Never mind all the Vanity Fair glitz about the young actors who play Katniss, Gale, and Peeta in the film. In the Macalester course the approach is more academic: Students read all three books and watched the first film and then used The Hunger Games as the catalyst for a series of serious conversations about war, revolution, global inequality, environmentalism, Reality TV, gender/sexuality, and the power of love. Throughout the semester students developed and employed a language that helped to reveal the significance of race and other protofascist formations in the fictional world of Panem.
Archery lessons in a college class? That’s just one of several unusual aspects to American studies professor Karin Aguilar-San Juan’s new course, “The Hunger Games: Map and Mirror for the 21st Century.”
The Hunger Games, a widely popular teen-fiction trilogy by Suzanne Collins, is the story of Panem, a country encompassing all of North America, following a cataclysmic war. Panem is separated into districts ruled by the Capitol. Every year, to atone for their role in the war, each district must send two “tributes” —one male and one female teenager—to fight to the death against other tributes in the Hunger Games.
Although the trilogy has been embraced by readers of all ages, Aguilar-San Juan was initially reluctant to read it. A conversation with a former colleague who is now a successful teen-fiction author convinced her to tackle the first book. When she read it over last year’s spring break, Aguilar-San Juan realized that it introduced many themes that would “provoke a larger discussion about all sorts of social issues.” Deciding it would be fun to teach, if outside her usual purview of race and ethnicity, she proceeded to develop a class around the books.
The class has proved hugely popular— it filled up on the second day of registration—and is almost evenly split among first-years, sophomores, juniors, and seniors. These students are majoring in a wide variety of disciplines, including English, theater, geography, political science, and economics, among others.
“It’s gratifying when others see the social ramifications present in young adult literature, and amazing to spend time with other students passionately discussing a young adult series and its connections to the broader world,” says Mackenzie Woolf ’14 (Sandy, Utah). Will French ’13 (Phoenix) agrees, adding, “There are a lot of important themes and global issues that can be talked about in the context of the Hunger Games.”
“It’s gratifying when others see the social ramifications present in young adult literature, and amazing to spend time with other students passionately discussing a young adult series and its connections to the broader world,” says Mackenzie Woolf ’14
In addition to discussions of the series and the 2012 movie of the same name, Aguilar-San Juan has worked a number of relevant speakers and field trips into the syllabus. For example, main character Katniss is an archery expert, so class members received an archery lesson and spent a class period practicing the sport at a Lake Calhoun archery range.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is another major series theme, so Aguilar-San Juan asked Eric Brown ’94, a psychiatrist who works with veterans suffering from PTSD, to deliver a guest lecture on the topic.
Because Peeta, another central character, works in his family bakery and gives bread to a starving Katniss, the class toured a nearby Great Harvest Bread Co. and spoke with its owner. Discussions of empathy and food justice animated the visit to Great Harvest and class periods surrounding that visit.
Katniss’s home district is a coal-mining region, explains Aguilar-San Juan, so she “used one segment of the course to talk about issues around coal mining, mountain-top coal removal, and Mother Jones, who I believe is Katniss’s political ancestor.” To bring the topic to life, she had West Virginia photographer Paul Corbit Brown, who uses his art to advocate against mountain-top coal removal, speak to the class via Skype.
These experiential aspects of the class have been key facets for French. “The field trips and speakers have been essential to the course and also a demonstration of what liberal arts education can mean—you don’t have to always stay in the classroom.”