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Saturday, December 4, 2021

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John Putman John Putman

“Star Trek Professor” Teaches a Different Generation at OLLI

SDSU professors have the opportunity to teach a new demographic of students.
By Suzana Norberg

“The students are really interested in whatever topic I’m teaching and often have something to offer that enhances the course.”

It’s a unique course with a surprising subject matter—a melding of pop culture and American history. San Diego State University professor John Putman’s “Star Trek, Culture and History” takes an interesting look at political, social, and cultural issues through the lens of the hit television show.

The class—part of the history department curriculum since 2009—has been a hit with students of all ages, including those in SDSU’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) program, which offers university-quality courses for students age 50 and above.

“I thoroughly enjoyed my first class and still enjoy them to this day,” said Putman. “The students are really interested in whatever topic I’m teaching and often have something to offer that enhances the course.” Although there are no tests or grades at OLLI, Putman noted that many students take notes and even ask for copies of the PowerPoint presentations they missed.

The idea for the course came to Putman during a history writing seminar for which he was a teaching assistant.

“The course spent time on American slavery, and I noticed a similarity between the pro-slavery rhetoric in the pre-Civil War era and an episode of ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation,’ in which the android Data was on trial,” said Putman. “Whoopi Goldberg was a character in that series who suggested in a conversation with the ship's captain that Data's dilemma resembled 19th-century views of slaves. I showed the episode in my class. After that I began to watch the shows differently and realized that I could construct a course using Star Trek as a vehicle to explore American history.”

Putman finds that courses and lectures resonate the most with his OLLI students.  

“They’ve lived through these times and have a personal connection to the issues and topics we cover,” he said. “If they don't already have a strong appreciation for history, I hope they leave a course with it, especially if it’s a topic they thought they were not sure they would like. For others, it might be that they discovered a different perspective on a particular historical topic that they didn't consider before.”

Looking for other professors

Twenty-four of Putman’s fellow professors are teaching this semester at OLLI, sharing their expertise on topics ranging from chamber music, Charlie Chaplin, social media, the science of addiction, and natural disasters among others. Those interested in being guest lecturers this fall are encouraged to submit an OLLI Fall 2018 Course Proposal Form by Monday, March 12.

“Every semester, the 600-plus active members of OLLI at SDSU come to campus in pursuit of their love of learning, and they would love to learn from our esteemed faculty,” said OLLI Program Director Aimee Davis.

To his fellow professors, Putman had these words of encouragement:  “You would not regret the opportunity to teach a course at OLLI. Not only will you have actively engaged students to teach, but also ones who always have something to add to your course.”