2014-15 Teaching (part 1) – Teaching Science Fiction

At Evergreen, reflecting on learning is a foundation of our pedagogy. Students and faculty alike submit a complete portfolio of our work at the end of each year/program, including a self-evaluation. I post excerpts from mine here as a way of sharing my thoughts about teaching more broadly.

My second year as a member of the faculty at Evergreen was characterized by intellectual exploration. I delved deeply into unfamiliar material, and I believe I modeled curiosity and risk for my students in powerful ways. In addition to my own reinvigorated synthesis, I continued to learn and reflect on strategies for managing program architecture and classroom dynamics.

Mona Lisa Overdrive: Science in Art and Culture (with biologist Amy Cook, Fall/Winter) was, once again, a program I picked from the catalog as a dream class for me as a simulated student. I have always been a fan of science fiction television and included it as a focus of my research, but I’ve had little opportunity to learn about the broader field of sf studies or center the genre in my teaching. Mobilizing sci-fi as the pivot between science and creative production was a thrilling prospect and seemed to exemplify the most exciting and effective aspects of Evergreen’s curricular model. Most of our students were eager to jump into this captivating material and realized our hopes for their learning: those who came for the biology reported that seeing it reflected in the films made them more engaging, and those who were primarily interested in the humanities reported that the sci-fi lens made studying science more fun and accessible.

The cross-divisional nature of this program necessitated a different approach from my previous collaboration. Amy and I conceived it as an intro to biology curriculum and an intro to media studies curriculum linked through thematic topics. Since the biology sequence was relatively fixed, my challenge was to pair it with media texts and concepts to craft an intelligible flow. Greater emphasis on teaching core competencies in my field was one of my goals after last year, so this was a welcome opportunity to think through what a more comprehensive introduction within a team-taught program would look like. The fall quarter syllabus proceeded somewhat historically, beginning with proto- and early film along with an orientation to science fiction and to the relationship between science and media technologies. After spanning much of the 20th century in fall, winter quarter opened with cyberpunk/cybernetics and incorporated more topics around digital media, while moving less chronologically overall to encompass a range of additional material. Between the wide scope of this curriculum and the focus on “soft” biology-related sci-fi, I dealt with a greater preponderance of film in this program than I ever have in the past. Television and the internet are my intellectual passions, but films (because they are self-contained and narratively/audiovisually rich) make fantastic teaching texts, and I very much enjoyed working with this array of science fiction movies – I have a few new favorites plus a newfound appreciation for the genre. So this experience was productive in expanding my pedagogical capacities in my discipline. I was also able to workshop media analysis methods more extensively with students in this context.

I observed that one of the most positive aspects of our interdivisional team for students was that they witnessed both Amy and I actively encountering unfamiliar material and methodologies. This can create a stronger sense of community and demonstrate learning as a dynamic process. For me, more of a science “fan” who has taken few STEM classes since high school, studying basic biology was incredibly fun. I was keen to master the concepts purely as a cognitive challenge, but beyond that, Amy’s inventive approach to lectures and activities was totally captivating. I opted to do the homework and tests along with the students (more diligently in fall than in winter), and I think they were tickled and heartened by my participation (I’m proud to say that I did very well on the midterm and final). On a more advanced level, I personally developed a much deeper conception of the cultural interdependence of science and media – the ways each relies on the other’s technological innovations and life narratives. This is one reason why so much science fiction comments directly or indirectly on the media apparatus (my top example from the class is the opening of the zombie film 28 Days Later, which depicts a primate lab subject being forced to watch violent news footage). Sci-fi has also been one of the most vital tools for thinking through the social implications of scientific research. By offering a curriculum that paired biological topics with stories that parallel or explore them, our program enabled these connections to emerge in our collective work. We saw students transform in their understanding of science in its cultural context and of popular media’s aesthetics and social commentary. For a lot of them, this culminated in winter’s “fantastical organism” project, a multi-part assignment that asked them to imagine and realize a creature based on concepts from biology but set within a speculative world. This task yielded some wonderful results and was a favorite learning experience for many of the students.

Overview of Mona Lisa Overdrive
from WisCon 39 Teaching Science Fiction workshop

Thus, although the binary constitution of our program (biology + media as distinct components) was perhaps less richly interdisciplinary than some, I believe it still fostered important synthetic learning. The clear division of labor also made for a more manageable workload, and this awareness will contribute to my future strategizing about program structure. Amy encouraged a consistent weekly schedule where each of us was responsible for different sessions, simplifying class planning and prep. And scaling back meant that we were judicious in our pedagogical decisions: for example, instead of repeating a stock seminar paper assignment each week, we designed a series of short writing or thinking tasks that could build on each other and prepare students for the more complex work involved in longer essays. Overall, I tried to create conditions for students to actively synthesize disparate texts and topics, which was an important transition toward college-level thinking for the lower division groups.

In broader terms, I believe that through self-reflection, learning, and practice I have grown in my capacity to make the classroom more hospitable to racial, gender, and sexual minorities (and I continue to build consciousness around disabled and economically disadvantaged students). I prioritized professional development opportunities in this realm both on and off campus. In my teaching, one example of my progress in handling issues of power and privilege was our discussion of “Gamer Gate” in Mona Lisa Overdrive. This ongoing cyberculture-war was sparked by feminist critiques of sexism in video games and tech industries that generated a massive backlash against vocal women in the form of online harassment, rape and death threats, and doxing (disseminating personal information). Even though most of my students weren’t closely familiar with this phenomenon before I brought it to the class, my overview quickly snowballed into a heated debate. I was able to react fluidly to the situation, pausing my lecture and organizing students into a “fishbowl” dialogue. Overall, this was a successful activity: the group’s ability to listen and speak to each other respectfully impressed me, and I was especially proud of several female students who were willing to sit in front of the class and argue with their peers. This response illustrates my typical strategy of facilitating productive encounters between the students so they can learn from each others’ perspectives (learn across significant differences, as we say). In retrospect, though, I have heard and understood that those with experiences of sexism, racism, and discrimination can be put in the unfair position of continually educating their classmates, and may feel unsafe or unsupported in expressing their views. Although I already try to subtly manage controversial discussions, I have set the intention of making more proactive and explicit interventions in the future – in this case, I could have backed up my feminist students by explaining why online harassment is a significant problem. I noticed that one influence on my “neutral” stance is concern over alienating straight white cis male students who are venturing into unfamiliar or uncomfortable conversations. Even though I am mindful of my status as an authority figure for the group as a whole, I have resolved to worry more about the comfort of students who may be habitually alienated in the classroom and less about the comfort of those who are more privileged.