Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Dissertation Defense Opening Statement, May 15, 2012

This is the sixty-fourth 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.

I prepared this brief statement to introduce the thinking behind the choices that I made on which writers to include and the emergent theme of the dissertation that would lead to my current research: technological ephemerality. This statement is part justification and part roadmap for where I am now and will be in the future.

To set the stage for making this statement, imagine me sitting at the head of a conference table. Behind me on a podium is a Powerbook 145 with Gibson’s eBook of Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive open and the big box for the Neuromancer video game adaptation from the late-1980s.

Dissertation Defense Opening Statement

Jason W. Ellis

15 May 2012

            I would like to thank you all for reading my dissertation, “Brains, Minds, and Computers in Literary and Science Fiction Neuronarratives” and for meeting with me today. I am looking forward to your questions and our discussion. Before we begin, I would like to take this opportunity to describe my project’s goals, it’s origins, my methods of research, and what I hope it accomplishes. As you will see, my iPad figures prominently in these things.

In my dissertation, I draw on my interdisciplinary interests in literary studies, science fiction studies, history of science and technology, and evolutionary psychology to situate science fiction’s emergence as a genre in the early twentieth century within the larger context of the human animal’s evolutionary co-development with technology. In a sense, I sought the raison d’être of the genre in a Darwinian and cognitive context. I believe the communal teaching aspect of science fiction to be an integral part of the genre itself, and it is this aspect that I gave the name “future prep.” From another perspective, I define science fiction as the kind of literature that performs this function. I also wanted to take one related thread from the genre’s overall development—that being brains, computers, and artificial intelligence—and trace it through the work of three significant writers, namely: Asimov, Dick, and Gibson.

My dissertation originates in part from my long interest in the biology of the human brain. Perhaps this is a byproduct of the conceptual metaphors that I learned in school or in books that the brain was a type of computer and the computer was a type of brain. We know that these are imperfect analogies, but you can imagine that they can have a strong influence on the development of a curious mind. Even at an early age, I strongly felt the link between brains and computers as evidenced by a sustained performance that convinced my kindergarten classmates I was a robot. More recently, I fell into the physics of mind when I was in high school. Thanks to Stephen Hawking, I stumbled onto the work of his collaborator Roger Penrose, who had done other work arguing that the brain is not a Turning-type computer and that quantum phenomena must play some part in the emergence of human consciousness. Much later, during my MA at the University of Liverpool, I made a deal with a friend in the neuroscience program to give me a digital copy of my brain in exchange for my participating in his neural correlates of facial attractiveness study. However, the most recent and profound shift in my thinking came about in a serendipitous way. During the preparation for my PhD exams, I met with Professor Clewell to discuss my readings for the postmodern theory exam. I recall our conversation veering toward computers and the human brain. I learned from Professor Clewell about the emergent discourse surrounding the human brain and the human experience from a Darwinist/evolutionary rather than a Freudian/psychological or Marxist/social perspective. As invested as my work up to that point was in cultural theory, I was very intrigued by the interdisciplinary possibilities that neuroscientific topics and evolutionary psychology might provide for my work in literary history. Without a doubt, this was a pivotal moment in the development of my dissertation. It provided me a direction to expand the scope of my project from one author—originally on the fiction of Philip K. Dick alone—to three by developing a new theory of the genre in terms of the human brain’s evolution. This was new territory for the literary history of science fiction, and I wanted to trek an unexplored path into this uncharted territory.

The next stage was to select the literary focus of my research. I chose Dick’s work, because I believe his awareness of the brain’s role in human experience and in our relationship with technology strongly connects to my theory of science fiction. Then, I selected Asimov as a connection between the early editors who shaped the genre and later writers including Dick, whose androids obviously respond to Asimov’s robots. Finally, I decided on Gibson, because he reinvented Dick’s concerns about technologization of the human experience in a more nuanced manner than Dick’s paranoiac division between the android and the human.

Research and writing of my dissertation presented its own challenges, but I was very pleased that part of the subject matter inspired my own processes of work. In my reading and research, I leveraged computer technology to my advantage to build efficiencies and speed into my work. In particular, I wanted to make all of my research—primary and secondary sources—available on my computer, iPad, and iPhone. The primary reason for this was to make it easier for me to track my research and use digital tools such as textual analysis software and key word search on materials I had read or skimmed. Having the materials on my various computing devices made it easy to search the same or multiple documents very easily and quickly while taking notes or writing in Microsoft Word on my MacBook. Of course, my brain did the work of configuring, contemplating, and creating the dissertation itself.

The issue of obsolescence, which I discuss a bit about in the concluding part of my dissertation, was also a driving force behind my efforts at digitization of my research materials. For example, the last half of the second chapter presented a unique problem—I needed to read the editorials of the old pulps—particularly Amazing Stories and Astounding—but these pulps are not widely available in library collections, and when they are, it can be difficult to handle and read them due to their extreme fragility. Luckily for my research, legions of science fiction pulp collectors have made much of this material available online as scanned copies. Obviously, there are tensions between the efforts of cultural preservationists and the Disney-fication of copyright law, but due to the nature of my research and its importance to the long literary history of science fiction, some of which is egregiously at risk of disappearing, I side with the preservations. Unfortunately, the scanned materials were not always complete, but they did provide me with some useful evidence and clues to more. I filled these missing holes with interlibrary loan requests that took several weeks to complete. For other primary sources, I was able to track down circulating text files—such as for Asimov’s, Dick’s, and Gibson’s novels, and others, I purchased either through Amazon’s Kindle shop or Apple’s iBook store. I should note that I used these non-paginated materials for research purposes, and I cross-referenced any findings there with the physical copies that I own or borrowed from the library—the only exception being Dick’s Exegesis.

I also converted many sources on hand into digital copies for my personal use. Generally, I took photos of pages, created a PDF, and ran OCR software to generate searchable text. Due to my limited time, this was especially useful during my research trip to UC-Riverside’s Eaton Collection in February. In addition to my typewritten notes on my MacBook, I captured over 1000 pages of rare and interesting primary research for the Dick and Gibson chapters with my iPhone 4S’s built-in camera. Some of this research is included in the dissertation, but there is much left for me to review as I begin the process of transforming the dissertation into a publishable manuscript. This extra work paid off by revealing quotes overlooked during skimming or reading. While I am reading to you from my iPad, I also have my dissertation manuscript, primary sources, secondary sources, notes, and much more all available at the touch of my finger. However, I have to remain vigilant with my archival practices to ensure my access to my data now and in the future. It is also a challenge to find software that maintains compatibility and preserves my workflow.

As Gibson warns us in his afterword to the Neuromancer e-book, technology’s fate is obsolescence. As he foretold, it was nearly impossible to access his e-book in its original version. First, I had to wait several weeks to receive a copy of the e-book’s disk from one of the three American universities that hold it. Then, I had to find an older Macintosh with a floppy disk drive to read the disk and in turn allow me to read the e-book. Unfortunately, there are no Macs with floppy disk drives anywhere near Kent State. I turned to eBay to find an early PowerBook, but unfortunately, the first one I purchased was destroyed during shipping. Eventually, I was able to read the e-book with this PowerBook 145, but it took time, money, and know-how. What does the future hold for those of us who want to read the stories these technologies have to tell us, and what effects do these technologies have on our cognitive development? These are questions I plan to investigate following the dissertation.

In closing, I hope that my work on the literary history of science fiction accomplishes two things. First, I believe that science fiction’s roots run deep, and my dissertation is meant to show how it is a literature that emerges as a byproduct of powerful evolutionary forces of the development of the human brain in conjunction with the human animal’s co-evolution with technology. Second, I hope that my work facilitates further cross-discipline discussion and leads to additional research into the brain’s role in the emergence of human experience and the enjoyment of fiction—especially science fiction.

Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Dissertation Paragraph Summaries Before Defense, May 2012

This is the sixty-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.

When my dissertation defense date approached and my dissertation was completed, I wanted to help myself recall my arguments and examples more clearly. To that end, I wrote out by hand short summaries of each paragraph in my dissertation, which you can read as this PDF. I divided my handwritten notes by chapter and section. Each paragraph summary contains the main thought and a brief synopsis of examples or other supporting evidence. In some ways, it is like a reverse outline, but the dissertation was already completed and the summaries were not used for reorganizing the layout/arrangement of the dissertation’s logic. I am currently sending an expanded version of my dissertation around for possible publication. This PDF of my dissertation paragraph summaries are not the original form of the dissertation–only a summarization of each of its constituent paragraphs. For my students, I recommend this exercise–summarizing essay paragraphs during drafting to help you think about the logical order of your essay/argument and to help you know the material better for discussing, teaching, or presenting your work.

In my next Recovered Writing entry, I will post my dissertation defense opening statement. Stay tuned!

Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Social Theory, Prize Based Cultural Capital Exchange and the Destabilization of the Science Fiction Genre, Dec. 10, 2008

This is the fifty-seventh 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.

The first seminar that I had with Professor Tammy Clewell was “Methods in the Study of Literature.” The second was “Social Theory.” This was an enjoyably challenging seminar in which Professor Clewell encouraged us to explore the them in our specific fields of study. In my case, I researched the exchange of cultural capital in Science Fiction.

Professor Clewell’s suggestion to me to read Derrida’s “Law of Genre” opened new vistas in my thinking on this subject.

One of the best lessons that I gained from this class happened years afterward. While finishing my dissertation, I sent a lot of publishable-length manuscripts around for consideration. One of those was the final draft, long form essay included below (it is an expansion of the presentation-length draft published on Wednesday as “Social Theory, Cultural Capital, Market Capital, and the Destabilization of the Science Fiction Genre”). In the rejection that I received, a number of factual errors relating to the lore section on the cyberpunks were pointed out by the journal editor. It was a hard lesson in verification and citation that I will not soon forget, and one that I share with my students to drive home the importance of corroboration.

Due to a number of problems with this essay, including the inaccurate lore, I do not recommend citing this work. Instead, it is offered as a reminder for citation and a resource of ideas and sources.

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Tammy Clewell

Social Theory

10 December 2008

Prize Based Cultural Capital Exchange and the Destabilization of the Science Fiction Genre

            Michael Chabon, a recognized and celebrated American author best described as mainstream with an admittedly healthy interest in genre fiction,[1] routed the competition in two of the three most prestigious Science Fiction (SF) genre awards with his 2007 alternate history novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. As an alternate history novel, it appeared in the SF section of bookstores, as well as the mainstream section due to Chabon’s widespread recognition as an eminent American literature author.[2] Also, the cross pollination of Chabon’s work in the SF ghetto and the mainstream new releases is not wholly unique, because Philip Roth, another recognized American author, published his own alternate history novel, The Plot Against America, three years prior. However, what sets Chabon’s novel apart from Roth’s is that The Yiddish Policemen’s Union swept the two big SF superprizes, the Hugo and Nebula, and arrived in second place to Kathleen Ann Goonan’s In War Times for the John W. Campbell Award. In order to evaluate the operations and linkages surrounding the Hugo Awards, it is necessary to use a theoretical framework that goes beyond the operations of material capital and prizes, and to focus on Pierre Bourdieu’s extension of “economic calculation to all the goods, material and symbolic” (qtd. in English 5). This project is what many refer to as “cultural capital,” or an intangible yet realizable economy of culture. Chabon’s recent successes raise a question about the purpose of the Hugo Awards in relation to the SF economy of culture, and the transfer of real capital to SF authors. In this paper, I argue that Chabon’s Hugo Award for Best Novel triumph destabilizes the SF genre through operations involving the transfer of cultural capital, as well as monetary capital, away from the SF archive. I will show that exchanges of cultural capital are one element in the postmodern condition of genre disintegration. What I mean by this is that there is genre mixing as a practice predating or coming before prize culture, but more importantly, exchanges in cultural capital visibly affect and point toward genre dissolution.

James F. English adroitly theorizes the exchange and movement of cultural capital via prizes and awards in his 2005 book, The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Capital. He states that his project “maintains a tight focus on the prize as an instrument of cultural exchange, and aims to come to terms with the complex kinds of transaction that it facilitates–transactions in which art and money are by no means the only stakes nor artists, capitalists, and consumers the only significant players” (English 12). To do this, English extends Pierre Bourdieu’s enterprise:

The project, as Pierre Bourdieu has said, must be “to extend economic calculation to all the goods, material and symbolic, without distinction, that present themselves as rare and worthy of being sought after in a particular formation–which may be ‘fair words’ or smiles, handshakes or shrugs, compliments or attention, challenges or insults, honour or honours, powers or pleasures, gossip or scientific information, distinction or distinctions, etc.” (English 5)

The concern here is the “economic calculation” of “honours” and “distinctions” as exchanged through the various systems of prizes and prize giving. Bourdieu’s project refers to ‘cultural capital,” or an intangible yet realizable economy of cultural exchange. English chooses the prize as his object of study, and he argues convincingly that prizes are one such signifier of cultural capital exchange. Coupled to English’s primary claim, he develops three significant supporting assertions supported by prize data and a number of regional and superprize cases (such as the Noble Prize for Literature and the Man Book Prize), which are: 1) prizes are a widespread cultural practice, 2) the number of prizes has proliferated and prizes beget other prizes through virtual modeling or cloning, and 3) prizes are made possible by complex machineries and assemblages of people and distributed work, which have a material cost often in greater excess than the prize bestowed.[3] The third point is the most significant aspect of English’s work, because it is a largely unexplored aspect of prizes and their relationship to culture. He calls this the “middle-zone of cultural space”:

What’s left out is the whole middle-zone of cultural space, a space crowded not just with artists and consumers but with bureaucrats, functionaries, patrons, and administrators of culture, vigorously producing and deploying such instruments as the best-of list, the film festival, the artists’ convention, the book club, the piano competition. Scholars have barely begun to study these sorts of instruments in any detail, to construct their histories, gather ethnographic data from their participants, come to an understanding of their specific logics or rules of the different ways they are being played and played with. (English 12-13)

The “middle-zone” of cultural production is an undiscovered country that includes many more participants than the usual suspects (i.e., author, publisher, and audience) in prize culture, and it is necessary to uncover the rules by which the middle-zone operates in order to better understand the exchange of cultural capital through prizes and awards.

The usual suspects of culture production combine with the middle-zone to constitute the field, or as English defines it, “a zone or portion of the ‘cultural field’ as a whole” (9), in which capital, defined by English as “not merely understood in its narrow economic sense…but rather is used to designate anything that registers as an asset, and can be put profitably to work, in one or another domain of human endeavor” (9), operates in apparent isolation, as a system, from all other fields. However, the breakthrough in English’s work is that, “every form of ‘capital’ everywhere exists not only in relation to one particular field, but in varying relations to all other fields and all other types of capital” (10). Therefore, in a simplified view of fields, there exist economies of cultural capital that may not readily translate into material capital, but the circulation of cultural capital within a given field is meaningful to members within the field. However, English shows without invoking Foucault that there is no constitutive outside. Fields overlap and are interrelated, and it is this decisive point that establishes my larger argument on the exchange between the SF field and the literary field, to which English devotes the majority of his attention.[4] English’s argument is constructed similarly in his discussions of literary prizes, which could be described as discussions of prize culture involving the literary field, which is connected to but separate from the SF field. I will address the connection between the SF field and the literary field through the exchange of prizes later in the essay.

The aspect of the SF field that I’m most interested in, as English is of the literary field, is the growing number of SF prizes and SF prize culture in general. First, SF prizes illustrate the fact that prizes are a widespread cultural practice. SF awards operate within the SF field, and interconnect to the large field of literature and literary prizes, such as the Man Booker Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature. Second, the number of SF awards and prizes have exploded, particularly within the last three decades. Furthermore, the development of these awards has proceeded to fill major and then minor fields within SF, and these awards are often modeled on other prizes within and without the field, such as following the Oscar model. The two past editions of Reginald’s Science Fiction and Fantasy Awards demonstrate this trend. The 1981 edition lists only 23 awards, which include major awards and a selection of foreign and international awards, while the 1991 expanded edition of this work, co-authored with Daryl F. Mallet, reveals a substantial expansion in the number of awards with 126 awards listed across three sections: 64 English-language awards, 30 foreign-language awards, and 32 non-genre awards for which SF works are eligible for consideration. In a mere decade, the number of reported and tracked SF related awards increased by 448%. Additionally, these awards are not carbon copies of one another, but each often fulfills a perceived need within the SF field. For example, the second yet longest running major SF prize, the Hugo Awards, addresses a number of categories.[5] Additionally, as evidenced by the data above, more awards were established to address other qualitative concerns such as the exploration of gender recognized by the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, or the best original paperback novel published in the United States recognized by the Philip K. Dick Awards. Also, it bears mentioning that memorialization is a significant aspect of prize proliferation. Another way to look at prize proliferation is to consider who has won the awards. The author with the most wins in both editions of the Reginald’s Science Fiction and Fantasy Awards is the New Wave SF author, Harlan Ellison (Reginald 63, and Mallet and Reginald 245). What is significant about Ellison’s wins, as well as a number of others in the top ten in both lists, is that the bulk of Ellison’s work came after the establishment of the first SF awards. Furthermore, well-regarded authors with longer careers in the field such as Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury have far fewer awards, arguably due to the fact that many of their groundbreaking works preceded the rise of the SF award. Thus, writers whose careers unfolded following the proliferation of SF awards garnered more awards than those writers whose careers and community recognized works came before the advent of SF awards. This is not to say that later authors created necessarily better works, but only to suggest that later authors won more awards because there were more awards to be won. And finally, the machineries and capital investment in SF prizes are as extensive as any other award of comparable stature. There are sorters and preliminary readers. There are people who assemble ballots for voting awards such as the Hugo, and juries convened in the case of the John W. Campbell, Jr. Award. The major awards such as the Nebula and Hugo involve ceremony and pomp that necessitates the convening of conventions and award spectacles. All of this is handled by paid and volunteer persons, and financed by organizations and participants (read: audience). In many cases, there is not a financial award to accompany the prize. In the case of the Hugo Awards, one receives the recognition of having won a Hugo, and material proof of the win in the bestowal of a custom built trophy modeled after the original “rocketship” trophies employed in the early Hugo Awards ceremonies. In these awards, the cultural capital of winning is, in large part, the currency transacted, and the prestige conveyed by a prize’s cultural capital often translates into greater authorial recognition and book sales. However, English builds his argument around the idea of juried prizes of specifically selected individuals that bring their own prestige or scandal to the administration and conveyance of a prize. Throughout The Economy of Prestige, the author is concerned with juried prizes and not prizes bestowed by popular vote, and it is this neglected special case that needs addressing in regard to the most respected popular vote SF awards, the Hugo Awards.

The Science Fiction Achievement Awards, or more commonly known as the Hugo Awards, were established in honor of the pulp SF editor, Hugo Gernsback. These annually bestowed awards were created in 1953 at the suggestion of SF fan Hal Lynch and modeled after the National Film Academy Awards, which are also known as the Oscars (Nicholls 595). It is an early example of prize proliferation, because it replicates the voting and spectacle aspects of the Oscar superprize model as a means to elevate the prestige of popular, yet marginalized, SF genre literature. Additionally, the Hugo Award establishment as an institution within the SF field operates in the same way that English says, “prizes have always been of fundamental importance to the institutional machinery of cultural legitimacy and authority” (37). The Hugo Award legitimates popularly regarded works of great SF through its authority as the first superprize in the field, and one in which SF readers and fans may participate, unlike the equally prestigious juried prize, John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, or the professionally balloted awards by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, the Nebulas. Moreover, the sophistication of the Hugo Awards’ mail-based balloting system, single transferable ballot counting, the Hugo Awards committee with the power to decide on rules for eligibility of works during balloting, the spectacle of the annual awards ceremony in a different international host city, and the commentary, bookmaking, post-Hugo Awards advertising and book cover blurbs for winners and those nominated, and the debate in magazines, fanzines, and blogs before and after the announced winners, is in my opinion of sufficient elaborateness to warrant critical evaluation in order to more fully develop this gap in English’s theory of prizes and the exchange of prestige.

I would like to develop my discussion of the Hugo Awards by mapping the history of controversy and scandal that, according to English, is necessary for the awards’ “proper functioning” (208). The Hugo Awards were created mid-century in order to address the perceived need by members of the SF field for accolades and recognition of SF creators. Also, the Hugo Awards debut created literally a new space for those in the SF field to communally partake in a ceremony that legitimated the awards.   The ceremony, held at the annual Worldcon SF convention, presented a venue for dress attire, meet authors, network with other fans or professionals, and come out of the closet, or out of the proverbial ‘parents’ basement,’ as an SF fan. Thus, the Hugo Awards substantiated the exchange of cultural capital within the SF field through the awards themselves as well as the pomp of the Worldcon ceremony where the awards are given.

The Hugo Awards, following English’s model, generated their own cultural capital through the controversies and scandals that have shocked Hugo participants and members of the SF field. The first Hugo controversy that entered into the SF archive and collective memory was the awards’ floundering in 1955, what would have been its sophomore year. However, the Hugo Awards were reconvened in 1956, and have continued each year since. The most recognized and constant controversy throughout the history of the Hugo Awards is best described by Peter Nicholls in the two-time Hugo Award winning tome, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction:

The Hugos have for many years been subject to criticism on the grounds that awards made by a small, self-selected group of hardcore fans do not necessarily reflect either literary merit or the preferences of the sf [sic] reading public generally; hardcore fandom probably makes up less than 1 per cent of the general sf readership. (596)

The self-selected pool of voting members is problematic, because unlike the juries that English discusses, it is a collection of individuals without individualized cultural capital to add to the award. However, the popular aspect of the Hugo Award supplements the popular aspect of SF literature. SF literature connects with a wide audience in many different ways through a myriad of vectors. SF, like any literature, is not homogenous, and any contemporary or historical survey establishes that its themes, ideas, and narratives are varied ad infinitum.

With the preceding controversy of the popular vote as an ever-present background to the Hugo Awards, other controversial events took place in the 1980s, which added to the prestige of the SF superprize. The first recognized controversy involved the next big thing, building on the successes and innovations of New Wave SF, but integrating in the extrapolative potential of contemporary developments in computer technology and global capital. The cyberpunks did not so much as land as jack-in, and the way that they did this has since become lore. At the 1985 Worldcon, William Gibson and a coterie of his compatriot writers, Bruce Sterling and Pat Cadigan, stepped out of a stretch limo wearing ripped jeans, black leather jackets, and the immediately recognizable mirrorshades. Gibson’s punk antics and disregard of the traditional suit-and-tie sensibility of the Hugo Awards ceremony elevated his status and the cyberpunk movement he represented. However, this only solidified what he accomplished by winning the three major SF awards for his 1984 novel, Neuromancer–the Hugo, Nebula, and the John C. Campbell Award. In the following year, the only Hugo Award refusal took place when Judy-Lynn del Rey’s widow, Lester del Rey, refused her 1985 Hugo Award for Best Professional Editor, “on the grounds that she received the accolade only because of her death” (Mallett and Reginald 58). A strange controversy took place in 1989 when the Worldcon committee barred Stephen Hawking’s popular science magnum opus, A Brief History of Time (1988), from the potpourri nonfiction category despite its acquiring enough votes for inclusion on the final ballot (Nicholls 596). And a final notable scandal took place in 2006 at the 64th Worldcon when Harlan Ellison grabbed Connie Willis’ left breast during the presentation of a special committee award to Ellison. This event was recorded and quickly found its way to Google Video. There are a number of reactions to the event ranging from good fun to outrage, but the fact is that it got people talking, for good or ill. Furthermore, events such as this elevate awareness and recognition of the award within the field that it takes place, because of the discussion and controversy that follows. Also, the fact that these stories are in a variety of sources is evidence that these controversies entered into popular discussion and the collective SF memory.[6] Therefore, the Hugo accreted cultural capital through its controversies and ensuing discussions within the SF field. However, it is unlike English’s other award interrogations that feature jurors who bring their own cultural capital to the award–a pooling of cultural capital in anticipation of the selection and bestowal of an award. How then does the Hugo account for the last variable of the equation for accreting cultural capital, which in English’s study of the Man Booker Prize is the exchange of capital between jurors and the prize?

The relationship between the Man Booker Prize and the Hugo Awards regarding scandal is different not in terms of degree but rather mode. According to English, scandal is essential to the continuation of a prize and its development as a source of cultural capital. It is important to consider for both the Man Booker Prize and the Hugo Awards why English chose the Booker among others as his objects of study:

Because it is a tendency that becomes stronger rather than weaker as the prize in question becomes more valuable and the field of its application more elevated or culturally legitimate, I will focus in this part of the book on the higher, “art” end of the art-entertainment spectrum, where the forms of critical sniping at the prize and, to borrow another term from Bourdieu, the “strategies of condescension” at work within the prize presentation itself, are somewhat more elaborate. (189)

English’s decision to study the “more elevated or culturally legitimate” field, namely the literary field, is due to the fact that these prizes involve a higher level of discourse about the field and the prize in particular, or what Bourdieu calls “the strategies of condescension.” In effect, the prize gains prestige by what is said about it, and who has something to say about it. I do not think that English’s choices are necessarily condescending on my object of study, the Hugo Awards, but I believe that a different kind of operation is taking place with the significant SF field popular award than with the juried Man Booker literary field prize. As I have said before, the Hugo Award is a popular award, and as such, a lot of readers have something to say, and do say something about the works that they read. Even before the ascendancy of the Internet, there was a proliferation of fanzines and venues for discussing SF. In general, the things communicated in these venues, and later on websites and blogs following the explosion of the Internet in the late 1990s, are cogent and informed. Furthermore, the level of “critical sniping” at the award and award winners is on a level of discourse informed by reading breadth and depth. Otherwise, why would the Hugo Awards institutionalize these venues (e.g., Best Semiprozine)? These are recognized voices that critique the SF field including the awards and award winners, and are likewise recognized by the awards apparatus. Furthermore, the Hugo Awards operate much like the Man Booker Prize in terms of scandal and its utility in the production and collection of cultural capital by an award. English describes this operation after noting the many high profile criticisms of the Man Booker Prize:

Such wholesale denunciations, appearing in the most powerful journals, are clearly not an unhappy side-effect of the promoters’ publicity strategy, but a central aim. It is the charge of fundamental, irremediable illegitimacy that keeps the prize a focus of attention, increasing its journalistic capital, and speeds its accumulation of symbolic capital, or cultural prestige. Far from posing a threat to the prize’s efficacy as an instrument of the cultural economy, scandal is its lifeblood; far from constituting a critique, indignant commentary about the prize is an index of its normal and proper functioning. (208)

Like the Man Booker Prize, the Hugo Awards are established on publically aired controversies. At the time of its creation, this would inhabit the world of SF clubs and societies, as well as print magazine editorials and fanzines. However, most of these spaces for discussion and denouncement would not be of the journalistic stature of English’s examples, such as The Daily Telegraph or the Economist (208). Nevertheless, this adds to the peculiar or perhaps unique status of the Hugo Awards in relation to the literary field prizes on which English relies.   The Hugo Awards do not need high profile periodicals in order to accumulate its own cultural capital. As a popular award, its cultural capital comes from grassroots individuals and groups with a stake in the SF field and the circulation of cultural capital within the field. However, as revealed in the next example, those persons who are most invested in the SF field are extending the reach of cultural capital in the SF field to the literary field, which problematizes the very borders of the SF field.

A significant exchange of cultural capital took place in 2008 between the SF field and the literary field when voting members of the World Science Fiction Society, which includes SF readers, editors, publishers, and critics, overwhelmingly welcomed Michael Chabon and his work to the SF ranks by awarding his sixth published novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, with the 2008 Hugo Award for Best Novel. The novel was widely reviewed in SF field print sources as well as extensively online.[7] However, Chabon, like other well-regarded mainstream, or dare I say literary, authors that have ventured across the genre divide has maintained a playful but arm’s length distance from being labeled an SF author.

Chabon’s distancing himself from SF and other genre literature is readily discernible on a number of occasions in which he has written on the role of literature and genre. In these essays, he masterfully sidesteps genre identification in favor of writing to invent, to tell a story, and to entertain. One of his argumentative tracts include this excerpt from his introduction to The Best American Short Stories 2005 in which he writes, “I have argued for the commonsense proposition that, in constructing our fictional maps, we ought not to restrict ourselves to one type or category” (xvi). Instead of the publishing industry’s categorization and classification of particular works of fiction as one pigeonholed type, Chabon suggests we should let go of these artificial boundaries.[8] To put it another way, I imagine his fictional maps to be the geological Pangaea whereas the current print milieu posits a number of clearly defined continents with internal and created political borders. Additionally, Chabon supports his stance with what might be considered an eclectic and genre smashing (or overlapping) selection of short stories for that edition of BASS 2005. Furthermore, he playfully critiques the contemporary usage of genre, much in the same way he uses play in his works of fiction, in his introduction to McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories:

I suppose there is something appealing about a word that everyone uses with absolute confidence but on whose exact meaning no two people can agree. The word that I’m thinking of right now is genre, one of those French words, like crêpe, that no one can pronounce both correctly and without sounding pretentious. (ix)

Chabon is leading the reader somewhere with his denunciation of genre as something solid, indivisible, and isolated. Genre is a very tricky word, or rather its application is tricky. I will address the slippery notions of genre and genre definitions in the final phase of this essay, but for now it suffices to say that there is a proliferation of genre definitions, especially in terms of SF, and it is also safe to say that no single scholar, writer, or other subject in the SF field has successfully encapsulated what is SF-ness. It seems that the very notion of the SF genre slips through our fingers as if greased with those multitudinous definitions. Chabon offers a solution in Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands, his first collection of non-fiction, released in 2008: First, the title of his collection is very telling about his own project as a writer. Not only does the title imply that he reads along the borderlands of marginalized works, but the space he designates the borderlands is where he does his own writing. This is evident in Chabon’s writings, including his short stories and novels, because he repurposes and remixes genre in a wonderful display of poetics of the postmodern. He employs what Patrick Novotny calls “transgressive parody”:

Parody in the postmodern aesthetic is the transgression of aesthetic and representational norms. . . . With the collapse of the modern aesthetic tradition and the “implosion of metanarratives,” postmodernist discourse transgresses and disrupts the received assurances of traditional aesthetic forms and problematizes the boundaries and limits of representation. (100)

Chabon, like other postmodern authors, regularly transgresses “aesthetic and representational norms” through the daring challenge to assumptions about genre and genre’s supposedly proper and bounded use. His genre-busting arguments “disrupt the received assurances of traditional aesthetic forms,” and he does not merely “[problematize] the boundaries and limits of representation,” but he redraws those boundaries by removing the isolating fences and institutes free range. Toward that boundary free and genre free ideal, Chabon argues that, as a writer, his primary concern is entertainment, rather than convention in the opening chapter of Maps and Legends:

I’d like to believe that, because I read for entertainment, and I write to entertain. Period. Oh, I could decoct a brew of other, more impressive motivations and explanations. I could uncork some stuff about reader response theory, or the Lacanian parole. I could go on about the story telling impulse and the need to make sense of experience through story. . . . But in the end–here’s my point–it would still all boil down to entertainment, and its suave henchman, pleasure. (14)

