Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Teaching College Writing, Annotated Bibliography of Teaching SF Resources, June 29, 2008

This is the fifty-third post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

Before I could accept my teaching fellowship at Kent State University, I needed to take the graduate seminar, “Teaching College English.” I was fortunate to have the opportunity to take this class from Professor Brian Huot. At the time, I thought my primary concern was putting together my first syllabus, but through the seminar, I learned the importance of meeting student needs, considering outcomes, meeting students on the page, helping students improve their command of rhetoric and multimodality with a portfolio, and considering student work holistically (something that I continue to do with the Georgia Tech WCP’s WOVEN modalities and programmatic rubric).

This second of four Recovered Writing posts from Teaching College Writing is a brief annotated bibliography of teaching science fiction resources. Professor Huot asked us to do research in our specific discipline and report back what we found. This kind of work has become an integral part of my professionalization as an educator (research+pedagogy) and reflective practitioner (how did this other person do that–how can I incorporate/modify/adapt their approach into mine–what worked/didn’t work and how can I make it better?).

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Brian Huot

Teaching College Writing

29 June 2008

Teaching Science Fiction Annotated Bibliography

Attebery, Brian. “Teaching Fantastic Literature.” Science-Fiction Studies 23:3 (Nov. 1996): 406-410.

Instead of focusing his course on Science Fiction, Attebery combines fantasy and SF into one course under the umbrella of the fantastic. Again, this is a literature, and not a composition course, but the important lesson to take away from his essay is that students with fantasy/SF backgrounds, which are not necessarily the same thing, as well as students without an inkling of experience with the fantastic all have something to bring to class discussion. Also, some fantastic literature carries more cultural or historic baggage than students may already be acquainted with, which may break down discussion, or require more lecturing or assigned reading in order to prepare students for engaging a particular text.

 

Bengels, Barbara. “The Pleasures and Perils of Teaching Science Fiction on the College Level.” Science-Fiction Studies 23:3 (Nov. 1996): 428-431.

Bengels builds on examples from Science Fiction and criticism, both on teaching SF, “to address the inherent and unique difficulties of teaching a body of literature that is changing even as we attempt to examine it…to convey the excitement and sense of wonder that continues to set science fiction apart from any other form of literature” (428). Most importantly, she suggests that, “There’s a special sense of community in the sf world that finds its way right into the classroom; new ideas must be bounced off one another, making for very exciting classroom discussions: new words, new worlds, new concepts all to be explored together” (430).

 

Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., Istvan. “The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction.” Science-Fiction Studies 23:3 (Nov. 1996): 385-388.

Csicsery-Ronay begins his essay with this striking line: “Like being hanged, teaching introductory sf courses to undergraduates focuses the mind wonderfully” (385). He is addressing the teaching of Gunn’s SF genre course, but he provides a great framework for introducing students to SF through a handout titled, “WHAT MAKES SCIENCE FICTION SCIENCE FICTION?” (386). This handout, perhaps given after having students read an emblematic SF short story, would be a powerful tool for opening discussion about what constitutes SF and what our students think SF is. Furthermore, he responds to what is implicitly said in Bengels, Gunn, and others when he writes, “My sf texts must also introduce students to important philosophical, social, and literary ideas that they might not encounter anywhere else, given the state of contemporary higher education” (386). This significant accusation reflects the potential of SF to engage students in ideas and critical thought that they would not otherwise encounter.

 

Elkins, Charles and Darko Suvin. “Preliminary Reflections on Teaching Science Fiction Critically.” Science-Fiction Studies 6 (1979): 263-270.

There are some very practical and insightful contributions by Elkins and Suvin in this Marxist essay regarding the teaching of SF.          The authors propose that, “The main and the highest goal of SF teaching–as of all teaching–ought, in our opinion, to be a specific form of civic education” (267). SF is great for inculcating critical thinking, because SF often turns accepted systems upside-down. Introducing students to this and discussing what’s in the text and what the text leaves out should raise their ability to see beneath the surface of the text. Elkins and Suvin go on to suggest that, “Teaching SF…involves description and assessment, interpretation and evaluation; teaching SF is an act of literary criticism fused with the communication of that criticism” (268). In this passage, the authors are not literary saying that SF is literary criticism in the academic sense of an analysis of Shakespeare, but rather, SF is a critical literature that engages social issues. This is the power of SF that is useful for generating discussion in the introductory college writing classroom.

