College Writing, Space Exploration Theme, Take Two

I just completed my second semester teaching college writing I at Kent State University, and I’ve learned a few more things about teaching and how to organize my class (for my past postings on college writing click here).  

In Fall 2008, I taught my first college writing class at KSU with the theme, “Space Exploration and Your Future.”  In that singular class, I employed a variety of materials to augment and provide prompts for student discussion and writing.  The primary sources included Walt Disney’s Mars and Beyond, Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot.  

Based on the feedback that I received from my students at the beginning of the school year, I didn’t retain Sagan’s book for the Spring semester, because many students had difficulty engaging that particular science popularization.  It bears noting that I didn’t drop that text, because I thought it was too difficult for my students; instead, I dropped it, because I felt my student’s lack of engagement with the text created a roadblock to the more important goal in the class, which is to develop their professional writing skills.  In the place of Pale Blue Dot, I included Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, because it serves as a model of “good writing” and its “right stuff” thesis provided material for in-class exercises and one of the major essays in the Spring semester classes.  

In addition to The Right Stuff book, I provided time for viewing the film version by Philip Kaufman, and the film version of 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick.  My reasoning behind this was that students in my Fall class had trouble imagining or visualizing the things that we read in Clarke’s 2001. Again, I didn’t want the reading to become an impediment, so I thought augmenting the text with video might bridge my students’ understanding of the texts and provide for useful discussions and writing prompts.  

Now that I’ve finishing reading my students’ final portfolios, which I was happy with overall, I learned a few things about what my students thought of the major (and some of the minor) assignments based on each students’ reflective essay.  Overwhelmingly, my students reported problems with watching Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.  They seemed to enjoy the novel much more than the film.  During class, we discussed this disconnection between the two media, and the consensus seemed to be that the film is too theoretical, too abstract, and lacking the concrete details and explanations found in the novel.  I believe that I will cut the film from my class in the Fall based on this feedback, and I will find other ways to help students engage the novel, which may include documentaries, guided research, and in-class discussion/lecture.  

The other thing that I learned was that the film version of The Right Stuff was probably unnecessary, too.  It did provide an opportunity to discuss the differences of using different media to present a thesis or idea, but I don’t know if I want to devote that much time to the film in the future.  I have not definitively decided if I will keep Kaufman’s film, but I do think that its use was more successful in the class than Kubrick’s 2001.

Other feedback that I received from my students included their gaining benefits from reading their work in class, which provided them with confidence in their work, prompted them to work harder on those assignments, and hearing what others had to say and how they said it.  I first did this in my Fall semester class, and I plan on doing more of this in my two Fall 2009 semester classes.  I received mixed responses to peer review from my students this semester.  I believe that the problem with peer review was two fold–I am still working toward a better way to demonstrate and inculcate peer review skills, and students didn’t always receive the kind of feedback that they desired.  I’ve spoken with some folks in the department about this, and I got some good ideas from Pam Takayoshi and others at the Blogging Brown Bag series that I will employ in the future (e.g., having groups meet individually with me for a peer review modeling session).

A final idea that I have for my Fall 2009 classes is that I will move the entire class online.  All handouts and course materials (besides assigned books) will be online.  I almost fully implemented this with these two classes.  The other aspect of the class will be handled through blogging.  I will have my students do their journals, daily writing exercises, and major papers all on individual blogs that I will guide them through configuring at the beginning of the semester.  This semester I gave my students written letters for feedback, so carrying things a step further my going online for their assignments will only complement my reader responses.  Additionally, I will have to walk between two buildings about ten minutes apart on campus with only that much time between my two classes, so I feel that moving the writing online will simplify my access to my students’ work, and prevent the loss of any materials that I may have lug through the wintery weather.  

I’m looking forward to revising my syllabus over the Summer so that I can provide an improved experience for my future students.

ICFA 2009, Science Fiction, Space/Time, and Postmodernity Panel

Surprisingly, I woke up in time this morning to visit Starbucks for coffee and a piece of lemon loaf, return to my room for a shower, and arrive just in time for the 8:30am panel on SF, Space/Time, and Postmodernity.  David M. Higgins moderated the panel, which included Veronica Hollinger, DeWitt Douglas Kilgore, Megan Bygness, Neil Easterbrook, and Patricia Melzer.

