Designing a university-level SF/F course.

Discussion in 'Science Fiction' started by theworldforgot, Oct 19, 2012.

  1. theworldforgot

    theworldforgot Registered User

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    Hi All,

    I'm looking for a little help. Tomorrow night (Friday), I'll be submitting a description for an SF/F course that I'll be teaching at University. I'll have some time to revise later and to build the actual course. I was just given the "okay" to teach it yesterday.

    I don't need content (although critical essay links would be amazing for the future) necessarily, but I do need some ideas where to take this. It's NOT a lit course; I won't be assigning actual texts. Instead, it's a research based course (where students are free to take on their own, guided area of research), so I need to analytical frameworks or lenses to view SF/F through, and how it's important in other contexts.

    Anyone have any interesting prompts, popular areas of research, or could anyone refer me to some scholarship or recent trends, interesting articles, etc.

    Anything would help!
    Thanks a bunch.
     
  2. theworldforgot

    theworldforgot Registered User

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    I don't mean to post this in both, but I'm not sure if the community here overlaps or not, and I wanted to maximize who sees this.

    Hi All,

    I'm looking for a little help. Tomorrow night (Friday), I'll be submitting a description for an SF/F course that I'll be teaching at University. I'll have some time to revise later and to build the actual course. I was just given the "okay" to teach it yesterday.

    I don't need content (although critical essay links would be amazing for the future) necessarily, but I do need some ideas where to take this. It's NOT a lit course; I won't be assigning actual texts. Instead, it's a research based course (where students are free to take on their own, guided area of research), so I need to analytical frameworks or lenses to view SF/F through, and how it's important in other contexts.

    Anyone have any interesting prompts, popular areas of research, or could anyone refer me to some scholarship or recent trends, interesting articles, etc.

    Anything would help!
    Thanks a bunch.
     
  3. psikeyhackr

    psikeyhackr Live Long & Suffer

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    Is this about film or literature or both?

    Is it from a mostly entertainment perspective or is it more seriously social/philosophical?

    psik
     
  4. kongming

    kongming www.voxnewman.com

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    How about a philosophy/sociology angle? We use mythology and story to make sense of our world. So I imagine that many writers are like myself in that the story is a message and it forms a coherent thought about certain truths as the writer sees them. The reader then disseminates this message and determines to accept or reject it. Exploring why we would need dress up ideas in fiction (especially the speculative variety) would be an interesting research topic.
     
  5. Omphalos

    Omphalos Orthodox Herbertian

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    There are some good starting places out there for you. Take a look at www.sfra.org. That is the Science Fiction Research Association. They publish a newsletter there that focuses on critical, scholarly and research topics. Look at the most recent ones to see what the hot items are currently.

    They also have a listserv, SFRA-L, which has been around for decades. There are critics, teachers, archivists and researchers on there, including a bunch of graduate level folks. They are usually happy to let you bounce things off of them.

    The Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction, http://www.sfcenter.ku.edu/, also has lots of research related pages. They also archive syllabi, so you may be able to mine that page for some ideas for your course. Chris McKitterick is very helpful, and I think that since James Gunn retired (actually, I heard his wife passed away a week or so ago) he has been doing a lot of work to keep the place up and running. Those guys over there, obviously, are teachers.

    There are also quite a few journals out there that deal with research related topics, including FEMSPEC, the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Foundation, Science Fiction Studies, and a few others. The Science Fiction Studies web pages have many articles on line (not all unfortunately) and have a great links page. Magazine link. Links page.

    All that being said, the big issues to me these days are apocalyptic fiction, post colonialism, trans-human studies, feminism, mainstream literary incursions into the fantastic, the effects of film v. literature on audience and the rise of graphic arts in story-telling. There are also some perennials that have journals dedicated to them, such as utopian fiction, liberatrianism in SF, etc.

    I could talk about stuff like this for hours, so, looking forward to hearing more about this.
     
    Last edited: Oct 19, 2012
  6. Contrarius

    Contrarius You talkin' to me??

