Psychology of STAR TREK
UH-Manoa Outreach College on Maui class uses episodes to explore life issues
KAHULUI — Nani Azman, a tenured psychology professor at the University of Hawaii Maui College, was able to “make it so,” quoting her favorite starship Enterprise captain, for a credit course on the “Psychology of Star Trek.”
The sci-fi TV series that first aired in 1966 has exploded like the Big Bang into its own cultural and philosophical universe, ever growing, with multiple big screen movies, TV spinoffs (a new one, “Star Trek Picard,” just started last week on CBS All Access), books and conventions.
University-level credit courses, too.
“In addition to psychological concepts that are exemplified in the different episodes and movies, there are often implications we should consider based on actions that were taken in the episode or societal commentary that Gene Roddenberry, Rick Berman and all of the other wonderful executive producers wanted us to find,” Azman said, in explaining the “Psychology of Star Trek.” “I figure, if you have a platform to be able to comment on what is going on in our world, it makes sense to take advantage of that chance.”
This is the second year the course has been offered through UH-Manoa Outreach College on Maui, located on the UH-Maui College campus. It is considered an advanced topics class filling a graduation requirement for UH-Manoa.
Being a Trekkie or Trekker is not a prerequisite for the class.
(Trek Alert: Azman explains that a Trekker would see Vulcan ears and say, “cool, Spock’s ears”; a Trekkie puts the ears on and thinks he or she IS Spock).
“Not all of my students have seen Star Trek before, and I make it clear that you don’t need to have watched Star Trek before to be successful in the class,” Azman said. “While it is not a learning outcome for the class, I did manage to create a few Star Trek fans last year. And in true Star Trek fashion, we are accepting of all people, even those who (mistakenly) like Star Wars more.”
There were 20 students in the class last year; five this year.
The genesis of the class goes back two decades to when Azman, a fan since childhood, was completing her doctoral degree at UH-Manoa and was seeking teaching positions.
During a phone interview with a two-year California college, an interviewer asked: “If you could teach any class, what would it be?”
“On the fly, I came up with ‘Psychology of Star Trek,’ “ she recalled.
One of the interviewers obviously was a Trekkie or Trekker and asked if she was going to focus on “how illogical emotions are.”
(Trek Alert: Spock is one of the most iconic characters, transcending most of the Star Trek universe. He is half-human, half-Vulcan. Vulcans suppress their emotions and live their lives based on logic.)
“I instead went off about culture, critical thinking and the societal commentary in different episodes.” Azman said. “Ever since then, I wanted to teach that class. Last spring, I was finally able to bring my dream to fruition.”
It wasn’t easy, though, like navigating the Mutara Nebula. As a UH-Maui College professor trying to create a course through UH-Manoa Outreach, it put her at a disadvantage, she said. Still, the fact that she had graduated from UH-Manoa and worked with many of the faculty helped.
When UH-Manoa rolled out its mostly online Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, Azman worked to help Maui students join the program.
Last spring, the first big cohort of psychology majors earning degrees from UH-Manoa and UH-West Oahu were about to graduate.
“I wanted to do something for my students, many of whom had had me as their first psychology professor at UH-MC and had had me for several classes beyond that,” she said. “I wanted to teach many of these students one last time.”
Azman also wanted to give her students a break from the purely online format, and advanced topics classes are best done face to face, she said.
“I jumped through all of the hoops to create the class, which included coming up with a syllabus to show that it was a real class and not just a bunch of people watching Trek,” she said.
Last year, her full class of 20 students included 10 from Maui, who showed up in class, and 10 from Oahu or Hawaii island, who connected to the class through two-way Zoom.
Azman said most of the students take the class because it is an upper level credit course that fulfills the writing intensive requirement. There also is the connection to her, as many have taken her classes.
“A handful of them were Star Trek” disciples the first year, she added.
Every week, Azman assigns an episode, and students are tasked with finding four psychological concepts from the show and writing a one- to two-page reflection. Students are welcome to comment on any societal implications as well.
