Spring Classes

Some readers seem interested in my (Machiavellian) thought process when creating classes, so here is another in an occasional series about what I'll be teaching in the upcoming term.

First off, I owe thanks to all the folks who offered ideas and experiences when I asked for opinions about gender and science fiction. Your responses not only helped me clarify my goals, but also helped at least one other teacher who, it turns out, is proposing a similar class at his university.

The Gender & SF class looks like it will have about 10 students, a few of whom I've had before and who were among the best students I've taught, so, naturally, I'm excited. Selecting the final list of books was painful because as I plotted things out day by day, there just wasn't enough time to do all I'd thought I should even minimally do. I'm compensating for this a little bit by having the students each read a book of their own (I may do this in pairs, maybe singles -- I'm going to wait to meet the students and talk with them before deciding. Our library now has a strong enough collection of SF that we can accommodate either without the students needing to buy more books.)

When students go to buy their books at the bookstore, these are the ones they will find waiting for them on the shelf:

The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction
Year's Best SF 14, ed. David Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer
Seed to Harvest by Octavia E. Butler [We're reading Wild Seed.]
Babel-17 / Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
Shadow Man by Melissa Scott
Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree, Jr.
Gender and Anthropology by Frances E. Mascia-Lees and Nancy Johnson Black
A lot of short stories, because that's the only way I could get in the sort of variety I really wanted -- this isn't (or isn't only) a "feminism and sf" class, so I really want to look at some texts where the writer wasn't intentionally thinking about gender at all, and that's where the Wesleyan Anthology and Year's Best SF 14 come in. (I'm also going to supplement with a few stories that aren't available in the books.) The Wesleyan Anthology gives a good overview of the basics of 20th Century SF, and the Hartwell/Cramer anthology is a good selection of core SF from 2008 -- I chose that particular volume instead of a more recent one because it was a good year for stories with some gender interest, at least in that collection.

Why these books and not others? Partly, my own personal preference -- these are books I feel like I can structure discussions around, books that, whenever I read them, provoke ideas and questions. They're also pretty important. I was, as readers of the earlier post about this topic know, thinking of using Le Guin's Four Ways to Forgiveness instead of Left Hand of Darkness, but y'all talked me down off that cliff -- it's the book that, in comments on that post and in emails to me, people most consistently and passionately cited as helping them think about gender in new ways. I'm totally stealing Will Alexander's idea to also bring in Le Guin's "Is Gender Necessary REDUX" and "Coming of Age in Karhide". That got me really, really excited about Left Hand of Darkness and all that can be done with it.

Tiptree and Butler don't need any justification, of course. Delany was a tough choice -- in an ideal class I'd use Trouble on Triton or Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, but I can't imagine any way to do those books in a relatively short time, and I'm not sure that either is really a very good choice for people who aren't experienced science fiction readers. Babel-17 will give us plenty to talk about, and we might even have time to read Empire Star, one of my personal favorites, especially as an intro to Delany.

Shadow Man I chose primarily because of its relationship to Ann Fausto-Sterling's "five sexes" idea, which the students who had me for the intro to feminism course will be familiar with. I'm happy to have any opportunity to talk about Fausto-Sterling's work, and Shadow Man is a marvelous opportunity not just for that, but to look at how science fiction uses ideas from science. (I would love to add Gwyneth Jones's Life on that account, and I may yet put it on the extended list -- see below.) Thanks to Lethe Press for bringing this book back into print.

Gender and Anthropology is there because it gives a good, very basic summary of different approaches to gender. The focus is anthropology, but such an approach has an awful lot in common with science fiction, and until Oxford comes out with Gender: A Very Short Introduction, this is the best I've found at a reasonable price (I didn't want the students to have to spend much more than $20 on a book that's really just a supplement). It should help the students begin to get a grasp on ways of researching and writing about this stuff.

