"But now she stood under a tall violet sky on the surface of a petrified black ocean, all new, all strange; it was absolutely impossible to compare it to anything she had seen before; and all of a sudden the past sheered away in her head and she turned in circles like a little girl trying to make herself dizzy, without a thought in her head. Weight seeped inward from her skin, and she didn't feel hollow anymore; on the contrary she felt extremely solid, compact, balanced. A little thinking boulder, set spinning like a top."
In other news, the university has instituted a new first-year seminar course required for all entering freshmen and framed around the theme "Ways of Knowing." I've agreed to teach two sections of this in the spring, and I've decided to organize my "Ways of Knowing" issues around science fiction. I'm pretty excited about this one. The question of what it means to be human is a major motivation behind why I went into history and why I love science fiction in the first place, and so this class should be a joy. Using my current "History Through Science Fiction" upper-division course as a springboard, here's what I came up with:
History of the Future: Knowing Today by Imagining Tomorrow
We live on a minute island of known things. Our undiminished wonder at the mystery which surrounds us is what makes us human. In science fiction we can approach that mystery, not in small, everyday symbols, but in bigger ones of space and time. – Damon Knight
That's really what SF is all about, you know: the big reality that pervades the real world we live in: the reality of change. Science fiction is the very literature of change. In fact, it is the only such literature we have. – Frederik Pohl
What does it mean to be human? How do we know what, if anything, is consistent about the human experience, and what, if anything, is always in flux? Or is change the only constant we can know? One way in which each generation seeks an answer to these questions is by imagining its future. The way individuals conceive of tomorrow – technologically, scientifically, ethically, politically, socially, and philosophically – reveals a great deal about their time, culture, and intellectual tools. Such thought experiments tell us much about the people and their various ways of knowing in any given era; such “what if” propositions also provide new perspectives, suggest new avenues of inquiry, and experiment with new ways of knowing, as well.
This course uses science fiction literature, film, television, art, and audio sources to illustrate and explore different ways of knowing. The class will investigate how Western views of tomorrow have evolved across time due to changes in technology, politics, culture, and the disciplines that shape and analyze each. Students will discover how the genre of science fiction has anticipated the future while reflecting the values, anxieties, issues, and intellectual climate of the present. Ultimately, the course texts, discussions, and assignments will challenge students to consider the question of what it means to be human from a variety of different approaches and viewpoints. Required readings include the following books and stories as well as various other short stories, excerpts, and other documents.
Eva Hoffman, After Such Knowledge. (common book for all first-year seminars)
George Orwell, 1984.
E.M. Forster, "The Machine Stops"
Robert Heinlein, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress.
William Gibson, Neuromancer.
Lois McMaster Bujold, "The Mountains of Mourning"
Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow.
So I will be teaching this along with two upper-division classes for Liberal Studies students. The other two courses are my babies, as well, but they're not new. Briefly, they are...
Harry Potter and His Predecessors (a.k.a. "Is J.K. Rowling an Inkling?")
This course discusses the ancestors of the Harry Potter phenomenon, examines the specific works and traditions that inform the Harry Potter universe, and, most importantly, considers why the Harry Potter books and films are so popular today. In the process, students question 1) how the young readers' fiction of a given historical period prioritizes certain lessons and values, 2) what this tells us about the way a culture conceptualizes childhood in a given era and how this changes across time, and 3) if the very concept of young readers' fiction is in fact valid and/or useful at all. This course takes both a theoretical and historical approach to popular literature in general and J.K. Rowling’s works in particular. (Note: My last experience teaching this course, which was truly wonderful thanks to a terrific group of students, produced this article.)
U.S. Exceptionalism (a.k.a. "What About That Frontier Thesis?")
This course explores key romantic images of the ideal "American" such as Explorer, Pioneer, Cowboy, Policeman (of home or of world), Astronaut, and Spy across the nation's history via rhetoric, fiction, film, and music. In so doing, students examine key national moments (Manifest Destiny, the Industrial Revolution, the Cold War, etc.) and the way U.S. society has anthropomorphized them. Ultimately, students will consider if the frontier really is a key ingredient to U.S. identity as scholar Frederick Jackson Turner so famously suggested, and, if so, what it means, who it includes and excludes, how it is a limited and problematic image, and what "the frontier" might be in the twenty-first century.
And yes, I am going to show episodes of Firefly in my course on the frontier thesis. If I did anything less, I'd think your days of taking me seriously would be coming to a middle. ;)