By Renée Petrina
Eric Niederstadt, a political science major at IU Southeast, had read about college courses based on pop culture topics like Star Wars and always thought the concept was cool. Then he saw a flier for a course about “The Hunger Games.”
“OK, I have an opportunity to take something like that,” he recalled thinking to himself. “Let’s see what it’s like.”
He’d enjoyed a previous class with Dr. Jean Abshire, who was offering the special topics course. But he’d never read the “Hunger Games” books — or seen the movies.
So Niederstadt spent winter break reading through each book in preparation for class. He quickly realized what a connection the books would have to his major.
“After 20 pages I was like – this is ripe for political analysis,” he said.
And during spring semester, Niederstadt got the opportunity to screen “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” for the first time, all while enjoying a delicious themed meal cooked by his professor. It was Abshire’s second “Hunger Games” feast and film viewing.
“Food plays a major role in the books,” Abshire said. “There are even fan websites that detail every food item mentioned. The food descriptions help readers understand the book’s socioeconomic groups.”
“It’s juxtaposing the decadence of the Capitol with the wants of the Districts,” Niederstadt said.
Abshire made lamb stew with prunes, which the novel describes as heroine Katniss’s favorite food in the Capitol. There were also seeded rolls paired with hot cocoa, and for dessert, an apple and goat cheese tart.
The meal was held in the University Center building at IU Southeast, where her students could view the film on a large screen after they ate.
“It’s very hearty – I like it,” said Kyleigh Nolan, a sophomore political science major, of Abshire’s stew, which the professor called “a riff on a Mexican molé.”
Nolan was already a fan of the “Hunger Games” series and its author, Suzanne Collins, before she signed up for the class. But now she sees the series differently.
“I definitely see it as not just entertainment,” she said.
The books factor into discussion in almost every class meeting. Abshire’s students read about various issues in political science and apply concepts to the situations in Collins’ novels. But Niederstadt said they had many real-world examples this semester as well, such as turmoil between Ukraine and Russia.
Nolan said she appreciates Abshire’s exams as well, because there’s no one definitive answer. Exams involve relating material to the novels, and Nolan said she likes being able to defend her arguments in writing.
“This is what I got out of [the reading]. It may be completely different than what he got out of it,” she said, pointing to Niederstadt over a plate of lamb stew, “but I can support it.”
Abshire first offered the class, Politics and Conflict in the Hunger Games, in spring 2013. Her students really got into the themed meal idea and turned it into a potluck.
“It was a feast,” Abshire said. “It was incredible what they brought.”
One student made a pizza with toppings arranged to depict the mockingjay logo that is central to the “Hunger Games” franchise.
But that wasn’t all. Another student was an archer — “our own private Katniss,” Abshire said. The student bow-hunted a rabbit and made a stew of it to share with her classmates. Then she brought a target to let students try their archery skills in Abshire’s New Albany backyard.
Were the rest of the students a good shot?
Not really. No one else hit the target.
“I got my grass aerated, so that was kind of nice,” Abshire said, laughing.
Having a meal for honors classes and special-topics seminars has long been a part of Abshire’s teaching. For a course on globalization, she lets students choose from a list of ethnic restaurants in the Louisville Metro area, where they go as a group or get takeout.
For a class focused on genocide, Abshire took her students to a Vietnamese restaurant owned and operated by refugees of genocide in Cambodia.
“I wanted them to see people who could survive and start a new life and move forward,” Abshire said.
Abshire’s field of comparative politics has brought her face to face with some gruesome realities around the world. The “Hunger Games” class includes such topics as internally displaced populations and child soldiers. Abshire says her philosophy on approaching these global problems is to foster discussion rather than just feeling sad.
In the United States, Abshire explains, students live in a context where they don’t have to worry about children being abducted and forced to kill.
“But for other people, that’s an everyday reality,” she said.
Relating the fictional account of “The Hunger Games” to real-world genocide and child soldiering is just one way she raises awareness of global issues.
“My coping mechanism is to teach about it.”