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BDH for LIS 3600.01

At the moment I'm preparing to head out to California to participate in a colloquium on "Mars as a New Utopia." (Think Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, etc., and all the political-economic-social visions that go along with them.) While preparing for this event, I was struck by a particularly wonderful description in Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars:

"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. ;)


( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 3rd, 2004 07:43 am (UTC)
Oh wow, why couldn't I've had you in college? Those classes sound absolutely wonderful. And I love the Mars books.

(skipping over Green to Blue...)

Now she shadowed the hawk, turning when it did, imitating the placement of the wings and tail. Its mastery of the air was like a talent that she craved but could never have. But she could try: bright sun in the racing clouds, indigo sky, the wind against her body, the little weightless gut orgasms when she peeled over into a stoop...eternal moments of no-mind. The best, cleanest use of human time. But the sun fell westward and she got thirsty, and so she left the hawk to its day and turned and coursed down in giant lazy S's to Overlook, to nail her landing with a flap and a step, right on the green Kokopelli, just as if she had never left.

Nov. 3rd, 2004 10:10 am (UTC)
Those classes sound absolutely wonderful.

Thanks so much! :) I'm excited about them.

*Loved* the Blue Mars quote. "Eternal moments of no-mind." Isn't that tremendous? Thank you for sharing that with me.
Nov. 3rd, 2004 10:34 am (UTC)
Oh yeah. Sign me up.
There will be a pretty quiet, redhaired woman in those classes, knitting and making occasional comments.

Hope that's okay. :)

I'm so glad you're getting to teach the frontier class in the spring! The SF/way of thinking class sounds fabulous as well. Maybe by then I can take the classes for credit. :P
Nov. 3rd, 2004 11:26 am (UTC)
Re: Oh yeah. Sign me up.
YEA! Thanks so much for the response - and the gorgeous e-card you sent! :) I really appreciate it. Alas, the SF/way of thinking course will only be for first-time freshmen, but the good news is that I will still be able to teach my upper-division Liberal Studies SF class as well (since the traditional freshmen don't feed into the LIS program as a rule), so I don't have to give up the one to gain the other. Win-win! :) Thanks again!
Nov. 3rd, 2004 03:12 pm (UTC)
wish I had courses like yours to choose from when I was going through undergrad years. *sigh* there was so much old-school Literature and only one popular fiction course. cultural studies stuff was only just taking off, so only a couple of film subjects (which I did).

have copied down the reading from the History of the Future course - I didn't know EM Forster wrote SF! I have read all the 'costume drama' narratives but not the one you mention. o, so many things to read... :)
Nov. 3rd, 2004 07:00 pm (UTC)
Hey, thanks so much for your kind words. :) The one book I had to remove for the first-years to make room for the seminar-wide book is Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz, which is simply brilliant and a must-read, and a requirement for the upper-division version of the course. (In that one students also choose a film, short story, and novel from a list I provide to read and critique on their own. If you're interested in the films or the texts, let me know and I'll be glad to give you the lists.) The Forster short story is great stuff: amazingly farsighted, considering when it was written. Almost eerie in that respect. At one point Forster describes everyone living in separate rooms and communicating with others long distance over screens that are linked by one machine... *looks at the computer, looks around* Um, you see my point. :)
Nov. 3rd, 2004 09:14 pm (UTC)
oooh, reading/watching lists - yes pls! when you get a moment, of course. sending them to my email wld prolly be best - then I can print it out and it'd be handy for when I am browsing around bookshops/library/video store.

can be part of my summer projects. :) thanks muchly!
Nov. 9th, 2004 06:35 am (UTC)
Yea! Thanks for being interested. I'm emailing you now. :)
Nov. 15th, 2004 01:57 pm (UTC)
PS. Forgot to mention that I start out the SF class by showing the film Kurt Vonnegut's Harrison Bergeron, which is hard to find but totally worth the effort.
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )