“Nerdvana”: Finding Educational Value in Pop-Culture Favorites

Instructor Luke Leonard has a unique approach to education, one that landed him a position almost a decade ago teaching literature, history, and humanities at Eastern Florida State College.

After earning literature and history degrees at the University of Central Florida, Leonard went on to teach at UCF for many years, eventually bringing his expertise to EFSC in 2011. 

Now, the courses he teaches are a childhood dream. In Summer 2019 he’s teaching a Special Topics Humanities course (HUM 2390) on the Titusville campus with a truly special curriculum topic: supervillains. 

“I’ve been a nerd since I was born and every time I teach these courses, it’s Nerdvana for me. I love teaching these classes,” said Leonard.

 
 
Thanos life-size cut out, instructor Luke Leonard with Thanos glove and avengers character
 
EFSC Instructor Luke Leonard's Titusville classroom includes a collection of movie-related memorabilia, including this glove of Thanos, a Marvel Comics supervillian.

“If you had told me 20 years ago, ‘Hey, all these comics you’ve been reading your whole life? You’re going to teach classes on this,’ or ‘All these sci-fi stories you watch all the time? You’re going to instruct this,’ I would’ve called you nuts.”

Class includes watching famous supervillain movies, but with an academic twist.

Students read Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” a book on mythological heroes that became well-documented as partial inspiration for director George Lucas’ “Star Wars” movies.

In addition to supervillains, some of Leonard’s favorite topics he has taught at Eastern Florida include “Star Wars,” “Harry Potter,” and J.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, along with traditional American history and literature classes.

Leonard is very particular about what he shares in class. His teaching revolves around being unbiased, no matter the course content. 

“I try so hard not to teach anything that I believe. I don’t get paid to teach my political, philosophical or religious views. Students come to learn a curriculum. If they ask me what I believe I always say, ‘I’m not going to tell you that. When you’re no longer a student, then I’ll tell you.’ I’ve had teachers who taught their biases and philosophies and you had to give the answer they wanted. I hated that, and I refuse to do anything like that.” 

When it comes to his students’ essays, Leonard has more of a laissez-faire philosophy designed to challenge his students to think outside of the box.

“I give them prompts, but they can attack it anyway they want,” said Leonard. “If they don’t like any of the prompts, they can write one up and send it to me. I might modify it a little bit, but then they can answer the prompt they created. The point is for them to think, not for them to dogmatically answer a question the way I want them to, and I get great answers as a result.” 

To students on the fence about taking his classes, he offers a few convincing reasons why they should be part of a well-rounded college education. 

“Taking a literature/humanities class lets you be introspective. It lets you learn things more than just dates, figures or formulas. It teaches you what’s important in life. Humanities teach us how to be the best versions of ourselves and help us learn what we really enjoy doing.

“When we do things that we enjoy, they speak to us in some way. Generally, our jobs don’t always do that. A job is something you do, not something you are. The things we enjoy are what engage us on a personal level, and they’re the things that, in some ways, have the most profound effects on us.”