Science Fiction, LMC3214, Summer 2014: Exploring Cultural Connections Through Haptics and LEGO

The Millennium Falcon circles Tech Tower.
The Millennium Falcon circles Tech Tower.

Before closing out the last class that I would teach at Georgia Tech as a Brittain Fellow, I brought a great big container of LEGO bricks to class for my students to explore and enjoy thinking about science fiction with haptics. As I had done last year, I invited my students to think of something from their experience of science fiction that emblematized what science fiction means to them. Put another way, I asked them to build a model of the thing that first comes to mind when they think of science fiction. It could be a robot, blaster, rocket, cyborg, computer, spaceship, etc. Whatever it was, I wanted them to use the available bricks to build an approximation of the thing, present their model to the class, and explain its provenance. I would add to each presentation of a LEGO MOC (my own creation) with additional SF examples and historical relevances.

The challenge to this assignment was that 2/3 of the class were taking the course remotely online. While I invited students to build something and share it on Twitter, few did or were able to do so before class that day. One online student joined us for the on-campus class, which added one more student to the mix and was much appreciated by me and his peers.

After giving instructions and discussing haptics, I gave the students about 25 minutes to find bricks and build their models.

Collecting LEGO bricks for their MOCs.
Collecting LEGO bricks for their MOCs.
Building their science fiction models with LEGO.
Building their science fiction models with LEGO.

Then, students were invited to come to the front of the class, place their model under the document camera for the benefit of online students, and tell us about their creation and its inspiration to them.

Matthew and his model of the Starship Enterprise NCC-1701-D from Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Matthew and his model of the Starship Enterprise NCC-1701-D from Star Trek: The Next Generation.


Jarad and his lightsaber from Star Wars.
Jarad and his Jedi lightsaber from Star Wars.


Aditya and his moon rover.
Aditya and his moon rover.


Lauren and her planetary rover.
Lauren and her planetary rover.


Tyler and his TARDIS.
Tyler and his TARDIS.


James and his spacecraft.
James and his spacecraft.


Peter and his flying car.
Peter and his flying car.


Roxanne and her spacecraft.
Roxanne and her spacecraft.


James and his Daban Urnud ship from Neal Stephenson's Anathem.
James and his Daban Urnud ship from Neal Stephenson’s Anathem.


Sang and his futuristic aircraft.
Sang and his futuristic aircraft.

I was proud of the creations and connections that my students made during this end-of-semester exercise. Despite a number of same types of SF emblems (air/spacecraft), each student assumed a different approach and had different points of origin for their inspiration. Also, no two models were alike. Each one is a expression of the individual using a three-dimensional modeling art and design form–LEGO.

Besides drawing on different kinds and ways of thinking for this exercise, I know from students comments that they appreciated having a creative outlet in the class beyond their analytical final papers, which are creative in other ways (argumentation, research, prose writing, professional formatting/design, etc.).

Some of them choose to keep their models while others let me keep their models to show future students.

LMC3214, Summer 2014 Class Photo.
LMC3214, Summer 2014 Class Photo.

Finally, my Science Fiction class would not have been possible without the technical support of Ted Skirvin, who worked with me to use the affordances of the room with my teaching style while accommodating the needs of online students.

Ted Skirvin of Georgia Tech's Global Learning Center.
Ted Skirvin of Georgia Tech’s Global Learning Center.


Science Fiction, LMC 3214, Summer 2014: Proto-SF, Voyages Extraordinaires, and Scientific Romances

Since I will be out of town on business during Wednesday’s class, I made this lecture video for my on-campus and off-campus students. It is available as an MP4 on T-Square > Resources, too.

Besides covering proto-SF, Voyages Extraordinaires, and Scientific Romances, we are reading H.G. Wells’ “The Star” and E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops.” I am looking forward to reading what everyone has to say on Twitter using the #lmc3214 hashtag!

Next week, we begin discussing the Hugo Gernsback and the SF Pulps!

Science Fiction, LMC 3214, Summer 2014: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Day 1 of 2)

Popular or Sci-Fi depictions: The Creature in Boris Karloff disguise and Victor Frankenstein as the mad scientist.
Popular or Sci-Fi depictions: The Creature in Boris Karloff disguise and Victor Frankenstein as the mad scientist.

Today, my LMC 3214 students and I shifted our attention away from contemporary science fiction as represented by Ted Chiang’s “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” towards the beginning of the genre.

My goal was to shift my students’ thinking about Frankenstein away from the popular conception (photo above) to the novel’s original depiction of these important characters in science fiction and English literature (photo to the right, below). When time and materials permit, I will bring in other Lego models to illustrate some of my larger points in class.

SF original: Mary Shelley's learned and angry Victor Frankenstein and grotesque, gargantuan Creature.
SF original: Mary Shelley’s learned and angry Victor Frankenstein and grotesque, gargantuan Creature.

During today’s class, I lectured on precursors of the genre beginning with the Epic of Gilgamesh (connecting each of these earlier works to either Chiang’s story or Frankenstein to illustrate how the themes in SF influences still remain today) and moved forward to modernity. I glossed the Age of Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, Romanticism, and the Gothic.

With that groundwork established, we began discussing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). I lectured on her biography and significant themes in the novel (science saturated novel, all three protagonists are scientists–Walton, Victor, and the Creature, and the biology of mind). The latter theme of mind (empiricism vs. rationalism) was what I rounded out the lecture with by discussing how the rationalists via Noam Chomsky eventually won out over the empiricists (the tabula rasa/the blank slate).

My students are building their discussions on Twitter using the hashtag #lmc3214. Please join in and participate in the conversation!

Science Fiction, LMC 3214, Summer 2014: Definitions of SF and Ted Chiang’s “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling”

During Wednesday’s class, we will continue laying groundwork for our work in Science Fiction, LMC 3214 this summer. First, we will discuss the assigned reading: Ted Chiang’s “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling.” Then, while exploring the list of SF definitions that I assembled for us, we will test Chiang’s novella against those definitions. These definitions will also be a continuing part of our discussions in the weeks ahead.

If you are interested in Chiang’s story, you might want to listen to this speech that Chiang gave at EXPO 1: New York on July 8, 2013:

Next week, we will turn away from contemporary SF and go back to its beginning, which I will argue (as others have done before me) is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818, NB: we will be reading the 1831 edition).

Science Fiction, LMC3214, Summer 2014: On-Campus and Online Hybrid Class, Syllabus and Structure

Beginning tomorrow, I will lead a new kind of Science Fiction LMC3214 class at Georgia Tech for 35 students.

As part of the Summer Online Undergraduate Program, I will teach about 10 on-campus students with face-to-face lecture, discussion, and exercises. Our weekly class meetings will be recorded in a Distance Learning classroom and made available to my 25 other students in the class who are off-campus and online.

Each section of students will receive the same lecture material and be required to complete the same assignments, but the online students will not have the benefit of realtime interaction with me and the other students. At least, they won’t be required to be. My intent is to test a way of facilitating simultaneous and asynchronous discussion with the help of Twitter. On-campus and off-campus students will use Twitter to facilitate discussion, ask questions, and share relevant material. They will also be asked to respond to one another’s sharing and questions. In the beginning, I will act as a mediator to connect students together and help build our initial discussions. It will be up to the students to sustain the conversations as a component of their participation grade. You will be able to follow along with the discussion (and contribute, too!) by following the hashtag: #lmc3214.

I have some new ideas and material that I am going to try out in this summer’s Science Fiction class. Last summer, my Science Fiction class was held during the short summer session, which made it difficult to cover more material and challenging for students to learn the material in such a compressed period of time. This summer’s class covers the full Summer semester, so I think that we can space things out, look at more examples, and help one another understand Science Fiction’s significances better.

I’m looking forward to this new class and meeting my new students–on-campus and off-campus alike.

Here’s a copy of our syllabus with details on assignments, Twitter use, and reading/viewing schedule: ellis-jason-lmc3214-syllabus-full.

LMC3403, Technical Communication: Lego, Haptics, and Instructions

Students at work with Lego.
Students at work with Lego.

