I recently shared on Facebook about how I — without planning to — worked Star Trek into a lecture on Ovid, Metamorphoses 1. The context was a discussion of the ‘divine spark’ in human persons, and how this idea is part of many ancient philosophies and religions, and in some cases ties into the idea that we need to release this divine spark through ascetic discipline, setting it free from the confines of the material world. This led to the statement that many philosophies accordingly believed that the material, physical world was bad, and the metaphysical was good.
‘This belief,’ I said, ‘can even be seen in Star Trek.’
Student: Which Star Trek?
Me: Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Me: [Something about how every time we meet a highly evolved race in Star Trek: The Next Generation, they have shed or are about to shed their physical bodies.]
Student: Like the Q.
Me: Yes, like Q, who is there at the beginning and there at the end.
A friend on Facebook says that tying material into their own lives in this way is a good method for helping ideas stick in students’ minds. And I agree.
The problem for me is figuring out which cultural references actually work.
Later in that same lecture, I was talking about the sea, and how ancients did not like travelling by sea, because it was very dangerous, etc., etc. This concern about the sea is played out in A Merchant of Venice, for the play begins with Antonio losing his wealth because he had sunk it into merchant vessels. And I got blank looks.
So, Star Trek before Shakespeare, I suppose. But the lecture I gave where I brought in the debate about whether Battlestar Galactica is based on The Aeneid also go blank looks.
Thankfully, though, the Three Amigos works, sometimes even for those who’ve not seen it.
Student: Professor, how should we translate famosus?
Me: What do others think? (In Latin class, I like to ask the rest of the room first.)
Other student: Notorious.
Me: That’s right, fama in Latin often has a negative association, unlike the English word fame. So famosus can be more like infamous than famous, like the infamous El Guapo. ‘In-famous? What does in-famous mean?’ ‘It means this guy’s not just famous, he’s in-famous! He must be the biggest star in Mexico!’
Another student: *laughs*
Me: That’s The Three Amigos.
Student who laughed: Best movie ever.
Me: You should all go home and watch it. It’s on Netflix.
They will all now, hopefully, remember that famosus does not mean famous.
It is hard to know where to go with cultural references. Some of them creep out of me, and sometimes they work. Sometimes they don’t. I’ve never been hip, but it seems that enough Classics students watch Star Trek that I can get away with a few references as part of my pedagogical practice.
What successes or failures have you ever had?