I do not want to discount Chabon’s reductionist argument in this and his other essays on the topic, because it is refreshing to think of the underlying aspect of literature, which is presumably by-and-large to entertain. Also, as a literary writer, it is not necessary for Chabon to respond to the mechanics and motivations of his writing. Perhaps he is making a challenge to Barthes’ “the author is dead.” Chabon, in building his anti-genre and pro-entertainment manifesto spread across a number of works, is saying quite explicitly that the author is not dead, and that the author has something to say about his work and the nature of publishing in general. Unfortunately, his theory of writing as entertainment lacks the pragmatic. What I mean by this is that not all entertainments are equal. Chabon’s theory lacks a multitude of ways of thinking about the types of stories not defined necessarily by bookstore genre divisions. Readers desire some information about the story in order to choose a particular work of entertainment to read. Without some kind of classification, it seems impossible to know whether a work would be enjoyable or relevant to a given person without having read it first. Essentially, it would require some kind of firsthand conceptual and thematic knowledge of the work before the work is picked off the shelf. Obviously, this presents a paradox and is only meant as a thought experiment. Of course, bookstores can hire knowledgeable staff to engage patrons in dialog in order to discover a novel that each could potentially enjoy. However, Web 2.0 and online bookstores like present a more elegant solution that contradicts Chabon’s stance. I only want to spend a moment on this topic, but it suffices to say that content management databases and tagging technologies allow literary works to be presented in a true light of multiple genres. Computer technology facilitates readers discovering in an explicit way just how genre-crossing novels can be, which may be a step towards an open bookstore devoid of genre ghettos. Despite his stones tossed at critical theory based on the work of Lacan, Jung, and others, Chabon’s statements are constructive in the sense of rethinking the status quo of publishing and resituating the literary author within the larger context of the purpose of writing (which to fully engage would require its own independent study) and constitute a road sign pointing to something just over the horizon for SF that I will return to momentarily.

Now, I would like to return to my original speculation about the exchange of cultural capital between the SF field and Chabon, the author who openly denounces genre in general yet is embraced by many SF readers and wins one of the most coveted emblem of SF cultural capital. On the one hand, Chabon ignores or plays down his own connection to genre writing. He is a postmodern writer who playfully engages while simultaneously transgressing other genres in order to create entertainment while resisting singular genre identification. On the other hand, Chabon’s recognition by heavily invested readers in the SF field marks him as an SF author (at least of sorts) with the publication of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. It would seem that there would be some trace of SF authorship connected to Chabon’s name, but the fact is that his works will primarily fill the fiction genre section of local Borders and Barnes & Noble bookstores. More to the point, what does it mean for a non-self-identified SF writer to win the most prestigious SF award, or conversely, what does it mean for the most prestigious SF award to be given to a self-identified writer without genre classification, or more harshly association? There are two considerations to be made regarding the exchange of capital in the case of Chabon’s Hugo Award for Best Novel. The first has to do with the prestige exchange between Chabon, the Hugo Awards, and the archive of SF works. Were the Hugo Awards voters eager to add a prestigious, non-genre author, because in a way, it validates SF as more than genre literature? I cannot answer that, but I can approach the question after the fact. Mainstream entrance into the SF archive creates slippage and undermines what we mean when we say, “Science Fiction.” It illustrates a problem where accomplished non-genre writers, such as Chabon, may enter the genre at will and make off with one of the greatest bearers of SF cultural prestige. Turning the issue around, Chabon walks a fine line as a legitimated literary writer, who stands to lose that prestige if identified as a genre writer. This is not always the case, as evidenced by Doris Lessing, an admitted SF writer and author of the Canopus in Argos: Archives five novel sequence, who won the 2007 Nobel Prize for Literature. Though, this is a stark exception to the rule of ghettoization as evidenced by the early struggles of Kurt Vonnegut for literary legitimacy.

Genre fiction carries heavy markers for literary hopefuls that are most assuredly on the minds of such authors, and it is not surprising that Chabon hedges his bets in his authorial identification in spite of the SF accolades bestowed on his works. However, Chabon’s success and conveyance of prestige away from the SF archive reveals the other and arguably more important consideration of exchange–monetary capital and lost book sales for unpretentious SF authors who can only dream of advances comparable to what Chabon receives for his work. This raises the question: do prizes translate into increased book sales? This is a very difficult question to answer, because publishers carefully guard their book sales data as proprietary information. There are other ways to access sales data, such as the Nielsen BookScan service, which according to Greco, Rodriguez, and Wharton, “which aggregates and analyzes 70-75 percent of all weekly U.S. book sales” (25). Unfortunately, it is prohibitively expensive, and its data is not all-inclusive, as is the publishers’ data. However, there is some evidence that awards sometimes, but not always, translate into increased book sales. Edwin McDowell attempts to answer the question “Do Prizes Sell Books?” in his New York Times article, but he finds no clear-cut answer. According to some editors, awards have the power to establish a writer but not immediately increase book sales (McDowell par. 3). Others claim that there is a measurable increase (McDowell par. 5). The Nobel for Literature superprize similarly results in oscillating sales according to Greco, Rodriguez, and Wharton. They report, “A review of recent winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature indicated, overall, lackluster sales before and after winning this award” (Greco et al. 50). However, they demonstrate that there are exceptions:

J.M. Coetzee (the 2003 recipient), V.S. Naipaul (in 2001), Günter Grass (in 1999), and Toni Morrison (in 1993), on the other hand, traditionally achieved strong sales before and after winning the Nobel, but they remain the biggest exceptions in recent years. Laureates that seemed to flounder (at least in terms of book sales) include Kenzaburo Oe (1994), Camilo Jose Cera (1989), and Wole Soyinka (1986). (Greco et al. 51)

It is striking that even the superprize of literary superprizes does not yield greater sales for its select recipients. What does this mean for the Hugo Award for Best Novel? I have heard anecdotal evidence that the Hugo Award for Best Novel generally translates into increased book sales. Also, Peter Nicholls writes in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction that, “[the Hugo Awards for Best Novel] are of real value to their recipients in increasing book sales” (596). I conjecture that publishers gauge reprint schedules in order to correspond with the major SF awards, because subsequent printings, generally in paperback or trade paperback, prominently feature “Hugo Award Winner” emblazoned on the cover. I suspect that this branding means something to SF readers. As Greco, Rodriguez, and Wharton note, “Reviews help a book’s sales chances, but even exceptionally positive reviews or winning a major national or international award cannot guarantee success in what is an exceedingly crowded marketplace” (51). Winning an award will may not “guarantee success,” but it does distinguish one work from others in the “exceedingly crowded marketplace.” It is this distinction that allows readers to choose how to spend their money (material capital) and time (which can also translate into material capital) on a novel that they will hopefully enjoy and connect with on some level. Furthermore, one work’s distinction of being an award winner, in this case the Hugo Award for Best Novel, signifies its cultural capital bound to the prestige bestowed by the award. And, the marker of prestige is a significant datum for savvy SF readers who must sift through the chaff in order to locate books recommended by other readers via the award signifier. Or, to put it another way, readers obviously employ awards as a means to deal with Sturgeon’s Law when selecting new books to purchase and read.[9]

Reader selection and the Hugo Awards’ popular vote directive are driving forces in the development of what constitutes the SF genre. I believe that these forces run in parallel to Chabon’s theory of writing for entertainment. The Hugo Awards do not necessarily recognize works as the best representatives of SF. It is not meant to signify the hardest SF, but rather to reward the best writing, perhaps the most entertaining in the field. For example, it is not necessarily that exceptional that Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (an alternate history) won the Hugo Award for Best Novel without the author being a member of the SF field. There has been a shift in the past decade toward a more inclusive Hugo Award for Best Novel, particularly after fantasy works were added as contenders for this award. In 2005, Susanna Clarke won for Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (set in the past, magic returns to England), Neil Gaiman won in 2002 for American Gods (the old gods decide to stand up to the new gods of postcapitalist consumer society), and J.K. Rowling won in 2001 for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (young magician participates in a wizards tournament and battles evil). These works are what the average SF reader would identify as fantasy. Nevertheless, these are the works that made the ballot and won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in those years. This was in part due to the broadening of the Science Fiction Achievement Awards to include SF and fantasy, and the fact that SF and fantasy readers, who were members of the World Science Fiction Society, nominated and subsequently voted on these works over those works that would be more aligned with SF than fantasy. Even if the Hugo Awards are determined by a small subset of the general SF reading population, it is evident that there is a trend toward greater inclusion rather than genre dictated exclusion.

This trend toward postmodern breaking of metanarratives, including the SF metanarrative (i.e., SF genre), has a history of exclusivity within SF to overcome if there is to be any change in the status quo of audience expectations and academic discourse. The exclusiveness of marginalized SF comes in part from the many attempts at defining exactly what SF is. Hugo Gernsback offered his techno-didactic definition in the 1930s, editor John C. Campbell, Jr. (another prize memorialized SF editor) and Robert Heinlein (prize memorialized SF author) established a new set of rules for the so-called Golden Age of SF, Brian Aldiss bridged SF to the gothic in his definition, Darko Suvin brought Marxist theory to bear on SF with his theorization of “cognitive estrangement,” and Robert Scholes introduced the broadly encompassing concept of “fabulation.” These are only a sampling of the many definitions, which need not be repeated verbatim here.[10]   The point is that there are many different definitions, which exclude other literatures just as much as it attempts to provide description and/or prescriptive boundaries for SF. Furthermore, these various approaches to define SF undermine the supposedly stable nature of the genre. Is not the idea of genre to provide distinct categories into which one divides things by certain characteristics? Obviously, something is amiss with the SF genre if no two persons can always decide with certainty what constitutes the genre.

Jacques Derrida provides an elegant analysis of “the law of genre,” which has a significant bearing on my discussion on SF.[11] Derrida, beginning with the law of genre, or “Genres are not to be mixed” (51), establishes that in regard to literature broaching genres leads to their degeneration and eventual dissolution. For my discussion of the SF genre, I am most interested in two significant aspects of Derrida’s argument. The first is the re-marking of genre, and the second is his conclusion that “the law is madness” (Derrida 77).

