To many, science fiction and fantasy provide an escape from reality where characters can be placed in fantastical environments. To Professor John “Ray” Proctor III, this makes it the perfect genre for exploring issues of identity. Dr. Proctor is an assistant professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance and teaches a first-year Honors colloquium titled “Superheroes: Gender, Race and Orientation,” which is aimed at analyzing identity within the superhero genre. In his own words, he and his students “look at the way the ideological structures that undergird our society utilize the hero trope.”
In particular, they study popular culture movies and tv shows such as those in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Joss Whedon’s Firefly, and Charmed. Within each of these cultural artifacts, there exist superheroes which both are informed by and help shape these ideological structures. For example, “there’s a relationship among Batman, Superman, and the father/breadwinner role,” explains Dr. Proctor. However, until recently with the release of movies such as Black Panther and Captain Marvel, representation of women and racial minorities in the superhero role has been almost nonexistent. They also study the ideas of influential philosophers like Nietzsche and Plato alongside contemporary theories of identity and representation.
Superheroes found in popular culture can both set and challenge boundaries for identities, telling us as individuals what it means to be male, female, a good person, a bad person, et cetera. Within his class, Dr. Proctor provides a space for his students of various gender and racial identities to ask themselves: “do I show up in this story?” and “what does it mean for minorities to see themselves reflected in the heroic role?”
Such questions have no easy answers, but Dr. Proctor sees his students as willing to take on the intellectual challenge. He recognizes his Honors first-year students as ready for the rigor he requires of them. He asks that his students be thorough and thoughtful, and in exchange, he helps them become better scholars. Furthermore, he notes that each of his students brings something special to each discussion. Full of first-year students with diverse backgrounds and academic interests, the class gets the chance to view course content through a myriad of lenses. “The oeuvre of knowledge they bring from their field impacts how they construct meaning, or how they identify with texts,” explains Dr. Proctor.
While Dr. Proctor holds high standards for his students, he is also deeply in tune with their academic and emotional needs in order to help them succeed. As a theater professor, he spends a good amount of time just studying his students, seeing what excitement, sadness, or anxiety looks like on them. “I’m hypersensitive to how my students feel,” he notes. He uses this sensitivity to address his students’ emotions, supporting their transition into college and their progress throughout the course.
All faculty interviewed recommend a book they find compelling and important.
Professor Proctor recommends The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon.