December 2018

Science Fiction Lessons

Under the guise of entertainment, fantasy, and allegory, the Trojan horse of Sci Fi sneaks in big questions about the implications of science and technology that students would do well to ponder.

by S. A. Galliah

In my previous life in Canada, where I often taught an introduction to literature course, I fondly remember exploring the finer nuances of figurative language and getting lost in thick descriptions. However, when I moved to Hancock, MI, and started working at Michigan Technological University as a part-time instructor and then, later, as a graduate student, my teaching roster changed dramatically. At that time, I was informed, “we don’t teach literature here,” which made me feel lost. I also discovered that because both part-time instructors and graduate students predominantly stood as a large standing army called into service for teaching Composition, I would no longer be extolling the beauties of a well-balanced poem, but the virtues of rhetoric and a well-made argument. Although I have since come to respect, appreciate, and even love teaching Composition, I often feel like a Gorgon guarding the gates, deciding who has the adequate writing and research literacy skills to move forward, occasionally announcing “Thou Shall Not Pass” to those unfortunate, stressed kids who did not squeak by with the requisite D. Thus, I will confess that the course I really enjoy, when I get to teach it, is online Science Fiction.

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Pictured: Medusa, perhaps the most famous Gorgon. Painting by Arnold Böcklin. Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

Although Science Fiction has since been mainstreamed in our department, and literature has made a modest return, this course is still haunted by the twin ghosts of Kingsley Amis and Joseph Campbell, two of Sci Fi’s early celebrators and critics. Amis argued that this genre, with its derivative style and over-the-top plots and characters, allowed us “to doff that mental and moral best behavior with which we feel we have to treat George Eliot and William Faulkner, and frolic like badly brought-up children among the mobile jellyfishes and atomic piles” (New Maps of Hell 99). Alternatively, Joseph Campbell thought that Sci Fi permitted readers, whether they were the lay public or scientists, to understand science and technology while dutifully respecting, and perhaps cheerleading, the onward march of progress. Criticism has evolved since then, of course—particularly how Science Fiction addresses contentious issues of race, class, gender, power, and the environment. However, this genre still exists in a weird space between real science and real literature, which often makes it both challenging and rewarding to teach at Michigan Tech, a predominantly science-focused university.

Why is it challenging? First, instructing Science Fiction forced me to re-conceptualize teaching literature. Instead of standing in front of a classroom, like a sage on the stage arduously working through a close reading and demonstrating what I knew and what the students did not, I had to sit back and let them, at least partially, take the reins. I had to discover how to pose guiding questions while allowing them to incorporate their own experience and expertise, such as exploring how video games appropriated apocalyptic plots or analyzing what various texts got right and/or wrong about scientific principles and/or the scientific process. In one of the best essays I received, for example, a student painstakingly articulated the combination of coding, architectural, and engineering problems responsible for the disaster of Jurassic Park. Real engineers of all stripes, she contended, would never be so irresponsible in constructing this park; there would be far more fail safes and fewer misfires! Students have also critiqued the application of nanobot-driven virtual reality hypothesized by Ray Kurzweil in his futuristic essay “Are We Headed for The Matrix?” Others have pointed out the exaggerated narratives of meiosis and mitosis in Greg Bear’s Blood Music. In other words, their critical readings have taught me about science and challenged me to research how Sci Fi may contribute to the public understanding, or even misunderstanding, of science.

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Pictured: a sage on the stage. Image courtesy of Quora.

I have also appreciated how Science Fiction challenges students by making them revisit the past to understand the present. When students read Capek’s play Rossum’s Universal Robots (1920) and connect it to the television program Westworld (2016-18), they discover that the issues of robot exploitation and android sentience have deep roots. When students compare Mildred’s mindless TV-watching in Fahrenheit 451 (1953) to the endless ads and shopping sprees in Feed (2002) and connect these phenomena to Google and social media’s negative effects on critical thinking and public discourse, they learn, as Winner has noted, that all artifacts—even the ones we take for granted—have politics. When students read about the denigration of the liberal arts and how universities have become funneling grounds for big scientific corporations in Oryx and Crake (2003), they learn about the contested value of the humanities at STEM-centric schools.

