By: Danielle Sanchez, Assistant Professor, Colorado College
Featured image: “Mary & Jacosta Nu,” Michael Sauers, Creative Commons License CC BY-NC 2.0.
Like most other Star Wars fans, I eagerly awaited the premiere of the Disney+ series, Obi-Wan Kenobi. I don’t love the prequels, but I am a fan of Obi Wan Kenobi and Ewan MacGregor (I will always remember the way my heart melted when I watched Moulin Rouge as a teenager in the early 2000s). I set low expectations for Obi-Wan Kenobi after slogging through The Book of Boba Fett, but I was pleasantly surprised by the first season. Yes, there were a few plot holes, but there were plenty of references that I could easily tie into my “The Empires Strike Back: From Anti-Colonial Resistance to Star Wars” class at Colorado College. Of course, the mentions of treating droids with respect resonate with our discussions on Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and case studies on slavery and forced labor in colonial Africa. Yet, it was Reva, Obi-Wan Kenobi’s new villain, who excited me the most with her mention of finding a connection between Leia Organa and Obi Wan Kenobi in the archives.
As an historian, I enjoy sifting through archival documents to help me gain a stronger understanding of the past. Archives give us the opportunity to review not only government documents, but also fragments of everyday life. Some of my favorite pieces of archival material include a slice of cake at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, a hilarious letter written by the sister of a Colorado College student who demanded that Gresham Riley, who she called a “spineless dweeb of a president,” join the anti-apartheid divestment movement, and a cartoon biography of Félix Eboué held in the Archives nationales d’outre-mer in Aix-en-Provence. Each of these items help me think through the lived experiences of individuals and communities, and the ways they engaged with the world around them.
Items like that piece of cake or snarky World War II telegraphs from Free France in Africa are only available to researchers because an archivist felt these pieces had value and were worth preserving. For non-historians, archives may seem like neutral spaces that serve as repositories of documents that show us the past. Yet, archives are inherently non-neutral and show us a version of the past. To illustrate this point, I brought my students to Colorado College’s Special Collections Department to learn about the inner workings of archives. My students quickly learned that archives rely on decisions, often made by one individual, about whether a document (or collection) is important enough to be preserved. They also learned that physical archives are spaces with finite amounts of storage and resources, so there is a rolling process of determining whether documents should continue to be preserved. Archivists have power. In their vetting (or weeding out) of documents, they can emphasize or eliminate the types of histories that we are able to read and write.
What does this have to do with Star Wars? I once told my husband that I wished that there was a Star Wars series that just focused on archivists a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away sorting through documents and dealing with institutional power dynamics. Unsurprisingly, he said that nobody would watch it. With my hopes for a very nerdy, but very interesting (to me) series dashed, I decided to create an assignment in my Star Wars class that would allow me to live out this geeky reality. I asked students to do something that was seemingly basic: select a scene from Star Wars and create an archival collection of digital documents that would tell the story of that moment. The most important part of the assignment was that they had to determine who controlled the archive they created and how systems of power would have influenced what types of documents would be held in their collections.
Students used Omeka and WordPress to create digital collections that connected to the original Star Wars trilogy, Rogue One, or Clone Wars. They built archives that focused on Jabba the Hutt’s personal papers, Ewok oral history, R2-D2’s internal records, and so much more. And what did these collections include? A brilliant array of letters, top secret documents, incident reports, gambling journals, an Ewok cookbook, records from R2D2’s internal hard drive, and Luke Skywalker’s birth certificate.
One of the most creative documents that a student created was a scientific report on “Gungan waterproofing,” entitled “Gungan Spit as Aquatic Adhesive.” This report was part of a collection on the Water War that occured on the planet Mon Cala in the series Clone Wars. If you are not familiar with the Water War, log into Disney+ and watch episodes 1-3 of season 4 of Clone Wars. In a particularly ridiculous scene, Padmé Amidala’s helmet cracks and Jar Jar Binks spits on it to stop Padmé from drowning. In the words of Jar Jar, “Isa Gungan waterproofing.”1 The report, created by a fictional member of the Department of Alien Biology at Coruscant College, seeks to answer whether Gungan spit could be “a strong aquatic adhesive alternative to Aqua-Stick.” Over the course of the report, the researcher discusses theory, methods, results, and recommendations.
