MyAmericanFuture

MyAmericanFuture
MyAmericanFuture

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

August 31, 2016: Fall 2016 Previews: Intro to Sci Fi and Fantasy



[The Fall semester is just around the corner, so this week I’ll preview some of the courses and plans for which I’m excited as a new semester gets underway. I’d love to hear your own upcoming courses, plans, work, or whatever else has you excited for Fall 2016!]
On two telling changes in the revised version of a classic work of American science fiction.
Along with the other two fall classes I’ve already discussed this week, I’m also gearing up to teach for the fourth time one of my favorite courses on one of my favorite subjects: the Introduction to Science Fiction and Fantasy class that I created back in 2007 in response to student demand. This course offers a number of distinct pleasures (I hope for the students, but certainly for their professor!), but one has been the opportunity to read and re-read authors and works for which I might not otherwise have found the time and space in my schedule. A case in point is Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950), a seminal science fiction text that I had last read in junior high before putting it on the syllabus for that 2007 pilot version of the course (and for each of the three versions since). Among my many revelations in returning to Bradbury’s book was the fact that it had been significantly revised for a 1997 edition, with the two most significant changes reflecting two complex and critical issues not only with this particular text but in the genre of science fiction overall.
The most striking revision was to the dates in which Bradbury’s series of interconnected short stories are set. In the original 1950 text, the brief opening story was set in 1999, the first full story in 2000, and the stories continued forward in time from there, an obvious use of the still-distant millennium as a symbolic complement to Bradbury’s futuristic tales of rocket expeditions to Mars and the alien (in every sense) culture they encounter there. By the time of the 1997 revision, however, it was clear that such events were not going to take place in the next few years, and so the dates were pushed 30 years further into the future, with the opening stories set in 2029 and 2030 and so on. On the one hand, the revision made perfect sense, as Bradbury was seeking to imagine and predict a period a few decades in the future, and the change both allows the new edition to reflect his purposes and goals and helps 21st century readers imagine our own futures. Yet at the same time, the change makes it far more difficult for those 21st century readers to engage with a key aspect of Bradbury’s original book—its reflection of mid-20th century visions of the future and the millennium. Science fiction is always straddling that line, reflecting its moment and yet imagining futures that may or may not come to pass, and this revision of Martian Chronicles illustrates yet perhaps also blurs that issue.
The majority of science fiction also offers commentary on its own society through the lens of those imagined futures, however, and on that note too the revisions to Bradbury’s book do complex and somewhat troubling work. One of the more striking stories in the 1950 Martian Chronicles is “Way in the Middle of the Air,” which uses communal hopes and dreams of Martian settlement to comment on race and Jim Crow segregation in the mid-20th century South. The story has some issues to be sure (notably with stereotypical dialect and characterizations), but it also adds historical and cultural issues to the book that would be largely absent otherwise. Which means that they are absent from the 1997 version, which replaced “Way” with “The Wilderness,” an interesting standalone story from 1952 about gender and pioneer communities but one that has nothing to do with the themes and subjects of “Way.” Again, I understand the change, and perhaps it produced a book that was more a part of the 1997 moment of its publication (although of course race and all its interconnected American histories remain just as relevant in the 21st century as they were in 1950). Yet the revision also makes it literally impossible to read and analyze fully Bradbury’s engagement with the America in which he wrote and published his book, a key goal of his as of so much science fiction.
Next preview tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Thoughts on this course? Other previews or plans you’d share?

