Innovative ways for instructors to encourage students’ interest in politics

In today’s post, I want to share with you a smart idea that was presented by Dr. Steven Stuglin from Georgia Highlands College at this year’s conference of the South Atlantic Modern Language Association. His talk was on the potential uses of science fiction and fantasy stories to facilitate undergraduate students’  understanding of topics discussed in the Departments of Communications, Political Science, and History.

The major premise of his presentation was that today’s students have become more and more disaffected with politics due to a number of reasons such as political trust, political interest, and political understanding. Consequently, students might find it more difficult to comprehend political concepts and political history when these topics are discussed in classroom environments. However, most students today have either seen or read a number of science fiction and fantasy pieces such as Harry PotterThe Hunger GamesStar Wars, etc. Thus, Stuglin argues that science fiction and fantasy—as often underutilized tools—may provide suitable lenses through which to understand socio-political realities. In other words, while he emphasizes that science fiction and fantasy stories as well as the characters that live in these worlds need to be regarded as extreme examples, Stuglin promotes the use of plot and character to problematize political theories, systems, and communication practices as a means to bridge the gap between student’s disinterest in politics and the political system(s) they live in.

One example that I found most striking in his presentation was the way instructors might discuss pretty complex texts such as Plato’s The Republic, Machiavelli’s The Prince, or John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty through the prism of science fiction and fantasy. In this case, one could relate Plato’s ideal leader—powerful and strict but generally interested in the public good—to the mighty lion king Arslan in the Chronicles of Narnia series. Tywin Lannister from Game of Thrones might work well as an example of Machiavelli’s claims regarding the attributes necessary for effective leadership: cold, calculating, evidencing fear as a form of control. Finally, Professor Dumbledore from the Harry Potter series seems to illustrate the limits of control, as discussed in Mill’s On Liberty.

As a way to engage students, Stuglin suggests activities where students categorize leader characters in science fiction and fantasy text according to discussed texts. As a next step, students would then do the sam with real contemporary politicians.

Overall, I really enjoyed the presentation, and I will certainly try his approach in future classes.