Why Teach SF? Confessions of a First-Time SF Instructor

Teaching SF for the first time can be an incredibly daunting experience. Personally, you have to be prepared to discuss difficult and often delicate topics to a group of students, some of whom may think they hate science fiction. Academically, you will have to strike a balance between what you consider important, relevant, or good SF and what is generally understood as important, relevant, or good. However, these struggles are not unique to teaching SF; indeed, all literature classes must battle the students’ and society’s preconceived notions of what is “good” or “entertaining” while somehow engaging discussion on why literature is important or relevant in their lives at all. What makes teaching SF particularly challenging is that students feel they own the stories in a way that I haven’t witnessed with any other type of literature, even as a graduate student surrounded by individuals who study particular works so in-depth that they write articles about a single title, a punctuation mark, or the historical context of a single poem.

What do I mean when I say that my students seem to own the stories we study?

(1) One element is that they seldom hesitate to give their opinions about the pieces, and their opinions lead to deeper thinking. To someone seasoned in teaching literature, this may seem like a pitfall; students should reflect more on the deeper meanings/historical context/author’s intentions instead of whether they personally enjoyed a piece or not. And, yet, when students like or dislike a piece strongly, I find that conversation about the deeper elements in the story is easier. In my experience, it’s hard for many students to get riled up over traditional literature, especially those works regarded by students as classics. There are many reasons for this: they don’t want to be wrong, they don’t want to upset the instructor, they feel everyone has said what they think already, or maybe they didn’t bother reading the story at all because they (think that they) already know what it’s about. With SF, students quickly like or vehemently dislike a story. The reactions are often polarized in a way that more traditional literature often fails to evoke. If you ask me why I enjoy Shakespearean sonnets, I will probably reply that I grew to enjoy the surprises and deviations from the form after studying them in high school, college, and graduate school. If you ask me why I enjoy a story like “The Cold Equations,” by Tom Godwin, I’ll likely reply that I actually hate this story because it’s dissatisfying, frustrating, and so clean. I enjoy it because it made me feel strongly, even though the feeling was negative. These opinions, then, can be harnessed in classroom discussions at all levels, whereas a discussion on the essential form of Shakespearean sonnets is likely to interest only a few students, even in higher level courses.

(2) Another factor is that students are likely to look for in-text clues to justify their theories on the technology, the character’s knowledge, and the plot. Anyone who has taught literature, philosophy, history, or a related field will recognize that it is often difficult for students to reference the work at hand when trying to argue for a particular interpretation. This skill can be taught, strenuously, over years of close-reading and argument, but it does not come easily to all, even those who have chosen to pursue graduate studies. In undergraduates, this skill is often woefully neglected. High school students seem more likely to regurgitate their instructor’s opinion than defend one of their own, especially when that instructor has taken the time to emphasize the textual elements that reinforce their own view. What I often see are students who, upon realizing that they profess a different interpretation of a particular text, beat a hasty retreat and claim they simply misread. In many classes, this consensus between students is lauded as a clear interpretation of a text that helps the instructor to explore other issues, like the rhetorical choices of the writer. In a SF classroom, however, difference in interpretation is necessary to understanding the rhetorical choices of the writer. Differences in interpretation of facts and motives are not merely speculative; students must be able to reflect on particular portions of the text that led to their diverse interpretations. In much of traditional literature, students of all levels decline to go back to the text to verify their interpretations. Why? Part of it is certainly the emphasis on consensus. Students are more likely to admit they’re wrong in favor of group consensus than search for a particular passage to support their view. Yet, with SF (according to my first point), students react strongly to particular elements in SF, be they characters, actions, technology, or larger philosophical questions. When students react strongly, they don’t simply voice their opinion and conform to consensus; in my experience, the student will cite from memory or frantically search through the text to find the exact point where their opinion was formed. Although textual support could be (and should be!) provided for other types of literature, SF often requires subtle detective work on the part of the reader in order to understand the universe the story is set in and the characters actions. SF teaches students, by virtue of the genre’s challenge to preconceived notions of technological or societal possibilities, to look for clues within the text itself. After having taught introductory level English writing classes for several years, I am still shocked by how seldom I have to ask my students to provide support for their views from the text because they do it on their own, without my prompting.

