics will hopefully help students engage in learning and critical thinking during their everyday lives, even when they're vegging out on the couch watching their favorite TV show.
"(Education) needs to engage people with the way they're interacting with the world now," Munkhoff said.
This course, which is the first of its kind at CU, according to Munkhoff, is only open to juniors and seniors majoring in English and the humanities. But depending on how the pilot class goes next semester, Munkhoff said she and other campus officials are considering opening the class to all students sometime in the future.
Students who weren't able to register for the class have been pleading with Munkhoff to get in -- a sign that they are eager to learn and discuss the themes of "Breaking Bad" in the context of literature.
"That's what literature is," she said. "It's wanting to talk about stories that mean something to us."
This type of course also helps make subjects like English and the humanities relevant to students who are increasingly demanding more value for their college education, said Steven Leigh, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
Last year, 80 percent of CU students majored in either natural or social sciences. This year, that number jumped to 85 percent, which means the number of students studying the arts and humanities is growing smaller and smaller each year, Leigh said.
But the demand from employers for skills students learn in humanities classes, like writing and communication skills, is still very high, Leigh said. Courses such as Reading Breaking Bad help reinforce the importance of those skills using a topic that many CU students are already interested in and researching on their own time.
"This kind of course, that will make the humanities and the things (Munkhoff) is trying to cover more accessible, is good," Leigh said. "We think high quality humanities training is really important and we want to make sure that our students have every opportunity to get that kind of education."
A similar course is being taught at the State University of New York at Buffalo next semester, and this fall the University of California Irvine offered an online course based on "The Walking Dead." The University of California Berkeley also offered a course on "Mad Men" this fall.