Superhero U

Volume VIII, #24

My childhood friends in Canada weren’t unique in playing superheroes on the playground. We had the regular cast of characters – Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Spiderman, even Aquaman (although harder to execute on asphalt). But with 90% of Canadians living within 100 miles of the U.S. border, there was always a choice. For chicken dinners it was KFC or Swiss Chalet. For news, we could watch the American channel out of Buffalo and see the latest bowling alley fire, or we could watch the Canadian channel and see not much news at all. For superheroes, choice meant the X-Men vs. Canada’s version of the X-Men called Alpha Flight. Why Marvel felt Canada needed its own mutants is beyond me. Wolverine himself was Canadian, but that was part of the backstory; the team was assembled by Canada’s Ministry of Defense to retrieve Wolverine from the X-Men and included northerly misfits like Sasquatch, Snowbird (an Inuit demi-goddess from Yellowknife who transforms into polar animals), Quebeçois twins Aurora and Northstar, and – somewhat offensively – a dwarf bouncer from Saskatoon named Puck.

By middle school, we had graduated from superheroes to sports heroes. Yes, they were mostly hockey players with scars and missing teeth. But they were real people, so that was progress. By high school, the progression was from sports heroes to romantic heroes. As Canada’s national house band, The Tragically Hip, sang:

You held my hand and we walked home the long way
You were loosening my grip on Bobby Orr.

By the time we got to university, we added a new set of heroes: intellectual heroes. Not so much in the mode of the Cornell Review’s “I touched Carl Sagan” contest in 1994 wherein students who had “physical contact” with the famous (and famously reclusive) host of Cosmos submitted essays on their “experience” in order to win a free subscription. (The contest was a satire of Cornell’s promotional materials, which suggested students would have frequent contact with Sagan.) I mean intellectual heroes who demonstrated remarkable creativity and original thinking in their research, writing, and teaching, and devotion on the part of students. I had a few by the time I got to university, and more by the time I graduated.


Last month’s passing of Stan Lee is an apt time to reflect on the delayed maturation of the current generation. “It’s Marvel’s Universe. We Just Live In It” is reasonably definitive not only of contemporary culture, but increasingly higher education. In the past decade, superheroes have stormed through the college gate and established themselves in academic programs. A number of universities now offer programs in comic studies. University of Oregon’s minor in Comic Studies “presents students with an international, historical, and critical perspective on the art of comics.” Portland State and San Francisco State offer comparable programs. Across English, Philosophy, Religious Studies, Psychology, Political Science, and Early Childhood Education departments, there are hundreds of superhero courses. Five years ago, Rice University launched both Introduction to Superman and Introduction to Batman.

I know I’m just a few years away from yelling at young people to get off my lawn, and I recognize that critical thinking can be grown on practically any terrain, no matter how unpromising e.g., superheroes or professional sports. But this academic relativism no longer translates well to the world of employment where real skills are required. As Ghostbuster Ray Stantz told Peter Venkman: “I’ve worked in the private sector. They expect results.” So while Portland State’s program was established because “Portland is particularly well known as the home of… publishers specializing in comic art” and “seeks to enhance ties with the local comics community,” the program’s site lists only a single publisher seeking 1-2 interns.

While it’s true that critical thinking can be developed in any subject, it’s equally true that many subjects are more fertile ground for skill development than comic studies. With technical skills now outnumbering all other skills combined in entry-level job descriptions across virtually every economic sector, developing critical thinking skills concurrently with technical skills is an idea whose time has come.

It’s clear why concurrent development of technical and critical thinking skills is not yet the norm. Inculcating the creative and critical thinking skills that employers demand is (correctly) believed to require “perspective transformation” in which students critically reflect on their assumptions and become agile at changing their frames of reference. Faculty must assist students in becoming aware and critical of assumptions and provide ample opportunities for oral and written discourse. Students must practice recognizing theoretical structures.

In a non-technical class like Introduction to Batman, students have a head start on perspective transformation. When discussing Bruce Wayne, the subject matter has been so familiar from such a young age that students are easily able to reflect on the material from their own (often infantile) frame of reference, making it a single step to a new structure introduced via reading and lecture. Contrast this with Introduction to Electrical Engineering. No students come to this course with a long-established frame of reference; most are at sea trying to keep up with the avalanche of technical content. If they’re successful, by the end of the course they’ll understand the scientific theories that govern the field of study and establish a single frame of reference. The second step of perspective transformation is viewed as a bridge too far.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We need a transformative learning revolution in STEM. Such a revolution means somewhat less ambitious content delivery, recognizing that the vast majority of STEM majors are heading to applied entry-level positions in the private sector rather than master’s and doctoral programs. It also means a greater focus on pedagogy for STEM faculty, and perhaps establishing tenure-equivalent teaching tracks for faculty who opt to specialize in transformative STEM teaching rather than keeping up with the Joneses in terms of research in their field.


Even modest efforts along these lines could radically increase the accessibility of STEM programs at our colleges and universities, resulting in enrollment gains for STEM over perceived pre-professional programs like business with poor student outcomes. I understand many STEM academics will view these steps as unacceptable compromises, but hope they see them as much more palatable than the compromises that let superheroes into the academy. For in attempting to give students the superheroes we think they want – likely in a misguided effort to increase or at least sustain enrollment – we’re leading them down a primrose path of suboptimal skill development and underemployment. This is the logic of High Point University’s Director of “WOW,” who pleases students by keeping track of their favorite movies, sodas, and candy. It’s the logic of New Mexico State’s new College Concierges. And it’s the logic of the University of Maryland Board of Regents that recently attempted to prioritize winning football games ahead of player safety. Even more damaging is the legitimization of infantilization and cultural deterioration that may also be contributing to political extremism.

Perhaps one reason superheroes have been welcomed into America’s colleges and universities is that they have something in common: the sense that coming from this wondrous place – Krypton or campus – imbues you with special powers that make you perpetually employable. We now know this is nonsense. In Marvel’s Universe that we find ourselves living in, perpetual employment requires two things. Like superheroes, students must master science and technology. But colleges must ensure the complete success of their graduates by simultaneously providing the perspective transformation that – as every Marvel fan knows – distinguishes superheroes from supervillains.