College courses focusing on popular works like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter have become increasingly common over the past several years. These classes appear in a variety of curriculums, founding in subjects from economics to literature, for undergraduate, graduate, and in some cases auditing students. Nerdist spoke to five professors currently teaching courses that focus on popular sci-fi and fantasy franchises to learn how the courses originated and what they look like, and to find out who is taking them.
Assistant Professor Dr. Renee Fox from the Literature department at University of California, Santa Cruz noticed that when she included a Harry Potter book in other classes she taught (such as Gothic Literature), her students wanted more—and so did she. When Dr. Fox pitched the idea of a course specific to Harry Potter, she received a lot of support from her peers. “We’ve been talking a lot in the literature department about new classes we can teach that will be exciting and rewarding both for literature majors and for students in other majors,” Dr. Fox said. “What could be a better way to draw students into a literature class than to teach a Harry Potter class?”
Dr. Randy R. Grant, Professor of Economics at Linfield University, had a bumpier road getting his Star Trek economics course off the ground. First called “Star Trek and Social Issues,” the course eventually was renamed to “The Economics of Star Trek” so it wouldn’t have to gain approval from the Sociology department. Another colleague suggested the course shouldn’t fulfill a general education requirement within Linfield’s “Individuals, Systems, and Society” mode of inquiry because Star Trek is a fictional society (a roadblock that a course named “The Sociology of Science Fiction” did not encounter).
Some classes that focus on franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek can be taken as a single class; others are part of a larger degree program. Andrew Matranga, Associate Teaching Professor of Journalism Studies in the Media, Film and Journalism Studies Department at the University of Denver, teaches a weeklong class called “Studying Star Wars” during the school’s Interterm class session. The class watches THX 1138, American Graffiti, and A New Hope together and Matranga tailors much of the content in the class to his student’s interests.
Dr. Fox’s Harry Potter course is a ten-week-long introductory class for non-literature majors where the seven Harry Potter books are on the syllabus as required reading. Dr. Fox occasionally swaps out a book for a film to save time and recommends fan fiction as optional reading. “The lectures themselves are a bit more serious,” noted Dr. Fox, “as many of them pair the books with a specific critical approach to literary studies in order to help students think about the books more analytically. One of my favorites pairs animal studies with The Prisoner of Azkaban and tries to work through how the novel uses animals and animality to redefine what it means to be human.”
Dr. Amy H. Sturgis teaches a variety of science fiction and fantasy-related courses including “The Meaning of Star Wars,” a graduate class at Signum University, and “The Force of Star Wars,” an undergraduate class at Lenoir-Rhyne University. Dr. Sturgis’ field of study is intellectual history or the history of ideas.
“Speculative fiction in any form—novels and short stories, films and television, comics and games, etcetera—is a wonderful way to explore ideas,” Dr. Sturgis said, “because in speculative fiction, the ideas are the heroes. Science fiction, fantasy, and horror also provide wonderfully effective metaphors to help us think and talk about broad ideas like freedom and justice as well as complex issues like race and gender.”
If you’re looking for a Masters program devoted to fantasy, the University of Glasgow has you covered. Their one-year Masters course surveys fantasy from the 19th century to current works of fiction. In classes at the University of Glasgow, you might be reading works from William Morris, George MacDonald, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Octavia Butler, Diana Wynne Jones, Terry Pratchett, Suzanne Collins, and Neil Gaiman. Said courses will also feature the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and its comic continuations), Dungeons & Dragons rule books, and films such as Pan’s Labyrinth and Spirited Away.
Students looking for an easy A in a class about a book they once read are quick to realize they have made a grave mistake. Successfully completing these courses includes not only reading and watching a large amount of content in a fairly short period of time, but also extensive written work, oral presentations, and in some cases, group interactive projects.
