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.
How do you work with a student whose perspective differs from your own? How do you show them grace, patience, care, and kindness when you’re convinced they’re…just…wrong? It can be tough finding space for compassion when an inaccurate perception of the world seems to create an impenetrable divide between teacher and student. Differing perspectives can be crazy-making, and the prospect of gaslighting plays a role here, too. To truly listen to students, we need to find a balance between acceptance and resolve. But it’s still tough: If we can’t agree on the truth, how can we learn together?
Enter Worf as Perpetual Straw Man
In Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG), two bridge officers were non-human: an android and a Klingon. In the original Trek series and their subsequent feature films, the Klingons served as a go-to alien enemy. They were ruthless and filled with bloodlust. They valued honor above all else, including and especially their own lives. They’re the quintessential “death before dishonor” species.
Putting a Klingon on the bridge of TNG suggested that we resolved our differences and got along with our former enemies. Unfortunately, Worf’s character served as little more than an intergalactic bouncer for the first several years of the show. He was the big, quiet, grunting type who would step in only when things got physical. Because Klingons are drawn to battle, Worf’s perspective defaults to violence or pre-emptive attacks, which stands in opposition to his captain’s values of peace and diplomacy. Picard, the captain, settled matters with his words. Worf settled things with his fists or blades.
The tension between the two approaches could have been interesting…except that it wasn’t. The conflict between Picard’s approach and Worf’s became a running joke because it was so predictable.
Picard: I need options.
Worf: We should fight/kill/attack/fire.
Literally anyone else: We should do literally anything else.
Picard: Yes, good. We’ll go with that second option. Thank you.
Worf always suggested action first, and he always got shut down or ignored, and he never got an apology, even if his aggression later proved warranted. He’s the perpetual straw man, used to make other ideas sound better by comparison.
And that’s when his ideas are actually sane.
Introducing Crazy Talk
In the final season of TNG, after Worf’s character had developed a bit more than I’ve acknowledged here (but really, not terribly much), he got his own episode so fans could watch how he solves problems by himself when they can’t be solved by fighting. The premise is compelling; the episode is interesting, and the character interactions offer good models for teaching.
For complicated science-fictiony reasons, Worf finds himself shifting from parallel universe to parallel universe. He doesn’t control when it happens or where he ends up, and each shift makes things around him change. Sometimes those changes are small, such as when a birthday cake changes from chocolate to yellow or a painting that had been on one wall suddenly appears on a different wall. But sometimes those changes have greater consequences, such as him appearing in the middle of a battle in front of an unfamiliar control panel, failing to follow a command, and causing the death of a crew mate.
Through all of this, Worf is the only one shifting through universes, so he’s the only one who notices the changes. (Well, the audience does too, but that’s beside the point here.) As Worf shifts, his perspective remains constant relative to himself, but it continues to diverge from those around him. The cake is yellow, the painting moved, he suffered a head injury, he gained a wife and kids, his crew mate died. Worf’s disorientation only increases, and he looks increasingly out-of-touch to those around him, as though his sanity is unraveling.
Gaslighting vs Amnesia
Each time Worf confronts a change, he tells his colleagues about it, seeking reassurance or answers. For simple things like the color of a cake or painting, his friends simply think he made a small mistake. But when his doctor examines him and refers to previous examination he had not had, things get serious. The doctor said Worf had suffered a concussion that caused him to lose a fighting contest. But Worf is convinced he suffered no concussion and won that contest. Viewers do, too, because the episode opens with Worf recording a log entry about his victory. To prove his version of the story to the doctor, Worf takes her to his quarters to show her his trophy…which ends up being different from the one shown when he recorded his log.
“Someone is playing a trick on me!” he says, convinced that his memory is intact and the changes are an elaborate rouse. The doctor, for her part, blames it on memory loss. She is patient and kind with him, urging him to remain calm and give things time to settle. From her perspective, it’s sound advice. She thinks he has amnesia. For Worf, he’s starting to doubt his own sanity, as though people are gaslighting him.
The way the doctor handles his situation provides the first example of how to effectively manage differing perspectives: She defers the argument and cares for the person, ignoring his ideas. To her, the health of her patient is of paramount importance, and if he’s going crazy, well, that’s not her problem to worry about. She’ll treat her patient no matter what he thinks. She’s not being ignorant, blind, or even dismissive. She’s being kind, and she understands her priorities. Care first, memories later.
