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Star Wars: Resistance, Rebellion and DeathA First-Year Writing Seminar

In a darkened classroom in Rockefeller Hall, 17 Vassar students fix their attention on Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader as they engage in battle with their lightsabers. Minutes later, they watch the smarmy Lando Calrissian betray his old friend, Han Solo, and Princess Leia, delivering them into Vader’s clutches.

It could have been a class offered by the Film Department, but it wasn’t. Viewing the two scenes from The Empire Strikes Back, considered by some critics to be the best of the seven movies in the Star Wars saga, was a class exercise for students enrolled in a First-Year Writing Seminar called “Star Wars: Resistance, Rebellion and Death a Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far Far Away,” taught by Vassar’s Writing Center director, Matthew Schultz.

In addition to viewing scenes from the canonical films, students are also playing the Knights of the Old Republic video game, studying Star Wars-themed Lego builds, and analyzing Imperial propaganda posters.

Schultz is a self-confessed Star Wars junkie who has watched all seven films numerous times and whose office is festooned with Lego models of Han Solo’s space ship, the Millennium Falcon; the Death Star, and other Stars Wars paraphernalia. But the course he’s teaching this semester is far more than an homage to George Lucas’s space opera.

Writing Center Director Matthew Schultz leads a discussion of Imperial propaganda posters.

A scholar of postcolonial theory, Schultz asks his students to use the Star Wars saga to analyze the questions postcolonial thinkers raise about the nature of power and exploitation, authority and subjugation. In addition to watching all of the Star Wars movies, the students are reading texts by Hannah Arendt, Albert Camus, Marshall McLuhan, Frantz Fanon and other 20th Century writers. “I write about Modernist literature from a postcolonial perspective,” Schultz explains. “But Star Wars affords students, in a course focused primarily on writing, a more accessible narrative through which to explore the nature of empire and revolution.”

Schultz says he suspected there were quite a few fellow Star Wars junkies among the students enrolling in the Class of 2021, and he wasn’t wrong. “I was told the course filled up a few hours after it was first offered,” Schultz says, as first-year students registered online for their first-semester courses.

Schuyler Osgood ’21, of Reading, PA, was one of the 17 students to enroll in the course in time. She says she grew up “in a nerd household” that loved science fiction and fantasy stories. ”I saw this seminar listed when I was registering in June and I said to my dad, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if I got into this course?’” Osgood says.

Osgood says she had watched all of the Star Wars films, many of them several times, before she came to Vassar. But she said she was enjoying using the films to explore philosophical issues. “The course is offering us a great opportunity to look at pop culture in a new way,” she says.

In her final research paper for the class, Osgood is using feminist arguments, many of which are embodied in some fields of postcolonial criticism, to ask why Luke, and not his sister, Princess Leia, emerges as the “Chosen One” to lead the final revolt against Vader and the Empire.

One of the few college-wide curricular requirements is the First-Year Writing Seminar. Offered by departments across the curriculum, these seminars give first-year students an opportunity to hone their skills in writing and argumentation.

Like Osgood, Eura Choi ’21, of San Ramon, CA, says she never viewed the films as a vehicle for serious scholarly research. “My parents had the original trilogy on VHS, and I watched the movies when I was very young,” Choi says. “But before I took this course, I never thought of using Star Wars for political or philosophical analysis.”

Choi says re-watching the films was in some ways disappointing. “Some of the movies are sloppily made,” she says. “I saw many missed opportunities to differentiate the universe portrayed in the film from our own. They’re fun to watch, but they could be much more sophisticated. George Lucas doesn’t get a lot of credit from me.”

Schultz is thoroughly enjoying the class and says the students are apparently having fun, too. “It’s been a really engaging class, from the first session,” he says. “I ask one question, and they’re off in 10 different directions. I tell my students, ‘There aren’t a lot of folks looking critically at Star Wars in the ways you are all doing right now. You are writing postcolonial criticism; you don’t have to wait until grad school to produce original, scholarly work.’”

The students’ final projects will be published in December as the first volume of The Postcolonial Star Wars Anthology—a multi-course, multimodal project that seeks to establish dialog in each subsequent version of the course, Schultz says. He plans to offer the course as a first-year writing seminar each fall term.