My LMC3403, Technical Communication students are well into their second unit project on reader-centered and process-driven fundamentals. In a fun assignment, I wanted the students to try out many different types of technical communication deliverables for different readers/audiences. Also, I wanted them to think differently about nonverbal communication with the heavy emphasis on haptics, physicality, and making.

Students at work with Lego.
Students at work with Lego.

In this project, their primary task is to build a set of instructions for a Lego model of their own design.

Their Lego model should represent something about their studies, their professional field, or their entrepreneurial spirit.

Students at work with Lego.
Students at work with Lego.

Their project began with the creation of a proposal memo that laid out their entire project: designing instructions, testing instructions, reporting on tests in a memo, revising instructions, and reflecting on the project in a memo.

Students at work with Lego.
Students at work with Lego.

Throughout the process, they have to be mindful of different audiences (executives, managers, and customers).

In these photos, the students are busy at work creating the first version of their Lego models.

Students at work with Lego.
Students at work with Lego.

I was happy to overhear someone say, “It’s nice to actually do something fun in a class for once!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s to year two!

Science Fiction, LMC3214: Final Paper Topics Were On a Broad Spectrum of SF Media

I just finished grading my students’ final paper projects. Their task was to use several definitions of SF from a list that I had prepared for them (or others that they found on their own and properly cited) to evaluate whether a work that we had not discussed in class was SF or not. Through this analysis, they would come up with their own definition/litmus test for SF.

I was very happy to read papers on a variety of SFnal works, including:

  • Joseph Kosinski’s film, TRON: Legacy (which I had reviewed for the SFRA Review before)
  • AMC’s production of The Walking Dead
  • H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness
  • Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game
  • Tommaso Landolfi’s Cancerqueen (Cancroregina)
  • Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower
  • Halo: Combat Evolved (and its supplementary material in print)
  • David Brin’s Startide Rising
  • Marc Forster’s film, World War Z
  • Ridley Scott’s film, Blade Runner
  • Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World
  • Richard Schenkman’s film, The Man from Earth
  • X-COM: UFO Defense

This list reveals that my students were interested in SF across a spectrum of media. There were papers on six literary works, four films, one television series, and two video games (this is further blurred by the video game/print crossover material).

For those students who talked with me about their papers, I am particularly happy with the way their papers turned out. Having had those conversations, I can see a snapshot along their paper’s developmental process, which gives me better insight into the work that they likely did to push their arguments further than what we had discussed in class. Reflecting on this, I will add conference time to my future SF classes that meet over a full semester, but I will do more to have these smaller conversations with students–perhaps before class or during our daily break time–to get a better sense of their research and developing argument.

Science Fiction, LMC3214: All Good Things: Last Day of Class, Haptic Perception, and Lego

The excellent group of students (and me in the back right) in my Science Fiction class. Photo by Carol Senf.
The excellent group of students (and me in the back right) in my Science Fiction class holding up their SF-inspired Lego creations. Photo by Carol Senf.

Today, unfortunately, was the last day of my Science Fiction class at Georgia Tech.

At the beginning of class, my students completed their third exam. Unlike the previous exams, it only covered the material discussed in class this week: cyberpunk and Taiwanese SF. And unlike the previous 1 hour long exams, it was 30 minutes long.

After the exam, we began what I called an SF debriefing with Lego. I framed this end of semester activity by having them think about WOVEN (written, oral, visual, electronic, and nonverbal) modes of communication. Then, I discussed the importance of one aspect of nonverbal communication: haptics. In the haptic mode, we touch, we build, and we visualize objects. It is an insanely important and often overlooked way in which our brains think, learn, and communicate with others. I told them that this activity was meant to allow them to think about and express some image or object from SF–either discussed in the class or not–that they liked or thought significant. To facilitate their work with haptics, I brought two bins full of Legos–some acquired from the local Lego Store and some from my secret stash. I told them to use up to 40 bricks/elements to build their model. After completing it, they would have a chance to hold it up and tell the class about it, and if they choose to do so, they could take it home as a gift and a memento of the class.

