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MU professors embrace geek culture in the classroom

Grant Pearsall

Staff Writer

Giant man eating spiders, bearded wizards of unfathomable power, fallen immortal kings corrupted by darkness and imperiled heroes armed with weapons from a forgotten age are fantasy genre tropes that are not likely to be seriously discussed within the boundaries of a college classroom. However, at Millersville University a handful of professors are now curating courses that apply traditional academic rigor to the exploration of these geeky mediums.

Dr. Nivedita Bagchi teaches a course that combines political theory and “Lord of the Rings.”
Dr. Nivedita Bagchi teaches a course that combines political theory and “Lord of the Rings.”

Dr. Nivedita Bagchi has a Ph.D. in Political Theory from the University of Virginia and is also a literary maven. She decided to allow her passions to intermingle this year when she created an experimental course titled, “Lord of the Rings and Political Theory.”

“The goal was to develop a political theory course which demonstrated how to apply political theory. The questions brought up by political theory can be applied to literature, movies and so much more,” Bagchi says.

First offered for the 2014 fall semester, Bagchi’s course is an inspection of various political philosophies using the beloved high fantasy novels of J.R.R. Tolkien as a unique vehicle for instruction.

“In my course we do not necessarily engage the different interpretations of the Lord of the Rings,” Bagchi says, “Instead, we think about what it has to say about political issues, such as the ideal state and political isolationism by the state. Can a state be moral? What is human nature?”

While reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy of novels is required, work for this class also includes reading various philosophical and political texts, writing three five-page papers and frequent quizzes in addition to a midterm and final exam. The content of the class may include the likes of hobbits, elves and orcs, but the work expected of Bagchi’s students would not be out of place in any typical undergraduate course.

“What I really like about the class is that it gave me a different perspective of [‘Lord of the Rings’] that I never had,” says Zachariah Swope, a Millersville senior who is enrolled in Bagchi’s course. “I, myself, really am not a fan of political theory, but I actually like how it ties into [‘Lord of the Rings’]. It gives me a different perspective on political theory compared to a basic class on the subject.”

The realm of literary high fantasy is not the only arena of pop-culture in which professors at Millersville are attempting to engage their students. During the summer block of courses earlier this year, Associate Professor James Pannafino was designing a non-traditional course for the Art department aimed at pleasing the geek chic and average students alike.

The course was titled “Gaming: Art & Design” and intended to run under the Special Topics curricula. However, the course was withdrawn due to low registration numbers, which could have been caused by offering it during the less popular Summer 3 course block.

According to Pannafino, the central question the course would have posed to its students was “how does gaming reflect society?” His vehicle for exploring this question would have been the medium of video games, specifically taking a critical look at the process any artist working in the games industry follows.

The assignments would have been structured around increasing students’ knowledge and skill set for creating art in video games, such as an assignment where students would design art for a hypothetical mobile game targeted at teenage girls as the primary demographic.

“I think subcultures have become blurred, become mainstream,” says Pannafino. He postulates that the success of the Marvel comic book films have played a part in making niche interests palatable to the mainstream culture.

Pannafino is excited about the prospect of courses designed around new mediums like video games but does not have any false expectations about the future of pop-culture curricula.

“Yes, there will be more, but I don’t think [it] will be the norm,” he says.

He believes there is still a wide intellectual barrier that academia must cross when considering what is entertainment and what is education. A fantasy novel, video game or comic book can serve both ends effectively is not a widely held point of view for many educators.

The amount of courses offered by Millersville that have the potential to excite the nerdy literati are growing each semester. Dr. Lesley Colabucci of the department of Early, Middle and Exceptional Education conducts a course titled “Empowered Princesses.” This class runs under the “First Year” classification, which are courses designed to help students transition from high school into college level coursework.

“There is definitely a pop culture influence in our class,” Colabucci says. “We are looking at variants of fairytales and comparing movies, pictures books, TV and novels.”

Colabucci also teaches a course pertaining to race and gender studies in children’s literature using similar techniques.

Dr. Pannafino has seen success in the past in offering a Special Topics course called “Understanding Comics” and has collaborated with Dr. Shea on a graduate level course that examines the art of translating comic books into feature films.
The English department at Millersville routinely offers a number of classes using movies as central texts, ranging from “Introduction to Film” up through advanced courses, such as “Politics, Film and Electronic Media” and “Brave New Worlds: Exploring Technology in Film.”

Despite his enthusiasm, Pannafino is currently unsure if he will be attempting to offer his video game oriented course again anytime soon. Bagchi, on the other hand, is more certain about the future of her course.

“As the only political theorist in my department, I need to offer the traditional courses which ensure that students have the opportunity to understand the full range of the field,” she says. “However, I would love to offer this course again in a couple of years.”