Many teachers cite student growth as their favorite moments in teaching, moments when an abstract idea clicks or a student begins to connect the dots between disciplines. These are all noble moments. Mine is not so noble.
Two years ago, I created a sci-fi course as a senior English elective. While I admit that a lot of my motivation stemmed from my own love of sci-fi and speculative fiction, I do also recognized the immediate importance of teaching this specific class at an all girls school. Not only is literature (arguably of almost any culture) dominated by male protagonists, but male dominated worlds. Men, both in an authorial context and a literal one, are allowed to create, design, and experiment. Women protagonists must inspire. Women authors must role-model or journal. Women are often expected to be caretakers. And, while sci-fi is not a exception to any of this by far, it encourages the reader (female or not) to engage someone’s creation (Frankenstein), someone’s design (The Matrix), or even someone’s experiment (The Giver). Science fiction will even allow its writers and worlds to have female badasses, female problem solvers, and female leaders. For the sci-fi teacher, the classroom conversations shift in ways that just aren’t possible with classic literature. And in a STEM/STEAM world, science fiction engages any reader in ways that intersect literature with math, science, and engineering.
I’ve somehow started to launch into a diatribe about why science fiction is a necessary study in the modern day high school. I’ll save this for another post.
My favorite moment. Two years ago I created a sci-fi course intended to push girls into interdisciplinary thinking and into conversations about ethics, justice, physics, and civilization building. And while I’ve had many amazing moments, my favorite one (so far) happened today. When I teach scifi, I begin by teaching both Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces and the lesser known archetypes via Jung. Both are easily rooted in psychology, but many times its hard for the students to grasp at the idea that opposites exist as a means of balance; balance is a basic principle of physics. (We get very meta quickly here, so I’m sparing the non-literary reader as much as I can.) This is often times when my dry-erase boards look the most aesthetically pleasing. I do this lesson as a two part introduction to Alan Moore’s Watchmen and for good reason: in creating an alternative history, Moore has to offset the reader’s discomfort of both recognizing and not recognizing that world with the familiar, sometimes relate-able journey of very defunct characters. Both Rorschach and The Comedian have to feel at once familiar and not; we recognize their plight by unconscious familiarity with the hero’s journey. Who your hero is becomes the novel’s great crisis; Moore’s deconstruction of the superhero is ultimately commentary on our own need for a superhero.
Hence, when paper time comes around for Watchmen, I’m often met with two kinds of responses: “how am I going to write all my feelings about this in an analysis” or “oh my god I have to write all my feelings about this in an analysis.” This is so often true that I rarely expect anything different.
So, when a student met with me today, I was completely blown away. “Can I write about how the archetype of the Joker becomes the truth-sayer and how problematic that is for the reader? Or even for other characters? Am I remotely close? And have you read Moore’s The Killing Joke? My dad gave it to me when he heard we were reading Moore. Ms. Heishman, are you ok? ”
Yes. Very. I spent 45 minutes today waxing poetic about Jokers, the hero’s journey, Watchmen’s Comedian, physics, and how justice is a social construct. With a student. With another girl (I’m really just a grownup fan girl.)
Let’s all teach science fiction. I mean that.