I gave the students about 30 minutes to build, and I encouraged them to get out of their chairs, stand around the bins to dig for bricks, and talk with one another as they worked–talk about what they were building, trade bricks, help one another, etc. It didn’t take much encouragement on my part to get them going–they took off like a fleet of rockets!

When each student had a chance to tell us about their creation, I would offer other connections and background information on their creation to further integrate it into the broader history of SF.

After class, Professor Carol Senf, who was observing my class, was kind enough to take a group photo of the class (see above).

I left my students with the encourage to continue their exploration of SF. I told them that I believe SF to be the most important contemporary literature. It examines the human condition, critiques our social relationships, imagines the effects of science and technology, and energizes our sense of awe and wonder. It can inspire us and it can teach us. Of course, it also can be smashing entertainment.

When class was over, the conversation continued with those students who had other questions about SF (Was PKD really a drug fiend? Who are important/good contemporary SF writers? etc.) and kind words to say about the class.

All that is left for my students is to complete their final papers testing a work of SF against definitions of the genre by others and themselves. I have to grade their third exams and their papers before I can submit grades next week. I am looking forward to reading their papers, but I am sad that this amazing class with these talented students is virtually at an end.


Science Fiction, LMC3214: Global Perspective Unit on Taiwanese SF and Review for Exam 3

Taiwanese SF lecture notes on the chalkboard.
Taiwanese SF lecture notes on the chalkboard.

In today’s class, I introduced my Science Fiction students to Taiwanese SF. For class, they read David Uher’s “Trends in the Development of Science Fiction Literature in Taiwan” (Anthropologia Integra 1.1 2010, 63-70) and a translation of Chang Shi-Kuo’s (Zhang Xiguo) “City of the Bronze Statue.”

In today’s lecture, I charted a brief history of China and Taiwan (revolution, Kuomintang/Republic of China, Civil War, and diaspora to Taiwan), the history of Taiwan SF with an emphasis on Zhang Zioafeng’s “Panduna” as the first Taiwanese SF and her role–like Mary Shelley’s–as the “mother of Taiwanese SF” and Zhang Xiguo’s as the “father of Taiwanese SF” who also coined the term for “Science Fantasy Fiction” (科學幻想小說: Science/科學, Fantasy/幻想, Fiction/小說). I also identified five general characteristics of Taiwanese SF: 1) Synthesis of Western and Eastern culture, 2) Wuxia (武俠) or the Chinese martial arts chivalry story, 3) Adopt Chinese mythology and history to make the reader more familiar with the fantastic elements of the story (c.f., Star Trek), 4) Themes of nostalgia and loss, and 5) Conservative affirmation of society and the existing social order.

During class, I led the students through two exercises. After explaining to them the general characteristics of reading and writing in traditional Chinese, I handed out worksheets for them to practice writing the four characters of the truncated term for “Science Fantasy Fiction” (科幻小說). I gave them about 5 minutes to try out their Chinese penmanship while I walked around watching their progress. This also led to a discussion about how written traditional Chinese is different than Japanese (kanji, hiragana, and katakana).

In the second exercise, I divided the class into four teams of three students each. I handed each team two pages from the John Balcom translation of the Prologue to Chang Shi-Kuo’s City Trilogy (which corresponds to the “City of the Bronze Statue.”) The students were tasked with identifying differences between the two translations. They discovered small variations in measurements, descriptions, and phrasing. In particular, they noticed that the two translations differed in tone–the translation on his website is more vernacular and the book translation has a more formal tone. However, they reported that the Bronze Statue seemed more life-like and personified in the Balcom translation. I was surprised though that they did not pick up on the understated comedic tone in either translation. Nevertheless, I was glad that they got to experience first hand how much of a role the translator has in the creation of a translation–translation being a creative act itself.

Exam 3 review notes.

At the end of class, we reviewed for their short third exam tomorrow and I talked with them about the fun Lego project that I have planned after the exam.

Their final essays in the class will be due next Tuesday.

Many thanks to Yufang for helping me with my research, writing, and pronunciation for this lecture!