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    I actually did take a sff course in college...but mine was a lit course involving the history of sff literature, and it was a long time ago!

    But in general, there are tons of important themes throughout sff lit. Those include gender roles and gender identity, sentience, sapience (no, they aren't the same thing), the definition of humanity, individual rights, individuality, all sorts of great and important stuff.
     
  7. kcf

    kcf Nobody in Particular

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    I recommend reviewing the following blog and perhaps even contacting the author directly. He's done a lot of research and teaches university level classes on these issues. Particulalry in the colonial/post-colonial aspects of SF.

    http://wisb.blogspot.com/

    You could also consider asking after the science in science fiction and how predictive it's been vs. how reactive it's been, etc. For a contemporary example, treatment of global warming in science fiction.

    Another thing that could be very interesting is the rise of popularity of urban fantasy in the wake or 911 and possibly related to it, the relative decline of 'traditional' epic fantasy. The oft-discussed death of SF is also another thing that could be discussed.

    Frankly, pick just about any issue you are curious about and spin in to see how it's been addressed in SFF.
     
  8. theworldforgot

    theworldforgot Registered User

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    Thank you all very much for this insightful info.

    This is what I'm working with as of now. I won't be lecturing, nor will I be suggesting my own reading of things, but my job will be to prod students with questions that act as jumping points to their own independent areas of research, to ultimately produce an end-of-term research paper.

    I apologize for typos or under-explained thoughts....Long day. Read far too many words today.

    Here is where I started some thought process: My aim is to provide new meanings to what a human is, and what society is (on earth, that is, in 2012), by looking at what fantastic creatures/characters/settings are not--such that, analytical framework (say, feminist theory) > example in a text (sexless creatures in LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness) > relate back to our society (redefining sex, etc, etc), or analytical framework (psychological/trauma) > example in text (Chronicles of Narnia) > relating back to humans (escapism, particularly in wartime). Redefining human identity through what humans are not (particularly in SF&F characters/cultures/settings) has seen much scholarship, so that's why I'm taking on this question as a starting point. But my mind is very open to more points. I intend to keep it vague such that I don't receive 22 of the same paper.

    This is what the course description is looking like, I hope it conveys what I was saying above: Wonderland. Neverland. Oz. Narnia. How does an escape into "otherworlds" such as these change the dimensions not only of social and psychological identity, but of broader social and cultural structures? How does painting a speculative and fantastical framework allow for explorations of uncharted concepts otherwise unbreachable? Drawing from Sociology, Anthropology, Psychology, and beyond, this class will examine the foreign landscapes of Science Fiction and Fantasy to shine a new light on human identity and society back in the world we know. After all, the hero always crosses the return threshold back home with new found knowledge and truth.
     
  9. theworldforgot

    theworldforgot Registered User

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    psikey, lit only, but through analytical essays. Also, preferably social/philosophical, but I don't want to close off anyone's research ideas.

    And thank you all very much for this insightful info.

    This is what I'm working with as of now. I won't be lecturing, nor will I be suggesting my own reading of things, but my job will be to prod students with questions that act as jumping points to their own independent areas of research, to ultimately produce an end-of-term research paper.

    I apologize for typos or under-explained thoughts....Long day. Read far too many words today.

    Here is where I started some thought process: My aim is to provide new meanings to what a human is, and what society is (on earth, that is, in 2012), by looking at what fantastic creatures/characters/settings are not--such that, analytical framework (say, feminist theory) > example in a text (sexless creatures in LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness) > relate back to our society (redefining sex, etc, etc), or analytical framework (psychological/trauma) > example in text (Chronicles of Narnia) > relating back to humans (escapism, particularly in wartime). Redefining human identity through what humans are not (particularly in SF&F characters/cultures/settings) has seen much scholarship, so that's why I'm taking on this question as a starting point. But my mind is very open to more points. I intend to keep it vague such that I don't receive 22 of the same paper.