 

Evans, Arthur B. and R.D. Mullen. “North American College Courses in Science Fiction, Utopian Literature, and Fantasy.” Science-Fiction Studies 23:3 (Nov. 1996): 437-528.

Evans and Mullen compiled this list of SF, utopian, and fantasy courses complete with descriptions and book lists from colleges and universities all over the world. It also includes lists of works, authors, and films most often assigned.

 

Finch, Sheila. “Dispatches from the Trenches: Science Fiction in the Classroom.” Extrapolation 41:1 (Spring 2000): 28-35.

Finch writes that SF is a uniquely appropriate genre for stimulating student involvement and discussion, because it serves all the functions of other literature with, “the added distinction of being…a literature of ideas to think about in a peculiarly new way, what Albert Einstein called Gedankenexperimenten” (29). The thought experiment aspect of SF is indeed powerful for generating discussion, because it presents a new view to a (perhaps) mundane subject, and it begs the reader to critically evaluate the thought experiment on the surface narrative as well as what lies beneath. Like Bengels, Finch declares, “SF is a literature of ideas,” which can be employed as a useful tool in developing writing students skills at responding to things that they might not have considered before (31).

 

Gunn, James. “Teaching Science Fiction.” Science-Fiction Studies 23:3 (Nov. 1996): 377-384.

Gunn’s essay primarily concerns his own approaches to teaching SF as a genre course, and he makes the claim that of all of the SF courses available at various schools, “They seem to be as varied as the colleges and universities at which they are taught, and a number seem to address the question of what science fiction is and how to read it, that is, they are genre courses. But I would argue that there should be more” (377). In regard to his own various approaches to teaching SF, he identifies three course themes: 1) “the great books,” 2) “the ideas in science fiction,” and 3) “the historical approach.” He doesn’t address SF in the introductory writing classroom, but I believe his “ideas” theme is appropriate for generating discussion and leading into student essay topics without the course taking on a literature-laden mood.

 

Mullen, R.D. “Science Fiction in Academe.” Science-Fiction Studies 23:3 (Nov. 1996): 371-374.

This is a short history of the introduction of SF into the American college classroom. It includes early course descriptions and book lists.

 

Ontell, Val. “Imagine That! Science Fiction as a Learning Motivation.” Community & Junior College Libraries 12:1 (2003): 57-70.

This essay overflows with numerous examples of SF and fantasy stories, TV shows, and films, and how they may be used to engage our students’ attention and imagination. In addition to all of Ontell’s fabulous lists and contextualizations, she points out how the fantastic is an important learning tool: “Whether the students are in the elementary grades, middle school, high school, or higher, it is the function of teachers and librarians to provide the tools that enable them to question intelligently. Science Fiction provides many vehicles for inculcating those tools in a variety of subjects by stimulating the imagination and thus motivating students to learn” (57). In the writing classroom, building our students’ ability to “question intelligently” is essential to their success as readers and stronger writers.

 

Samuelson, David N. “Adventures in Paraliterature.” Science-Fiction Studies 23:3 (Nov. 1996): 389-392.

Samuelson provides a plethora of author and work successes in his classes. Also, he notes the usefulness of group presentations on particular works or authors to share with the class, and he lauds the use of a “cumulative journal” or portfolio in the classroom.

Fall 2013 ENGL1101, The Concluding Lecture: Advice from a Georgia Tech Alum to Future Alumni

The end is just the beginning.
The end is just the beginning.

During today’s class, I will present a final lecture titled, “The Concluding Lecture: Advice from a Georgia Tech Alum to Future Alumni.” There’s a lot of things that I wish I had known when I was an undergraduate at Tech. On reflection and through experience, I gained insights that I wanted to make available to my current Georgia Tech students. I am making the PowerPoint file and my notes available below.