(3) Students are keen to relate the stories to current events, technology, popular culture, and their own lives. No matter the age of the students they teach, instructors often find themselves practically (or literally) singing and dancing to make the material memorable, relatable, and interesting to their variety of students. As a college instructor, I’m not exempt from attempting to strike the delicate balance between learning and fun. In my previous courses, I was often frustrated by how hard I had to try to make the material appealing to a variety of students with different majors, skills, interests, and comprehension of English. It’s not an easy task to begin with, but attempting to make even the most banal essays relevant to my students’ lives had me at a loss. Sometimes, I was able to engage students by discussing their preconceived notions of a group or by relating the topic to their personal experiences at college. Often, I was only able to explain that discussing these issues was important and hope that group work would make the topic interesting enough to carry classroom discussion. With SF, making the topic personal and relatable is almost too easy. Sometimes, I have to remind students that not everyone has read that one novel that they read that is almost exactly the same as the one we’re reading. Often, students reference films, websites, and recent technologies with details that show me they’re engaging with the material. A caveat here is that I primarily teach YA SF, so the works tend to feature characters who are adolescents, like the majority of my students. Yet, even when we discussed such classics as Frankenstein and The Island of Dr. Moreau, my students did not succumb to the accepted status of these works as SF. They questioned each critically, exploring which film versions of Frankenstein could be considered SF and examining how Dr. Moreau’s character is reconfigured in popular television series, like Nip/Tuck. SF begs to be remediated, re-envisioned, repeated, and revisited from a variety of cultural standpoints in a way few genres (excepting plays, perhaps) achieve. Because they are moved by the SF texts they read (1), students read carefully for text-based evidence that validates their thoughts and feelings (2). Because they are searching through the texts for evidence (2), students are engaged in making the texts their own, often by relating it to their own experiences or that of popular cultural experiences (3). It shouldn’t be surprising that, in most SF classrooms, students dominate the discussion and the instructor serves more as a mediator of discussion than a gatekeeper of knowledge.

(4) Finally, students are able to integrate features of SF into their own writing creatively. As an educator who was trained to teach first year composition, I often find myself wondering when my students will use these skills in real life. I tell myself that researched essays, annotated bibliographies, and working in teams is good practice for their higher-level courses, and they dutifully—begrudgingly—complete their assignments. I actually do believe that learning to write in these forms is valuable, despite criticism from academics and students alike that they’ll never need to know this stuff, because knowing these things has widely shaped my academic career, and not just in the English department. As an undergraduate philosophy major taking courses in history, ethics, logic, and even anthropology, I found that knowing how to research, think critically, and write clearly helped me to succeed in courses even outside of my own specialization. But, there is some truth to the criticism that many of my students won’t need to know how to use the same forms I needed to succeed in college, especially those in STEM fields where the writing quality is judged by another set of standards entirely. Yet, even though my students might not need the same forms as I did and while online research changes with new technology, I still believe in teaching researched essays for the transferable skills. Learning one format, such as a research essay, requires a writer to understand the form, practice putting together its individual pieces, and finally create a text with features that are easily identified as necessary components of the format. Teaching students to recognize genre conventions is not easy, but it will allow a student in non-English fields to recognize new genres, understand their features, and follow the format well enough to convey their message.

For the same reasons, I emphasize writing in my SF classrooms. Students write weekly responses to the works for the week (a novel, a few short stories, occasionally an academic article or a popular article). This helps them to gather their thoughts before large group discussion and have their opinions formed before coming to class, even though those opinions often change during discussion. My students were also required to work in small groups to annotate important sources and present a subtopic to the classroom, which I hope taught them to work together and to dig deeply into a particular topic instead of focusing on a book-report style overview of a novel. I will also assign a researched essay, requiring each student to select a topic, research it intensely, and present an argument about a subtopic relevant to SF. In all of these forms, my students struggle to follow generic conventions. MLA citation style, formal writing, PowerPoint slides, and even short critical responses to the readings are not my students’ strongest assignments. In fact, the strongest assignment for the majority of my students, so far, is the assignment I expected to be most difficult: a short story with a reflection. It would be easy to chalk up their success to their individual creativity and imagination. Certainly, I’m envious of the worlds many of them chose to create. I suspect, though, their creativity and imaginations are augmented by something stronger: the fact that SF is exciting to write. Not only did the vast majority of my students complete intriguing stories that followed genre conventions that helped announce the story as SF, many of my students intentionally broke particular genre conventions, as stated in their reflective essays, for effect. As a teacher who has tried to get students to recognize genre conventions for three years, first projects that largely follow the assignment and are insightful is rare and immensely rewarding. I won’t say that this happened by magic or that I didn’t dedicate class time to writing, analyzing the genre, and discussing several examples; I spent a lot of time giving my students the tools they would need to succeed. Still, things I can’t teach as easily, like inspiration, deviation from the genre conventions, and interesting technologies and plot twists, appeared in their stories and in their reflections as intentional choices. Had the assignment been to write a short story in another genre, I doubt I would have seen such purposeful, even artistic, choices. SF gives students exploring its literature the freedom to make each story distinctly theirs in a way that is rivaled only by life writing, writing about one’s own life and experiences. SF lends itself to being remediated and revised so well that students reported inspiration from their daily lives, films, stories in class, and even other novels. A skeptic might expect most students to rip off another SF work, yet each story featured elements that the student carefully selected from a variety of influences, crafting the whole into something both personal and reflective of their views on society, or humanity, or technology. My students felt they could own their own stories, so they came up with complicated ideas and ran with them.

So, if students can do all these wonderful things with the addition of SF in the classroom, why claim that SF is hard to teach?

Well, it’s not really that hard to teach; but it is hard to be a good SF instructor. Students will likely form opinions, express those opinions with support, relate the stories to their own lives, and be quick to apply these skills to their own writing without much prompting. As a first time teacher of SF, I expected the reticence I had seen so often in my composition courses. I continue to be amazed by my students’ abilities to discuss complex issues with grace and then write with questions that leave the reader thinking. Why is it hard to teach SF? Teaching SF requires the teacher to step down as arbiter of truth, as benevolent dictator, as the one person with an opinion supported by textual evidence. In certain fields, perhaps philosophy, one can occasionally see instructors acting as discussion leaders more than teachers, but there is often a great distance between the students and the texts they’re studying. In an SF classroom, the distance between student and teacher, text and reader, and even individual and society is minimized. Being an SF instructor is difficult because you have to give up power. Ideally, teachers do this in discussion type classrooms regularly to see how students perceive the material. Practically, it’s far too easy to enter class with an agenda, a set of approved topics, and a list of answers you expect from students. I’m guilty of doing this in composition classes and I find myself slipping back into dictatorial teacher mode when there are discussions about project goals or academic articles in my SF class. It isn’t easy to give up control, but if you can, SF will teach students to lead their own discussions, ask their own questions, and require textual evidence from those who make claims about a text.

((If you would like to teach SF for the first time, please email me (mvanbeestatku [dot] edu). I would be happy to discuss your course, concerns, and plans with you. I’m still trying to figure it all out myself.  I will be providing discussion questions, tips, assignments, and lesson plans as the semester continues.))

Recently Published Scholarly Books on Speculative Fiction

New books of science fiction and fantasy criticism are published every week. Here are a few of the more recent scholarly books concerning the field of speculative fiction, from some of the foremost scholars in the genre. 

Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure ed. Kathryn Allan (August 2013) 

Stories about Stories: Fantasy and the Remaking of Myth by Brian Attebery (January 2014) 

Parabolas of Science Fiction ed. Brian Attebery and Veronica Hollinger (July 2013) 

Suffered from the Night: Queering Stoker’s Dracula by Steve Berman (October 2013) 

Strange Matings: Science Fiction, Feminism, African American Voices, and Octavia E. Butler  ed. Rebecca Holden and Nisi Shawl (July 2013)

The Science Fiction Handbook  ed. Nick Hubble and Aris Mousoutzanis (January 2014) 

The Past That Might Have Been, the Future That May Come: Women Writing Fantastic Fiction, 1960s to the Present (Critical Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy) by Lauren J. Lacey (December 2013) 

Apocalypse and Post-Politics: The Romance of the End by Mary Manjikian (December 2013) 

Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination ed. Tom Moylan and Raffaella Baccolini (December 2013) 

Theory of Mind and Science Fiction by Nicholas O. Pagan (January 2014) 

Singularities: Technoculture, Transhumanism, and Science Fiction in the 21st Century by Joshua Raulerson (December 2013) 

From Literature to Biterature: Lem, Turing, Darwin, and Explorations in Computer Literature, Philosophy of Mind, and Cultural Evolution by Peter Swirski (October 2013) 

Apocalypse in Contemporary Japanese Science Fiction by Motoko Tanaka (January 2014) 

Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-fI and Fatnasy Culture by Ytasha L. Womack (Oct 2013) 

Women Destroy Science Fiction Kickstarter

Lightspeed Magazine announced several months ago a special issue devoted to women and science fiction.  Recently, the editors launched a Kickstarter to fund the issue. Here's their philosophy behind the project: 

It could be said that women invented science fiction; after all, Mary Shelley wrote what is considered by many to be the first science fiction novel (Frankenstein). Yet some readers seem to have this funny idea that women don’t—or can’t—write science fiction. Some have even gone so far as to accuse women of destroying science fiction with their girl cooties. So to help prove how silly that notion is, LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE's June 2014 issue—our fourth anniversary issue—will be a Women Destroy Science Fiction! special issue. And we will also—for the first time in LIGHTSPEED's history—have a guest editor at the helm.

The original announcement of this special issue generated so much excitement that we wanted to find ways to include even more amazing science fiction by women. So—with your help—we're going to make the special issue twice the size of a normal issue of LIGHTSPEED.

We, or at least I, am all about refocusing our discussions on women and science fiction to recognize the contributions women have made in the past to the genre, are making right now, and will make in the future. To that end, I wanted to post the issue's Kickstarter on our site. The Kickstarter has already (in a remarkably short amount of time!) recieved more than double their initial goal, but Lightspeed is a great magazine, and this, I think, is a worthy cause. 

The issue will be guest edited by Christie Yant, with contributions from Rachel Swirsky, Gabrielle de Cuir, Mur Lafferty, and Mary Robinette Kowal, among others. 

Please check out the Kickstarter, and consider donating! 


Teens and Technology

Next semester, AboutSF Volunteer Coordinator Mackenzie is embarking on a new teaching discovery! I'll be teaching an introduction to fiction course titled "Teens and Technology" here at KU. While my students will mostly be out of their teens, we will be reading several SF books marketed specifically at Young Adults to discover the relationship teens have with our changing technologies. Click here to read what I'll be up to and stay tuned as I share my syllabus, experiences, and classroom activities. Read more »

Pohl Podcasts

Chris McKitterick's SF Novel course this week is covering Frederik Pohl's Gateway, so in conjunction with that I'd like to highlight the materials on the AboutSF podcast written by Pohl.

John Tibbets's 1984 interview with Frederik Pohl
"Day Million" written and read by Frederik Pohl
"Fermi and Frost" written by Frederik Pohl, read by Sheila Williams
"Spending a Day at the Lottery Fair" written by Frederik Pohl and read by Kij Johnson
"The Meeting" written by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth, read by Bradley Denton
"The Mayor of Mare Tranq" written by Frederik Pohl and read by Elizabeth Anne Hull
"The Deadly Mission of Phineas Snodgrass" written by Frederik Pohl and read by Geoffrey A. Landis
"The Day the Icicle Works Closed" written by Frederik Pohl and read by Ian McDonald
"Let the Ants Try" written by Frederik Pohl and read by Robin Wayne Bailey
Epilogue of Beyond the Blue Event Horizon written by Frederik Pohl and read by Mary A. Turzillo

Coming Soon: Revamped Speculative Speakers

Hi everyone! We're currently at Worldcon (and having a fantastic time), but I wanted to mention something that we talked about this morning at the SFWA business meeting.

Over the course of this next semester, we plan on redesigning and improving our Speculative Speakers service, in order to enhance its usefulness for both those who wish to speak, and those who wish to hire speakers.

This will also help us to evaluate how often the service is being used and who's using it. Besides that, we want to help everyone who lists their name in our Speculative Speakers database has positive experiences with their speaking engagements, and we'd like to help spread the word about what they're doing and when!

Further updates and changes will come after we get back from Worldcon, but just a heads up. If you have any questions about the Speculative Speakers database, or our upcoming changes, please email us at aboutsf at gmail.com.

Hope to see you all around the con!

AboutSF at Worldcon

Hello everyone!

If you haven't already heard, AboutSF is leading a teaching workshop for Worldcon 71: LoneStarCon3. The Teaching SF Workshop will take place on Monday, September 2nd from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the Henry B. Gonzales Convention Center and will feature an introduction by Worldcon Guest of Honor Dr. James Gunn. The workshop is designed to give teachers, librarians, young adults, and parents the materials they need to teach SF to anyone, anywhere!

