A wide-grinned alien in shirt and vest raises jazz hands to get you excited; he's probably trying to sell you something. Wait, it's Garak. He's definitely trying to sell you something.

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.

Confession: Garak—plain, simple Garak—is my favorite character on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and I’ll take any excuse to re-watch his performances. No other character contributes more to the mystery and intrigue lurking within the cold, dark, alien space station. The screenwriters must have just as much fun creating innocent-sounding lines for him. In the same way, the actor indulges in adding layers of suspicion and subterfuge at every turn. Even in this, only the third episode in the entire series, Garak’s silent approach is enough to send the station’s adventurous young doctor into a near-panic before the first line of dialogue. The affable, garrulous Garak enriches the Trek-watching experience by adding depth and complexity to his every interaction.

Less Talk; More Experience

In this episode, Garak also adds subtlety. Much like the less-is-more moral of TNG’s “Thine Own Self,” DS9’s “Past Prologue” shows how Garak reveals to Bashir what he needs to know—both about a future crime and about espionage—rather than explicitly teaching. Garak instructs by applying coercion and arranging situations such that Bashir experiences what he needs to learn. To preserve his air of mystery (and his innocence), Garak cannot actually tell Bashir anything; Bashir must discover it for himself. By overhearing one negotiation, the doctor learns first-hand what’s going on; the tailor said nothing incriminating.

Relying on Experience

Another subtle, unspoken approach in this episode comes from Sisko, the station commander. He’s been put in a challenging position, trying to make a variety of forces align efforts to bring peace and progress. His second-in-command, Kira, is a firecracker, ready to give a piece of her mind to anyone within earshot. (That’s quite the distance given her fondness for shouting.) In this episode, Kira ignores the chain of command and complains to Admiral Rollman, one of Sisko’s commanding officers, about Sisko’s handling of a situation. The admiral listens to the complaint, then reaches out to Sisko. She tells him, “you have a problem on your hands.” Rollman acknowledges the issue but trusts Sisko to address it his way.

Though he eventually addresses the problem, Sisko does so with restraint and strategic timing. He doesn’t tell Kira what he knows until later, when Kira praises Sisko, thanking him for his support. At that moment, Sisko calls out her duplicity: “Be sure to mention it the next time you chat with Admiral Rollman.” While a stunned Kira processes the implications, Sisko continues: “Go over my head again, and I’ll have yours on a platter.” That line ends their conversation. Yes, it’s a threat. But more importantly, it’s the full extent of his response. He doesn’t formally reprimand her, instead relying on her own sense of guilt and honor to do the work for him.

Whatever Works for You

Other interactions between Sisko and Kira show his management style, which reflects the subtext of the entire series. On the frontier, breaking rules often works better than following them. Sisko gives Kira wide latitude in handling situations the way she sees fit. Born on the planet the station orbits, Kira’s experience helps her understand nuances of the local politics and history better than her commanding officer does. Kira’s value comes from her insider knowledge.

But with that knowledge and experience comes a set of values and practices that those in charge find questionable at best—occasionally illegal. In Star Trek, the tension between protocols and necessity originates with Jim Kirk. He was notorious for “violating the chain of command whenever it suited” him and cheating his way out of simulations and life-threatening situations alike.

Similarly, Sisko allows leeway for Kira’s tactical methods but draws the line at insubordination. He knows her experience will guide her decisions. And he lets her know when those decisions go awry and risk getting her into trouble. In one debate, Kira suggests a broad course of action which Sisko supports with a quick, “Agreed. She continues with specifics that he immediately shuts down: “Not agreed, Major. But Kira persists, explains her rationale, and Sisko ultimately defers to her insider knowledge.

Not Just in Space

The same principles that guide Garak and Sisko in this episode work in our classes. By arranging circumstances so students experience course content, rather than only read or hear it, we prepare them for authentic, meaningful learning. By giving students opportunity to work their own, learn for themselves, and find the boundaries of their learning on their own, we let them rely on their strengths and on the ways they prefer to work—even when those methods go against our norms or expectations.

But we have a responsibility to be aware. We, like Sisko, need to watch how things play out and firmly tell students when they’ve crossed a line. Not with punishment, of course, but with clarity. We, like Garak, need to observe surroundings and processes and help students see what warrants their attention. That way, they have the knowledge and experience they need to learn what’s important to them.

Our classes should rely more on students’ experience and less on a textbook or lecture series. In other words, let students learn for themselves—even if that means bending the rules on occasion.