Saturday, 1 September 2012

Teaching Sci-Fi Stories in a College Lit Class

Another guest blogger joins us today, Maria Rainier, to talk about using sci-fi in the classroom.

Teaching Sci-Fi Stories in a College Lit Class

Until recently, I was a graduate student who taught English at a large public university in the American South (I won’t name it, because of what I’m about to write in the next sentence, and because I’m paranoid). After two years of teaching freshman composition (which is just about the most dry, boring, futile, and demoralizing job one could hope for), I had a chance to teach Introduction to Fiction. Yay! Fiction! My passion in life, my favorite avocation, the whole reason I went to grad school in the first place. Now I would finally be able to inculcate the younger generation in the love of fancy prose and made-up stories.

We had a big anthology for a textbook, the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, with hundreds of short stories representing the whole world’s literary traditions (all translated into English, of course). I tried to organize my syllabus thematically, starting with classic “literary” workshop-style short stories by the likes of Carver, Cheever, Updike, then moving on to some older European and American stuff, and bridging into Halloween (it was a fall course) by means of Kafka and Poe. Finally, I did science fiction, and some experimental stories by Borges, Cortazar, and Nabokov.

The experimental stuff was a mixed bag, some of it too difficult for my sophomores...but the sci-fi ones went over like gangbusters, which pleased me to no end because this was the genre that had gotten me into literature to begin with. I don’t know if “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson counts as science fiction. I suppose it does. In any case, it’s eerie, an alternate-reality story with a lot to say about our real world, like all the best speculative work. The horror stuff went over big (who doesn’t like Poe, you know?) but here, as with Jackson, a problem I hadn’t considered was that they’d mostly read “Fall of the House of Usher” already in high school.

“The Enormous Radio” by John Cheever could technically be considered sci-fi, though to explain why might be a bit of a spoiler (hint: the title object). You should check it out yourselves for an example of very restrained, realistic fiction about technology.

The biggest reaction the class had to any story was to “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury, the famous and colorful sci-fi chiller about children doing unspeakable things with their virtual-reality simulator. The class immediately drew the connection with their own electronic upbringings and it was kind of amazing how much the story’s concerns hadn’t dated. We also watched two Bradbury-related YouTube videos on the projector screen: one a great documentary/interview on the (voluble, affable, charismatic) writer and his career, and one a fairly inappropriate music video by a fan entitled “F--- Me, Ray Bradbury,” which had them laughing uproariously and chattering all the way out the door.

It was the best class we’d had all semester. This year, when Bradbury died, I thought, what a testament to a writer and a human being that his work still had this kind of impact on kids and adults over half a century later. I felt the same way recently when they named Curiosity’s landing site on Mars after him. Bradbury may be dead, but the spirit of science fiction is alive and well. May it live on into the future and beyond the solar system.

Maria Rainier fell in love with blogging before it was cool, and now she's lucky enough to make a living out of it. She generally writes about subjects related to online education, including for, where she expounds on universities that offer competitive online associate degrees and online bachelor's degrees for the 21st century college student. Please share your comments with her!

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