At the one-hour class session, students discuss the terms. They then pick one of the terms from their reflections, find a recent journal item from a psychology database and write an annotated bibliography about the article.
On Tuesday, three students gathered in Laulima 102 and one appeared via Zoom to discuss the “Star Trek: The Next Generation” episode titled “Symbiosis,” the show’s 22nd episode, which originally aired on April 18, 1988.
The Enterprise aids in the rescue of a freighter and finds one race, the Brekkians, supplying another race, the Ornarans, with hallucinogenic drugs.
“It was a pretty accurate depiction” of addiction, said Amber Drake, who is taking the class for the second time.
Exploitation, withdrawals, co-dependency and apathy were among the terms brought up by Drake, Carmen Ramos, Mae Rambayon and Donielle Richardson, via Zoom from California.
Bigger picture comments included the similarities with Big Pharma and getting doctors to overdiagnose painkillers for profit.
“Is it moral to make people pay to live?” asked Drake.
Drake calls herself a Trekkie; Rambayon did not know Star Trek before the class (but is now “a fan”). Ramos and Richardson said they were somewhat, “passively” familiar with Star Trek.
“I would watch it when it was on,” said Ramos.
She continued, saying that the course, based on a show, was a lure for her because she is a visual person. Ramos said her mind starts churning with ideas when watching TV shows or films.
The class even has gotten a visit from Rod Roddenberry, the son of the legendary creator of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry. He has a home in Lahaina and continues to expand the Star Trek universe as CEO of Roddenberry Entertainment and executive producing the newest shows, such as “Star Trek Discovery.” He spoke with the students in March.
Azman has been a fan since watching the original Star Trek with her dad and getting up early to claim the TV to watch the animated version of the series.
(Trek Alert: The original Star Trek is the 1960s series that started it all with Capt. James T. Kirk, Spock and Dr. Leonard McCoy.)
“When I was in high school, TNG (The Next Generation) came out, and I was hooked,” she said, adding that she ordered all the original series and Next Generation on VHS tapes.
Things that beamed her into the Trek universe included watching characters develop: The childlike android Data and his desire to find his humanity; Capt. Jean-Luc Picard being a human being, “not just some perfect starship captain”; Betazoid Deanna Troi, ship’s counselor, who had issues with how her mother couldn’t see her as an adult; and Capt. Benjamin Sisko of space station Deep Space 9 trying to balance science, religion and heritage.
“I want to believe that we as a species will be able to move beyond the hatred and fear of those who are not quite like we are and embrace different cultures and beliefs systems,” she said.
She has been to one Star Trek Convention and met Counselor Troi, played by Marina Sirtis.
(Trek Alert: Deanna Troi is half Betazoid and half human and has telepathic abilities. She serves on the Enterprise, led by Capt. Picard.)
Other quick responses from Azman on the Trek nerd level:
• Favorite TV series or movie. “The Next Generation,” though “Deep Space Nine” is becoming a favorite because of her daughter.
• Favorite character. Data. “I love that in his search to be human, Data is probably the most human of any of the characters.”
• Favorite captain. Picard, but she feels like she is “betraying the feminist in me by not picking” Capt. Kathryn Janeway (played by Kate Mulgrew) of “Voyager.” “He is the epitome of leadership, courage and humanity,” she said. (He is also the one who often used the phrase “make it so” to carry out his commands.)
(Trek Alert: “Voyager” TV series involved a starship tossed into the Delta Quadrant trying to find their way home, which was 70 years away at maximum warp.)
• What starship would she like to command? Defiant, “because she is small (like me), strong, and has a cloaking device,” she said.
(Trek Alert: Defiant was a Deep Space 9 starship and one of the few in Star Fleet that could disappear from view.)
“Watching Star Trek gives people a sense of hope that we can evolve to a point in which everyone has a place to live, everyone’s basic needs are met, and everyone contributes to the greater good,” Azman said. “We can one day welcome new and different people and perspectives, and we will reach for the stars.”
* Lee Imada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.