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Taking Sci Fi Into the Classroom

Stephen Burt’s eclectic science fiction class draws in a big crowd

By Yair Rosenberg, Contributing Writer

Not many students tell their parents they’re going to Harvard to study dystopian worlds run by a race of machines. But reading novels with these sorts of themes is exactly what over a hundred undergraduates have been doing this past semester in English 182: “Science Fiction.” Under the guidance of English professor Stephen L. Burt ’94, students have delved into the works of H.G. Wells, Margaret Atwood, and Philip K. Dick as assiduously as many others have studied Milton and Shakespeare.

Burt, a poetry writer and scholar by profession, has taught such English department staples as “Modern American Poetry” and “Major British Writers II” since arriving at the university in 2007. But he is also a longtime student of science fiction. Once a childhood reader of Robert Silverberg, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Isaac Asimov, he now writes course syllabi and critical articles on the genre.

Burt first began teaching a science fiction class at Macalester College in Minnesota, where he drafted his reading list with the help of several students. He brought the course with him to Harvard and taught it for the first time in Fall 2007.

The choice to teach science fiction was a natural one. “When anyone in the humanities is deciding what to teach,” Burt says, “we ask ourselves: what do we like? What is worth studying? What is important to make available and isn’t already being covered in courses that others are teaching?” For Burt, science fiction literature fits the bill. “A number of Harvard students seem to agree,” he notes.

The class fills a void for these Harvard students by introducing them to authors they would otherwise not have come across. “Most Harvard College students could discover major SF prose writers such as James Tiptree and Cordwainer Smith on their own,” Burt explains, “but you don’t unpack your bags in Matthews knowing all of these writers already, unless you’re quite an unusual reader.” With the intention of cultivating more ‘unusual readers,’ the course presents an eccentric syllabus that has elicited praise from students, who say they find themselves doing the reading more often than not.

Part of what makes a science fiction class such a draw for Harvard students is attributable to Burt himself, whose lecture antics are the stuff of legend amongst his pupils. “He’s a fantastic lecturer—he throws candy at us, he jumps out windows, he gets his point across,” says Betsy C. Isaacson ’10. This year, Burt’s dynamic style attracted such a large number of students that additional Teaching Fellows had to be hired and a bigger lecture venue procured.

Apart from Burt, what do so many undergraduates gain from this ostensibly niche subject? For some, it’s the tantalizing possibility of being able to think outside the literary box and extrapolate from the page to society at large. Ian J. Storey ’10, a student in the course and a member of the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association, says, “Because SF takes place in unusual worlds where new things are possible, societies or situations can be set up to ask fascinating ‘what if’ questions.”

Storey offers examples that have emerged from the course: “What if capitalism and industry were introduced into the Middle Ages?” “What if one person could actually own another’s mind, in a new and more complete form of slavery?” “What if there was a society containing only one gender?”

Storey explains, “While these questions initially seem interesting but not necessarily useful, they can be thought experiments which argue positions on modern issues, or at least present those issues as needing to be addressed.”

Burt sees similar value in the works studied in the course. “The study of science fiction helps us think about social and political life outside literature,” he says, “because in science fiction the effect of material conditions on individual lives becomes unignorable.” According to Burt, this perspective is in contradistinction to other forms of prose that students often encounter.

“In certain kinds of psychological or realist fiction,” he says, “peoples’ inward states appear to be determined mostly by who they fall in love with or how their families work. But when you read science fiction attentively you see how much of an individual’s life is guided not by psychology, and not by the unconscious so much as by technological and material circumstances—the difficulty of obtaining information, the availability of transport fuel, the speed of communications.”

This is not to say that Burt is ready to quit his day job as an author and critic of poetry and more traditional prose. “I don’t think we need to have ‘Science Fiction’ available to study every year, in the way we need to have Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf available,” he explains. “But I do think science fiction is important and interesting and includes some wonderful works of art.”

He also believes that science fiction can train students to better understand the nuances of what they read, whatever the genre. “Part of learning to read attentively is learning to pick up on those signals a text gives out about what you should expect, so you can see when that text and its language violate those expectations,” Burt says. Originality, in other words, is only perceptible if the reader knows what conventions have been broken.

According to Burt, science fiction, as a highly self-conscious genre, lends itself to this sort of analysis. But being cognizant of how a text expects to be read, he says, is as important for comprehending poetry as it is for understanding science fiction. For Burt, the experience of reading Robert Heinlein and Octavia Butler is similar to going line-by-line through the poetry of John Ashbery or Jorie Graham. Reading science fiction helps students grasp other literature as much as it encourages them to ponder space ships, telekinesis, and sentient robots.

But don’t think science fiction is merely a pragmatic pursuit. “It’s true that if you study 18th century poetry that you can acquire skills that will help you read Victorian fiction and skills that will help you read contemporary graphic novels,” Burt says. “But we teach 18th century poetry because 18th century poetry is worth studying in and of itself. Science fiction is an end in and of itself.”

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