Happy Star Wars Day!: Odds and Ends

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Bunky Echohawk is a Pawnee artist: his picture, “If Yoda Was an Indian, He’d Be a Chief” represents a Native American repurposing of the iconic figure from the Star Wars saga. I stumbled upon it reading a fascinating article, “Navajos on Mars: Native Sci-Fi Film Futures,” suggested to me by my graduate student Samantha Close. The essay moves from a consideration of the way indigenous cultures around the world have been appropriated for science fiction film and literature, and in return, more recently, how these same groups have sought to tell their own stories within the science fiction genre. There’s a wealth of resources and insights here that I have just begun to dig into, but I wanted to flag this for others who care about science fiction as a genre and about current struggles to bring more diversity and inclusivity to the entertainment industry.

I am opening this post with this image because today is May 4, unofficially known as Star Wars Day. The designation comes from the bad pun, “May the 4th be With You,” but over the past few years, this holiday has taken root amongst fans, and Star Wars day stands not only for the George Lucas franchise but also for a broader appreciation of the popular imagination.

And of course, fans are not the only ones to attach themselves to this emergent national holiday. This morning, John Kassich released a Star Wars themed campaign video, describing himself as the GOP’s “Only Hope.” Of course, Kassich suspended his campaign just a few hours later, leaving all of us utterly without Hope. And Kassich is not the only Star Wars fans among the candidates this season, since Hillary ended her remarks at one of the debates with “may the force be with you” and Ted Cruz’s campaign did its own remix video.

I have intended this post, however, primarily as a shout out to #TeachMeYouDid, an innovative campaign by the Rebel Alliance, a fan activist group focused on calling out the role of dark money in American politics, to pay tribute to teachers and mentors who have made a difference in their lives. As it happens, this year, May the 4th coincides with National Teacher Appreciation Week, and so an enterprising group of fans have chosen to use the resources of participatory culture to call attention to educators, who like Yoda did for Luke, have taught them to see themselves and the world differently. For more information about the campaign, visit their homepage. Below are some of the videos produced by fans in response to this call.

I am posting this late in the day because I have been, well, busy myself as a teacher as I help my students through the end of the term. But I had promised Andrew Slack from the Rebel Alliance that I would share some of my thoughts about teachers and teaching as a way to help promote this worthy project, so here are a few brief and inadequate thoughts.

As someone who has been working in the space of media literacy for the past decade plus, I often think about the incredible educators I have had a chance to meet. I have enormous respect for the many educators around the country who have chosen to incorporate media literacy activities and resources into their teaching in the absence of institutional support and sometimes in the face of institutional opposition. They have done so because of their own personal commitments to insuring that their students have the capacities for critical thought and social action. They have done so, sometimes, by bonding together within a larger media literacy movement, forging networks with other teachers, seeking out insights through journals and website and podcasts and blogs and webinars, mostly on their own time and at their own expenses.

Let me be clear that when I talk about educators, I do not mean only classroom teachers, but also librarians, community organizers, religious leaders, and others who have brought discussions of media literacy into their domains. I find this commitment inspirational but also frustrating, because there’s no question that many more resources and interventions are needed. Part of the point of bringing media literacy into our schools is to insure equal access to experiences and knowledge which can help us to foster a more participatory culture.

We have been lucky to be partnering with educators from the National Writing Project and the National Association for Media Literacy Educators as we are launching our new book, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism. You can access the book online for free thanks to the collaboration of New York University Press and the MacArthur Foundation. It is one of the launch titles for a new series focused on Connected Learning.

One key theme we stress in the book is that these new activist groups have been successful in part by bridging between the everyday life concerns of youth and the realm of contemporary politics. Neta Kligler-Vilenchik describes “mechanisms of translation” which enable organizations, such as the Harry Potter Alliance and the Nerdfighters, among many others, to help young people grasp political issues via connections forged with popular media franchises which are already part of their world. We’ve found that these groups are not necessarily attracting the “usual suspects” — that is, white middle class upwardly mobile youth, but are also attracting youth who might not have been inspired to take civic action in any other way. Research has traditionally shown that young people are most apt to become politically engaged if they are raised in families where the parents model participation and have dinner table discussions about current events, where they have access to teachers who bring political figures and practices into their classes, where they participate in after-school groups which have a civic focus, and where they volunteer in their community.