Teamwork Despite, not Because
A physician treating injuries regardless of a patient’s sanity is one thing. But what about a psychologist treating that same patient? That’s what happens when Deanna Troi, ship’s counselor, starts trying to piece together what’s going on. She doesn’t understand the situation any better than Worf does, but she listens to him and helps him think through things, accepting his assertions at face value, even if only for the sake of argument or exploration.
The second in command, Riker, also challenges Worf without blatantly disbelieving him. After some critical difference in perspective comes to light, Riker asks Worf, “You don’t remember any of this, do you?”
Worf pauses, stands taller with confidence, and declares, “I do remember. I just remember differently.” Those words end the scene, and rightly so—they encapsulate the experiences of the episode. Worf has his reality, everyone else has theirs, the two are incompatible, and they still manage to work together to solve problems.
Our society could learn a thing or two from this cooperation.
Students are not Klingons
Much as I love that “I remember differently” line, I know it’s not something a student can easily say. Worf’s character is build around aggression and confidence. Many students have been trained to believe they hold no authority in their classes and over their own learning—standing up to a teacher or offering a different perspective on a discussion might be beyond their reach. We need to create classroom environments where entertaining and examining differences motivates inquiry. We can’t wait for students to stand up for themselves; instead, we must create environments conducive to confidence.
How we react when students disagree with us shows a lot about safety and perception in class. How we address different opinions or incorrect answers shows how much we can be trusted to respect students when they offer a response. I’m reminded of my earlier assertion that “a class discussion where the teacher pre-determines the outcome is just a lecture in disguise.” We need to let students lead discussions, and we have to be ready for those discussions to take directions we might not expect. Those moments are where we learn—about our ideas, about our discipline, and about each other.
When Worf objected to his doctor’s assertion that he had a concussion, she allowed him to seek evidence supporting his memory. When Worf told Troi he didn’t remember their marriage, she heard him out in an effort to understand the person before her. And when Worf told Riker he “remembered differently,” Riker accepted the statement and respected the challenge Worf was facing. Each character demonstrates a way to respect someone whose perspective differs from our own while still not accepting their interpretation.
Remembering Differently vs Alternative Facts
It’s one thing to accept a person and something altogether different to accept their perspective. My assertion here—and what I see “Parallels” showing viewers—is that we can and should respect people even when they say or believe crazy things. We can and should show compassion to people and listen carefully to them in an effort to understand their perspective even when our own perspective differs from theirs.
Learning from each other is not without risks. When we open ourselves as teachers to the possibility that our perspective may be faulty, or that students often know more about things than we do, we risk being caught off-guard or being surprised by new information. But if we claim to value learning and critical thinking, this sort of surprise gives us a chance to show what critical thinking looks like and how academics use the tools we teach to process new information. Listening to students and hearing out their perspectives gives us the chance to show how we reach conclusions.
The Political Perspective
I myself struggle with this challenge routinely. My parents and I don’t share political positions, and these days that creates significant rifts, all the way down to what we accept as reality. Most recently, I expressed anger over legislation in Georgia designed to disenfranchise Black voters and suppress the vote in that state. My mother read a report somewhere that included claims of the bill’s benefits, telling only half the story.
For instance, according to what my mother read, the bill required all counties to offer drop boxes for early voting—a good thing, right? Her source did not mention that the bill also restricted where those drop boxes could be, how many of those drop boxes each county could offer, and when those drop boxes could be available. In other words, the net impact of the recent bill on early voting is extreme restriction. But her source presented a single number to her, making it sound good—the number of counties in the state required to have drop boxes. In short, we each saw different legislation.
My mother’s perspective fed on misinformation, lies of omission. My perspective fed on local reports of the challenges elections officers will face due to the new restrictions. When I referred her to those local reports and suggested her source might be inaccurate, she stopped talking to me. The conversation remains unresolved as I write this.
Building upon a Theme
In a previous Trek through Teaching, I highlighted how Riker used restraint to effectively teach Dianna Troi as she prepared for her command exams. In that episode, the teacher (Riker) held back information so his student (Troi) could learn for herself. Here, the teachers (Dr. Crusher, Troi, and Riker) operate from a position of accepting the student (Worf) as credible by default. Both episodes show how cooperation, patience, listening, and an intention to understand can lead to learning, discovery, and success.