Derrida’s discussion of marking and the reiteration of marks on text that identify these texts as assuming or claiming a particular genre is important to a discussion of SF, because this is perceived to be a central problem for the SF genre. Books may be marked as SF or not depending on the decisions of authors, publishers, and booksellers. These choices influence what is considered SF not only in the marketplace, but also in popular culture and the SF field. Derrida conjectures about the marking of texts in this Gedankenspiel:

I submit for your consideration the following hypothesis: a text cannot belong to no genre, it cannot be without or less a genre. Every text participates in one or several genres, there is no genreless text; there is always a genre and genres, yet such participation never amounts to belonging. And not because of an abundant overflowing or a free, anarchic, and unclassifiable productivity, but because of the trait of participation itself, because of the effect of the code and of the generic mark. Making genre its mark, a text demarcates itself. If remarks of belonging belong without belonging, participate without belonging, then genre-designations cannot be simply part of the corpus. (61)

He takes for his example the novel and its designation ‘novel.’ The designation is not “novelistic” (Derrida 61), just as the SF designation is not ‘science fictional.’ The mark is not the thing marked. However, this genre-clause sets itself apart from the thing it marks, or as Derrida says, it “excludes itself from what it includes” (61). According to Derrida, “degenerescence” and “the end begins” for genre when genre-clause crossings occur (62). The genre-clause is the remarking of the genre by those works that the genre-clause represents. Thus, the genre-clause is significant to an understanding of the destabilization of SF, because non-SF genre works enter the field through the exchange of cultural capital embedded in prizes and become re-marked as SF.

The second issue that Derrida raises that’s important to this discussion has to do with “the law is madness.” If the genre-clause breaks down genre barriers and borders, what function do genres serve before the end? To answer this, Derrida reviews the role of genre:

The genre has always in all genres been able to play the role of order’s principle: resemblance, analogy, identity and difference, taxonomic classification, organization and genealogical tree, order of reason, order of reason, sense of sense, truth of truth, natural light and sense of history. (Derrida 77)

The “role of order’s principle” is clearly evident in regard to SF. The SF genre and its participants as creators and audience traditionally follow this operation of genre. Defining SF and the past awarding of its exemplary works with prizes operate “to play the role of order’s principle” in its myriad ways. Prescriptive and descriptive definitions are theorized thereby forming boundaries and walls around those works considered SF. Various genealogies of SF are developed to provide a “sense of history” of its “organization” as a genre proper. However, the order of genres, concretized in the law of genre, is inherently unstable. He writes that “The law is mad. The law is mad, is madness; but madness is not the predicate of law. There is no madness without the law; madness cannot be conceived before its relation to the law. Madness is law, the law is madness” (Derrida 77). And madness, according to Derrida has “started spinning Peterson’s genre-disc like a demented sun. And she does not only do so in literature, for in concealing the boundaries that sunder mode and genre, she has also inundated and divided the borders between literature and its others” (77). It is this point that I find compelling in its relationship to SF, because the increasing acceptance of non-traditional SF work into the SF archive “[inundates] and [divides] the borders between” SF and “its others” (meaning other literary genres). Furthermore, madness in regard to the law of genre is analogous to or stands in place of the postmodern aesthetic of transgression. “The law is madness” could just as well be a postmodern slogan for the dissolution of metanarratives and transgressing genre borders. “The law is madness” implies a frontier of possibilities instead of a regulated and ordered center.

The idea of degenerescence and the crisis of the end of genre is a long-standing theme in SF as well as SF studies. Roger Luckhurst, who phrases the concern as “SF is dying; but then SF has always been dying, it has been dying from the very moment of its constitution” (Luckhurst par. 2), relies primarily on the concept of the Freudian death drive and a reading of J. G. Ballard to demonstrate that the crisis stems from desires for legitimation. This trouble with legitimacy leads to crisis:

SF is produced from crisis, from its intense self-reflexive anxiety over its status as literature, evidence partially here by Ballard’s re-marking of the law of genre. If the death-wish is to be avoided, we need to install a crisis in “crisis,” question the way in which strategies of legitimation induce it. The panic narrative of degeneration might then cease its tediously repetitive appearance, and its inversion, the longing for ecstatic death, might be channeled into more productive writings. (Luckhurst par. 30)

Even though Luckhurst only alludes to Derrida’s “law of genre” in his essay, Ballard’s entrance into the SF genre represents what Derrida calls, “the very moment that a genre or a literature is broached, at that very moment, degenerescence has begun, the end begins” (Derrida 62). The same can be argued for the recent non-SF winners of the Hugo Award for Best Novel: Chabon, Clarke, Gaiman, and Rowling. Luckhurst’s solution is to question the very nature of legitimation that precipitates crisis in SF, instead of rehashing this very old line about the impending doom of SF at the hands of barbarians at the gates.

My intention in writing this paper is not to lament the death of SF or the passing of SF into mainstream literature, but instead to provide a new way of approaching the problematic notion of the SF genre. The recent trend in the Hugo Awards for Best Novel for more inclusivity rather than exclusivity indicates that there are genre changes or evolutionary steps taking place from within the SF field. Fear of the alien Other (i.e., non-SF genre writers) intruding on the here-and-now reality of SF literature should be consigned to the dustbin of history. The literature that is primarily devoted to giving voice to the alien Other should not be xenophobic about the participation of other stories not readily identified as SF. In fact, I assert that SF as a genre and a field must be inclusive of other ideas and writings rather than hypocritically isolating it when outsiders attempt to make postmodern inroads. Perhaps the SF field has to overcome a certain internal reaction to many years of ghettoization by the mainstream reading public and the academy, but this is no excuse for the continued exclusion of non-SF writers with materials that connect to some sense of what it is we call SF.

However, the continued discussion of SF and the SF archive reveals the fact that these are problematic signifiers that lack concrete definitions. On the one hand, those in the SF field are unable to articulate a definitive description or prescription for what constitutes SF. On the other hand, Derrida has shown that such definitions are inherently unstable once there is a transgression of the supposed genre boundaries. Both of these examples reflect the postmodern condition of living in a world divorced from outdated metanarratives and the loss of clear and universal truths. Therefore, a new solution is necessary to effectively and critically engage cultural works (whether they be what is called SF, postmodern fiction, literature, or any other writing) as objects of study.[12]

I suggest that we approach literature in a new way that borrows from the very technologies that have in part led to our postmodern existence. Jean-François Lyotard comments on the relationship between technology and language where he writes, “Scientific knowledge is a kind of discourse. And it is fair to say that for the last forty years the ‘leading’ science and technologies have had to do with language” (3), and “These technological transformations can be expected to have a considerable impact on knowledge” (4). The interpenetration of technology and language has facilitated most of the changes that we have experienced as humans following the Second World War and the development of the personal computer. Our engagement with language and words, even words on the printed page, are mediated by technologies–computers, word processing software, and the Internet.

Considering where we began with Chabon’s theory of entertainment, then Derrida’s “the law is madness,” and now computer technology, I want to plug into each of these sources and create something like a Science Fiction story in which “the law of genre” is replaced by a new way of seeing cultural works not as isolated within a genre category, but instead as interconnected creations sharing relationships and connection with the one cultural network. I propose imagining cultural works within a matrix devoid of the trappings of genre, which articulates the situation or relative position of the work within an ever-shifting network populated by other cultural creations.[13] The simulation would model our universe of culture without center and without border. It would be like our own physically curved universe that metaphorically covers the surface of a continually expanding sphere, hence there is no beginning or end on its surface. To continue the metaphor, light cones would convey a work’s past as well as the changes within its networked connections through time. Therefore, the simulation would be diachronic, relative, and archival in toto.

The simulation would provide a number of significant and extensive additions to the status quo of thinking of works as high or low, canonical or marginal, and thematically or critically relevant to a person’s interest or scholarship. The relational space within the simulation facilitates a non-hierarchical approach to the organization of cultural works. My meaning of organization focuses on the relationships between works, and not organized in the sense of building sets or genre categories within the simulation (i.e., there would be no swirling galaxies of SF fighting off invaders with laser cannons). The network connections stemming from and to cultural works within the simulation would be traces or lines of interest for further entertainment or study, and these connections would not favor one work over another or elevate one work as being greater than another. Again borrowing a computer metaphor the here-and-now of the Internet and web technologies, the database matrix that facilitates the simulation would contain for each work an entry of the work, its connections to other works, and semantically relevant tags that shift with time and are determined by the persons engaging that node/work of the network. Furthermore, these entries would constitute the “work” within the simulation instead of being tacked to the work separately. Imaginatively, these things are bound to a work, but not written to the text per se in the here-and-now. The simulation would make possible the integration of cultural works within a nexus of cultural thought through other writings and the participation of avatars within the simulation. In anticipation I ask, “How soon before I can login?”

I performed a postmodern appropriation of SF for the purposes of critically imagining beyond our past and present genre milieu into a future of new possibilities for engaging cultural works. The simulation underlies what’s already present in cultural practice and criticism–uncovering relationships through critical engagement. I propose the simulation not necessarily as a real project that we can build tomorrow, but instead as a proposition to encourage new approaches to genre and the SF genre in particular. And, what better and entertaining way to imagine the future than using the literature that we currently consider SF?


Works Cited

Best, Joel. “Prize Proliferation.” Sociological Forum 23.1 (2008): 1-27.

Chabon, Michael. Introduction. The Best American Short Stories 2005. Ed. Michael Chabon. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.

—. Introduction. McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories. Ed. Michael Chabon. New York: Vintage Books, 2004. ix-xv.

—. Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands. San Francisco: McSweeny’s Books, 2008.

—. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.

Coser, Lewis A., Charles Kadushin, and Walter W. Powell. Books: The Culture and Commerce of Publishing. New York: Basic Books, 1982.

Derrida, Jacques. “The Law of Genre.” Trans. Avital Ronell. On Narrative. Ed. W. J. T. Mitchell. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981. 51-77.

English, James F. The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard UP, 2005.

Greco, Albert N., Clara E. Rodriguez, and Robert M. Wharton. The Culture and Commerce of Publishing in the 21st Century. Stanford, CA: Stanford Business Books, 2007.

Gunn, James, and Matthew Candelaria. Speculations on Speculation: Theories of Science Fiction. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2005.

Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1984.

Mallett, Daryl F. and Robert Reginald. Reginald’s Science Fiction and Fantasy Awards: A Comprehensive Guide to the Awards and Their Winners. San Bernardino, CA: The Borgo Press, 1993.

McDowell, Edwin. “Publishing: Do Prizes Sell Books?” The New York Times 15 April 1983. 11 Nov. 2008 <;.

Menard, Louis. “All That Glitters; Literature’s Global Economy.” The New Yorker 26 December, 2005: 136.

Nicholls, Peter. “Hugo.” The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Eds. John Clute and Peter Nicholls. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994. 595-600.

North, Michael. Rev. of The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value by James F. English. Modernism/modernity 13:3 (2006): 577-578.