Check out the Teaching SF Workshop page for more information!

We're also planning on having a fantable during the convention, so if you're there, make sure to stop by and say hi. Besides our lovely selves, CSSF Director and Assistant Director Chris McKitterick and Kij Johnson will be at the con. We're also hoping you'll see former AboutSF coordinator and all around superstar Nate Williams at the con. He'll also be leading a session at our workshop.

If you can't attend, we hope you'll tell your friends, professors, and random librarians on the street about our workshop. It's going to be an awesome event, and we're really looking forward to it.

Ender's Game Discussion Questions

Hello everyone! Here are the discussion questions for tomorrow's livestream for Ender's Game. We're really excited to talk about it, and we'd love to hear your responses to some of these before we get started tomorrow.

--What is keeping girls out of battle school? Graff suggests that girls don't often pass the tests to get in, so what kinds of tests are given? If they're physical tests, why is that important for IF officers? If they're temperament tests, why is Petra the only girl and why is she used as a foil to Val? Also, where are the female teachers at battle school? I counted one.

--What is going on with the weird Wiggin love/hate triangle? Val and Ender have a special relationship but then she feels like she cheats on Ender with Peter and uses that kind of language. And Ender connects Peter (and Val) to the snake in the fantasy game, kissed Peter as the snake and Val kisses him, so that's odd.

--Battle school is presented as humanity's best defense to kill the buggers/advance the species. There is lots of discussion about biology and evolution, especially in relation to the Bugger culture, and talk of having enough humans (reproducing) to spread throughout the stars. Given that, why is Battle School so homoerotic--or at the very least homosocial? There is lots of boy on boy love (Ender and Alai, Bean and Ender, Dink and Ender) and lots of talk about anal and asses. Bernard talking about Shen's butt, Bonzo (Bonito-pretty boy) telling Ender he'll have his ass, the very rapey shower scene, and other examples abound. Sure, "boys will be boys" and "military bonding" answer some of this, but there is a LOT of sexual tension up in battle school and none of it involves women.

--Ender's almost constant feminization: his mental/psychic connection with the hive queen and Val, his constant crying/trying not to cry, his empathic abilities allowing him to destroy his enemies, the descriptions of Bonzo, Bean, and Peter through his eyes as beautiful boys, his multiple rebirths into different armies and new situations where he is often naked or jokes about being naked, his role as mother to the buggers, hating violence, and so on. Any one of these would be an interesting choice for a male character but with all these and more, what is Card trying to say about Ender's gender (that's a tongue twister)?

Attention OSC and Ender's Game fans, critics, Enders (and those who just want to see the film in Nov.)

As many of you know, Ender’s Game is being released as a film on Nov. 1, 2013 with author Orson Scott Card as co-producer. After many attempts to make the novel into a film before (and it’s underwhelming release as a comic book by Marvel), this is finally happening. Fans everywhere are thrilled, but a bit…well, concerned. Read more »

First Book for the Science Fiction Summer School

Our first book for this year's Science Fiction Summer School, which we'll be discussing next Thursday, is Ammonite, by Nicola Griffith.

Here's the publisher's description of the book:

Change or die. These are the only options available on the planet Jeep. Centuries earlier, a deadly virus shattered the original colony, killing the men and forever altering the few surviving women. Now, generations after the colony has lost touch with the rest of humanity, a company arrives to exploit Jeep--and its forces find themselves fighting for their lives. Terrified of spreading the virus, the company abandons its employees, leaving them afraid and isolated from the natives. In the face of this crisis, anthropologist Marghe Taishan arrives to test a new vaccine. As she risks death to uncover the women's biological secret, she finds that she, too, is changing--and realizes that not only has she found a home on Jeep, but that she alone carries the seeds of its destruction...

Ammonite is an unforgettable novel that questions the very meanings of gender and humanity. As readers share in Marghe's journey through an alien world, they too embark on a parallel journey of fascinating self-exploration.

Ammonite won the 1993 James Tiptree, Jr. Award.

Ammonite on Amazom

Ammonite on WorldCat (This will show you the closest libraries to you that have a copy of the book.)

To get you started, here's the first chapter on the author's website.

We'll be posting discussion questions on Tuesday, but in the meantime, let us know what you think while you're reading by tweeting @AboutSF or stopping by our Facebook page.

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