Creighton professor channels Star Wars to teach conflict resolution
During his 15 years teaching conflict resolution at Creighton University, Noam Ebner, LLM, reached an important conclusion: Darth Vader should have sweetened his offer to Luke Skywalker.
It could have saved a lot of trouble, even as it rendered the post-Death Star story of galactic struggle between darkness and light less tenable. There are, as Obi-Wan Kenobi assures Han Solo in the original Star Wars movie, “alternatives to fighting.”
Ebner, a professor of negotiation and conflict resolution in Creighton's Heider College of Business, is a self-described Star Wars nerd who takes a wry delight in explaining how lessons about conflict resolution may be gleaned from the epic space opera beloved now by generations across the globe. Compare, for example, the hostility and fighting around the table characteristic of the Empire’s conferences to the vigorous but collaborative process displayed by Rebel forces.
Note also, Ebner says, Vader’s brilliant but ultimately flawed negotiating strategy as he tries to persuade his son, Luke Skywalker, to join him on the dark side. “Join me,” he says, “and we’ll rule the galaxy together as father and son.” The Sith Lord offers both power and family connection but fails to recognize that Luke has embraced different values. And so, he loses an opportunity to win over Luke by letting those values shape the governance of the galaxy.
It’s a fun approach to learning, and Ebner is eager to tell the world about it.
In fact, Ebner and 24 fellow Star Wars aficionados teaching at universities around the world have done so in the newly released book, Star Wars and Conflict Resolution: There Are Alternatives to Fighting. The book constitutes the first step towards embodying a conviction Ebner has long carried that popular culture can be used as a fun and engaging vehicle to teach not just university students, but humanity in general, that conflict resolution need not involve blowing up Death Stars.
“For years, a lot of teachers, myself included, have used bits and pieces of popular culture to clarify an idea or to give a demonstration in class,” he says. “Perhaps you show a scene from whatever is going on at the time, perhaps a scene from Friends, or a movie that you feel helps illustrate a point, to encourage class discussion or point out certain dynamics.
“Students have always found that engaging.”
Ebner’s vision reaches beyond the classroom, however. If not quite galactic in scope, that vision is decidedly global. As a professor, he says, he reaches perhaps 100 to 200 students a year. But what about the non-students who comprise the vast mass of humanity to whom conflict on both micro and macro levels is a constant? They all require conflict literacy, which is to say, a basic understanding of how to resolve conflict.
“Where do they find themselves?” he asks. “Where do they find their information, where can you encounter them in a place where they might be receptive?”
The answer, Ebner hopes, is popular culture — not just Star Wars but popular culture in general, specific shows, movies, plays, books, all sorts of artifacts that have already earned a place in the hearts and minds of millions of people and can therefore serve as vehicles for messages about conflict resolution.
“Pop culture is a very powerful engine,” Ebner says. “The question I am asking is, ‘How can we hitch the wagon of conflict resolution, and some basic conflict literacy, to that vehicle in a way that will open a channel to the general public?’ In this case, we’ve focused on Star Wars people, which is a big chunk of the general public, but other pop culture phenomena have huge followings as well, Game of Thrones, for example — choose your magic.”
The book, published by DRI Press, a specialist in conflict resolution, is written for that general public, Ebner says.
“It is sharp with its Star Wars references and its winks towards Star Wars characters, scenes, and catchphrases,” he says. “The authors may all be Star Wars nerds, but they're not the same kinds of nerds. The book comprises many different voices, but they all speak in Star Wars language. At its core, it’s a book by Star Wars lovers for Star Wars lovers.”
It is also a first step along a highway that Ebner hopes will eventually be lined with conferences, a common course taught at many universities, websites, panel discussions at pop culture conventions such as Dragon Con, and, of course, sequel books.
“We are already planning the next Star Wars book,” he says. “What is more Star Warsy than a sequel?”