Friday, January 13, 2006

Revising the Science Fiction Course

A few days before school starts and I find myself seriously overhauling the plans for my Science Fiction course. I'm in the middle of redoing the reading schedule and a number of the assignments.

I've given up on pulling together a bunch of short stories--still worth doing sometime, but not now. Instead, I've decided to use Visions of Wonder: The Science Fiction Research Association Reading Anthology. No anthology is perfect, and this one has its flaws (heavy focus on the first half of the 1990s), but it's got a good mix. The only anthology I've seen that has a comparable inclusion of women is the Le Guin edited Norton Book of Science Fiction, which I refuse to use for ideological reasons (Le Guin's, not mine. Because she dislikes cyberpunk and its ethos, she leaves it out of her anthology. Like it or not, leaving cyberpunk out of science fiction anthology that focuses on SF from 1960s to 2000 is akin to an editor of a Romantic literature anthology leaving out Byron because he was "mad, bad, and dangerous to know." It's too bad, really, because Le Guin's anthology is really good otherwise). In addition to a good mix of stories, Visions of Wonder has a number of accessible essays on SF interspersed throughout (it appears, though I can't say for sure until I've read the whole thing, that the essays and stories are grouped together. The layout of the table of contents suggests this and my reading in a few sections seems to support it). I'm still figuring out what stories we're going to read from the anthology (last week I'd set up a schedule where we read nearly all 700 pages, but I'm cutting back). Including the anthology, the final book list is as follows:
  • Butler, Octavia E. Dawn. Aspect, 1997. ISBN: 0446603775.

  • Capek, Karel. R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots). Penguin Books, 2004. ISBN: 0141182083.

  • Hartwell, David G., and Milton T. Wolf, eds. Visions of Wonder: The Science Fiction Research Association Reading Anthology. Tor Books, 1996. ISBN: 0312852878.

  • Heinlein, Robert A. Starship Troopers. Ace, 1987. ISBN: 0441783589.

  • Masamune Shirow. Ghost In The Shell Volume 1 2nd Edition. Dark Horse, 2004. ISBN: 1593072287.

  • Miller, Walter J., Jr. A Canticle for Leibowitz. Spectra, 1997. ISBN: 0553379267.
As I mentioned earlier, I'm using Schtuff.com as a course site, which is a free Wiki service that includes blogging, tagging, commenting, and custom permissions (ranging from "must be logged in to view page" to "anybody can view, comment, and edit page"). I'm going with Schtuff.com rather than setting up my own Wiki or CMS like Drupal for a few reasons. First, the Wiki and multiple blogs (group and individual blogs both) in one space means fewer interfaces for the students to deal with. More importantly, however, I'm always conscious of the fact that my use of technology serves as an example to others in the department of what can be done. While SLU has Wiki and blog software available to use, it took me 3 months of repeated asking to get anyone to set up a group blog for my fall class and I never did get a Wiki. And after six months of asking for a blog and Wiki for the English Graduate Organization, I've given up on using in-house materials (and no, they won't let a graduate student set up something on their servers). So, while I could set up something on my own site (actually, I do have Media Wiki installed), the chances of anyone else in the department running out and installing their own Wiki or blog or Drupal on their own personal site is unlikely (assuming they have a personal site--few maintain a SLU based site on their own). The chance of someone seeing how I'm using Schtuff.com and deciding to try it out, especially since we're also going to start using it for the English Graduate Organization, is much more likely.

My plan has been, and continues to be, to make extensive use of the Wiki and blog as a student created database of content that we can then draw upon for other projects. I'd come up with a number of ideas before December, only wrote some of them down, and forgot most of what I didn't write down until I followed Jeff's link to his Theories of the Digital course. In particular, his comment about the function of the Weblog as reading journal reminded me of my earlier plans. Jeff writes: "Weblog notes are not critiques of the readings. They are notes. Notes serve as databases you draw upon for future work and for making connections. Notes are not evaluative."

In addition to using the Wiki and blog to create a glossary, for a short story project (more on this sometime this term), for reading journals and a group blog, and for "letter exchanges" (while written to meet the needs of ReadWriteThink's K-12 focus, and therefore quite different from how it plays out in my courses, my "Exploring Literature Through Letter Writing Groups is an example of how these exchanges work), I wanted to push the database idea a bit further by having students post class discussion notes and to make carnival posts. Each class, two or three students will be required to post notes to the class site, which anyone can then come in and flesh out, and every two weeks, 3-4 students will be required to write a carnival post drawing the past two weeks blog posts (both individual and group). The take-home essay and midterm, as well as the short story project and the letter exchanges, will ask students to draw upon the already created content (thereby acting as a database). So, since I'm already revising the plan, I've decided to rethink some of the other assignments and how it will all come together.

I'll finish adding content to the site this weekend, and students should start adding to it by this time next week. I'm going to encourage, but not require, that their reading journals and short story projects be made public to those not logged in, but I want to leave that up to them. Right now the glossary, which they'll be creating most of the content for, is set to be public. I'm going to fill in a few entries for terms I want to start the course with (such as cognitive estrangement), but until they get to work on it, it's mostly going to be a list of terms.

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