Polumbaum, Judy. Rev. of The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value by James F. English. Journal of Communication 57 (2007): 179-181.

Reginald, R. Science Fiction and Fantasy Awards. San Bernadino, CA: Borgo Press, 1981.

Showalter, Elaine. “In the Age of Awards.” Times Literary Supplement 3 March 2006: 12.

Stableford, Brian, John Clute, and Peter Nicholls. “Definitions of SF.” The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Eds. John Clute and Peter Nicholls. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994. 311-314.

Weber, Bruce. “Forrest J. Ackerman, High Elder of Fantasy Fans, Is Dead at 92.” The New York Times. 6 Dec 2008. 6 Dec 2008 <;.

Wijnberg, Nachoem M. Rev. of The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value by James F. English. Journal of Cultural Economics 30 (2006): 161-163.



[1] Michael Chabon’s interest in popular and genre fiction is evident in is his introduction and selection of stories for The Best American Short Stories 2005 and his choice of works for McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories (2004).

[2] As I will demonstrate later, he abhors genre identification and literary genre categorization in favor of writing as an art of entertainment. However, his work, and that of other well-regarded authors, might constitute a literature genre outside of the acknowledged genres such as Science Fiction, Fantasy, Western, Romance, etc.

[3] To illustrate English’s point about the diffusion of the prize economy, consider this David Foster Wallace-worthy footnote rehearsal of reviews and articles that cite The Economy of Prestige. The sociologist Joel Best, winner of the 1991 Charles Horton Cooley Award from the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction, builds a theoretical framework for English’s economy of prestige, which he describes as, “the most extensive analyses of contemporary cultural prizes,” in order “to locate this process of prize proliferation within the sociology of social problems” (Best 6). Louis Menard, who won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for History, calls English’s work, “an ingenious analysis of the history and social function of cultural prizes and awards,” but he questions the author’s lack of acknowledgement of Pascale Casanova’s earlier 1999 work on the subject of literary prestige economies, La république mondiale des lettres (136). Elaine Showalter, well-known American feminist and literary scholar, as well as Chair of the 2007 Man Booker Prize jury, weighs much of her Times Literary Supplement review on English’s critique of prize administration and juries. Nachoem M. Wijnberg, winner of a number of poetry awards and writing for the Journal of Cultural Economics, writes a polite, bur largely negative review that faults the book’s omission of earlier work on this phenomenon by sociologists such as Natalie Heinich, as well as the book’s failure, “to take its economics as seriously as it promised to do” (Wijnberg 162). Michael North, winner of the 1983 Norman Foerster Award for Best Article to Appear in American Literature, attacks English’s work on the grounds that, “in its attempt to put both prizes and their audiences in some larger perspective, [it] simply lifts the economic cycle to another level,” rather than making a critique or judgment on the cultural practice of award giving (North 577). And finally, Judy Polumbaum, recipient of the 2004 University of Iowa Faculty Scholar Award, points out in her review what you may have already guessed from the above rehearsal of the early critical engagement of English’s book, which is, “Inevitably, this volume and its author are part of the whole atrocious machinery; this book reviewer likewise is complicit in the cultural juggernaut that has given rise to such an excess of titles and trophies” (Polumbaum 181). I found the awards for each author with a simple Google search for their name, and occasionally, the words “vita” or “CV.”

[4] For the purposes of this paper, it is important to note that I do not collapse the SF field into the ‘SF genre,’ which consists of agreed upon and debated conventions of SF literature. Additionally, SF is used to denote all that has to do with SF including the archive and participants at all stages of production and consumption.

[5] These categories include: Best Novel, Best Novella, Best Novelette, Best Short Story, Best Related Book, Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form), Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form), Best Editor (Long Form), Best Editor (Short Form), Best Professional Artist, Best Semiprozine, Best Fanzine, Best Fan Writer, and Best Fan Artist. It could be argued that the Hugo Awards success is derivative of the number of shifting categories (they change over time depending on perceived need) that cover a number of niches within the SF field. For this paper, I am primarily concerned with the Best Novel Hugo Award.

[6] This collected memory is emblematized by the work of the recently departed Forrest J. Ackerman, who Stephen King described in Ackerman’s New York Times obituary as, “an appreciator, a collector, not a creator…Well, he was a creator in the sense that with the magazine he gave us a window into a world we really wanted to see. He was our Hubble telescope” (Weber par. 17).

[7] A simple Google search for The Yiddish Policemen’s Union will reveal just how extensive reviews and positive comments are in the realm of the Internet and New Media.

[8] For simplicity, I chose to use the catchall “publishing industry,” but Coser, Kadushin, and Powell warn that, “It can be misleading to speak of the publishing industry, for it has various sectors, each with its own distinct modes of operation” (8). A further extrapolation of how the publishing industry’s various sectors affect genre formation and boundaries is a subject for further research.

[9] Sturgeon’s Law states “90 percent of everything is crap.” It was recently added to the Oxford English Dictionary, and the SF author, Theodore Sturgeon, originally formulated it.

[10] Speculations on Speculation: Theories of Science Fiction, edited by James Gunn and Matthew Candelaria is a fantastic source of many definitions of SF. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction entry, “Definitions of SF,” by Stableford et. al. is another useful source for the major definitions in the field.

[11] In “The Law of Genre,” Derrida employs and plays with the literal meanings of genre in French, which include kind, type, sort, gender, or literary genre.

[12] I am taking a broad definition of cultural work to include anything human created and not necessarily writing per se.

[13] This idea is wholly my own, but I do take inspiration from William Gibson’s description of “cyberspace” in his 1984 novel, Neuromancer, and Apple Computer’s now defunct software, called HotSauce, for visualizing the Internet as a 3D navigable space.

Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Teaching College Writing, Final Exam, July 1, 2008

This is the fifty-fifth 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 final of four Recovered Writing posts from Teaching College Writing is my take home final exam. In these essay responses, I discuss theories of language and literacy, justifications for composition instruction techniques, and demonstrate a letter-writing approach to composition feedback.

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Brian Huot

Teaching College Writing

1 July 2008

Take Home Final Exam

I. What is your theory of language and literacy and how does it relate to first-year college writing instruction? Make sure you refer to relevant scholarship in the field to support your beliefs and assumptions about writing and its teaching.

My theory of language (the protocols and method of communication) and literacy (the ability to read and write, or more broadly, to communicate via language) is that they are acquired through immersive practices. In the first-year college writing class, freshmen students bring a certain understanding of language and literacy that they’ve acquired through school and socialization outside of school. It’s my goal to tap into my student’s various skill sets, to reach into their toolboxes of communication, and guide them towards the attainment of new tools that will allow them to communicate better.

My newfound theories of language and literacy come from a variety of sources. The first is Roger W. Shuy’s “A Holistic View of Language.” Shuy argues that form (the mechanics of writing) follows function (communication). This is a significant idea, because it points the way to findings such as those by Michael W. Williamson in his essay, “Common Sense Meets Research: The Debate Over Grammatical Instruction in Composition Instruction.” Essentially, rote teaching and practice of grammar and the forms of language do not good writers make. Engaging students as writers in topics that they find interesting are just as or better at building on and tapping into the student’s own innate knowledge and mastery of language. Additionally, this increases students’ enjoyment of writing. And it’s that enjoyment of mindful and effective communication that’s necessary to, as Mem Fox writes in “Notes from the Battlefield: Towards a Theory of Why People Write,” “ache with caring.” In order to jump start student caring about writing in the immersive environment, the teacher must enter dialog with the students as a collaborator that is willing to recognize and listen to his or her student’s voice and cultural context as suggested by James T. Zebroski in his, “A Hero in the Classroom,” and Carmen Kynard in her, “Y’all Are Killin’ Me up in Here: Response Theory from a New Jack Composition Instructor/Sistah Gurl Meeting Her Students on the Page.” Showing students that you’re “meeting them on the page,” or “listening to their voices on the page,” will not only show that you’re invested in them and their work, but it will invite them to invest in their own work as something of value, because it has an attentive audience. Additionally, expanding the audience beyond the student-teacher relationship is imperative for building student investment in their own work as well as the work of others. This is accomplished in the immersive classroom through group discussion and peer review. As teachers, we empower our students by teaching them not only how to write, but also how to read and respond to the work of others. For the student, peer review leads them toward an understanding that their work is not only intended for the eyes of a teacher and the subsequent marking and comments. Furthermore, the truly immersive writing class takes the student’s work beyond the confines of class into the real world through online posting of text and multimodal assignments or social assignments such as writing to representatives or the newspaper. This embeds writing with an importance beyond getting a grade, and the skillful, reflective teacher guides students through this realization by a carefully designed sequence of assignments connected by poignant or engrossing theme. Returning to Shuy, these exercises build students’ function of writing skills, but as Williamson argues in analog with Shuy, form follows function. Addressing grammatical issues has a place in the classroom if and when they become a non-self-correcting problem. My goal in the implementation of this theory is to guide my students, as writers, to be better communicators.


II.       Choose three of the following subjects for the teaching of writing and write one page for each that describes what they are and the empirical and pedagogical basis for using these techniques with students.

A. Multimodal projects are forms of communication beyond the traditional pen and paper essay. The emphasis is on the medium of communication rather than the rhetorical mode of communication, because various mediums of communication may all carry rhetorical communication. That is, a brochure, poster, audio essay, movie, or Flash animation all may be employed in making an argument and communicating some message. Additionally, borrowing from Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, “the medium is the message,” which means that choosing a particular medium is a rhetorical choice that carries its own meaning. As Pamela Takayoshi and Cynthia L. Selfe mention in, “Thinking about Multimodality,” the times they are a-changing. The twenty-first century digital world has expanded beyond the traditional writing assignment. The increase in computer usage and the lowering cost of audio and video technologies empowers individuals to engage other mediums for communication besides the written word. For these reasons, Takayoshi and Selfe insist that the definition of composition needs expansion to allow for multimodal projects, because the rhetoric underlying traditional composition and multimodal composition are the same–both use rhetoric to communicate a message. Additionally, students need digital literacy in multimodal forms so that they are better communicators in their private as well as professional lives. Furthermore, students enjoy working with new technologies, which is an effective means of engaging students in rhetorical practices. It’s important to note that, as Mickey Hess says in “Composing Multimodal Assignments,” there are other considerations to make as a teacher in developing multimodal assignments. Some of these include focusing on the rhetorical practices to emphasize in a particular assignment, allowing students the latitude to explore and figure out some things on their own, encouraging group work, and having students reflect on their work and the process in writing. Pedagogically, multimodal composition engages the same rhetorical communication skills developed in written composition–the medium has changed, but the function remains the same.

