I get notices of weird courses like this every day, but this one is special for two reasons. First, it sounds completely off the wall, combining black holes and race. Second, a colleague of mine, Luana Maroja at Williams College, asked an AI bot what the connection between the two areas was, and the bot produced an amusing response.
First, below is the class at the renowned Cornell University, whose description was sent to me by a colleague. It appears to be cross-listed in both COML (comparative literature) and ASTRO (astronomy), though I’m not sure where your course credits go, whether they can apply to the majors, and so on. The distribution requirements below (LA-AS, ALC-AS, PHS-AS) imply that you can get credit for it in Literature and the Arts, Physical Sciences, and Arts, Literature, and Culture—all in the College of Arts and Sciences. I’m not sure if it really does fulfill a science requirement, but it looks like it.
Realize that I’m not familiar with Cornell’s curriculum requirements for an undergraduate degree, and maybe this course isn’t as bizarre as the description. But remember that course descriptions tend to be fairly accurate, and are written to attract students. Click on the course title to go to the page (the descriptions are identical; it’s just that the course satisfies two different distributions requirements).
And the same course cross-listed in Astronomy
Here’s the course description and details from the online catalogue:
Course information provided by the Courses of Study 2020-2021.
Conventional wisdom would have it that the “black” in black holes has nothing to do with race. Surely there can be no connection between the cosmos and the idea of racial blackness. Can there? Contemporary Black Studies theorists, artists, fiction writers implicitly and explicitly posit just such a connection. Theorists use astronomy concepts like “black holes” and “event horizons” to interpret the history of race in creative ways, while artists and musicians conjure blackness through cosmological themes and images. Co-taught by professors in Comparative Literature and Astronomy, this course will introduce students to the fundamentals of astronomy concepts through readings in Black Studies. Texts may include works by theorists like Michelle Wright and Denise Ferreira da Silva, authors like Octavia Butler and Nalo Hopkinson, music by Sun Ra, Outkast and Janelle Monáe. Astronomy concepts will include the electromagnetic spectrum, stellar evolution, and general relativity.
When Offered: Spring.
Distribution Category (LA-AS, ALC-AS, PHS-AS)
Regular Academic Session. Combined with: ASTRO 2034
- 3 Credits Stdnt Opt
- 19548 LEC 001
- MOnline Meeting
- Feb 8 – May 14, 2021
- Battaglia, N., Vaziri, P.
- WILR Conference Center 423
- Feb 8 – May 14, 2021
- Battaglia, N. Vaziri, P.
- Instruction Mode: Hybrid-Online and In Person
This course has two required meeting days.
Enrollment limited to students who are able to attend in-person classes in the Ithaca area.
In this case the conventional wisdom is right: they’re called “black holes” because they appear black—no light can escape their terrific gravity. So surely there is no connection between this and race except for the word “black,” but you know that’s enough to drag race into the mixture. This course is clearly part of an attempt to racialize everything, and it sounds like a disaster. Since there’s nothing but a semantic connection between the two areas, it’s probably a poor welding of physics and Black Studies, livened up with the tunes of Sun Ra and Janell Monáe.
It sounds exactly what we used to call a “gut course”, or, in the case of science, “football physics”—a course meant for those who don’t particularly want to learn anything rigorous, but want to have fun and perhaps get an easy “A.” Now of course some offended Cornell person is going to write in and tell me how rigorous the course is, or that I’ve completely misconstrued the contents. To the first beef I’d say, “No it’s not: you’re combining two wholly different and unconnected areas that should not be taught as a single course. You’re also trying to be trendy without rigor.” To the second I’d say, “Well, all I have is the course description, and if I were a student at Cornell who wanted to learn science, I’d run away from this course as fast as I could.” But we always have people to defend any course, no matter how weird it is.
At any rate, Luana decided to ask the ChatGPT about the connection. This is, you know, the AI bot site that students can use to get their essay written by AI. (See here for a NYT article about the bot and the problems it’s causing.) ChatGPT at the link is down at the moment: I’m not sure if it’s active only in the afternoons and evenings, which I’ve heard, or if it’s in abeyance (there are rumors of a lawsuit against it).
At any rate, the question Luana asked is in bold and ChatGPT’s answer is indented below that:
What are black holes and what is the relationship to race
Black holes are extremely dense regions of space that have extremely strong gravitational fields. They are formed when very massive stars die and collapse under the force of their own gravity. Nothing, including light, can escape from inside a black hole’s event horizon, the point of no return.
There is no relationship between black holes and race. Black holes are a scientific concept that is based on the laws of physics, and race is a social construct with no scientific basis. They are not related to each other in any way.