Science Fiction, LMC3214 Continues: Definitions of SF Active Learning Exercise and Conclude Frankenstein Tomorrow

For today’s class, I had planned on us spending about half the class on definitions of SF before continuing our discussion of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Happily, nearly all of my students showed up for class today, but this turned the class into one completely devoted to SF definitions.

On the first day of class, we discussed the differences between science fiction (SF) and sci-fi. The students took turns writing examples that they knew on the board along a spectrum from SF (subjectively: the good stuff, significant, more than entertainment) and sci-fi (subjectively: the not-so-good-stuff, less significant, entertainment is primary vector). I wrote about this exercise on Monday here.

Yesterday, some students asked questions that pointed toward better clarification of what science fiction is. I had planned to save that for next week when I introduce the major paper assignment in the class, which involves their working with and formulating definitions of SF. However, it seemed that it might be more useful to give my students something to test SF–including Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein–against.

I wanted to do another active learning exercise, but I wanted to have everyone in class contribute to the discussion instead of primarily interacting within their teams (as we did on Tuesday and I wrote about previously). To help them think about a variety of definitions of SF, I pulled 14 definitions from the list on Wikipedia here and created this handout: ellis-jason-science-fiction-definitions. When they came into class, I asked them to sign in on the attendance sheet, but unlike normally, I had numbered where they sign their names. I asked them to remember the number next to where they sign in for attendance. Then, I passed out a handout with the list of definitions numbered from 1 to 13. Each of these entries included the writer’s name, the year of publication, and the definition. These ranged from Hugo Gernsback to Kim Stanley Robinson. Next, I instructed them to read and think about their assigned definition, research the writer and prepare notes on the person to share with the class, and argue why a work of SF that they know is an example (and if possible, a counter example) of that definition. I gave them 15 minutes to conduct their research and formulate their response. Then, we went around the room from 1 to 13 with each student identifying the writer/editor/critic, reading the definition aloud, teaching the class about the person, and explaining their supporting/detracting examples.

While I am glad that everyone in the class had a chance to contribute and draw on their knowledge of SF, I think that the exercise as a whole took longer than I had planned. In the future, I will break the assignment into a few definitions split between teams as I had done with the exercise on Tuesday (researching the Age of Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and Romanticism).

In the last few minutes of class, I briefly recapped some of the important points about Frankenstein that would lead us into a full discussion of Volumes 2 and 3 on Thursday: epistolary novel, narrative frames, and Walton/Frankenstein/Creature as scientists and scientific practitioners.

Published by 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 coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.