Popcorn & Pedagogy

Was the destruction of Alderaan justified? Sonny Bunch says yes, Daniel Drezner says no and Stephanie Carvin wonders “Why academics want to talk about make-believe when there are SO MANY more interesting real-life examples is beyond me.” More important, I think, is Carvin’s follow up: “This is not to be anti-sci-fi or TV, but I think that over-use pedagogically dements our theories and our lesson plans.” As someone who is utterly bored of academic articles on Buffy, Zombies, Vampires, Terminators and so on, I’m inclined to agree. At the same time, I think pop-culture, and pop-culture references, have a really important part to play in teaching. Here’s two examples from my own experience:

Injecting Humour into Otherwise Dry Topics

I currently teach a module on CBRN-Terrorism which requires students to learn some quite technical details about the design of nuclear weapons, chemical weapon production issues and so on. An essential part of this module requires linking this kind of technical detail to academic and policy debates on WMD terrorism in a way that doesn’t send students to sleep. Hence Back to the Future as a learning objective:

Of course, this is partly self-serving: I have no other opportunity to write “No, it’s not the time machine” on the board in any other module I teach. But here’s the thing, working this out involves pretty much all the basic technical details of nuclear weapons design, plus the basic issues associated with terrorist acquisition of nuclear weapons. Responding to the news that Doc Brown has built a time machine that uses Plutonium as fuel, Marty gets worried:

Marty McFly: Doc, you don’t just walk into a store and-and buy plutonium! Did you rip that off?
Dr. Emmett Brown: Of course. From a group of Libyan nationalists. They wanted me to build them a bomb, so I took their plutonium and, in turn, gave them a shoddy bomb casing full of used pinball machine parts. Come on! Let’s get you a radiation suit. We must prepare to reload.

Now, if I’m good enough at teaching the topic, by the end the students will understand the following:
- Plutonium is unsuitable for gun-type fission weapons due to fizzle/predetonation issues inherent in plutonium isotopes
- Implosion fission weapons are really difficult to make, and usually require (expensive) testing
- Fissile nuclear material is difficult to acquire

All this adds up to the fact that “the Libyans” would have to be really, really stupid to get some plutonium over enriched uranium. It means they picked a fissile material that requires a complex weapon mechanism (over, say, compacting two masses of weapons grade HEU with high explosives), that they could never be sure would work without a test that would use up half the material, which they must have gone to great lengths to acquire. It doesn’t make sense, particularly since the plot turns on a time machine which could have been said to work with uranium (and later works with recycling). Hence, it is a plot hole that most people wouldn’t recognise, and doesn’t feature in the lists of plot holes in the Back to the Future trilogy.

Sometimes Authors Say the Right Thing

I see zero point (apart from navel-gazing/debating for fun, which can be very fun) in analysing theoretical worlds using IR theory. Game of Thrones can tell us zip about the world we inhabit, not least because dragons aren’t directly comparable to nuclear weapons, and the thirty years war didn’t involve unstoppable armies of undead. That said, there’s bits and pieces that I do think are useful in teaching concepts, but these tend to be entirely abstract from the world that they inhabit. Writers, storytellers and so on make their living by exploring quite deep issues in fractions of the time that academics take to pore over the same concepts. Take this scene in Game of Thrones, for instance:

The original (written) version is posed this way:

In a room sit three great men, a king, a priest, and a rich man with his gold. Between them stands a sellsword, a little man of common birth and no great mind. Each of the great ones bids him slay the other two. ‘Do it,’ says the king, ‘for I am your lawful ruler.’ ‘Do it,’ says the priest, ‘for I command you in the names of the gods.’ ‘Do it,’ says the rich man, ‘and all this gold shall be yours.’ So tell me- who lives and who dies?

And later discussed:

“Oh, I think not,” Varys said, swirling the wine in his cup. “Power is a curious thing, my lord. Perchance you have considered the riddle I posed you that day in the inn?”
“It has crossed my mind a time or two,” Tyrion admitted. “The king, the priest, the rich man—who lives and who dies? Who will the swordsman obey? It’s a riddle without an answer, or rather, too many answers. All depends on the man with the sword.”
“And yet he is no one,” Varys said. “He has neither crown nor gold nor favor of the gods, only a piece of pointed steel.”
“That piece of steel is the power of life and death.”
“Just so… yet if it is the swordsmen who rule us in truth, who do we pretend our kings hold the power? Why should a strong man with a sword ever obey a child king like Joffrey, or a wine-sodden oaf like his father?”
“Because these child kings and drunken oafs can call other strong men, with other swords.”
“Then these other swordsmen have the true power. Or do they?” Varys smiled. “Some say knowledge is power. Some tell us that all power comes from the gods. Others say it derives from law. Yet that day on the steps of Baelor’s Sept, our godly High Septon and the lawful Queen Regent and your ever-so-knowledgeable servant were as powerless as any cobbler or cooper in the crowd. Who truly killed Eddard Stark, do you think? Joffrey, who gave the command? Ser Ilyn Payne, who swung the sword? Or… another?”
Tyrion cocked his head sideways. “Did you mean to answer your damned riddle, or only to make my head ache worse?”
Varys smiled. “Here, then. Power resides where men believe it resides. No more and no less.”
“So power is a mummer’s trick?”
“A shadow on the wall,” Varys murmured, “yet shadows can kill. And ofttimes a very small man can cast a very large shadow.”
Tyrion smiled. “Lord Varys, I am growing strangely fond of you. I may kill you yet, but I think I’d feel sad about it.”
“I will take that as high praise.”

I find posing the riddle to be a great way to start discussions on power as a concept, both in terms of political theory and international relations. More to the point, it’s also a great way to introduce critiques of frames (We assume that the sellsword is going to kill someone, why?) as well as identifying subtle bias (Why aren’t the imagined characters female? Would that change anything?). Beyond that, however, it’s necessary to get back to the real world.