Admittedly, this last dilemma is one to which I repeatedly return because at this university, the division between the two cultures seems all too alive and well. The Social Science and the Humanities buildings exist on the far margins of the campus. This geographical separation seems to not only mark their tenuous existence and (un)importance to the university, but also mimic age-old stereotypes associated with the arts and the sciences. Inside the science and engineering buildings is where the real work gets done whereas on the margins lie those outsiders who interject now and again, with their pretty words, social theories, and philosophies, to halt the progress of our “crazy smart” students in their pure pursuit of science and technology. When I walk through the campus, I often hear echoes of C.P. Snow’s complaint from Two Cultures (1959); the sciences and the arts “have a curious distorted image of each other . . . . they can’t find much common ground” (4). The non-scientists believe “that the scientists are shallowly optimistic, unaware of man’s condition” whereas the scientists assume “literary intellectuals are totally lacking in foresight, peculiarly unconcerned with their brother men, in a deep sense anti-intellectual, anxious to restrict both art and thought to the existential moment” (4-5). Snow lamented that because of these irreconcilable differences, there was no ground upon which the two cultures could meet.

But Science Fiction, especially on a Campus so dedicated to STEM and to research, is one of the few places they may and should meet. Under the guise of entertainment, fantasy, and allegory, the Trojan horse of Sci Fi sneaks in those big questions, particularly those uncomfortable queries about the implications of science and technology that students must ponder: Should we alter the building blocks of life? Engineer better animals? Create transcendent humans? Replace human workers with robots? Colonize other planets? Privilege science over the arts? Make drastic changes to mitigate climate change? When students ask these questions while making connections to current and past research as well as disruptive technologies, whether they are CRISPR or nanotechnology or UAVs, they have not only broadened their science education, but also experienced, in a small way, the value of the humanities to developing their critical thinking.

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Image courtesy of Bloomsbury.

Recognizing the value of the humanities is especially important in the current climate in which high-ranking administrators of universities often see literature and the arts as inessential: the first courses to be cut on the chopping block of higher education. The “Major Savings and Reform” budget proposal from the current presidential administration, for instance, tells this story: slashing the National Endowment for the Art’s (NEA) budget from $150 million in 2017 to $29 million in 2019 and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) budget from $150 million in 2017 to $42 million in 2019. Our Humanities department has also suffered from cutbacks and budgetary constraints. It is moves like these that further advertise the disposability of the Humanities as well as dismiss the special brand of critical thinking they offer.

I am also grateful for teaching a course whose discussions often raise tough and risky questions about the culture of Michigan Tech itself, particularly its focus on research and its valorization of science as the key to all problems. Admittedly, the university’s remote location, its tough curriculum, and the long, harsh winters do call for a certain amount of scientific boosterism, of making students and faculty feel excited to be here. However, I worry about catchphrases comparing Michigan Tech to a “refinery of #tenacity” or to a forum for thought-leaders, problem-solving, or innovation because these are eerily close to those used to lure prospective students away from the humanities and unthinkingly to the technological wonders of Watson-Crick University in Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. These slogans, intentional or not, often minimize that Michigan Tech is, primarily, an institution of higher learning. And as an institution of higher learning, one of its aims should be teaching students to think critically, to interrogate the hope and hype of technology, to question the accolades given to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, to understand that not everything is a puzzle, and to accept that not all problems can or should be solved by science alone. Science Fiction, in its own small way, makes students contemplate these unsettling issues.

Even though I am a graduate student with minimal power and a precarious existence, one who worries about the repercussions of authoring this essay, I nonetheless have faith that naysayers will remember the importance of academic freedom as well as refrain from turning my argument into a straw man about the rejection of science. I must also recognize that others in my department, whether they are teaching media studies, languages, literature, philosophy, and so on, are also diligently striving to remind students and the greater academic community of the value of the Humanities, of its crucial place at this university’s table. But those who are professors and, to a lesser extent, senior lecturers, are recognized for their labor; my rewards as a graduate student are subtle and few. Because I am in my final year of funding and facing a very uncertain post-graduate school future here, my time learning about and teaching Science Fiction has come to an end. I will always be grateful for how this course sustained me during my often isolated and sometimes thankless graduate student years. I will also always be grateful for maybe, just maybe, helping to instruct students of all disciplines to think critically and ethically about science and technology so that they become better citizens of the world.

S. A. Galliah is a graduate student (ABD) in the Rhetoric, Theory & Culture program at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, Michigan. Her current areas of study are popular culture, science fiction, science communication, and satire. Of particular interest is how comedy may “sugar the pill” of serious topics, breaking down audience resistance and promoting engagement. Her dissertation addresses satirical television content as a corrective to faulty climate change representation and a discursive resource that users may re-appropriate and recirculate to understand climate change. At Michigan Tech, she has taught Composition, Technical Writing, Perspectives, Popular Culture, and Science Fiction. When she is not writing her dissertation, she enjoys running and skiing, preferably with a pack of dogs.

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