Trek Through Teaching
This post is part of an ongoing series that looks at Star Trek episodes from a pedagogical perspective. These posts show what lessons teachers can learn from a major science-fiction franchise. Designed to get you thinking, these posts consider how and why characters and actions in Star Trek episodes reflect the way learning could, should, and sometimes does work—as well as how teachers and education are portrayed in popular culture. Join this ongoing mission by checking out the entire series.
Can we learn about teaching by watching Star Trek? At first blush, no. Few episodes discuss the classroom environment, so there’s little direct commentary on the way education works in the 24th century. But just because we don’t see classrooms on starships doesn’t mean we can’t infer a thing or two about how education can/should work. Or more practically, we can extend the story morals and commentary into pedagogical spaces. In this case, I’ve found an episode that got me thinking about the need to balance goals and skills for everyone.
Starting the Semester
Tomorrow is the first day of in-person classes at my institution. When doing a quick mental inventory of preparedness, a bit of Star Trek dialogue crossed my mind. Mind you, the emergence of random Trek quotes alone is hardly noteworthy in my life, considering the amount of grey matter I have dedicated to that franchise. But the arrival of the quote was only the entrance to the rabbit hole. Let’s dive.
Echoes of the Past
“Once more unto the breach, dear friends.”
In a disclosure that should probably be shameful for an English major and writing teacher, I’ll confess that I first heard the line “once more unto the breach” in the context of Star Trek. I was in middle school, watching the second matinée showing of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country on release day. In my defense (maybe?), the line was delivered by Christopher Plummer whose character was quoting Shakespeare in an effort to appear sophisticated and cultured.
Not a Trek fan? Good. You can ignore the fact that Plummer portrayed a psychotic Klingon monologuing over subspace comm channels in the last minutes of the character’s life before James T. Kirk fired a photon torpedo that ultimately kills Plummer’s character. Yeah, it’s that level of nerdy. But I digress.
Connecting to the Present
The line crossed my mind because teachers this week are heading into battle yet again, preparing to face off against the calendar, the outcomes, and the expectations. (No, I don’t for a moment subscribe to the thought that we battle students. There might be tensions and frustrations along the way, but teachers work with students, not against them, and we certainly don’t do battle against them.) I did a quick online search for the context of the line, to see how relevant it really was, curious about the general, non-Trek context of the quote.
So of course I had to watch the episode.
What I didn’t expect was how well the episode applies to my situation and what teachers face not just in the twilight of winter breaks but more generally. The screenwriters did a good job representing a variety of situations that apply to teaching, and that made me think to write this post.
So here we are: Let’s discuss what Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s “Once More Unto the Breach” (Season 7, Episode 7) can teach us about teaching.
Living (or Doing School) with Purpose
There’s a lot to say here about end-of-life care and human dignity and related topics. But that’s for another post.
This episode’s central concern dealt with Kor’s feeling of uselessness—the “bitter taste of life” he complained came with age. The story focused on Klingons because, of all the species in Trek, they have the strongest sense of a clearly defined purpose: They want to live honorably and die well, preferably in combat.
Students don’t attend college to die in combat. But they need a sense of purpose like anyone else. And while it’s easy to imagine all students bring a sense of purpose with them (They all want to graduate, right?), their purpose within our classes might not be so easy to discern. Beyond the goals that we set for them—assignments, assessments, exams, etc.—what do students want to get out of a class? If the answer is a grade, we have failed to do our jobs.
Humans (and Klingons, apparently) need to have a sense of purpose in life. The humans in our classes should have a sense of purpose within our classes, too; otherwise, I question how alive they can be. This is similar to the argument about schools seeing students as standardized widgets, as programmable bots, or as numbers. It’s where behaviorism takes us: See Sean Michael Morris’s comment, “That? That’s a dog. Not a student.”
No character in this episode makes an outlandish request. The central character simply asks for dignity in the twilight of his life. And actors’ showing how characters support Kor with kindness and generosity provides the emotional backbone for the episode. It also provides the charge for us as teachers: How can we help students identify and achieve their own goals by providing them kindness and generosity?
