- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 9, 2006

The eight trainees sit quietly, waiting for their debriefing. After a short while, their handler enters the room: He clears his throat, adjusts his spectacles and begins to talk about the link between game theory, the prisoner’s dilemma and the gentleman’s game of baccarat.

“The amount of information — known or not known — complicates the game,” the man tells his charges enigmatically. “That’s what espionage is about; it’s the perfect metaphor.”

Call him Sebastian — John Sebastian. And while he’s not a spy, Mr. Sebastian does teach a summer course on “Spy Stories” at Georgetown University.

“There have been spy stories as long as there have been stories. There’s Moses in the Book of Numbers as spymaster…. There’s Odysseus and the Trojan Horse,” Mr. Sebastian says.

“Spy stories have been around for a good, long time.”

He says the best spy stories are inextricably tied to lies, identity crises and the enemy within: “The question is, ‘Who am I?’ ‘Am I any different from the bad guy I pursue? Is it just the context? Just the ideology I believe in?’ ”

“I think it’s great material to talk about in a class,” Mr. Sebastian adds. “It’s not black and white. There’s all these shades of gray.”

Mr. Sebastian, a self-described “medievalist by profession,” originally taught medieval literature at Loyola University New Orleans. After the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina, Mr. Sebastian moved to Georgetown University, where he primarily taught medieval literature.

He recently added “Spy Stories” to his repertoire, having only begun reading spy stories in the last few years. “In this, I’m just an imposter,” Mr. Sebastian jokes.

Based on the reading list of “Spy Stories,” however, it seems as though Mr. Sebastian knows more than he is letting on. The course began with W. Somerset Maugham’s work “R,” from his 1928 short-story collection “Ashenden,” and was followed by Rudyard Kipling’s “Kim,” the story of a socially invisible Indian recruit during English rule.

The class then read double-agent Kim Philby’s autobiographical novel “My Silent War,” before moving along to Ian Fleming’s seminal and, according to Mr. Sebastian, “most psychological” James Bond novel, “Casino Royale.”

The class also took a field trip to the International Spy Museum, as well as to Georgetown’s Lauinger Memorial Library, which houses works such as the Russell J. Bowen Collection on Intelligence, Security and Covert Activities and the Bowen Spy Fiction Collection.

By the time the class ended Friday, Mr. Sebastian says, the students had read Graham Greene’s spy spoof “Our Man in Havana,” spy-literature heavyweight John le Carre’s “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” and watched Mr. Sebastian’s favorite Bond film, “From Russia With Love.”

He says it was D.C.’s wealth of spy paraphernalia that sparked his plan to pursue the course: “There’s the International Spy Museum. … There are documents in the Georgetown Library like the Bowen Collection and the Graham Greene Papers,” he said. “I thought, ‘Well, I was in D.C., maybe this is the best time to do it.’ ”

Mr. Sebastian was right to go ahead with his idea: The class’s enthusiasm was palpable, even electric. During the class discussion of “Casino Royale,” Yates Sanford, a quiet freshman from Texas Tech University, suddenly began reciting Bond’s physical description from the thin scar on his face down to the skeleton grip of his gun.

“He’s got class,” Mr. Sanford adds. “And he’s got a lot of it.”

Like the multifaceted espionage teams from traditional spy films, the students are a mixed group and bring their experiences to the class. Their ages range from 17 to 23, their majors range from pre-med to creative writing, and they come from across the United States and Canada. Mr. Sebastian beamed about his students, saying their diversity only helped stimulate their discussions.

“They all come to the table with different backgrounds. … They all have slightly different perspectives,” Mr. Sebastian says. “Not all of us are necessarily experts in the core materials, but everyone’s got something to say.”

Sometimes that means more work on Mr. Sebastian’s part. “The last essay was supposed to be four pages,” he said. “Many of them, however, were six to seven, 10 pages long.”

“I’ve given them a lot of latitude to come up with their own ideas,” says Mr. Sebastian who adds that he pushed students to play to their strengths, whether it be in economics, international relations, or spy movies and video games. “I encourage them to be experts.”

Katie Coon, a Los Angeles native and the lone high school student in the class, says Mr. Sebastian’s teaching helped better prepare her for college writing.

“I think I’ve learned to write better,” Miss Koon says. “In high school, they teach you to write in really pretentious ways.”

The humble Mr. Sebastian, unlike the high-brow, self-absorbed James Bond, attributes the course’s success to the cards he was dealt.

“I’m very lucky in that regard,” he says. “I’ve got great students and great material.”

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