Science Fiction, LMC 3214: Concluding Frankenstein and Learning Exercise on the Sublime and Beautiful

Frames and science saturation.
Frames and science saturation.

In today’s class, we finished discussing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein by discussing Volumes II and III and coving some major themes.

To begin class, I wanted to have all of the students think about the sublime and the beautiful to better understand Mary Shelley’s engagement of those ideas in the settings and characterization in Frankenstein. First, I asked all of the students to quickly read summaries of the first three sections of Immanuel Kant’s Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime on Wikipedia here. I also briefly described these sections to provide a rough sketch of what they would be reading. Then, I split the class into two halves: one half would find a picture or photo that represented Kant’s ideas of beauty and one half would find a picture or photo that represented Kant’s ideas of the sublime. Once they found an appropriate image, they would email a link to me with the subject “beauty” or “sublime.” This took about 10 minutes. Finally, I showed these images in front of the class and I invited the students to tell us why they choose it and then as a class we discussed how these worked or not as examples. I also found some examples that represented beauty and sublimity (I choose something technological to introduce a curveball to our discussion). We also looked at some of my photos of Mont Blanc and Chamonix from 2011.

Some of the themes that we covered during the discussion of the last half of the novel included:

  • Epistolary and narrative frames
    • Issues of voice, authenticity, and mutual understanding/misunderstanding.
    • Rhetoric and empathy.
  • Science saturated novel
    • Victor, the Creature, and Walton are all scientists of a kind.
    • Victor chooses rationality/science cover irrationality/alchemy, his research leads to new discoveries, his research is reproducible. He learns the scientific method, applies it to a new hypothesis (creating life/reanimating tissues), and discovers new knowledge/techniques with real results (albeit without considering his responsibility to his creation).
    • The Creature uses rationality to figure things out and learn. He uses observations to learn language, which in turn allows him to learn about social and global relationships. His observations of the De Lacey family is almost like a sociological lab report. He uses deductive and inductive reasoning.
    • Walton is on a “voyage of discovery.” Search for knowledge (source of Earth’s magnetic field and geography) and acquisition of fame/wealth from discovering a passage to the Americas through the North Pole.
  • A Critique of the Age of Enlightenment
    • knowledge from science and rationality can have positive and negative effects on society (Victor waffles on this point in his thinking and conversations with Walton).
    • Connected this to the horrors of the 20th Century: World War II > Germany (weapons and genocide) and the United States (the atomic bomb)
  • Power of the novel from its ambiguities and tone (tension between positions)
  • Influence of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin
  • Different interpretations of doppelgangers in the novel and issues of surface/appearance and psychology/inner self.
  • Issues of community, social responsibility, and isolation.

I am fortunate to work with this dedicated group of students. They have raised exciting points and asked daring questions. If the first week is any indication of the following four, we will share many more interesting discussions on SF. Next week we will discuss Influences of SF, Voyages Extraordinaires, Scientific Romances, and the Pulps.

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.

Science Fiction, LMC3214 Continues: Frankenstein Vol 1 and Active Learning

My notes on what my students taught the class.
My notes on what my students taught the class.

During today’s Science Fiction class, we began discussing volume 1 of Mary Shelley’s 1831 edition of Frankenstein. After a brief lecture on Mary Shelley, her family, and the fateful June 1816 trip to Switzerland, I wanted to talk about how historical and cultural forces made it possible for a work like Frankenstein to come into existence. However, instead of lecturing about the Age of Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, Industrial Revolution, and Romanticism (and the Gothic), I decided to roll out an active learning exercise to facilitate peer learning. I divided my students into teams of three based on where they were sitting in the class. I reminded them to swap contact information with each other for sharing notes, studying, etc. Then, I explained the exercise to the class as a whole: I would assign each team a topic to research for 20 minutes using Wikipedia and EDU TLD sources on their laptops, tablets, and smart phones. Of course, I said that they could also rely on any knowledge that they already have, but they will have to share that knowledge with their team mates. While researching and talking about their assigned topic, they should compile a list of the most important ideas and/or figures and teach the class those topics. I walked around the class and told each group their assigned topic from the list above. After about 15 minutes I saw that the teams had completed the task, so I asked them to wrap it up and I called for a team to volunteer to present. Each team gave a superlative summary that I could add to, build on, and reference during our discussion of Frankenstein. I asked the students if they liked the exercise. There was no response, and my question was probably not a fair one to ask. Next, I asked if they learned something from the exercise, and they unanimously said, yes! Now that I’ve seen active learning work in my classroom, I will definitely think of other active, peer learning exercises to keep my classes dynamic and engaging for my students.