    This is what the course description is looking like, I hope it conveys what I was saying above: Wonderland. Neverland. Oz. Narnia. How does an escape into "otherworlds" such as these change the dimensions not only of social and psychological identity, but of broader social and cultural structures? How does painting a speculative and fantastical framework allow for explorations of uncharted concepts otherwise unbreachable? Drawing from Sociology, Anthropology, Psychology, and beyond, this class will examine the foreign landscapes of Science Fiction and Fantasy to shine a new light on human identity and society back in the world we know. After all, the hero always crosses the return threshold back home with new found knowledge and truth.
     
  10. KatG

    KatG Effulgent Staff Member

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    That's a different stripe. You're essentially talking about specific types of SF/F/H -- multiverses and portal stories, which may have themes that commonly appear in that sort of story structure. Portal stories are like Narnia, Wonderland and Oz, in which a person from our world enters through some form of portal a parallel, different world. In multiverse stories, the number of worlds is considerable and people jump from one to another, such as in Michael Moorcock's Elric, Stephen King's Dark Tower series, Hal Duncan's Vellum duology, and Roger Zelazny's Amber books. SF tends not to have that many portal stories, that idea being more connected to the folklore of visiting fairyland, but did use them a lot in the early days, and they like multiverses. Fantasy and horror like them both. The greatest popularity of the multiverse stories was probably the 1970's. The portal novels made up a huge pile of fantasy novels in the 1980's, then became of less interest to fantasy authors in the 1990's in favor of wholly separate secondary worlds. However, as authors browse outward, they are coming back into favor, particularly in YA.

    There are a lot of ideas that your students could research about portal and multiverse novels, but escapism really isn't the dominant theme -- reflection is. The world on the other side of a portal or the worlds within a multiverse have usually reflected aspects of the real world and in particular aspects of the main character's regular life. The main character doesn't escape to another world -- he is instead confronted with the problems of his real world in the new world and has to figure out how he'll handle those problems, returning to his regular world often with a better understanding of himself. A multiverse provides for maximum variety of reflections.

    One of the clearest examples of this, because it's deliberately set up that way, is the novel The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub, in which a young teen bounces back and forth between his real world and the portal world, finding a matching person in each world but with variations that reflect the real world problems he is facing, and he must solve problems in both worlds to save his mother and himself. Likewise Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant series has his protagonist bouncing back and forth, unsure if the whole world is in his head or real, because there are things in the portal world that directly connect to and reflect issues in his real world. He can't escape the portal world or his problems, but instead is forced to look at and deal with their symbolic reflection in the portal world. The kids in Narnia also don't escape their problems and fears there. Instead, they are forced to deal with them in the context of the battle between the lion and the witch and find out who they really are. Fantasy, horror and science fiction are not about escapism. They're more like therapy. (However, I don't agree with kcf's argument that the increase in urban fantasy in the early oughts had anything to do with 9/11 or that secondary world fantasy declined.)
     
    Last edited: Oct 19, 2012
  11. kcf

    kcf Nobody in Particular

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    I'm not really arguing either, just using examples to frame how large events in our world become reflected in SFF writing. Though I do believe that there is a lot to be said about the explosion of the newere style of urban fantasy that occurred after 911. Sure, it began earlier, but I think that it's not a coincidence that so much of the SFF market started to go away from the 'bad guys' being some large, evil 'empire' of sorts (or at least their leaders) and shifted to things that lurk in the dark right around the corner from where you live. Perhaps, the fall of communism would be a better social maker to use, but I think direction of exploration is similar.
     
  12. theworldforgot

    theworldforgot Registered User

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    This is a fantastic point, and something I'm very glad you pointed out. And I'm also glad you introduced the idea of "reflection" as I think it's a huge concept I missed out on explicitly stating. The way the question is posed certainly does favor multiverse and portal. However, do you think the question could still apply to non-portal/multiverse? Or how could it be posed differently to set up an umbrella where portal/multiverse is just a single route. Or perhaps it would be better to just focus on portal/multiverse in the class. Hm.

    Thanks for your help. Hope to hear from you again.
     
