It was against this backdrop that Krakos and Marino began exploring how to entice students to learn by employing an interdisciplinary gamification system wrapped up in pop-culture goodness. Educators have long tried to shake up teaching, with a variety of successful (and not-so-successful) methods to help students think critically and lean into their blossoming abilities and interests. Krakos and Marino combined that innovation with group competition and a direct hook to the sociological aspects of The Walking Dead. Adaptability. Information gathering. Identity. Traditions. Class. Rights. History. Ethics. Leadership. Justice. Survival. All of it, they decided, could be examined in a post-apocalyptic world that they and their students would build together.
They had students deconstruct novels and short stories about war, horror and exclusion, including The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula K. Le Guin, Freedom Summer by Bruce Watson and Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors by Piers Paul Read. They also assigned viewings of The Walking Dead. They examined Shane's dark turn, Carol's newfound strength, the Governor's horrific rise. They contemplated the lengths they might go to find food or protect their family members. They considered what to do with people who wouldn't play by a new society's rules.
Krakos and Marino make for an odd couple, academically speaking. Krakos is an assistant professor of biology — a scientist who studies evolution in plants, with a focus on pollination and conservation. She's a fast talker who gushes when she gets excited about a subject or sees that people are digging what she's saying. Marino, who specializes in the Arthurian grail legend in literature, is her temperamental opposite. The associate professor of English is more reserved, with a tendency to reflect on multiple subjects when asking questions or patiently explaining the genesis of an idea.
But both are sci-fi and fantasy aficionados, with bookshelves full of alien invasions and horror stories that center around one question: "What does it mean to be human?" Together, Krakos and Marino studied the worldbuilding within those classics and pulled together elements that would challenge students to think from every angle.
Their first Walking Dead class was a university seminar, a course for first-year students to acclimate to Maryville while intensely exploring an interesting topic in a small-group setting. They deliberately provided a light syllabus so as not to give away what students would encounter in the classroom: quarantine signs, crime tape and plastic body parts. On day one, guards in HAZMAT suits scanned students for "contaminants" before sorting them according to some unspoken code. It was the first indication that the class would be unsettling on more than one occasion.
A red envelope graced with an infinity symbol contained each week's theme. "The zombie apocalypse is happening, so grab your group, pack a car and get out of town," the assignment might say.
And then, just as everyone began to settle in, the professors produced the red dice that would alter students' paths for the rest of the semester. Every week, chance threw a new wrench into survival plans.
"Wait, you don't have a can opener for those green beans. Now what?"
"Wait, there's no gas in your car. Can you explore the area and find some?"
"Wait, one of your group members has been bitten. Will you try to heal his wounds or shoot him immediately?"
There were grumbles as students had to form new alliances and solve unexpected hitches on a regular basis. Assignments often went well beyond writing essays. One week, the students were challenged to consume only non-perishables and water for seven days, triggering particularly loud complaints. The professors assured students that the food challenge was safe and that bodies can quickly adapt to new feeding situations (introduced to the idea by a professor in grad school, Krakos had herself completed it). For the Maryville students — particularly athletes — who were used to eating several freshly prepared meals each day, surviving on canned green beans, peanut butter and condiments was a shock to the system, but it helped them think through their bodies' adjustments as well as the mental tests that a lack of adequate nutrients can create.
Gradually, the students understood that they were starting from scratch. Through their ever-changing teams — which often saw students "suffering" from ailments or even "dying" from zombie bites — they could move through a post-apocalyptic world and rebuild a new society, deciding to draw on what they know or trying a new direction. But to do so meaningfully, they had to consider who comes out on top, who gets left behind and how that connects to the United States today. It was an educational role-playing game on steroids.
"Just gamifying the class like that really gets them invested and involved in what's going on," Marino says. "We're putting them into a scenario that's fictional and trying to draw connections to the real world."
The element of surprise was key to fully absorbing all of the lessons, so at the end of the first semester the class was offered, the students swore an oath. They would never talk to anyone outside of the class about what they did. It was secret. Powerful.
As expected, that first class in 2014 drew students who already were into The Walking Dead or who assumed (wrongly) that a class about zombies would be one they could coast through. But in subsequent years, the mystery surrounding what Krakos and Marino had created became almost as enticing as the subject matter itself.
"As a student in the class, I had no clue what was going on," says Deanna Deterding, a senior environmental-science major who enrolled as a first-year student. "Every week was a surprise, so it was kind of intimidating and a little bit scary, because you're like, 'What are they going to do next?' All of the other seminars sounded interesting, but this one sounded really cool. I'd never taken a class like that — a zombie class."
Later, Deterding enjoyed reliving some of the stress of the experience as its teaching assistant. "I'm supposed to help the students, but in this class it's a little different because I can't give away what's going to happen next," she says. "So if students asked me about what would happen in the next week, I had to be like, 'Sorry, I'm under oath. I can't say anything.'"
Pleased with the initial class, Krakos and Marino applied for a Scholarship of Teaching and Learning grant to continue the class and study it as gamification. "Our 'gamified' setting is effective because we teach our students real-world science and challenge them to critically think in a role-played gamified setting to apply the principles of that science and communicate their choices by way of the reflective writing of the humanities — our truly cross-disciplinary methodology," Krakos and Marino wrote in their grant request. Awarded the money, they went on to offer the class as a seminar for four more years. It's now part of the Bascom Honors Program at Maryville, and this semester they are offering it for what they say will likely be the last time.
Even after five years, though, Krakos and Marino still have plenty of surprises in store for their students, including bringing back zombie alums to assist. "Once a zombie, always a zombie," Marino says with a grin.