For shorter classes like Andrew Matranga’s, which examines the Star Wars universe, students write daily blog-like journals before focusing on a final project. Meanwhile, Dr. Sturgis’ Star Wars class is built around a semester-long research project. One of Dr. Sturgis’ favorite projects came from a pre-med student who decided she wanted to focus on pediatrics after a semester spent discovering how effectively Star Wars is used by medical professionals with young patients in hospital, physical therapy, and counseling settings. Another memorable project came from a future psychologist who diagnosed Obi-Wan Kenobi with PTSD, unpacked its possible causes, and suggested how that analysis could be used to help real patients with similar issues.
One project that stood out to Dr. Fox in her Harry Potter class was a digital scrapbook for Neville. “The scrapbook is full of images and memorabilia of Neville’s great and not so great achievements,” Dr. Fox said, “and imagines his adulthood—he’s married to Luna Lovegood, of course—as well as remembering his childhood.” Over at the University of Glasgow, a favorite student project of Dr. Dimitra Fimi, Lecturer in Fantasy and Children’s Literature, is a computer game created as a fantasy-themed creative writing dissertation.
After introducing students in his “Economics of Star Trek” class to the basic concepts of economics, Dr. Grant’s class reads Trekonomics by Manu Saadia. “It provides a nice juxtaposition to my original approach to the course, in that it looks at what our lives might look like as we move to a Star Trek world,” Dr. Grant said.
One of the large projects in this class is to produce a written, or if the class happens face to face, recorded episode of Star Trek. “In small groups, students write and film their episodes with the objective of addressing an issue not covered in class, or addressing a covered issue in new ways that further the conversation,” Dr. Grant said. “They can use existing Star Trek characters or create their own set of characters. Students get wonderfully creative, both in exploring issues and in their low-budget filming efforts. Transporters, for example, have used elevators, shower curtains, and more sophisticated special effects. I’ve seen a motorhome used as a shuttle craft and a disco ball used as a planet for a ship to orbit. ”
Dr. Grant continued, “One of the first groups of students created an episode focused on a humanoid species that was destroying its planet environmentally by following sacred religious practices. They presented nicely the tension we face between strongly competing, high priority interests. A later episode dealt nicely with a labor dispute that involved notions of labor exploitation and ethnicity; it illustrated well competing economic interests and the tradeoffs society’s face.”
Students who take these courses range from diehard fans of a franchise to students who aren’t very familiar with these works but are looking to connect with loved ones who are fans. “The students enrolling on this program are usually very passionate about fantasy, but not just Tolkien,” Dr. Fimi said. “The option to explore more contemporary texts—works by N.K. Jemisin, Neil Gaiman, Robin Hobb, Naomi Novik, Brandon Sanderson, etcetera—is an equal point of attraction, and so are the options to look at different facets of fantasy/the fantastic, other than novels—so films, TV series, comics, illustrations, etcetera.”
New Line Cinema
Dr. Fox’s students usually have at least been exposed to a few Harry Potter films before they take her class but aren’t necessarily big fans of the Harry Potter franchise. For many of Dr. Fox’s students, this will be their only college literature class. Meanwhile, Dr. Grant estimates that about half of his students had little to no exposure to Star Trek before taking his class while others know the franchise better than he does. Others still are economics students looking for another way to apply concepts from their chosen major or minor.
Many of Dr. Grant’s students share that their parents were fans of Star Trek, which is likewise a common occurrence in Dr. Sturgis’ classes about Star Wars. “Many of those who are not already fans know and care about somebody who is one: a parent or sibling, a best friend or significant other, etcetera,” Dr. Sturgis said. “College is a time of transition; students often move away from home, work toward a future, and try to build new relationships and maintain cherished ones. I am continually moved by how many students see Star Wars as a bridge they can build to someone else.”
Though for many of these course students need to be enrolled in the university to register, some organizations, like Signum University, allow auditing students to take part in these courses online. In short, whether you are a student looking to take a single course that focuses on your favorite book or film series while getting a degree in a different field, or you’re interested in diving into science fiction and fantasy properties in a more serious master’s program, it is becoming ever easier to find classes that take your favorite works of sci-fi and fantasy seriously.
Featured Image: Warner Bros