Here's my preliminary list of books for the students to choose from for their additional text -- this list's still in flux; I just created it a few days ago. I don't want the list to be exhaustive, because some of these are books we really need at least one person to read and report on, so too much choice would add an element of randomness I don't want. (Pardon the lack of links for these -- linking is time consuming, and I've still got two more classes to tell you about!)
The Wind-Up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
Dazzle of Day by Molly Gloss
Ammonite by Nicola Griffith
Native Tongue by Suzette Haden-Elgin
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein
Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson
The Female Man by Joanna Russ
Air by Geoff Ryman
City of Pearl by Karen Traviss
For movies, we're going to watch Aliens, Strange Days, and The Host, plus some TV shows (not sure which episodes yet, but probably some Battlestar Galactica, Babylon 5, and at least one of the Star Trek incarnations. TV's not at all my specialty, so I'm still researching).

I'm going to allow the students as much say as I can into what we do, because most of them are in their last semesters as undergrads, and this course may never be taught again -- it's officially Special Topics in Women's Studies, and that's only offered in the spring term of odd-numbered years, and by the spring of 2013 I may not still be working at Plymouth State, or somebody else might want to do the Topics course.

My second class in the spring is Murder, Madness, and Mayhem, which I've taught before, though I'm completely changing the syllabus this time, because though it had been a smashing success two years ago, last year it was a disaster, and I'd like to preserve the memory of the success. I'm not entirely satisfied with the progression of what I've come up with, but I'd need a few more weeks to be able to make it work more seamlessly, so I'm just hoping it doesn't feel as awkward in the last few weeks as it looks on paper. Here are the books I've ordered:
Union Street & Blow Your House Down by Pat Barker
Heartsick by Chelsea Cain
Tourist Season by Carl Hiaasen
Red Dragon by Thomas Harris
Blasted by Sarah Kane
From Hell by Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell
Ruined by Lynn Nottage
Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
In addition to reading these books, the students will also watch the movies Shadow of a Doubt, Memories of Murder, and Hotel Rwanda. (And sections from various other films, including Titus.)

The list of texts is alphabetical rather than the order we'll read them in class -- we're starting with Titus Andronicus, because I figure I might as well jump into Shakespeare while the add/drop period is still open and students who have no desire to do that sort of work can flee. I'm still fiddling with the exact order, but right now I'm thinking: Titus Andronicus, Red Dragon, Heartsick, Tourist Season, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, From Hell, Blow Your House Down, Blasted, Ruined.

I've got warnings on the syllabus that the class is not for the faint of heart or easily grossed out, but I'm going to emphasize that a lot in the first few classes, because the last four texts (at least!) make for a marathon of pain and suffering. Nobody should have to go through that who hasn't made the deliberate decision to do so.

As you might be able to tell from the progression, the basic idea is that we'll look at the intersections of personal violence and social violence -- Blasted most obviously embodies this, but most of the texts do to some extent or another. One of the things that we've explored in past iterations of the course are the purposes, effects, and perhaps limits of representing violence. I'm also always interested in exploring questions of canonicity -- Titus Andronicus has often been the most embarrassing Shakespeare play for bardolators, yet also one that was hugely popular while Shakespeare was alive, and it has had some notable productions in the last fifty years or so, with a number of scholars working hard to proclaim its merits

Red Dragon, Heartsick, and Tourist Season are all popular fiction, definitely not something you're "supposed" to read in literature classes, and yet I think we'll find they can bear textual scrutiny, and that they intersect well with the other texts, especially the Shakespeare. From Hell is a graphic novel, another non-canonical form, and it will be interesting to discuss its genre in relation to the non-graphic novels and the films. Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde is quasi-canonical -- not exactly "high literature" and yet a "classic". Blow Your House Down is generally marketed as "literary fiction". Blasted is a central work of late-20th century British drama, despite causing a critical uproar when it was first produced. Ruined won or was nominated for just about every award it was eligible for, and though it's too recent a work to say what sort of status it will have in the long run, I doubt even its few detractors would deny that it holds status right now as one of the major American plays of the last decade. How and why such status is created is always fun to talk about in class -- and more than fun, really: I think those of us who teach literature in whatever form should address canonicity, because the literature we have access to and the literature that any culture gives status to depends a lot on the ways people create to value that literature. This course is aimed at students in their first year or so of college, students who mostly will not be English majors, and many of them have never thought about why they have been taught certain books in their previous schooling, nor what that selection reveals and hides.

