Friday, May 8, 2015

Build A Better Frankenstein: Teaching a Sci-Fi Class, Short Story edition

Yes, for the pedants in the crowd, it's build a better Frankenstein's Monster. But that felt like too far a departure from the "Build a Better Mousetrap" allusion I was going for, so here we are.

One of the more time-consuming endeavors of the past term was that I was teaching a second year course on science fiction. It shared a lot with the fantasy course I taught the term before that (and not just because I modeled it on a very similar syllabus). Namely, they both attracted a pretty diverse set of students from across all disciplines. I had engineers, art majors, English majors, chemistry students, social studies--a really interesting cross section of people and ideas. I learned a lot from teaching the course; here's some ruminations on the short stories, to start things off:

Like the fantasy course, choosing the short story readings was harder than I thought it would be. I think this blog is testament to the fact that I am a very avid reader of science fiction and fantasy, but the short story doesn't cross my path as often as other forms--especially when I'm focusing on more recently published works. Traditionally, science fiction and fantasy are considered "low" forms of literature (much as videogames are often framed as low forms of media/art), but even within a "low" form, there can be a hierarchy, and in terms of mass popularity, short stories are (unfairly) treated as lower than novels. I think I've accidentally internalized that snobbery in my own reading habits to a degree, and it made finding quality, recent short stories harder.

That said, I wound up relying very heavily on Sherryl Vint's Science Fiction: A Guide for the Perplexed in terms of choosing which short stories to feature. My students, in general, seemed to prefer the novels (maybe an echo of that short story bias?). The cyberpunk short stories--"Johnny Mnemonic" by William Gibson, and "20 Evocations" by Bruce Sterling--generated the most class discussion (perhaps because, as the next chapter elaborates, they were read on a group discussion-oriented day). But it was the short stories that had a socially oriented slant that generated the best individual papers and responses. "When It Changed" by Joanna Russ features a world of just women who are invaded by the first male colonists they've met in over 500 years and "Speech Sounds" by Octavia Butler imagines a post-apocalypse world where people have lost speech and writing; I wouldn't go so far as to say the students writing on these pieces liked these short stories the best, as their papers mostly focused on intensely argued objections, but they were certainly the pieces that they responded to the most.

I packed the readings a little more tightly than I perhaps should have; while everything was covered, a few pieces didn't quite get the attention they deserved. A part of that was these pieces tended towards the end of term, or immediately before the February break. In order to keep students' attention at these points, you have to be very, very careful what sort of works you choose. It would be nice if they came to class with the reading read and ready to engage every single time, but realistically, that's not going to happen. If I had the class to do over again, I'd probably tweak things a bit so that the "nonideal" attention periods featured visual media-based texts (which students seem to find a bit easier to engage with) or discussion groups, which I find tend to work better for drawing out engagement more than the lectures. In particular, Larissa Lai's "Rachel," John Varley's "The Persistence of Vision," and Henry Kuttner and Catherine L. Moore's "Vintage Season" were all victims of end term fatigue.

Apropos of nothing, I wish I'd put Ted Chiang's "Liking What You See: A Documentary." The sci-fi idea is that it takes place on a campus where students can opt to get implants to block out the ability to see beauty in the human face, and what that means in terms of commercialism and personal relationships. While apparently Chiang isn't a fan of the story himself--according to Wikipedia, he felt it was rushed--I think the setting and subject would have struck a chord with my early 20-somethings. Your biology makes you shallow! Discuss!

I've got more to say on the general subject of teaching this course, but I'm rusty on the blogging front; I think I'll break this up into a few pieces.

Later Days.

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