  13. psikeyhackr

    psikeyhackr Live Long & Suffer

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    General Semantics is the result of concepts developed by Alfred Korzybski in the 1920s and 30s. His book Science and Sanity is from 1938. We know that Robert Heinlein attended one of his seminars and that A. E. van Vogt deliberately wrote books incorporating his ideas. I am not sure how much this influenced the concept of Vulcan culture in Star Trek.

    http://gdg.00freehost.com/trekessays/F003cM.htm

    But now we have a society with von Neumann machines everywhere.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_von_Neumann

    My personal suspicion is that the majority of our so called educators don't even want to find out how they can best be used for educational purposes. But they are going to change our society regardless. Selecting science fiction for young kids to read could have more influence than college courses. Fantasy is entertainment at best. I like Howard's Conan stories. Now the tech and the sci-fi and the fantasy can all mix. What can the techno-culture do to children's minds?

    Queen Of The Black Coast by Robert E. Howard
    http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks06/0600961h.html

    Subversive by Mack Reynolds
    http://www.digilibraries.com/ebook/115574/Subversive/

    Status Quo by Mack Reynolds
    http://www.magick7.com/1/MoonlightStories/2/410/2916.htm

    Cost of Living (1952) by Sheckley Robert
    https://senjibqa.wordpress.com/2011/06/17/cost-of-living/
    https://senjibqa.wordpress.com/category/science/

    Ultima Thule by Mack Reynolds
    http://www.gutenberg.org/files/30334/30334-h/30334-h.html

    Deathworld I (1960) by Harry Harrison
    http://www.magick7.com/1/MoonlightStories/1/117/1966.htm
    http://librivox.org/deathworld-by-harry-harrison/

    Science fiction contains ideas that many people do not encounter until college because most of the lower grades are mostly about indoctrination. College comes too late.

    http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/6/russ6art.htm

    psik
     
  14. theworldforgot

    theworldforgot Registered User

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    My first revision (if not limiting it to portal worlds) would be to not use the word "escape," and to take out the final sentence, particularly the area that is Joseph Campbellian with the "return threshold" bit. But I assume the question remains limited and still in favor of portals.
     
  15. theworldforgot

    theworldforgot Registered User

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    Just a thought here, sorry for posting again, but perhaps it can be posed: OUR escape, or a character's escape. Our own act of entering an exclusively fictive world is also reflective to human identity I'd think.
     
  16. Rob B

    Rob B \m/ BEER \m/ Staff Member

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    I merged the two threads you had and kept it in the SF forum, no need to have multiple threads with the same discussion, keep it all centralized.
     
  17. KatG

    KatG Effulgent Staff Member

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    Yes, it is a major aspect of speculative literature, all stripes. It's not the only one, but it's obviously there and not limited to written works -- Buffy the Vampire Slayer used demons and vampires and other fantastical elements to stand in for and reflect things teenagers and then young adults go through in the real world. This causes Buffy and pals to confront issues in her life and figure out how she's going to deal with them. (My daughter is studying Macbeth and they are using quotes from Macbeth and comparing how other stories reflect the meaning in those quotes and further understanding of the themes in Macbeth. My daughter has used Game of Thrones and Buffy among other things.)

    Dan Simmons' Hyperion, Miller's A Canticle for St. Liebowitz, Clarke's 2001, Flowers for Algernon, Asimov's Foundation, The Walking Dead, etc., you can pretty much find it throughout. And that's why the books are not escapist for readers. They're fun, but so are contemporary dramas and comedies and historical novels that don't contain speculative elements. Those unreal elements are tools mostly to put characters in heightened, extreme circumstances (including magic realism, near future SF and the rest,) where they face issues that may greatly change their perspective of their surroundings and themselves, as can be done with suspense, westerns, high drama, etc. And that's thought for us. The most comic princess adventure story, the sappiest romance, doesn't take us out of our own world; it just shifts the focus in a symbolic way and lets us explore in a different, altered direction. It can get very cultural if the author wants to explore a specific aspect of current culture, like environmental post-apocalypse SF stories or Charles Stross' Rule 34. Or it may simply be speculative or a combo.

