I am in the midst of planning a Maple League course for Winter 2023 that analyzes narratives of the Marvel Universe in order to unlock the superheroes of our students. Co-taught with my colleague, Dr. Heather Lawford (CRC in Youth Engagement), we propose that metaphors provide us with the divergent thinking skills necessary to understand the relationship between agency and communion.
The Maple League is a perfect space to think about how we unlock the super hero powers of our students (and other members of our community) because the academic consortium challenges us to think differently to be better. We run on mentorship and generativity in so many spheres that it seems fitting to teach this course across the four universities.
Our course starts with Wonder Woman (2017). The origin story of Diana, Princess of Themyscira begins with a voice over that frames the overarching theme:
“I used to want to save the world. This beautiful place. But I knew so little then. … What one does when faced with the truth is more difficult than you’d think.”
We follow Diana’s development as she confronts troublesome knowledge: her resilience – and eventual triumph – is only made possible through her capacity for hope and her ability to build communities of unlikely allies and partners.
There was one concept in particular from Wonder Woman that illuminates the work we aspire to do as mentors, guides, and learners. Early in the film, soldiers invade the Amazonian island; in the midst of battle, the Amazonian General, Antiope, yells “SHIELD” and her compatriot angles her shield to propel Antiope high into the air in order to destroy their enemy’s strategic position.
Steve Trevor (self-styled “good guy”) witnesses this display on the beaches of Themyscira. Later in the film, when Diana and her motley crew are under fire, Steve repurposes a tank door, yells “SHIELD”, and three men launch Diana into the air so she can take out a sniper’s nest and win the day.
The shield represents a mindset of generosity, solidarity, and humility that enables us to advance others so they can reach new heights and exceed their individual capacities. The shield-bearer is foundational to success but assumes none of the glory. He or she must be attentive to moments where their intervention can change the outcome.
Essayist Rebecca Solnit describes hope as “the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand.”
The shield bearer, therefore, is hope in action.
We have all benefited from shields. Our mentors – male and female – have lifted us up and propelled us farther than we could have achieved on our own. Collaborators and colleagues have performed countless acts of “shield bearing” at meetings and in classrooms, in online forums and research receptions.
Wonder Woman shows us that the goal is not to stand on top of Mount Olympus looking down upon those who have not yet been enlightened but rather to engage and struggle in the trenches and the plains, the classrooms and the playing fields.
The beauty – and the hope – lies in the struggle.
When Dr. Lawford and I teach this Maple League course in the winter term, I look forward to sharing the insights students have to unlock our individual and collective superhero powers. And more importantly, I hope that when you read this report you see examples of shield-bearing, of amplification, of deep generosity as we strive to create spaces to unlock the super heroes working tirelessly, often invisibly, but always with great impact within our communities.
~ Dr. Jessica Riddell, Executive Director, Maple League of Universities