Download the lecture’s PowerPoint presentation here: ellis-jason-final-lecture2.

Notes to accompany “The Concluding Lecture: Advice from a Georgia Tech Alum to Future Alumni” follow below:

During today’s lecture, I wanted to talk about one big idea that’s been implicit in the readings and discussions that we’ve shared regarding the brain. That idea is: “Who you are today is not who you will be tomorrow.” What I mean by that is our biology, experiences, thoughts, and choices shape who we are and who we become each moment of our lives. Sometimes these changes can be small and sometimes these changes can be large.

Another way to think about this is that we are like patterns. Our lives, thoughts, and memories are patterns that form, reform, and change based on a number of variables. Some of those variables, like cats, are outside of our control. These things include our genes, disabilities, economic situation, and past. While there’s a lot about our lives and pattern that we cannot control, there’s also a lot of things about our pattern that we can control. These are the conscious choices and decisions that we make in life.

In this lecture, I would like to talk about those choices that I think are particularly important to Georgia Tech undergraduates but that are often pushed aside, ignored, or forgotten in the forward rush to a degree. Choosing to focus on these important things will lead, I believe, to a more robust, meaningful, and enriched undergraduate experience that will prepare you for success in the next stage of your life.

Learn: Feed your curiosity. Gain as much knowledge in your field and others as possible. Form connections between the many things that you learn. Be interdisciplinary in your thinking and learning. Pass on what you have learned to others–in doing so, you will gain a deeper mastery of what you have learned.

Connect: Form connections with faculty at Tech. Seek out mentors to guide you in your progress. Your advisors and mentors will become your colleagues one day when you enter the field as a graduate of Tech and professional. Learn from your mentors and advisors.

Explore: Explore the spaces you inhabit and work. Explore your major and connected disciplines. Explore how you can connect your major to other disciplines. Open doors and find out what’s going on (as long as you won’t be breaking laws or entering a dangerous space). Exploration is another kind of learning.

Travel: Visiting other places is a special kind of exploration and learning. However, it is also a kind of education that you cannot receive in the normal classroom setting. You will learn new perspectives from those you live around. You will gain new insights from the history, economy, and politics of the places you live. My strongest regret was not taking advantage of the study abroad programs at Georgia Tech. There are many, many study abroad programs here–find out about them and take advantage of them.

Meet: Go out and meet people! Meet famous people. Meet smart people. Meet people in your community. Meet other students at Tech. Meet people in the Atlanta area. Superficial connections are not what you want. The important thing is to expand your network of friends and colleagues and form meaningful relationships with those people. Talk with people. Learn from others.

Help: Make the effort to help others. Help your classmates. Help people in your communities. Help your family and friends. If you contribute to building stronger communities through outreach and doing good deeds, you will build a stronger community that will in turn help you in the long term.

Make: Create things. They can be digital, physical, or abstract. The important thing is to never rest. You should always be engaged making things–professionally or for personal enjoyment. The things that you make will in turn make you through the experience of creating.

Do Good Work: Make things that you are proud of. Put the time and effort into making things that you can stand behind. This is hard to do sometimes in classes, but you should think about how to turn assignments to meet your needs as well as the needs of the class’ outcomes. This means think about how you can create things that will earn the grade you want while also serving your uses outside of the class–such as adding a new document to your professional portfolio or using an assignment as an excuse to learn a new skill or software.

Reflect: Above all else, reflect on your life, on the things you do, and on your successes and failures. Learn from the choices that you’ve made before so that you can make better and stronger and more effective decisions in the future. Reflect on all aspects of your life–not just on your writing or major-specific work. Reflect in writing–public or private–for the maximum effect on your thinking and brain wiring. Make your reflections a part of your daily practices. It takes time and energy, but the results over time to improving your likelihood for success is tremendous!

Graduate: Certainly, keep your eye on the prize. It might take you four years, five years, or even longer. No matter how long it might take you or how winding your path might be to graduation, be tenacious in your progress to completion. In the words of Commander Taggart from Galaxy Quest (1999), “never give up–never surrender.” If you find that you need to take time away from school, there’s no reason not to return later. I did that and I believe that I am the better for it. The experience that I gained during those years away from Tech were tremendously useful to me. Anyways, if I can do it, I know that you can, too.

