Rice Offers Course on Batman's History, for the Second Time

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I have no idea what the tuition is at Rice anymore. $40,000? $45,000? More? Not nearly the "Best Bang for your Buck" it once was - that buck had passed long ago - Rice has, over the past decade, stretched its costs to something approaching Berkeley, U. Chicago, and the Ivies.

The ratings seem to bear out such costs. The school remains top-20; the US News and World Report tells us, time and again, that the students are the happiest things this side of Mickey Mouse. Still, the tuition is enough to make you pity the parents passing through. And then you read that the students at Rice - those engineers, those pre-meds, those policy wonks - are taking classes on, of all things, Batman, and you wonder whether this is simply the largest open-air scam you've ever seen.

"I saw a friend of mine teaching a class on Taiwanese music, and I just thought, nothing's off the table," Jeffrey Tsang, the sophomore professor of "Intro to Batman: The Darkness as Your Ally," told me Wednesday. "I knew that I wanted to try my hand at something, and I wondered what I knew better than most people, and I came up with Batman."

Batman. The Caped Crusader. Gotham's Guardian. Taught to students, by students, at one of the top universities in the nation. This is what higher education has come to. Batman.

As it is, the course falls under the rubric of one of Rice's quirkier - and more popular - academic schematics, which permits students, per an application process, to teach courses of myriad topics. The subject matter has been both pertinent - Cantonese grammar, Sabermetrics - and playful - the history of piracy, the origins of punk rock. And while the program generated certain acrimony during its early years in the mid-Aughts, students have grown accustomed to seeing, taking, and teaching courses on everything from investment banking to modern origami to the inspirations for Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire."

To be sure, this one-hour, pass-fail course remains a ground-level look at the Dark Knight. No assumptions on any familiarity with Chris Nolan's universe. No expectation that you'd read the near-flawless The Long Halloween, or the haunting Arkham Asylum, or any of the Robin-in-briefs chapters of A Death in the Family. No misappropriated Batman tattoos required.

"It's an introduction," Tsang said. "I'm sure there are people out there who are veterans, but I thought that if I can bring something new to the table, if I could go deeper in the discussion, that I could really share something I knew about."

Tsang, to the chagrin of anyone over the age of 20, was too young to have grown with the seminal Batman: The Animated Series - a poster of which still hangs in my room, mind you - and instead fell for the subsequent, cartoonish The Batman. Soon, Tsang squirreled himself away in the local library, poring through the comics section, burning through tomes like Hush, The Killing Joke, and Year One. A few years afterward, he was pitching his course to a bevy of Rice professors, hoping to convince them to let him join their ranks.

"The reaction's been pretty positive," Tsang says, noting that he's had to make some efforts to cap the course at 20 students. "I mean, everyone seems pretty cool about it. I see people around campus, and they'll just come up to me and tell me about how awesome Batman is. And I'm just trying to see if I can teach people something I know, if I can step up and really teach."

Of course, I'd be remiss to cast any aspersions at Tsang, a well-spoken, well-read Massachusetts native who's taken his turn helming a course introducing Bruce Wayne and his bunch of baddies to his classmates. (When asked how his parents reacted to the news of his professorship, he responded, "Well, they're in Massachusetts, so, it's like, what are they going to do?")

After all, this isn't the first time Rice students have been exposed to the history of Mr. Wayne and his Rogues Gallery. In 2010, a Rice senior decided to take upon himself the mantle of Bat-prof, eager to inform those he could reach on the cowardly, suspicious lot just beyond the hedges. Now that he's graduated - and now that he's become an editorial fellow with the Houston Press - he's glad that he's finally found someone to take this mantle from his shoulders. After all, a Batman professor, as a man, is but flesh and blood. He can be ignored, or have people skip out on his class. But as a symbol ... as a symbol, he can be incorruptible. He can be everlasting. He can be one of the heroes of campus, and he can be worth as much tuition as Rice demands.

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