From an Academic Galaxy: Exploring Saint Leo's Star Wars Class
Get a peek into the unique Star Wars class that was offered at Saint Leo University in the spring of 2020 at University Campus and then online.
Obi-Wan Kenobi has one message for all college students anxious to finish their degrees: "May the force be with you!"
Since the inaugural Star Wars film from George Lucas debuted in 1977, the movie series has become a cornerstone brand across all genres of American pop culture. This spring, Saint Leo University offered a Star Wars class at University Campus.
Officially called "Star Wars: Storytelling in a Galaxy Far, Far Away," it was team-taught by Dr. Anne Barngrover and Dr. Allyson Marino.
Thanks to the recent release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and several other appearances of the franchise across pop culture, Barngrover believes the timing of offering this course couldn't have been better.
"Culture at large is currently having a renewed and impassioned conversation about Star Wars, so it was excellent timing to bring some of these discussions into the classroom setting," Barngrover explains.
The pairing of Barngrover and Marino to team-teach the Star Wars class was a match made in heaven – or rather, a galaxy far, far away.
"When we first met and realized our mutual love of the films and the Star Wars universe, we talked about how fun it would be to teach it together," Marino explains. "We had heard about the success of the Harry Potter classes and knew Star Wars would be a great one to try."
She says she was first exposed to the franchise through childhood friends.
"I fell in love as a kid watching them at friends' houses on VHS and became a much bigger fan in high school," Marino says. "I love space fantasy in general and always have. A Wrinkle in Time was my favorite book as a kid."
When the prequels came out, Marino observed how they showed more nuanced ideas of good and evil.
"I was in college and studying English and philosophy, so exploring the idea of Anakin's early life was fascinating to me."
For Barngrover, her love of the franchise has been generational.
"My mom was the big fan in my family, and I'll always remember how she sat me down one night when I was about ten and said, 'I'm going to show you something that's really special to me," Barngrover recalls. "We watched the three original films over the course of three nights together. I instantly became so obsessed that my younger sister, Kristy, and younger cousin, Sara, had to be allowed to watch them as well."
The three girls would even play-act some of the characters.
"Sara was Princess Leia, Kristy was Han Solo and I was Luke Skywalker because I wanted to yield a lightsaber. We actually made one out of taped paper towel rolls."
Barngrover adds that the female characters have stood out to her.
"For me, Star Wars has always been about female empowerment and connection. Rey is my hero because I relate so much to her vulnerability, sensitivity and yearning. I'm not ashamed to admit that I am a total Reylo!"
The Saint Leo undergraduate course combined literary studies and creative writing, resulting in a unique curriculum. Students examined how stories are told, which types of stories matter to us most and why these stories are so meaningful. They utilized narratology, structuralist theory, Marxist theory, queer theory and other relevant storytelling concepts to examine this massively popular brand.
The course looked at the dozen Star Wars feature films, the 2008 TV series Star Wars: The Clone Wars and the 2019 documentary series Looking for Leia. One of the requirements was that students must have seen all of the canon films before the class began.
Students in the course ran the gamut and included those in all three English tracks (literary & cultural studies, creative writing and professional writing – as well as criminal justice, psychology, medical humanities and theater majors. They ranged from freshmen through seniors with mainly upperclassmen.
Some students in the class were lifelong fans of the series. Others were much newer to it.
"On the first day of class, we made sure to emphasize the value of having different levels of fandom in one room, and each day we've tried very hard to create a welcoming and inclusive environment for everyone," Barngrover says. "We are a community, and each member has their distinct point of view to contribute. The super fans can teach the newer fans about the intricacies of the universe, while the newer fans can offer a fresh perspective that isn't tainted by the rosy lens of nostalgia."
In February, several students in the class took a field trip to Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge, the Star Wars-themed attraction at Hollywood Studios on the Disney World property in Orlando.
"They loved it, and we did as well," Barngrover says. "This trip was a fun, community-building activity."
Students were able to apply a number of critical theories to this immersive experience, including narratology, feminist theory and Marxism.
"Also, we learned that blue milk is kind of gross. But walking onto the Millennium Falcon was awesome."
Several writing assignments were part of the curriculum. When the class moved from University Campus to online due to the Coronavirus pandemic, the students had to complete a variety of assignments electronically. They wrote weekly discussion board posts after watching short videos, listening to relevant podcasts and reading relevant articles.
The big project in the class – a group podcast –remained an assignment after the course moved online. However, students had the option to record this independently, in small groups or write an article instead.
For one assignment, the students had to write a short, reflective essay in the form of a personal narrative. They were posed with two main questions about what Star Wars means to them personally and what connects them to the franchise.
"We got some incredibly beautiful and heartfelt narratives," Marino says.
She says there were several unique stories about what the films had done to positively impact certain students' lives.
"One student wrote about how re-watching the movies together for this class helped mend a father-daughter relationship and a sister-brother bond. A brand new fan opened up about how getting into The Mandalorian helped her cope with a rough time in her life. Another lifelong fan wrote that when she is faced with a challenging situation, she says to herself, 'If Luke Skywalker can do it, I can do it.'"
These personal narratives were very revealing for the two professors.
"We were very moved by our students' personal connections to these films," Barngrover explains. "Reading their narratives made us that much more excited to get to know them and to dig into the material together," Barngrover says.
The students also got to write fan fiction. One class period was dedicated to having the students read aloud from these pieces and for them to dress up for extra credit.
"Some students were Queen Amidala and Rey, Jedi with lightsabers, Princess Leia, Mandalorian and Lando Calrissian. We also enjoyed sugar cookies cut in the shapes of Storm Troopers, Darth Vader, Yoda and C-3PO."
The two professors would love to offer another Star Wars class like this in the future, or even courses exploring other pop culture-themed topics. Hopefully the next one won't be too far, far away…