As an historian living out my dream of geeking out over Star Wars documents, I approached this report just like I would any document in an archive to consider its historical implications. Could this document serve as a justification for marginalizing Jar Jar? If the report’s author, a member of the Department of Alien Science, was able to examine and recreate Gungan spit, would this mean that Jar Jar’s presence is no longer needed? After all, he is kind of a disaster. Perhaps this can also help us understand the commodification of Jar Jar’s body and the ways the Galactic Republic might have valued his body and fluids, rather than him as an intelligent being. I also wonder what types of ethical processes were in place to conduct this research. I’m guessing that the Galactic Republic did not have the Institutional Review Board. Were Gungans compensated for their spit? Were they asked or forced to participate in the study? Was there informed consent?2 If not, this might strengthen my case for the commodification of Gungan bodies.3
This assignment allowed students to experience first-hand how archives are not neutral and to consider how power dynamics in archives shape our understanding of the past and the histories that we are able to write. I certainly could have assigned Michel Rolph Trouillot’s landmark text, Silencing the Past, but my syllabus was already stacked with Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism, Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, Said’s Orientalism, among others.4 To prepare for making their own fictitious Star Wars archives, students reflected on a brief section of Abina and the Important Men, written by Dr. Trevor Getz and illustrated by Liz Clarke. In the final pages of the graphic novel, Getz summarizes Trouillot’s Silencing the Past and the brilliant illustrator, Liz Clarke, depicts each step, from saving a document to Getz reviewing it to Abena’s story coming to life. I didn’t want their reflections to end with Abina, Getz, Clarke, and Trouillot, though. I wanted them to think about the choices that people and archivists make about what is important and worthy of being preserved, what archives might do with potentially damaging documents and collections, and how historians use documents to think through and about the past. My students engaged with each of these matters through the digital collections that they created.
I am a huge advocate for outward facing assignments in my classes. Instead of leaning on traditional essays and exams, I often prioritize digital learning experiences in my courses, including podcasts, ARCGIS StoryMaps, and WordPress sites. My hope is that these assignments not only teach students to think analytically and historically, but also to learn new skills and share their work with their friends and family members. My emphasis on digital learning experiences is largely thanks to members of Muhlenberg College’s Digital Learning Team and fellow participants in their workshops. These workshops helped me become a better and more creative educator, not only by introducing new programs and technology, but also encouraging me to think about how using these methods can help my students reach their learning objectives in exciting ways.5
In spring 2022, Disney asked fans to vote on a new lightsaber that would be available for purchase in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. The choices? Jocasta Nu (Jedi Master and Chief Librarian of the Jedi Archives), Sifo-Dyas (member of the Jedi High Council and commissioned the Grand Army of the Republic), Quinlan Vos (Jedi Master with retrocognition powers from planet Kiffu), Depa Billaba (trained by Mace Windu and became a member of the Jedi High Council), Barriss Offee (Jedi Knight who organized the bombing of the Jedi Temple and framed Ahsoka Tano for the attack), and Kanan Jarrus (Jedi Knight and survivor of Order 66). Fans overwhelmingly voted for Kanan’s padawan saber even though I personally would have preferred Jocasta’s hilt. While Kanan is undeniably awesome, Jocasta brings something different and unique to the table: she is both an archivist and lightsaber-wielding jedi. She helped Jedi conduct research and recognized the power of understanding the past, the importance of archives, and sensitivity and thoughtfulness in archival preservation. Plus, she was a pretty decent at combat, especially when she used books to thwart Darth Vader and the Grand Inquisitor Darth Vader issue #9.
Even though my students will never be able to use mind tricks against shock troopers like Jocasta Nu, I am confident that they have a newfound respect for archives, archivists, and archival research. By using Star Wars, a franchise with a huge following, students were able to explore their own interests in an assignment that encouraged them to think both creatively and analytically. Perhaps most importantly, they thought through the implications of not only their documents and archives in the writing of a fictional past, but gained a greater understanding of how power operates in archives and the ways we think about history.
One last remark: if Disney ever decides to create a series based on Madame Jocasta Nu in the Jedi Archives, I can promise that it would have at least one viewer.
Dr. Danielle Sanchez (she/her/hers) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Colorado College. Her research focuses on the Second World War in Africa, specifically popular culture, consumption, and social movements in wartime central Africa. She teaches a range of pop culture and history courses, but her favorites are Health and Healing in African History, The Empires Strike Back: From Anti-Colonial Resistance to Star Wars, and Writing Graphic Novels. Her nerdy obsessions: knitting, Star Wars, contemporary romance novels, and the MCU. Twitter: @drdanisanchez
Read More About Star Wars Here
- Clone Wars, “Prisoners,” written by Jose Molina, directed by Danny Keller, 2011.
- For a discussion of informed consent and why it matters, see Baruch Brody, “Making Informed Consent Meaningful,” IRB: Ethics & Human Research 23, 5 (2001): 1-5.
- For a fascinating article about the competing goals of protecting human subjects and advancing biomedical research, see Ann Freeman Cook and Helena Hoas, “Protecting Research Subjects: IRBs in a Changing Research Landscape,” IRB: Ethics & Human Research 33, 2 (2011): 14-19.
- Michel Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past (Boston: Beacon Press, 2015).
- A special shout-out to Jenna Azar, Tim Clarke, Dr. Lora Taub-Pervizpour, Dr. Keri Colabroy, and Dr. Tineke D’Haeseleer for inspiring me with their creativity and brilliance. I also could not have pulled together this assignment without the assistance of Dr. Jennifer Golightly at Colorado College.
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