Reflecting on the educators that matter to me, I can see ways that my own civic path was shaped both by traditional and informal means. Lately, I’ve told the story with an emphasis on informal paths into politics. For me, the key text was Star Trek which modeled what a better, more diverse, more inclusive, and more accepting society looked like, and helped to foster my civic imagination. I was watching Star Trek even as I lived in a segregated community, went to segregated schools, and attended a segregated church. And I did so even as I was living in Atlanta which was at the center of the Civil Rights movement. So these things came together to inspire a strong sense of social justice, especially as it related to issues of freedom and equality. My political consciousness came a bit later: I was a child of the Watergate era, becoming obsessed with watching the hearings on television, and plowing through the vast archive of documents being released to the public. I first voted in the 1976 election when I supported Mo Udal as he struggle unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination.

But, telling the story that way cuts out the strong role which educators played in that process. As I think about my civic education, I think first about Betty Leslein, from whom I took American Government and a range of other social science classes. She was herself actively involved in trying to form a teacher’s union and she later ran for the Georgia General Assembly (allowing me to help her campaign). She knew government leaders at all levels and brought them into her classes. I recall for example meeting Max Clevland, who would later become the head of Veteran’s Affairs during the Carter Administration and who later still became a U.S. Senator: at the time, he was a representative in the state government, as I recall. Leslein gave extra credit for attending governmental hearings, and this got me to watch city council meetings and the like. She supported her students even when it put her at some risk: I worked with student leaders from a range of high schools to pull together what we called the Students Rights Organization, and she let us use her house to host our first meeting. Unfortunately, news of the meeting leaked to the Principals and the school board, and as a result, we all got called on the carpet, including our teacher. But she had taught me the importance of standing up for your beliefs, taking risks in the name of your core rights, and getting involved in the political process. These lessons have stuck with me for more than 40 years. I was lucky some years back to sit down with Ms. Leslein, then retired, and share with her my own experiences, including testifying before the U.S. Commerce Committee after the Columbine shootings, and it was wonderful to see the pride in her eyes about how I had continued to build on the skills and knowledge she had taught me.

But, I also had the other advantages that the research on civic engagement flags. I had parents who were very active in their communities, and especially in their church community. I was very active in a range of school activities, including student government, the school newspaper, and the debate team. There, I recall with fondness Donald Meeks, who was the adult leader of the debate team (we never won a debate but we had a grand time together) and Marjorie Throckmorton, who was the faculty advisor to the student newspaper (and what a plague I was on her, given my tendency to always push the limits of what we could publish and sometimes cross the line.) I also benefited from participation in the Boy Scouts of America, where we were blessed with great adult leaders, and where I had my first experiences teaching, including teaching merit badges around theater and photography, early steps into the world of media studies.

By the time I was an undergraduate, then, I was well on my way to being an active and engaged citizen. My mother even allowed me to claim to be sick for a day when I went to a Democratic party gathering where all of the core candidates for the 1976 nomination were speaking. As an undergraduate, I once again had great teachers, though, including George Grief, a nervous retired city editor, who sharpened my writing and thinking skills through putting me through my paces in my first reporting classes. But above all, my life was influenced by William Thomas, then a leading expert on the U.S. Supreme Court. Thomas was also someone who brought the world into his classroom and sent his students out into the world: I remember most vividly a course I took on Criminal Justice, which had us riding in patrol cars with cops, watching trials in courtrooms, interviewing prosecutors and defenders, and otherwise trying to make sense of the various ways that discretion entered the legal system. He was the advisor for my undergraduate thesis, which dealt with film and politics in the 1930s.

But one day, he pulled me aside and said that he had noticed that while Political Science was my major, my real passion was the work I was doing on the Entertainment Section of the campus newspaper, and that I should consider going to graduate school in film studies. There were two things in that sentence that changed my life — the first was the idea of going to graduate school. I was among the first in my family to go to college and none of us had gone to graduate school so the idea had never crossed my mind. I COULD GO TO GRADUATE SCHOOL! And second, I had no idea you could go into graduate school in film studies. This sent me racing to the library, looking up programs, and putting together the pieces which would shape the rest of my working life. So, Thomas has always been a model for me of a committed teacher and mentor, someone who notices the abilities and interests of students, someone who helps them find a path that makes sense for them, even if it not necessarily the path you have followed yourself. Thomas, after all, was a political science professor and I was a major in his department, so going to graduate school in film meant changing fields. I have thought about Thomas a lot as we’ve been putting together this new book, which is very much about what we look at politics through the lens of media and cultural studies. Sometimes paths diverge and converge in unexpected way.

It’s been a long time since I’ve heard from any of these teachers. I am not sure which of them are still with us. I’d like very much to hear from them if this post reaches their eyes. But regardless, I want to use this post to say thanks to them and the many other educators who have made a huge difference in my life.

May the Fourth Be With You.