B. We’ve encountered a number of complementary theories of productive student-teacher relationships over the past few weeks. Essentially, all of these involve mutual respect between teacher and student, and a leveling effect that puts the teacher and student on a more level plane of dialogic cooperation. Instead of employing a top-down, monolog approach to teaching, it’s more effective, empowering (for student and teacher), and fulfilling to have a dialog between teacher and student. One example of this comes from Hull, Rose, Fraser, and Castellano in their essay, “Remediation as Social Construct: Perspectives from an Analysis of Classroom Discourse.” These authors use classroom and student-teacher conference transcripts to remind teachers that it’s easy to drown out student voices. We should encourage more student turns in discussion, and listen and engage what our students have to say rather than hijacking class and conference discussions. Another view of productive student-teacher relationships comes from Annette Harris Powell’s “Conflicting Voices in the Classroom: Developing Critical Consciousness.” Powell employs socially engaging texts in her classroom to develop discussion and raise student’s awareness of competing discourses, thus expanding her student’s critical awareness. Powell’s ideas come up again in James T. Zebroski’s “A Hero in the Classroom,” but in reverse. Zebroski argues that teachers need to consider the heteroglossia within our students’ papers in order to better evaluate the work and connect with our students. My favorite student-teacher relationship building pedagogical tool is presented in Gerriets and Lowe’s, “Building Relationships through Written Dialog.” I like the idea of carrying on a discussion via writing with my students regarding their papers, because it allows both participants time to consider what is being said. This is not to say that I feel spoken dialog isn’t effective, but I think a combination of written and spoken dialog is important, because the teacher, as Carmen Kynard does, meets the students on the page as well in spoken dialog.

C. Listserve or the email list is a tremendously effective tool in the writing classroom as I have evidenced in my own experience at other schools and in our Teaching College Writing class. Listserve allows the conversation to carry on outside of class by empowering students to communicate with their classmates in an “open” turn based environment. What that means is that students aren’t constrained to wait and talk. They write down their thoughts and send them out to the classmates, and in turn, read the responses of others to which they may respond again. All students may take part in the conversation on listserve, but it’s particularly liberating to students that are still developing group discussion skills–if their ideas are accepted online, they may be more willing to engage classroom discussion. Besides reinforcing group communication skills, they are effective for the writing classroom, because students are required to communicate in writing. This additional writing practice fosters “form following function,” as well as rhetoric skill practice (i.e., how to best explain myself to convince my classmates that I’m right or to convey what I mean to everyone else without causing a misunderstanding). Also, as a multimodal medium of communication, listserve introduces many students to online etiquette, which adds to their abilities as effective and respectful communicators in other mediums. In a tip of the iceberg kind of way, listserve also serves the requirements of the writing program for Tier I.

III. Respond to the attached paper. Be sure to create a specific student in a particular class who is writing in response to a specific assignment. You may include any information about the student you believe to be important in understanding the pedagogical moment of this essay. Your only restrictions are that you must respond to the student you created.

This student, who I’ll call Jim, is from a working class background. His mom and dad both work, and have at most a high school education. They want their son to succeed in life, and they see education as the key to that success. Therefore, they stressed his need for education without really explaining or fleshing out the reasons behind their belief that education is the key to a better life, and how could they without that kind of experience themselves? For Jim, this caused confusion as he went through school, because he could realize the tangible and immediate rewards of street education whereas school education provided less tangible payoffs. At the core of his being, he is someone that wants to embrace higher education and reap the good life for his efforts, but he’s looking for the hook, or reason, that will light his own fire to learn.

Jim’s paper, “Renaissance Man,” was written in response to my second writing assignment in Tier I College Writing. The assignment was to write a three page personal response to a film that you’ve seen. The response should weave together personal narrative to support or refute what the student saw as the argument of the film.

This is my response following Gerriets and Lowe’s written dialog method:


Dear Jim,

I enjoyed reading your essay on Penny Marshall’s Renaissance Man (did you know Marshall also directed Tom Hanks in the film, Big? If you haven’t seen it, that’s another one that you should check out, because it addresses many of the issues you raise about different kinds of education). I saw two major arguments in your essay–one is that education is not just book learning, but it’s also experience gained outside of school, and the other is that learning takes place when the individual has a motivation to learn. These are powerful ideas, and I can see some of the ways you weaved your own narrative about your parents’ expectation that you go to college and other pressures that they placed on you growing up with the examples that you chose from the film. I’d like to go more in-depth on these examples, and perhaps together we can formulate a plan to make this an even stronger paper.

After rereading your first paragraph, I get the sense that your theory has to do with encouraging students to learn in school. You claim that, “our school programs are missing a way to teach everyone…to find something that everyone is interested in.” I see where you’re coming from in that classes often lack a hook or a common idea that students are interested in learning about, or the reasons for learning aren’t always immediately apparent. That, perhaps, more should go into showing students how to be engaged learners or why learning is important and can be fun, rather than just telling students these things. Showing is definitely a more powerful rhetorical tool, especially when you’re writing, and I feel that you can do more of this to empower your own argument. If you decide to focus on this one idea to develop your own theory about learning in your next revision, I would suggest adding an example from your life when your parents put pressure on your to learn and perhaps their words didn’t work on you. Another way would be to talk about a specific example from school when the teacher didn’t spark your interest to learn. Show how that supports your theory, and then talk about Renaissance Man as reinforcing what you see as a need of education–a real reason or a more exciting reason to learn, to care about learning. Let me know if you go this direction, because I want to let give you an essay about this very topic by Mem Fox. When you read what she has to say, you’ll think you’re on the same wavelength!

There’s another thread in your paper that you might want to pick up if you decide not to go the reason route. That other way has to do with what you wrote on page 2, “People put too much emphasis in the idea that good grades equal an educated person, this is a false statement. Many people that have poor grades in school are more intelligent than a person who makes good grades in school.”   I read it as you making a distinction between school learning and “real life” learning. This is another thread with which to center your essay around that you have good examples from the film that you can draw on. Additionally, as I said before, it would be great if you could show the reader an example of this from your own life. What are some things that you’ve learned outside of school, and what are some things that you’ve learned in school? What value do you place on the different things that you’ve learned?

Think over these different approaches, and how you might focus your paper more on one or the other, and meet with me during office hours this week. We’ll sit down and talk about your plan. I’d like to hear about some of the stories and details that you can employ to show the reader more concretely what it is you’re talking about. See you soon!


Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Teaching College Writing, Quiz, What do people do when they write? June 16, 2008

This is the fifty-fourth 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 third of four Recovered Writing posts from Teaching College Writing is my response to a quiz on an assigned reading on “What do people do when they write?” I can’t find the essay/handout that we were responding to, but I think that some of the thoughts that I put down regarding mechanics/surface vs. content/depth are interesting.

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Brian Huot

Teaching College Writing

16 June 2008

“What do people do when they write?” Quiz

1)  What can you say about the kinds of responses from students in the two groups?  Are the first group of responses for each grade level different than the second group–what are the differences or similarities for each group in each grade level?

The responses from students in the first group of each grade level are typically about thought, expression, and explanation, and the second group responses of each grade level are about practices and methodology.  Linking these responses back to the class, the first groups are aligned with function, and the second groups are aligned with form.

In the third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade responses, the first group overwhelming uses the following key words and phrases:  think, open their minds, and share…thoughts.  Also, they write for a purpose such as to relax, avoid boredom, or to communicate with friends and relatives.  The second group’s responses focus on practical matters and the mechanics of writing.  For example, these students talk about holding the pencil, sitting down to write, making letters, moving the hand and pencil, and wasting ink and pencil lead.

Again, the responses of the first group of ninth graders are generally about expression.  They “tell about things,” “get stuff across,” and “express their thoughts.”  The responses from the second group are, like the second group of third to fifth graders, about the physicality of writing.  For example, they “just write stuff down,” “hold a pencil and move their hands,” and “put the point of the pencil to the paper and start making words and letters.”  There are exceptions in both groups that could be interpreted as belonging to the other group if the groups are divided based on function and form.

The college freshmen groups are also split along lines of function and form.  The first group is largely about conveying, explaining, translating thoughts into words, and revealing thoughts, ideas, and emotions.  The second group of college freshmen is more closely aligned to the first than the other two grade levels, because there are some responses about expression and communication.  However, the majority of the responses concern mechanics (e.g., “usage and grammar”) and writing methods (e.g., “First you pick your topic, then you make sure you have enough information.  Then you rewrite and check the spelling and copy it down” and “They express their overall views on a given topic and later draw conclusions in a patterned coherent fashion”).  Also, there’s a response that describes the act of writing.


2)  Do you see any similarities across grade levels for each of the groups?  Are there certain characteristics for either group one or two responses?  What are those characteristics?

In general, the responses of the first group of each grade level are about the function of writing–i.e., communication and the expression of ideas, and those of the second group of each grade level are about the form of writing–i.e., the act of writing and methods of writing.


3)  Considering your answers to the first two questions, what variable (consideration, category, quality) did the researchers use to separate the different groups of responses within each grade level?

Considering our readings of the past week, and the writing concept that “form follows function,” it seems that the responses are grouped based on writing ability.  The first group in each grade level has stronger writers, and the second group respondents are weaker writers.  The stronger writers understand the function of writing, because they’ve internalized that through their acquisition of writing.  The weaker writers respond by describing the literal action of writing or process of using the plug-and-chug method of writing an essay in high school.  They are thinking about the surface level of writing rather than what lies underneath as did the first group respondents.

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.

Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Teaching College Writing, Assignment Design: Team-Based Competitive Blogging with Portfolio Integration, July 1, 2008

This is the fifty-second 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).

In this first of four Recovered Writing posts from this seminar, I am sharing a project with support for portfolios. Since I wrote this project, technology and teaching have come a long way, but the ideas in this assignment can be repurposed in many different ways.

Also, I enjoyed looking at the attached screenshots of WordPress circa 2008. I miss the earlier design for WordPress.