    So you could use reflection as the umbrella idea, but it sounds like you're trying to not limit them too much in their research agendas (to teach them how to research and make an argument which is cool.) But you may want to limit it to stories in which there is a world that is distinct and separate from our current world or alternate versions of our current world. That would include portal and multiverses and post-apocalypses, SF stories set in a future substantially different from now, pretty much all secondary world fantasy stories, journeys to hidden lands, journeys to hells or lands of the dead, etc.

    An alternative, if you would rather not narrow it down, would be to concentrate on immersion. In most SF/F/H, the main character(s) become immersed in a world different from what he or she knew before. This includes many contemporary fantasies where the person learns about things that have been hidden or learns more about things that they weren't that familiar with before. They enter into new societies. Secondary world fantasies do this with main characters encountering lands, cultures, or circumstances new to them, immersing the character in that world. SF in near future still does the same thing -- how do scientists deal with a computer that has become self-aware, or with a virus that is mutating or an expedition to a planet made of mainly graphite and diamond, etc. The character moves from what was known before to what has not been known, one world to another.

    This is essentially what psikey tends to go on about. He believes having a hard SF story in which a main character is immersed in science ideas and introducing those early on in education illuminates those worlds of science and inquiry for young readers.

    KCF -- There was only a brief period in the early 1990's when contemporary fantasy novels were not plentiful, which had more to do with book economics and the Great Paperback Depression than cultural factors. The increase in contemporary fantasy titles was chiefly the result of Anne Rice -- who started her run before the Wall came down, Laurell K. Hamilton, Neil Gaiman and a few others who did well or caused comment (such as Emma Bull's Territory) in the 1990's. The number of contemporary fantasy titles in the late 1990's were quite large, the number of paranormal romance titles with contemporary settings also got quite large then. It, however, takes a few years for most people to notice. By 2004, a cluster of hit authors allowed for further expansion, which coincided with expansions in horror (fueled largely by film stuff,) paranormal romance and romance altogether, and all other areas of fantasy -- historical, comic, secondary world and of course, YA. But the beginning of the expansion would more accurately be 1997. Secondary world hasn't dropped off (except in the sense that all fiction authors have seen declines of their individual sales which again is due to book distribution issues, the collapse of the wholesale market and other market factors,) and has been helped in expansion by the expansion of contemporary fantasy and YA fantasy. I'm not saying 9/11 has not effected individual titles, and it definitely reinvigorated spy thrillers, but the lure of contemporary fantasy, particularly urban fantasy, is not politics but the suspense market. Noir is a perennial.
     
  18. kongming

    kongming www.voxnewman.com

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    That's what I assumed you meant
     
  19. theworldforgot

    theworldforgot Registered User

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    Your replies are nothing short of astounding, and lead me to a lot of new thought. Thank you!

    It's hard to address every point here, but if I may critique, I feel you are attaching your *own* interpretation of "escapism;" one that has negative connotation. (Which is of course many informed SF/F readers' position on the word, including my own....usually.) But when I cast the word in the prompt, I don't mean it for any philosophy other than the verb itself, escape, and I think giving the students freedom to interpret that word themselves and deciding whether it should be a negative or positive thing is worth seeking, perhaps even spending a great deal of time on. The word itself is loaded. While I recall writing a response on "escapism" -- to an old professor who disliked SF/F -- as an uninformed way to dismiss the genre, going on how SF/F elements are tools for exploring otherwise un-explorable ideas (which is still my opinion today), I recently read a psych-related article on dissociation by Martha Stout called, "When I Woke Up, It Was Tuesday," and it made me think that escapism could be a good thing as well, or is at least not necessarily devaluing anything. Do you see what I mean? I will now definitely consider the word choice.
     
  20. KatG

    KatG Effulgent Staff Member

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    Yes, and basically I agree with you. Your students certainly could explore escapism as a theme, depending on the parameters you set for the course. But escapism in the context of SF/F/H scholarship does have a particular meaning and so could cause some confusion. Of course, there are a lot of confusing terms in SF/F/H.