First Generation in
College the Klingon Defense Force
In his rewatch of this episode, Keith R.A. DeCandido says it marked the first time we learned about classism in Klingon society. Sure, we already knew that warriors were revered above all others. And we knew that some houses/families had more prestige than others. But the revelation that Martok’s missed an opportunity because he came from a lower station pulled back the curtain on what had until then been presented as a homogenous society. The revelation held extra weight considering how constantly we’re reminded of the egalitarian structures in the Federation. Learning that the Klingons have exclusive social classes held more significance than it seemed on-screen.
Class in Class
And the significance of social class in 24th-century Klingon life connects directly with higher education here in the 21st. How many of our application processes, scheduling situations, and interaction standards expect students to be middle-class and familiar with the system? How many of our mundane expectations actually create barriers to those whose families don’t already hold sufficiently high station for us to take notice?
In her book Lower Ed, Tressie McMillan Cottom discusses the way that schools’ procedures—not just their explicit admission requirements—create barriers to entry that directly exclude students whose families have no experience working within the system. What for some students is little more than “the way things work” for others can be a dead-end, deal-breaker, or insurmountable obstacle preventing their progress or participation.
Balance Novelty with Routine
Kor’s rejection of Martok’s application based solely on his family’s station is, of course, blatant enough for a 45-minute television fiction. But it’s an example of a very real and very pervasive construct that many of us work within without realizing it.
What procedures do you implicitly expect students to follow? Which explicit procedures require students to look up how to follow them? How discoverable are any of those procedures, and how do you help students practice them before expecting mastery, familiarity, or comfort with what might be new to them?
Legends Among Us
I still remember the first time I attended the Conference on College Composition and Communication. The massive event brought thousands of writing teachers together to talk shop for an extended weekend. Beyond the lavish parties paid for by textbook publishers (again, a matter for another post) and the presentations and keynotes, the conference provided a space to meet and mingle with people who often feel distant as we worked in our separate institutions.
But as a grad student the first time I attended, some of those people felt distant because I read their work as though it were gospel. I studied the genius they set down long before I came to the table. And then suddenly, there they were, in person. My thesis advisor at the time took great pleasure, I suspect, in the shock value of casually saying, “And this, Chris, is Amy Devitt.” Somehow I maintained composure and avoided blurting out, “THE Amy Devitt? For real‽” To her credit, she visually registered that I was a human being in her proximity. But that was about it. She had other things to attend to, and I was to her knowledge just another fawning grad student.
Balance the Field
You see, I grew up not knowing anyone who published anything. When I heard the phrase “my book”, it always meant what someone owned or had on-hand. It was never a book that they had written and published. People in my world consumed books; they didn’t create them. (That’s a bit of a stretch—with the exception of my late paternal grandmother, folks in my family don’t read.) The only books consumed were those assigned for school.
That perception of books coming from out there made it difficult to think of texts as created by regular people. I couldn’t see myself joining professional conversations as an equal or legitimate member. In this Trek episode, Kor’s arrival on the bridge and first appearance in the mess hall reflect the reception of people who are legends by those who worship the legends. I’m left with the question of, basically, how we can humanize both students and the people whose work we read. How can we enhance student dignity and managed the status of legendary authors so students feel comfortable—and qualified—when challenging texts?
Finding Balance Between Established Faculty and New Hires
I’ll refrain from saying much about the old-versus-new dichotomy. Let’s just say tenure and institutional inertia have a way of casting skepticism on new arrivals and their new ideas. Balancing the wisdom of experience and established procedure with the creative novelty of untested approaches can challenge any department. It’s the responsibility of administration to help find that balance.
The end of the episode strikes just such a balance. Kor finds purpose in a task for which he is well-suited. He accepts direction from the less-experienced Martok, whose leadership proves essential where Kor’s falls short. From a screenwriting perspective, this is simply a case of characters doing the very thing they were created to do. Following the example too directly leads to typecasting and shallow characters. But the scenarios presented in this episode allow us to look past that predictability and see the collaborative balance that the characters worked hard to create.
The episode’s central problem gets resolved once each character understands how their drive for purpose aligns with their individual goals. Each of them wants something for themself that goes beyond the goals of the mission. They also discover how they can use their strengths specifically to create opportunities for others to do the same. Yes, it’s a convenient confluence of specific skills in an artificial, fictional setting. But it’s one that many classes could do well to emulate.
Once more unto the breach, indeed.