My third class is Writing & the Creative Process, which I first taught this fall. The class went relatively well for it being my first try, but the big flaw was the books: The Tin House Writer's Series and James Elkins's How to Use Your Eyes. The students hated the Elkins in particular, which really surprised me (it's a glorious book, I think). I worked hard to try to get them to understand how observation is key to all types of writing, but they weren't interested. Similarly, the Tin House books were mostly beyond them, though they did seem to warm to Renard's journal. I'm not 100% thrilled with all of those books, myself -- aside from the Renard, the book of interviews is the best of the lot, though very much a mixed bag, as is the collection of essays. The Story About the Story has some marvelous essays in it, but too many of the writers are men, and I think Hallman's conception of "creative criticism" is horse effluent. (And I also don't much like editors who include their own work in such books.) At $35 the series is a good deal, but I realized that, were I to pay no attention to price, I wouldn't have chosen most of those books on their own.

So I'm tossing all of those out and starting from scratch. Here's what I ordered:
Why I Write: Thoughts on the Craft of Fiction edited by Will Blythe
The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers
The Poet's Notebook: Excerpts from the Notebooks of 26 American Poets
What It Is by Lynda Barry
I almost chose the Barry last term, but didn't because I really didn't have any idea of how to teach from it except to say: "Go read this." That's still pretty much all I know what to do with it, but the more time I spent with the class, the more I thought they would benefit from just going and reading that book. I think its pages are terribly seductive, and I hope they're seductive to the students. We shall see.

Two things ended up being both successful and popular last term -- I made the students write a lot, including one week where I forced them to write 10 pages, and I apparently contradicted a lot of things their high school English teachers told them. They also said they liked it when I brought in examples of different kinds of writing (Woolf's "Death of the Moth", plays by Suzan-Lori Parks and Christopher Durang, poems by a gazillion different people, selections from Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons, short essays by John Leonard and Barry Lopez, Donald Barthelme's "The School", etc.) and shared what seemed to me to be techniques worth stealing or at least trying on from those.

So we're going to do more of that. After ten years of teaching high school, I've a pretty good idea of what the average high school teacher has to say about writing and reading, so I'll continue to be as iconoclastic as I can be on that front. Really, it's all just a performance to make the students more aware of the relationship between purpose, audience, and how they write, but students just out of high school love it if they feel like they're getting something subversive. It also helps make them more aware of language and the history of English, since I give them a crash course in descriptive linguistics to help them overcome the prescriptivist poppycock they've probably been exposed to throughout their schooling. This, according to the evaluations they wrote in their portfolios at the end of the term, is apparently mind-blowing, and in conjunction with an assignment where I have them create a list (from research!) of "rules for writing" and then violate the rules, is quite freeing for them, allowing them to write in much more interesting, creative, energetic, and uninhibited ways than they have before. So often, student writers are terrified of writing, and think they don't like writing, because their brains are full of supposed rules. So I try to get them to throw out the rules and then slowly work toward thinking about purpose and audience -- the difference between, for instance, what is effective when writing a text message to a close friend vs. what is effective when writing an application letter for an important job.

When they start thinking about purpose and audience, when they start seeing writing as a form of serious play, then they can, with both happiness and a sense of achievement, write more in one term than they ever have before. Last term's portfolios are proof of that, at least if I am to believe what the students say in their self-evaluations. But anybody who has had any sort of success with writing knows there are no secrets, just good habits -- the ones beautifully summed up by Barry Lopez in the introduction to About This Life: "Read. Find out what you truly believe. Get away from the familiar." (The relevant passage is available as a PDF here, and well worth reading, as is the entire book.) And write, because nobody learned how to write by not writing.

So there we have it, a full term of stuffs.

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