Veronica, who I last spoke with last year as I was preparing for my fourteen hour drive back from the Science Fiction Research Association meeting in Lawrence, Kansas, devoted her opening statement to the growing crisis of representation in SF signaled by the unknowability of the future following the technologically transformative singularity or what some call the “spike” or the “rapture of the nerds.”  If, as some writers, critics, technologists, engineers, and scientists imply, the singularity takes place, then the world following the asymptotic leap will result in a radical change to human history that makes logical extrapolation (the hallmark of many SF definitions) impossible.  We will encounter what Vernor Vinge calls “the unknowable soon,” and any imaginative thought about what that future might be like is devoid of an understanding of how complete the change the singularity will constitute.  It is this point that I think may be the only knowable element of the singularity event.  

Dewitt, who made this his first ICFA visit, discussed the political potential of postmodern decenteredness, and how that decenteredness may be more desirable than modern positivist assumptions about progressive metanarratives.  He pointed toward political hope in a lack of center, because an unbounded world with no privileged center means that we need not be apprehensive of the past or future in constructing a better world.  Additionally, he said that we are bounded by space/time in the sense of our movements within the world and by the fact of our birth and death.  Furthermore, we believe that we know the end of the universe with mathematics and cosmological theory.  However, the real interesting and complicated bit was when he brought in Fred Hoyle’s steady state theory of the universe to discuss postmodernity.  During the q&a, he noted that the relationship between physical theory (i.e., relativity and total decentering) and the social world is problematic for talking about the social and political.  

Neil, who recently won SFRA’s Clareson Award (check), shared some thoughts on Mark Curie’s About Time, which concerns the concept of time embedded in narrative (something that might be useful for A.P.’s paper on time in fantasyland).  The three key concepts that he mentioned were David Harvey’s idea of space/time compression in the postmodern world, postmodern style and “accelerated recontextualization,” and “archive fever,” or the frenzied archiving of contemporary social life–the anticipating the future and storing it in the past.  It is the last concept that Neil found most interesting, because it is something that we see all around us with the way people (myself included) continually document the present for preservation in the past, or as Derrida wrote about it Archive Fever (which is actually about Freud), “domesticating topologies of the future.” 

Patricia, who I joined along with a bunch of other great folks for lunch the other day, talked about the queering of time and mentioned works including Edelman’s No Future and Halberstam’s A Queer Time and Place.  The important question here is how can we resist heteronormativity’s structuring of the future?  She asked, “can SF offer anything to queer time, or should we all go to the bathhouse?”  No one in the audience could come up with an example of SF that properly engaged queer time.  The closest that I could imagine while sitting there was Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations,” because the male pilot chooses to kill the young girl (the image of the child in Edelman’s work).  However, the pilot does this to save the lives of colonists (I don’t have a copy of the story with me now–were these miners or colonists?  Are the genders of the people on the planet mentioned?  An all male group would skew how this is interpreted).  The consensus was that we should all go to the bathhouse.

Megan wanted to engage the audience with a discussion of time in contemporary television–namely, Lost.  Unfortunately, very few audience members regularly watch that program.  She did mention the double narrative streams (on the island vs. flashback), and the time consumed in ancillary texts (logs, puzzles with hidden maps, etc.) meant to allow one to better understand the show on television.

Toward the end of the panel, I asked Veronica about her thoughts on Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity University (SU), which provoked some comments from the entire panel regarding the relationship between capital, technological innovation, and the singularity.  I’ve been interested in the impetus for SU, because I noticed in the online pre-application and follow-up application there is an emphasis on “leadership.”  I wonder if their idea of the singularity is one that can be controlled by capital and the market–leaders of industry or innovation, perhaps.  Or, it may be their belief that leaders may take us to the threshold and then what–take us through, push us over, or throw us off?  If the singularity is a profound and incomprehensible shift in the world and humanity’s place in the world, I’m not necessarily sure that I want the kinds of “leaders” that may be enlisted for SU.  Time, of course, will tell.

College Writing and Space Exploration Theme

As many of you know, this is my first year teaching college writing at Kent State University, and it’s already been an enlightening experience.  I chose space exploration as the course theme (after a suggestion by Brian Huot and protracted consideration on my part and a mad scramble for resources before classes began), because I can use this theme to bridge science fiction with the real world.  

I’ve already had my students write about Walt Disney’s short film, “Mars and Beyond.”  Soon, they will read Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and then move on to Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot.  Through their viewings and readings, I’m having them write extensively to develop their writing skills.  Also, I’ve taken steps to connect their career goals and hobbies with the rewards of space exploration through personal email exchanges, which I hope to incorporate into later assignments.  I’d say, so far, so good, and much thanks to everyone who offered me teaching advice and assistance!

If you’re interested, you may read my course syllabus here, and my first assignment handout to accompany the Disney film here.