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

August 30, 2016: Fall 2016 Previews: Honors Seminar on the Gilded Age



[The Fall semester is just around the corner, so this week I’ll preview some of the courses and plans for which I’m excited as a new semester gets underway. I’d love to hear your own upcoming courses, plans, work, or whatever else has you excited for Fall 2016!]
Two changes I’m making in my second iteration of a course—both of which could use your input!
It’s rare, in my experiences at Fitchburg State at least, to create a new course and then have the chance to teach it again a year later, learning from that first version and then getting to apply those lessons immediately; but that will be the case this fall with my Honors Literature Seminar on America in the Gilded Age. As I wrote in the semester recap post, the class went really well and yielded some striking and significant collective conversations and insights along with the impressive individual work you’d expect from our Honors Program’s exemplary students. As a result, I haven’t changed the course’s units and readings—either the multi-week long texts or the complementary shorter ones in a variety of genres/disciplines—much at all, other than the usual tweaks with those couple texts that just didn’t quite connect with enough students to yield meaningful discussion. Yet as always there were elements of the course that didn’t work as well, and in response to two of them I’ve made changes that remain in development and on which I’d love to hear your thoughts.
One change involves the course’s student presentations. I use various types of individual presentations in almost every class I teach, but in keeping with the rigor of an Honors seminar, I opted last fall for Discussion Leading, a form I use in senior-level courses where each presenter takes over as the professor for an extended period of both presentation and discussion. The presenters all did great jobs, but the readings and material were just too dense and demanding to make for easily vibrant conversations, and these periods of class consistently felt very quiet and low energy. I’m certainly not going to abandon the individual presentation component, though, so this fall I’m trying a form I’ve never used before: panel presentations, where 3-4 students present on the same text/materials and engage each other in conversation before opening it up to the class as a whole. I’m sure this form will feel intimidating to many students, but I’m hoping to make clear both that it’s not group work (ie, they don’t have to meet to prepare ahead of time in order for a panel to be successful) and that it’s excellent preparation for a variety of educational and professional settings (from conferences to meetings). But as I say, I’ve never used this model in a class before, so I’m very open to any and all thoughts, tips, concerns, or other takes you’d like to share!
My second change is far less clear-cut, but one to which I’m also committed. As I wrote in the semester preview post for last fall’s first version, I have no problem with asking students to work with the kinds of historically distant and formally demanding readings and materials on which this course focuses; but as I’ve noted many times in this space, I also believe there’s a good deal to be said for finding ways to engage students sufficiently that they can get to the more challenging analyses and ideas. For this course, one way I’ve decided to provide that engagement is through pop cultural texts that portray some of the same periods and issues—with exhibit A being an episode or two from the first season of Deadwood, a ridiculously entertaining TV show that deals with many of the themes (not just the West, but also gender and identity, class and work, Chinese American communities, and more) at the heart of the class. Yet at the same time, I know it’s not enough just to screen an episode—we’ll have to find ways both to analyze this cultural text and to put it in conversation with other class texts and materials. I’ve done that with multimedia texts in other interdisciplinary courses (such as my team-taught Intro to American Studies class focused on the 1980s), but never in a literature seminar like this one. Which means, once again, that I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Next preview tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Thoughts on this course? Other previews or plans you’d share?

Monday, August 29, 2016

August 29, 2016: Fall 2016 Previews: Analyzing 21st Century America



[The Fall semester is just around the corner, so this week I’ll preview some of the courses and plans for which I’m excited as a new semester gets underway. I’d love to hear your own upcoming courses, plans, work, or whatever else has you excited for Fall 2016!]
One thread I’m definitely adding to a new undergrad seminar, and one I’m wondering about.
When I started designing an English Studies Senior Seminar on Analyzing 21st Century America (our department’s Senior Seminar rotates between all our faculty and focuses on a new topic each time it does so), I knew I wanted to include and modify a number of aspects of last summer’s hybrid grad course on the same subject: the overall interdisciplinary methodology, including short stories from a contemporary Best Of anthology complemented by readings from a variety of other disciplines; collections of online materials grouped around key 2016 themes like climate change and cultural appropriation; and student presentations on TV shows and films that portray and engage with our moment in one way or another. All of these will look different in both an undergrad course and a semester-long in-person one than they did in a hybrid summer graduate course, but hopefully all will continue to work as well as they did last summer and will help us talk about the complex topic that is our 21st century nation and world.
One of the key differences with a semester-long course as compared to a five-week one, however, is that we have room for many more readings, and indeed for books as well as short stories and online materials (to be clear, our grad students can handle multiple books in a summer course, but I opted for lots of shorter readings instead). I considered a few different options for how to select those longer readings for the seminar, but as the year unfolded felt more and more certain that it made sense to group them around an inescapable 2016 theme: #BlackLivesMatter. We’ll be reading four texts that all connect to that movement and issue yet offer a variety of disciplines and forms that will hopefully keep our conversations evolving and fresh: two creative literary works, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah and Claudia Rankine’s poem Citizen: An American Lyric; and two works of nonfiction, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. I also hope to bring in excerpts from many other writers and works, from Jelani Cobb to Jesmyn Ward, Fruitvale Station to Blackish, and more. I fully expect that these conversations will get testy and heated at times, as they should and must—but also that every student, and their teacher, will gain a great deal from each and every reading and conversation on this key topic.
Speaking of key topics and heated conversations, though—I knew when I proposed a seminar on this topic that the presidential election would come to its culmination during the semester, but I have to admit that I didn’t quite think through whether and how to make it part of our class. Of course many of our topics are inherently political, and will require us to talk about contemporary debates and divergent perspectives and the like; yet that’s still not the same (it seems to me) as talking overtly about Trump and Clinton, and about (for example) my own increasingly strong feelings on that choice and election. As I’ve discussed before in this space, my perspective on politics in the classroom is an evolving one, yet I remain convinced that my job is centrally about helping students develop their own voices and perspectives, not sharing mine with them. I haven’t figured out whether and how I can directly bring up and bring into our class the election without doing more of the latter than I’m comfortable with—but I know that’s an inescapable question with which to grapple in a course like this, and I’d very much appreciate any thoughts and tips you might have!
Next preview tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Thoughts on this course? Other previews or plans you’d share?