Why Teach SF? Confessions of a First-Time SF Instructor

Teaching SF for the first time can be an incredibly daunting experience. Personally, you have to be prepared to discuss difficult and often delicate topics to a group of students, some of whom may think they hate science fiction. Academically, you will have to strike a balance between what you consider important, relevant, or good SF and what is generally understood as important, relevant, or good. However, these struggles are not unique to teaching SF; indeed, all literature classes must battle the students’ and society’s preconceived notions of what is “good” or “entertaining” while somehow engaging discussion on why literature is important or relevant in their lives at all. What makes teaching SF particularly challenging is that students feel they own the stories in a way that I haven’t witnessed with any other type of literature, even as a graduate student surrounded by individuals who study particular works so in-depth that they write articles about a single title, a punctuation mark, or the historical context of a single poem.

What do I mean when I say that my students seem to own the stories we study?

(1) One element is that they seldom hesitate to give their opinions about the pieces, and their opinions lead to deeper thinking. To someone seasoned in teaching literature, this may seem like a pitfall; students should reflect more on the deeper meanings/historical context/author’s intentions instead of whether they personally enjoyed a piece or not. And, yet, when students like or dislike a piece strongly, I find that conversation about the deeper elements in the story is easier. In my experience, it’s hard for many students to get riled up over traditional literature, especially those works regarded by students as classics. There are many reasons for this: they don’t want to be wrong, they don’t want to upset the instructor, they feel everyone has said what they think already, or maybe they didn’t bother reading the story at all because they (think that they) already know what it’s about. With SF, students quickly like or vehemently dislike a story. The reactions are often polarized in a way that more traditional literature often fails to evoke. If you ask me why I enjoy Shakespearean sonnets, I will probably reply that I grew to enjoy the surprises and deviations from the form after studying them in high school, college, and graduate school. If you ask me why I enjoy a story like “The Cold Equations,” by Tom Godwin, I’ll likely reply that I actually hate this story because it’s dissatisfying, frustrating, and so clean. I enjoy it because it made me feel strongly, even though the feeling was negative. These opinions, then, can be harnessed in classroom discussions at all levels, whereas a discussion on the essential form of Shakespearean sonnets is likely to interest only a few students, even in higher level courses.

(2) Another factor is that students are likely to look for in-text clues to justify their theories on the technology, the character’s knowledge, and the plot. Anyone who has taught literature, philosophy, history, or a related field will recognize that it is often difficult for students to reference the work at hand when trying to argue for a particular interpretation. This skill can be taught, strenuously, over years of close-reading and argument, but it does not come easily to all, even those who have chosen to pursue graduate studies. In undergraduates, this skill is often woefully neglected. High school students seem more likely to regurgitate their instructor’s opinion than defend one of their own, especially when that instructor has taken the time to emphasize the textual elements that reinforce their own view. What I often see are students who, upon realizing that they profess a different interpretation of a particular text, beat a hasty retreat and claim they simply misread. In many classes, this consensus between students is lauded as a clear interpretation of a text that helps the instructor to explore other issues, like the rhetorical choices of the writer. In a SF classroom, however, difference in interpretation is necessary to understanding the rhetorical choices of the writer. Differences in interpretation of facts and motives are not merely speculative; students must be able to reflect on particular portions of the text that led to their diverse interpretations. In much of traditional literature, students of all levels decline to go back to the text to verify their interpretations. Why? Part of it is certainly the emphasis on consensus. Students are more likely to admit they’re wrong in favor of group consensus than search for a particular passage to support their view. Yet, with SF (according to my first point), students react strongly to particular elements in SF, be they characters, actions, technology, or larger philosophical questions. When students react strongly, they don’t simply voice their opinion and conform to consensus; in my experience, the student will cite from memory or frantically search through the text to find the exact point where their opinion was formed. Although textual support could be (and should be!) provided for other types of literature, SF often requires subtle detective work on the part of the reader in order to understand the universe the story is set in and the characters actions. SF teaches students, by virtue of the genre’s challenge to preconceived notions of technological or societal possibilities, to look for clues within the text itself. After having taught introductory level English writing classes for several years, I am still shocked by how seldom I have to ask my students to provide support for their views from the text because they do it on their own, without my prompting.

(3) Students are keen to relate the stories to current events, technology, popular culture, and their own lives. No matter the age of the students they teach, instructors often find themselves practically (or literally) singing and dancing to make the material memorable, relatable, and interesting to their variety of students. As a college instructor, I’m not exempt from attempting to strike the delicate balance between learning and fun. In my previous courses, I was often frustrated by how hard I had to try to make the material appealing to a variety of students with different majors, skills, interests, and comprehension of English. It’s not an easy task to begin with, but attempting to make even the most banal essays relevant to my students’ lives had me at a loss. Sometimes, I was able to engage students by discussing their preconceived notions of a group or by relating the topic to their personal experiences at college. Often, I was only able to explain that discussing these issues was important and hope that group work would make the topic interesting enough to carry classroom discussion. With SF, making the topic personal and relatable is almost too easy. Sometimes, I have to remind students that not everyone has read that one novel that they read that is almost exactly the same as the one we’re reading. Often, students reference films, websites, and recent technologies with details that show me they’re engaging with the material. A caveat here is that I primarily teach YA SF, so the works tend to feature characters who are adolescents, like the majority of my students. Yet, even when we discussed such classics as Frankenstein and The Island of Dr. Moreau, my students did not succumb to the accepted status of these works as SF. They questioned each critically, exploring which film versions of Frankenstein could be considered SF and examining how Dr. Moreau’s character is reconfigured in popular television series, like Nip/Tuck. SF begs to be remediated, re-envisioned, repeated, and revisited from a variety of cultural standpoints in a way few genres (excepting plays, perhaps) achieve. Because they are moved by the SF texts they read (1), students read carefully for text-based evidence that validates their thoughts and feelings (2). Because they are searching through the texts for evidence (2), students are engaged in making the texts their own, often by relating it to their own experiences or that of popular cultural experiences (3). It shouldn’t be surprising that, in most SF classrooms, students dominate the discussion and the instructor serves more as a mediator of discussion than a gatekeeper of knowledge.

