Being inventive to make real connections

Laura Huenneke

         by Laura Huenneke, Provost

Just before Thanksgiving, rooms were packed with student audiences for the Hunger Games Conference in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences—a daylong series of talks, poster presentations and discussions centered on social science analyses of the fictional society of Panem from The Hunger Games trilogy. From criminal justice approaches to political science, from media influence to economic systems, the dystopic novels present fertile ground for exploring important themes. Inventive faculty gave students experience in how social scientists analyze, interpret and understand the world.

This is just one example of building scholarly approaches on the interests and experience of today’s students. We often see themes of body image and gender roles as portrayed in today’s media; for example, in the research projects of the spring’s Undergraduate Research Symposium. And a video game symposium—encouraging students to analyze the images and messages of these virtual worlds—is being planned for late March by the Interdisciplinary Writing Program.

Some wonder about using young adult novels or current culture as hooks to interest students; they argue that “real” world events and serious scholarly books might be more appropriate subjects for a college-wide conference. And I read some protests this past fall about contemporary fiction, rather than the classics or great books, being used in first-year student reading programs such as NAU Reads.

But recent advances in cognitive science demonstrate that building links to a student’s prior knowledge, understanding and even misconceptions can make or break the hoped-for learning. And given today’s world (from economic inequality to the impact of social media), I found the application of social science approaches to the fictional Panem to be exciting and compelling. I’m grateful that so many of our faculty are using creative, innovative approaches to connect to our students.