Brittain Fellowship Year Two, Fall 2013: ENGL1101 (English Composition I) and LMC3403 (Technical Communication)

A year has passed since I began my three year tenure as a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow in Georgia Tech’s Writing and Communication Program of the School of Literature, Media, and Communication.

During my first year, I taught six sections of ENGL1101 (English Composition I), which gave me a unique and welcomed opportunity to refine and revise my approach to composition. I made changes to class readings, organization, assignments, and projects. During the process, I invited students to reflect on and comment on their work. This demonstrated their mastery of the outcomes, concepts, and processes of the class. This information, combined with student opinion surveys at the end of each semester, guided my thinking on my class revisions.

Over the summer, I had a very special chance to teach an upper division LMC class: LMC3214, Science Fiction. When I was a student at Tech, I originally tried to take this class from the legendary Professor Bud Foote, who went on to found Georgia Tech’s Science Fiction Collection in the Library. Unfortunately, his popularity combined with my minimal accrued hours, I was unable to take his class. However, in the summer of 2002, I took Science Fiction from Professor Lisa Yaszek, who inspired me to become a teacher and researcher.

My experience teaching Science Fiction at Tech was the realization of a dream long held–to teach a subject specifically in my field and training. As I blogged in earlier posts, I enthusiastically led my students to discovery of the historical and cultural relevance of Science Fiction through a panoply of layered, multimodal approaches to learning–ranging from lecture, active learning, team-based discussions, research projects, and a final haptic building project involving Lego bricks.  From my students’ feedback, I believe that I provided them with rich learning outcomes and fueled their interest in the genre, and it brought me great joy to teach SF and to give back to my alma mater.

Now, in Fall 2013, I have a slightly different schedule than what is typically given to Brittain Fellows. For the most part, Brittain Fellows are given one prep per semester on a 3-3 load. However, several of us who have shown an interest in teaching Technical Communication (e.g., I took part in the Fall 2012 Tech Comm weekly seminar–something required for those teaching Tech Comm for the first time at Tech but voluntary for everyone else) were given a choice to have two preps–one for Tech Comm and two for ENGL1101. I opted to do this, because I wanted to expand my teaching skill set with a topic that I was already very aware of and thought about from my experiences at Tech as an undergraduate and my experiences in the workplace at IT companies.

In order to try out new approaches to ENGL1101 and LMC3403, I redesigned my ENGL1101 syllabus [Fall 2013 ENGL1101 Syllabus] while building my new LMC3403 syllabus [Fall 2013 LMC3403 Syllabus] so that the first unit of both courses would overlap in readings and a similar assignment. This year’s First Year Reading Experience book is Donald A. Norman’s Living with Complexity. I used this as the framework for this shared unit across the two courses. My freshmen would already have this book–something given to them by Tech over the summer, but my LMC3403 upper classmen would have to purchase the book. I thought that it was well worth the investment for them, because I choose to adapt Norman’s idea of managing complexity as a way of thinking about what Technical Communication is: managing complexity through communication. In both courses, students were asked, following a week long discussion of the book, to propose a plan to manage some kind of complexity that they identified around Tech or related to Tech (it could extend to applying to school, the Atlanta area, etc. as long as Tech provided an anchor for their proposal). My ENGL1101 students were asked to propose their plan for management in a 2 page essay that could include photos or illustrations of their making. My LMC3403 students were asked to write a more detailed proposal memorandum that thought through all aspects of the proposal from identifying the problem to a plan for action to costs. I plan to write a pedagogical paper about the types of thinking and composition that my ENGL1101 and LMC3403 students created, but it suffices to say here that the students in the two classes approached the task with enthusiasm and produced sharp proposals.

I want to thank Rebecca Burnett, Andy Frazee, James Gregory, and Emily Kane for their advice and suggestions while I was building my LMC3403 syllabus and assignments.

Here’s to year two!