(4) Finally, students are able to integrate features of SF into their own writing creatively. As an educator who was trained to teach first year composition, I often find myself wondering when my students will use these skills in real life. I tell myself that researched essays, annotated bibliographies, and working in teams is good practice for their higher-level courses, and they dutifully—begrudgingly—complete their assignments. I actually do believe that learning to write in these forms is valuable, despite criticism from academics and students alike that they’ll never need to know this stuff, because knowing these things has widely shaped my academic career, and not just in the English department. As an undergraduate philosophy major taking courses in history, ethics, logic, and even anthropology, I found that knowing how to research, think critically, and write clearly helped me to succeed in courses even outside of my own specialization. But, there is some truth to the criticism that many of my students won’t need to know how to use the same forms I needed to succeed in college, especially those in STEM fields where the writing quality is judged by another set of standards entirely. Yet, even though my students might not need the same forms as I did and while online research changes with new technology, I still believe in teaching researched essays for the transferable skills. Learning one format, such as a research essay, requires a writer to understand the form, practice putting together its individual pieces, and finally create a text with features that are easily identified as necessary components of the format. Teaching students to recognize genre conventions is not easy, but it will allow a student in non-English fields to recognize new genres, understand their features, and follow the format well enough to convey their message.

For the same reasons, I emphasize writing in my SF classrooms. Students write weekly responses to the works for the week (a novel, a few short stories, occasionally an academic article or a popular article). This helps them to gather their thoughts before large group discussion and have their opinions formed before coming to class, even though those opinions often change during discussion. My students were also required to work in small groups to annotate important sources and present a subtopic to the classroom, which I hope taught them to work together and to dig deeply into a particular topic instead of focusing on a book-report style overview of a novel. I will also assign a researched essay, requiring each student to select a topic, research it intensely, and present an argument about a subtopic relevant to SF. In all of these forms, my students struggle to follow generic conventions. MLA citation style, formal writing, PowerPoint slides, and even short critical responses to the readings are not my students’ strongest assignments. In fact, the strongest assignment for the majority of my students, so far, is the assignment I expected to be most difficult: a short story with a reflection. It would be easy to chalk up their success to their individual creativity and imagination. Certainly, I’m envious of the worlds many of them chose to create. I suspect, though, their creativity and imaginations are augmented by something stronger: the fact that SF is exciting to write. Not only did the vast majority of my students complete intriguing stories that followed genre conventions that helped announce the story as SF, many of my students intentionally broke particular genre conventions, as stated in their reflective essays, for effect. As a teacher who has tried to get students to recognize genre conventions for three years, first projects that largely follow the assignment and are insightful is rare and immensely rewarding. I won’t say that this happened by magic or that I didn’t dedicate class time to writing, analyzing the genre, and discussing several examples; I spent a lot of time giving my students the tools they would need to succeed. Still, things I can’t teach as easily, like inspiration, deviation from the genre conventions, and interesting technologies and plot twists, appeared in their stories and in their reflections as intentional choices. Had the assignment been to write a short story in another genre, I doubt I would have seen such purposeful, even artistic, choices. SF gives students exploring its literature the freedom to make each story distinctly theirs in a way that is rivaled only by life writing, writing about one’s own life and experiences. SF lends itself to being remediated and revised so well that students reported inspiration from their daily lives, films, stories in class, and even other novels. A skeptic might expect most students to rip off another SF work, yet each story featured elements that the student carefully selected from a variety of influences, crafting the whole into something both personal and reflective of their views on society, or humanity, or technology. My students felt they could own their own stories, so they came up with complicated ideas and ran with them.

So, if students can do all these wonderful things with the addition of SF in the classroom, why claim that SF is hard to teach?

Well, it’s not really that hard to teach; but it is hard to be a good SF instructor. Students will likely form opinions, express those opinions with support, relate the stories to their own lives, and be quick to apply these skills to their own writing without much prompting. As a first time teacher of SF, I expected the reticence I had seen so often in my composition courses. I continue to be amazed by my students’ abilities to discuss complex issues with grace and then write with questions that leave the reader thinking. Why is it hard to teach SF? Teaching SF requires the teacher to step down as arbiter of truth, as benevolent dictator, as the one person with an opinion supported by textual evidence. In certain fields, perhaps philosophy, one can occasionally see instructors acting as discussion leaders more than teachers, but there is often a great distance between the students and the texts they’re studying. In an SF classroom, the distance between student and teacher, text and reader, and even individual and society is minimized. Being an SF instructor is difficult because you have to give up power. Ideally, teachers do this in discussion type classrooms regularly to see how students perceive the material. Practically, it’s far too easy to enter class with an agenda, a set of approved topics, and a list of answers you expect from students. I’m guilty of doing this in composition classes and I find myself slipping back into dictatorial teacher mode when there are discussions about project goals or academic articles in my SF class. It isn’t easy to give up control, but if you can, SF will teach students to lead their own discussions, ask their own questions, and require textual evidence from those who make claims about a text.

((If you would like to teach SF for the first time, please email me (mvanbeest@ku.edu). I would be happy to discuss your course, concerns, and plans with you. I’m still trying to figure it all out myself.  I will be providing discussion questions, tips, assignments, and lesson plans as the semester continues.))