A winged, horned serpent hovers between two purple aliens in separate cages. Yes, it's as psychotic as it sounds.

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.

Star Trek episodes follow a predictable pattern. They begin with a “captain’s log” and a stardate, usually with a shot of the Enterprise flying to or around some random planet. And because it’s episodic television, the captain’s log tells audiences about the episode’s context, and then we meet the Alien of the Week™ and begin trying to figure out the problem our intrepid heroes will need to solve. Each episode, we learn what the crew needs to do only after watching for a bit.

That process is all fine and good when dealing with hour-long syndicated episodes, which have roughly 45 minutes of commercial-free content. Those episodes can rely on actors’ facial expressions to add depth to the narrative. But what happens to the familiar process with animated episodes designed for half-hour broadcast? They’re limited to under 25 minutes of commercial-free time. Corners get cut. Shallowness suffices. Dialogue becomes obvious at the expense of subtlety. Characters’ reactions must appear bold and clear. Thirty-minute animated sci-fi episodes start to feel pretty superficial by comparison to their hour-long live-action counterparts.

The same sort of distinction arises when comparing modern television programming to that of the 1970s. Today’s shows lean toward the complex and intricate, while shows from half a century ago can seem preachy and overt.

What happens when you combine abbreviated duration, animation, and blatant scriptwriting?

Trek’s Red-Headed Stepchild: The Animated Series

Occupying an unusual niche within the Star Trek franchise, The Animated Series builds on a familiar backbone. Its episodes follow the predictable log-planet-alien-problem pattern. They present the usual main characters (Kirk, Spock, and McCoy) with the usual supporting cast (Uhura and Scotty, most notably). They also make extensive use of the voice-acting talents of James Doohan, known to most as Scotty the engineer. This show is Star Trek at its core.

But The Animated Series (TAS) wears its format on its sleeve. Every episode features at least one prominent character that’s just as prominently non-human. We’re talking shapes that couldn’t be credibly presented in live-action television with the technology available in the 1970s, when TAS was produced. Episodes lean heavily on what could, depending on your mood, be called “charming”, “eccentric”, “fanciful”, or down-right weird. Imagine a morality play set in space, mix in some 1970s-era psychedelics, and you’ll have the right idea.

Credit Where It’s Due

Before I continue, I want to be clear on one thing: “How Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth” earned Star Trek its first-ever Emmy award (for “Outstanding Entertainment Children’s Series”) and one of the episode’s authors earned a Peabody award (for best writing in an animated series). This episode broke ground by prominently featuring a Native-American character who literally saves the day — and arguably the planet. Back in the early 1970s — heck, I’d argue prior to the 1995 appearance of Chakotay in Voyager — Native Americans had no representation in a show that takes pride in representing diversity.

“Serpent’s Tooth” deserves praise for what it did well in its historical context. It really needs that praise because for so many other reasons it’s such an awful, terrible episode. Characters make insane logical leaps without explaining themselves. Uhura’s character does little more than gasp twice in the entire episode. The plot seems almost offensively simplistic by today’s standards. And holy cow does it make assumptions about teachers and conflate them with parents. Wow.

Do as They Do, Not as They Say

From a teacher’s perspective, characters in this episode make worryingly problematic statements. Yet the actions of those characters align decently well with good pedagogy. I think this shows the disconnect between what people think teachers do and what we actually do. Or, as I explained in my previous post, the role of a teacher in fictional drama tends to be based on the bad examples, not the good ones. Let’s dispense with the dialogue first. Note: The next paragraph contains mild spoilers.

The episode’s title comes from one of King Lear’s lines (I:iv) in the eponymous play: “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child.” By itself, that line suggests the parental role Kukulkan views itself in relative to humankind. The Enterprise bridge crew refers to that character as “an old, lonely being that wanted to help others,” which is an accurate if simplified statement. Kukulkan itself, when it realized humans had progressed beyond the need for its help, lamented, “I hoped I could teach you, lead you. // I will let you go your own way. I have already done what I can.” That blending of teaching and leading causes problems.

Students should be in charge of their own education. When teachers see themselves as leaders, we run the risk of believing we know where students should end up, which really should be up to the students. Sure, we know the kinds of experiences a student will take part in during our course. But if we believe we know everything a student will know by the end of the class, we delude ourselves into thinking each student’s experience will mirror our own. Instead, we need to acknowledge that each student follows a different path to learning, and their experiences mean they will learn different things (and in different ways) than even those in the same class. A review of end-of-course evaluations makes this clear.

Independence and Respect

Students deserve our respect, and that should come with a degree of independence — to learn their own way, at their own pace, and following their own interests. (Standard disclaimer: I acknowledge that often seems harder to do in a STEM course. But the individual nature of learning does not change to accommodate the subject matter.) As Bones says in this episode, “Intelligent life is too precious a thing to be led by the nose.” Intelligent beings need to explore on their own terms, to digest the world around them in ways that make sense to them. We cannot lead students by the nose and expect them to flourish.

This point comes to a head with a line delivered around halfway through the episode. “If children are taught to be dependent on their teachers, they will never be more than children.” How often do we expect students to follow where we lead, to look to us for answers, to know what they need to know next? Every time we do, we deprive them of learning. In each of those cases, we train students to be followers, not thinkers. Students need to do the learning for themselves, not based on what we tell them to do.

Playing Our Roles

The opening scenes of this episode — you know, the log-planet-alien-problem pattern I talked about above — provides the best example of good teaching in the whole episode. Captain Kirk has one job on his ship: to lead his officers. Yet in the opening scene, he knows less than anyone else on the bridge. He relies on his officers’ expertise to process information and tell him what he needs to know. And in this particular case, Ensign Walking Bear has the mission-critical information. And Kirk listens to him.

Teaching is an act of listening. So is command. Yes, Kirk makes decisions. Yes, he’s brilliant. And yes, his boldness makes the episodes (and movies and, and…) work. But every Starfleet captain works best when they get input from their crew. As a die-hard fan of Picard’s command demeanor, I most respected him when his order on the bridge of his ship was simply, “Options.” That opened space for a brainstorming session in which it was clear that the captain would sit out to let his crew contribute and debate, and then he would decide based on what he heard. But I digress.

In the opening of this episode, the crew face a ship and alien they can’t make sense of. But the ensign sitting at ops understands what he’s looking at. Only the lowest-ranked officer on the bridge had the knowledge needed to get out of their predicament. Kirk accepted the knowledge and took appropriate action. (Yes, he confirmed the information with Spock, which I saw as a slap on Walking Bear’s face. But we could argue that Spock used the ensign’s insights to trigger his research and subsequent confirmation.) By valuing the input each officer could provide, Kirk can make informed, effective decisions.

Valuing Your Students

When’s the last time you learned something from a student? Or the last time you asked a student for help? Each student brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to the room. It’s our job as teacher — similar to Kirk’s job as captain — to listen to students, learn from them, and make decisions based on what they teach us. Those decisions range from what conversations to have in class on a given day to what policies to have in a syllabus to the nature of assignments students complete. Every part of a class has to be created; it might as well be created the way students need. We must remember that we don’t know what students need until we meet them. To think otherwise is to ignore their humanity.

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