ICFA 2009, Teaching Fantasy and Science Fiction: Audience, Approaches, and Challenges

I overlooked my notes on this panel discussion from Friday, but luckily they found and here is the lowdown from The Teaching Fantasy and Science Fiction panel, moderated by Sydney Duncan.  It brought together some very different approaches in higher education through the work of F. Brett Cox, Andy Duncan, Amy Branam, and Jim Casey.  Below, I engage each professor’s use of SF in their classes, how they engage theory, and their use of SF definitions in the classroom.

F. Brett Cox carries a 4/4 load at Norwich University and incorporates some SF into his classes such as Harlan Ellison’s “Repent Harlequin, Said the Tick Tock Man,” Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Star,” and Ursula K. LeGuin’s “Those Who Walk Away from Omelas.”  Also, he teaches special topics classes on SF identities, gothic literature, and SF.  Regarding a question about theory in the classroom, he doesn’t have his students read hard theory, but he does incorporate the terminology and theoretical ideas into his class in order to help his students make sense of their readings.  As far as SF definitions are concerned, he prefers to use Samuel R. Delany’s concept of describing the function of SF rather than setting a definition prone to exceptions and dissolution.

Andy Duncan now teaches with a 4/4 load at Frostberg State University in Maryland, which has no SF offerings.  However, he maintains a connection to his previous institution, the University of Alabama where he used to teach SF live, but now offers it as an online course with video presentations and blogging.  In this course, he and his students cover about a book a week.  Concerning the theory question he said, “if I knew more theory, I would use it.”  His classes are primarily composed of majors other than English, so merely writing about books is a novelty for them.  He does bring in Rationalizing Genius, Rhetorics of Fantasy, and the Cambridge Companion of SF.  Rationalizing Genius in particular colors his own readings and the way he guides his discussions on the works his students read.  Andy does a fun exercise with his students on the definition of SF.  Early in the class, he has them write on:  1) what experience with SF and fantasy have you had, 2) how do you define SF and fantasy, and 3) list examples of each.  After this writing exercise, he maps their responses on a continuum on the board, which generates discussion in the classroom. 

Amy Branam incorporates SF and fantasy into her women’s literature classes through the more broadly based category of magical realism.  In particular, she uses Karen Joy Fowler’s Sarah Canary for women’s literature, and Anne Rice’s Exit to Eden in her pornography unit.  Another work in her classes is Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower.  Since she is coming from a women’s studies background, theory is integral to her courses.  In fact, on the first day she runs through the “feminist lexicon” on a Powerpoint presentation, and her students’ first reading is “The Politics of the Novel.”  Instead of teaching her students’ definitions, she teaches them deconstruction.  Also, genre definitions aren’t necessary for her women’s study course.

Jim Casey teaches at a small, private college that features free ice cream truck service and valet parking for students–his is obviously a very special place of higher education.  He doesn’t specifically teach an SF course, but introduces his students to genre fiction after having them read “canonical” works.  It is only later or outside of class that his students discover that they were reading genre fiction.  Throughout his courses, he teaches them the theoretical vocabulary for joining scholarly conversations and to more critically engage the works that they read.  Also, his students do have to read theory for their final papers.  He noted that his students want definitions in the same way that they want to know how to take a test–just tell us the answer.  So, he prefaces definitions with, “Everything that I’m about to tell you is a lie.”  His meaning is that his students will learn exceptions and arguments with the things that he is going to present them with in class.  He likes challenging his students to learn definitions and then to bust them up. 

The panel rounded out with a discussion of hiring and tenure.  One thing that I learned was that you need to consider where you’re applying for jobs, because some institutions will only consider your publishing and presenting in your major field for tenure consideration, anything else is disregarded.  

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Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I direct the B.S. in Professional and Technical Writing Program and coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.