We are currently only about 24 hours away from the premiere of Star Wars Episode VII The Force Awakens, depending a little on your geographic location, high time to explain why in the past weeks, months and actually years I have been using Star Wars as a teaching tool. What is the point of doing so? Why is this material so suitable for it? And could you be using this or similar techniques as well? It is a wonderful way to bring together our academic efforts towards understanding our world, with the prose, poetry and imagery of the Arts doing much the same.
Getting the idea
You will not be surprised that all of this started in a packed cinema in 1977 where the 11-year old me was stunned by that iconic opening shot of the original Star Wars movie. Decades later when I picked up teaching as a highly enjoyable and challenging part of my academic work my love of all things Star Wars was typically one of the first things my students knew about me. I admit, I relished a little in the geekiness of it yet hardly used it beyond the occasional classroom humour to lighten up the atmosphere or soften the blow of a tough derivation.
But it did give me a crucial idea about teaching early on: good teaching is all about good story-telling. Especially in the academic setting contact-hours are often so limited that learning does not happen in-class but beyond the lecture hall. It is the motivation and inspiration that you bring into the story you tell in class that can be decisive in many ways for the learning outcomes you hope students to achieve. When I learnt that there were more ‘rogues‘ like me who were using Star Wars for teaching I started exploring the possibilities more fully.
Once you realize a good lecture, or lecture-series, tells a good story it becomes easier to think of why there is a connection between a student’s attention span and a lecturer’s ability to construct an arc that can sustain that tension. I like to think of concepts I want to discuss in a module as ‘characters’ and about the theories or models I want to talk about as the basic ingredients of the ‘plot’. A story-teller should look critically at her script and wonder “why should my audience care about these characters” or ask herself “how much suspension of disbelief am I expecting of my audience when they follow me in this point”. Evidently the concept of ‘aggregate demand’ will not easily elicit the same emotional response as a credible character in a heart-breaking drama might. But thinking about these things in this way opens up a new way of looking at the content of classes and lectures that adds an important dimension to them.
But in addition to thinking about the story-telling aspects of a lecture or a class, it is very useful (and fun) to also spend some time thinking about stories you can tell that illuminate a concept. For example, the definition of a ‘rational utility-optimizing agent’ is probably best looked up in a text-book rather than recited in class. But telling an actual story, made up or from real-life, about such an agent can be extremely instructive for the student to connect to the more precise and more restricted definition encountered in the reading.
In the teaching of an Environmental Economics class with my colleague Christian Spielmann we have good experiences with confronting the students with what is essentially a story about the ‘urban fox’ population in London and the ‘choices’ a fox faces regarding migration to the city. The interesting thing is not the factual or behavioural correctness of this as a depiction of actual fox-life. But t provides a good playground for students to translate the notion of a fox as simply an animal living in the natural environment of man, into that of an optimizing agent of some kind. As an activity that takes less than an hour, the discussion about this story makes students curious about the limits and the restrictions of the ‘optimizing rational agent’ concept, about the concept of nature as merely reactive v.s. to being populated by agents which themselves optimize in some way and to ask deep philosophical questions about the relationship between the concepts of choice, free will and optimization as descriptors of behaviour. Introducing Economics students to, and equipping them with the skills to use, concepts such as ‘narrative’ and ‘story’ are as crucial as enabling them to use, criticise and develop models.
Of course once you start using stories as illustrations or as ‘qualitative models’ to facilitate critical thinking and the generation of core questions, a natural idea is to use already existing stories that students are probably already familiar with. Using a story that has this ‘household name’ quality can have distinct advantages over using ‘real-world’ examples. One such advantage can be that in describing the real-world we are facing a plethora of value-questions, of political, religious and moral viewpoints that ‘super-charge’ such a discussion quite easily. If you want to discuss the taxation of trade-routes in the Star Wars Galaxy there is hardly anyone (except the occasional die-hard Star Wars fans who strongly dislikes Episode I) who comes into class with very strong views on the subject, or who would leave class deeply offended by what has been discussed. If the ‘story’, or better the ‘world’ in which that story is set, is sufficiently rich in nuance and detail, sufficiently similar and yet sufficiently alien then these can be an ideal training ground for discussing, analysing, criticising or appreciating concepts from Economics or any other academic study of human behaviour. ‘Worlds’ that offer a wealth of possibilities for this are, for example, Middle Earth created by J.R.R. Tolkien. Students could find it highly refreshing to play with ideas such as ‘discounting the future’ within the context of how Elves, with their immortality, make value judgements differently from Urukhai, who live short lives with usually violent ends. And how does a Dwarf kingdom live of it’s depletion of a finite resource? And what does ‘dragon sickness’ as a concept say about the way people make choices?
The ‘Galaxy far, far, away’ was created by George Lucas through a series of 6 films, to which we will now soon see a seventh addition. It is a universe equipped with political institutions, such as the Republic and the Empire, with religious institutions such as the Jedi Order, and economic institutions such as the ‘Commerce guilds’, the ‘Trade Federation’ and the ‘Banking Clan’. It is a very rich universe that is the back drop for many stories that are household forms of ‘popcorn entertainment’ despite showing far greater subtlety and structure on closer inspection. As such they form an ideal playground to use elements of the established stories. This winter term I decided to offer a 0-credit module at UCL that completely relied on Star Wars narratives from the first 6 films to create an environment in which we could discuss human behaviour. The starting point of that discussion was always that such stories offer us an example of … ‘how people think, that people think’. It is clear these stories do not depict actual human behaviour, but they depict artificial behaviour that contains elements of how we actually believe people behave. The appeal of the stories is exactly that they pick up themes and issues that are so generally relevant that they have been echoing through (mythological) literature from the dawn of Man till now.
My experience with this UCL Star Wars module has been very interesting. First of all I admit that it does take a different level of geekiness to fill a course of 10 2-hour lecture-classes with material from this universe, both from the lecturer as well as from the audience. But, for example, the discussion of the in’s and out’s of what a ‘galactic economy’ could look like provides an incredible wealth of ways to look at well known economic concepts anew. The exercise of trying to see to which extent the economic institutions in the Star Wars galaxy ‘make sense’ when considering the basic physical constraints such a setting places upon such an economy seemed an extremely useful activity even when allowing for the fact it has no policy implications for our world. It also provides a wonderful arena to bring together known disciplines on social and/or natural sciences in a context that is wonderfully open and unspoilt by preconceptions.
The Star Wars Class allowed me to discuss with students elements of the Economics of the film industry, of the herd behaviour that is part of how audiences have responded in the past to this cultural phenomenon when a trilogy started. We were able to fully freely discuss how physical laws mingle with ‘economic laws’ to make a Galactic Economy a mindboggling place where there is a sound reason to consider the taxation of hyperspace trade-routes. We were able to analyse the tensions between the balance with the natural world, technology, economic activity and notions of Empire and diversity in a setting where in the end every view taken would always produce a smile on faces rather than lead to political or religious dispute.
Last but not least, this Star Wars class allowed me also to talk with students about story-telling, the example of intricate story-telling that is Star Wars, and how we perceive the world we live in. In a way the fact that I was dealing with a fictional world was easily compensated for by the satisfaction coming from being able to talk about a ‘whole world’ with all it’s complexities, non-linearities and history-dependence without having to be constantly worried about the inadequacies of methods, models and ideas. It is not a freedom we should allow ourselves in all our classes, but that we surely can in this instance.