As a high school student, Zach Feinstein wasn't exactly limiting himself to run-of-the-mill lunchtime conversations about study hall, top-40 music or gym class. Rather, he was floating ideas to his friends applying Keynesian economic theory to the "Star Wars" universe.
Chiefly, he wondered why second-in-command villain Darth Vader hadn't lobbied Emperor Palpatine for pork-barrel spending on infrastructure needs on his home planet of Tatooine, where hero Luke Skywalker was part of a family making a meager living as moisture farmers. Should Vader have pushed for stimulus on his home planet, Feinstein theorized at the time, Luke wouldn't have had such a boring existence as a farmer, wouldn't have been motivated to leave behind his life to join the rebellion -- which, in turn, meant the Death Star (a moon-sized space station) would have never been destroyed -- and the Empire (the galactic government) would have thrived.
"By having bad economic policy … essentially the Empire has doomed themselves," Feinstein, 28, said of the theory he's still inclined to espouse to a willing listener.
Such theories might seem like an extraordinarily deep dive into the weeds of, for lack of a better word, nerdy, subjects. But those talks provided the foundation for a project that would prove to be a career boost for Feinstein, now an assistant professor, focusing on systemic financial risk, with the electrical and systems engineering department at Washington University in St. Louis. His recent in-depth, but thoroughly tongue-in-cheek, exploration into the economic impact of the Death Star's destruction brought the second-year professor a frenzy of attention from the national media, including NBC News, the Huffington Post and Vice.
And Feinstein isn't alone in his interest in combining academia and the beloved "Star Wars" franchise. What began as a childhood obsession for some bookish kids has carried over into an adult life in academia for a growing number of professors. Ahead of Friday's nationwide release of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" -- the seventh film in a series that began in 1977 -- educators and researchers on campuses across the nation have taken on projects ranging from the economics of the Death Star's destruction to comparing Anakin Skywalker's fall from grace to the plot of John Milton's "Paradise Lost." Amid a fiercely competitive atmosphere where professor positions are scarce and faculty are pressured to get their work published, these academics claim their work on "Star Wars" themes has helped them stand out and broaden their careers.
— Star Wars (@starwars) December 13, 2015
New Generation Of Fans
Feinstein's recent Death Star study, cheekily titled "It's a Trap: Emperor Palpatine's Poison Pill," argued that the destruction of two moon-sized Death Stars within four years would have resulted in financial losses, because of a massive galactic bailout, of about one sextillion dollars (a one followed by 21 zeros). The paper brought Feinstein attention typically not afforded to professors studying systemic risk in the real world's financial system.
"If I wrote just a normal case study paper, the same few academics would see it," he said. "Making the case study about 'Star Wars' instead of a financial crisis in the '70s, I get a much larger audience." Of course, it was also a good bit of fun to take an obsession since high school and put it to practical use in his career. The work even provides context for his original theory about Empire spending on Tatooine.
"Now I have the numbers of what they spent on the Death Star instead of irrigation systems," he said.
While Feinstein's paper lives in the ether of theory, Ryan Croft, an English literature professor at the University of Wyoming, has tied "Star Wars" directly into real-world curricula. He's combined the franchise with Renaissance literature in a number of classes in an effort to better engage students.
Croft's idea germinated in graduate school, with he and his friends noting the similarities between "Star Wars" and classic literature like "The Faerie Queene," a 16th century epic poem by English writer Edmund Spenser. A palace in the tale, with symbols of the seven deadly sins, seemed for instance to mirror the lair of Jabba the Hutt, a slug-like galactic gangster who debuted in 1983's "Return of the Jedi." There was time for these sorts of discussions as Croft, now in his early 30s, worked toward becoming a professor.
"As graduate students you're broke, you’re poor, you get together and watch movies and eat takeout," he said.
Croft has been at Wyoming for three years, and "Star Wars" has made its way into three separate courses he has taught. The highest-level course requires students to combine literature and "Star Wars" into digital projects. He's now planning a course that mixes "Paradise Lost" and Anakin Skywalker's journey toward becoming Darth Vader.
The courses have become popular, which has proven especially useful in a time when "a lot of humanities departments are worried about student enrollment," Croft said. Schools are increasingly concerned with the real-world impact of professors' courses, Croft said. It's helpful for him that he teaches a well-liked class that mixes modern video tools with a combination of a catchy pop culture subject and literature.
It's also a good feeling to see young people excited about a movie that used to inspire imagination in Croft as a child, who spent hours digging up his favorite playground's sand pretending it was Tatooine, he said.
He remembered watching a student in his class react as an enslaved Princess Leia killed Jabba in a classic scene from one of the films. "A girl in the class actually clapped. It reminded me the film was powerful," Croft said. "They're seeing it for the first time where they're 20 or 18, and I can't remember a time where I didn’t know what 'Star Wars' was."
In The Classroom
George Backen estimated he has watched the "Star Wars" films, which started when he was 6, some 800 times. "Like most kids of that time there was a split of your life before 'Star Wars' and your life after 'Star Wars'," he said. "Giddy" doesn't even begin to describe his feelings about the arrival of the latest film, he said. So it's natural he'd fit the franchise into his work as a philosophy professor at Adams State University in Colorado.
"When you're a 'Star Wars,' fan you kind of want 'Star Wars' to be a part of everything [in] your life," he said.
About five years ago, he created a short workshop series of classes on the films and how they relate to philosophy. When it proved a success, that workshop developed into a full-blown course. Backen described studying philosophy as having "a 2,500-year-old conversation." The operatic nature of "Star Wars," rife with spiritualism, makes the conversation easier to digest for students.
"It allows for understanding of ourselves and our world," Backen said. "It is understandable [for] students. Light side and dark side of the Force [the metaphysical power that is central to the "Star Wars" stories] is the new angel and the devil."
But for some "Star Wars" fans, it's not enough to bring the Force onto college campuses through fun, non-essential courses. Thomas Riddle is a co-founder of "Star Wars" in the Classroom, a free clearinghouse for ideas and lesson plans for teachers of all grades that incorporates the franchise. Since starting a "rogue" program that allows teachers to become part of his online community, about 450 teachers in more than 20 countries have signed up, Riddle said.
— StarWarsintheClass (@StarWarsinClass) December 15, 2015
"Star Wars" inspired imagination in Riddle, an adjunct professor of education at Furman University and director of the Roper Mountain Science Center in Greenville, South Carolina, and he wanted to help bring that feeling to kids. The 46-year-old longtime teacher recalled seeing the original film as a child, running into his grandmother's house and pretending with his friend that a set of matching recliners were spacecraft from the movie.
"We ran through the house, jumped on those recliners," he said. "Kick the foot rest up and that activated our X-wings, and we were now flying in these chairs fighting the Death Star."
His site now offers a range of content and resources to help teachers find ways to inspire that sort of imagination in students through "Star Wars."
"We see its value as a tool, as a hook," Riddle said.
And, who knows? It might just come in handy as college prep, as well.