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Brian Huot

Teaching College English

1 July 2008

Competitive Team Blogging with Portfolio Integration

BoingBoing crew photo by Bart Nagel,

Introduction and Pedagogical Concerns

The five, seemingly innocuous persons in the photograph on the title page are the eccentric collaborative technoculture team of the insanely popular blog–“A Directory of Wonderful Things.”[1] They are Mark Frauenfelder, David Pescovitz, John Battelle, Cory Doctorow, and Xeni Jardin. began as a ‘zine in the 1990s by Frauenfelder, and later oozed online and evolved into the A-list blog that it is today. Through its various mediums–print, website, and blog–it has been a collaborative effort encompassing the various talents of different persons with complementary skills, abilities, and loves. Additionally, the collaboration of the “Boingers” is not only very synthetic, but also technically required in order to generate the copious content posted to their blog every day. Without this on-going large textual corpus, the popularity and repeat viewership of would not have been possible or sustainable.

I believe that BoingBoing’s collaborative blogging model has something to offer our students in an ever-increasingly technologically mediated world. Also, the writing aspect of blogging, which has been talked about in the literature by numerous persons, is a useful tool in the freshman composition and college writing classroom. Another important aspect of the blog is the archival aspect of blogging that lends itself as complementary to a portfolio centric writing classroom. However, team blogging necessitates some aspect to engender caring on the part of students in order to distinguish it as something more than merely writing online. This is achieved by forming groups to create a themed blog based on their major or interests, and requiring each team to report to the class as a whole on the “success” of the blog in terms of viewership and comments. This friendly competitive atmosphere will motivate students to work above-and-beyond in order to have better statistics than their rival groups. Therefore, team based blogging should be considered as another viable multimodal model for college writing courses, because it fulfills a number of important developmental tasks promoted by the Kent State Writing Program.

Competitive team blogging with portfolio integration for the College Writing I classroom is a pedagogical tool aimed at achieving several important goals: providing students a space and theme they are interested in, increasing student investment in a work that they “own” outside the context of the classroom, and improving teacher response by emphasizing explanation over marginal remarks, and embracing multimodal compositional practices by shifting student portfolios from physical media to the Internet.

The theory behind competitive team blogging is that students will care more about the creation, maintenance, and contribution to a collaborative work focused around something that interests them than artificial, individual assignments to be handed into the teacher. Their care for their blog and their writing posted to it will come with an audience larger than the class, department, and school. Reminding students of this broader audience, combined with their real-world data showing the origin of the viewers, should motivate them to work harder on this than assignments for a teacher-only audience.   Additionally, team blogs allow for all written work done by the student to be contained in an archive that’s always present, which encourages students to look back at past work, and more easily prepare revisions based on their own considerations and those provided by their team and the class as a whole.

This document on the implementation of competitive team blogging with portfolio integration contains a step-by-step methodology, a worksheet of topics to cover regarding collaborative blogging, a student handout on blogging and team blogging, and illustrated instructions on creating a collaborative blog with[2] Additionally, this teaching tool is intended as a guide for teachers, and is aimed at that audience. Each teacher who implements team blogging should tailor its employment to his or her class. Obviously, this pedagogical tool would be much more difficult for someone with a 4/4 teaching load as opposed to a 1/2 teaching load. However, I encourage alterations to this project that makes it practical and meaningful for you and your students.


  1. Introduce your students to your methodology and the reasons behind it. Be up-front and open with your students regarding competitive team blogging with portfolio integration. For example, tell them that they’ll be doing “team blogging” all semester, and maintain an emphasis on their contributions to their blogs throughout, and stand firm on the place of team blogging in the classroom. I don’t mean that you should not be a reflective practitioner, but the core idea of team blogging should be maintained and other alterations to lessons and assignments should be made if need be. Additionally, some students may or may not blog, and they may not be accustomed to extended teamwork. You’ll have to teach your students how to do these things, as well as teach them about other aspects of online content creation and commenting (these may be extended throughout the course).
  2. Gather student information. It’s expedient for the teacher undertaking the semester-length team blogging exercise to assign members to each of the groups. This is easily accomplished during the first week of class by requiring all students to email the teacher a numerated list of at least three interests or hobbies as well as their major. The teacher should tell the students the purpose of this exercise, and allow friends to request making their own team as long as they provide a convincing explanation for their team’s focus.
  3. Form teams. Following the gathering of student interests, form the class into four or five teams based on similar or complementary interests. Explain to the class that this will form the basis of their collaborative work over the course of the semester. Allow the students time to get to know one another, exchange contact information, and decide on the final theme and title for their team’s blog.
  4. Develop team roles. Have students review and write critiques or reports about popular collaborative blogging sites such as Gawker, Boing Boing, etc. before class. In class, open discussion about the purpose of blogs and the way in which collaborative blogs handle content creation from a number of authors. This means, guide them through understanding the roles of webmasters, editors, and content contributors. Finally, have the teams pick their first round of roles, which will alternate periodically throughout the semester in order to allow each member a chance to wear a different hat and experience different responsibilities.
  5. Create blogs. Devote a class in the computer classroom to guide the students through creating a collaborative blog with a free service such as (see Appendix 1 for instructions).
  6. Integrating blogs into the writing classroom. Non-graded individual assignments should be tailored as posts for the student’s team blog. If your class isn’t always in a computer classroom, require students to type up and post their handwritten class work before your next meeting.
  7. Building team competition. After four weeks of blogging, prepare your students for weekly group presentations. These presentations should be about five minutes in length for each team, so that no more than half a class is devoted to them. These presentations should include the following information: the editor’s choice of best post, the group’s choice of best post, site traffic numbers, and other interesting information such as incoming links and search terms visitors to their blog used to find their posts. Other ways of increasing competition is to offer prizes at the end of the semester for the best blog, and this can be decided by the teacher or by the class through the use of ranked voting (i.e., the class rates each team as either 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc, and the team with the least amount of votes–meaning higher ranking–wins). Cheap prizes such as KSU keychains or t-shirts may be given to the winning team, or the teacher may solicit local businesses for donated giftcards.
  8. Team blog as portfolio. The fearless teacher combines portfolios with team blogs. This would entail having students post all of their assignments, including the required graded papers, to their team’s blog. The teacher may use the comments on those posts to leave feedback, encouragement, and critique on each student’s graded post. Additionally, students will have the opportunity to revise their papers in a new posting, which they must link back to their original post. At the end of the semester, each student must write a post that includes links to their last revisions, which in turn will link back to their earlier drafts. This nesting should facilitate easy evaluation of the portfolio assignments.
  9. Reflective Assignment. For your students’ reflective assignment, they should reflect on the blogging process as well as the writing process that you model for them throughout the semester. They will realize that they will have produced an extraordinary amount of material individually and even more so cooperatively through semester-long blogging, which will add to their developing sense as a writer.

Topics of Discussion Regarding Collaborative Blogging

  • How is online content created? It isn’t “automagically” generated by machines. Real people, with real investments in what is being communicated, are behind the text that you read on your favorite blogs.
  • Online etiquette and protocol. Encourage openness and cooperation and warn against flaming. Even though our blog writing exists out in the Internet cloud, a human being created it, and we must respect the person behind that content. It’s okay to disagree and constructively argue with a writer about his or her content, but it’s not okay to attack the person behind the writing.
  • Team roles. Talk about the differences between the roles of editor and contributors. Encourage group cohesion and support. The editor’s role is not to discourage team members, but instead to encourage them. Additionally, all team members should comment on and provide support for the other members.
  • Intergroup roles. Members of each group should be required to comment on the postings of the other groups. These comments need not be about the content of the postings, but more importantly the ideas and argument communicated by the post’s writer to an online audience.
  • Citations and plagiarism. As in traditional writing, all works and sources should be cited in blog posts. WordPress has a quoting feature, and has a good model to follow regarding proper attribution.

Handout for Students

Team Blogging

So, what’s blogging exactly?

Blogging is the maintenance of an online journal, available for all to read, that reflects on your life or a particular subject. For example, I’m a blogger. I maintain a blog about Science Fiction at Each day, I write something relating to SF, teaching, or my personal life. Another example is, which is billed as “A Directory of Wonderful Things.” It’s run by several bloggers who post about interesting, political, and fun things that they find on the Internet.

You’re Blogging Now!

Team blogging is the basis for the most popular blogs on the net. Boing Boing, Slashfilm, Gawker, Valleywag, Slashdot, and many others write enormous amounts of content for their readers, because the task of writing is distributed amongst a number of contributors and administered by an editor. Over the course of the semester, each of you will get to experience the different roles in team blogging by developing your own blog in groups. Your team blogs will have a theme or subject that all members will tailor their writing towards. Also, everyone will post their assignments on the team blogs for your peers and I to read and respond to. I want you to own these blogs, so make as much of them as you can for a particular audience with an interest in your theme. To make things more interesting, everyone will have a chance at the end of the semester to vote on the best blog, and that team will get a prize!

I guarantee you that at the end of the semester you won’t believe how much you’ve each written, and how much you’ve progressed as writers. Furthermore, your blogs will explode with content that will interest many more people than students and myself.

Creating a Collaborative Blog with

  1. Sign Up Now! Direct your web browser to and click on the large icon labeled, Sign Up Now!
  1. Have one student create the blog’s administrator account using the Gimme a blog! option, and then have each team member go through the signup process with the Just a username, please option.image005
  2. Login to using the blog’s administrator account. The pages that follow are from my blog’s Dashboard—
  3. Click on My Dashboard (upper left). This is the heart of the blog where all management takes place. Now, click on Users (right) to invite the individual team members to the blog.image009
  4. The Manage Users area allows for adding contributors to the blog. At the bottom of the page, have the teams invite each member by their registered email address. Add everyone as Editor so that they can serve that function when called on, as well as contribute to the blog.image011
  5. Now that the housekeeping stuff has been taken care of, have the students log out of the administrator account, making sure to write down that information in a safe place, and log in with their own accounts. Once logged in, have them click on Write and begin exploring the text editing capabilities of WordPress.image013
  6. The Blog Stats are essential for team reflection on the progress and audience of their blog. Returning to “My Dashboard” and clicking on Manage, and then Blog Stats yields a wealth of information about the blog’s readers. This information should be utilized in the weekly team update reports. The graphic below shows the number of visitors over time.image015
  7. Blog Stats continued. These stat boxes show referrers to the blog and the most visited posts on the blog.image017
  8. Blog Stats continued. These stat boxes show search engine terms that lead visitors to the team’s blog, and clicks made by readers from their blog to external sites.image021
  9. Blog Stats continued. At the bottom of the statistics page are raw numbers of views and posts, and incoming links to their blog from other websites and blogs.
  10. Design considerations and other explorations. Encourage your students to try out different themes (My Dashboard > Design > Themes) and other design considerations that reinforce their rhetorical choices.image023
  11. Have students reflect on their own work as well as the work of others in class and on the Internet at large. Who knows, maybe they’ll develop the next “Boing Boing” success level team blog!image025