#70 = Volume 23, Part 3 = November 1996
Farewell to the Master: Standing in for Tom Clareson,
As a young assistant professor, I count myself lucky in today's academic job
market that I've had the opportunity to teach science fiction at least once.
Although the unusual circumstances of the situation made for an interesting and
probably unique experience, I learned a great deal about the subject and how to
teach it and would do many of the same things over again should I have the
chance to teach it again.
One Thursday evening only a few days into 1993, I received a telephone call
from Joanne Frye, chair of the Department of English at the College of Wooster
in Wooster, Ohio. Thomas D. Clareson had suddenly taken ill and was unable to
teach his class on science fiction, she said. She then asked if I would be
willing and able to fill in at the last minute.
It might as well have been a rhetorical question. The previous May I had
completed my Ph.D. at Kent State University and was experiencing the same
job-market hell that hundreds of other new Ph.D.s across North America were
experiencing at the time. In the meantime, I was teaching part time at Kent and
working as a freelance copy editor for a university press. In my graduate
studies I had concentrated on late nineteenth-century and twentieth-century
British and American literature; I had also spent as much time as I could
studying science fiction. I read voraciously, wrote reviews and an article for Extrapolation,
convinced the graduate studies committee at Kent to allow me to pursue
independent investigations on British and American science fiction and to permit
one of my minor areas for my doctoral exams to be on science fiction, and wrote
a master's thesis on politics in the work of Harlan Ellison and a dissertation
on the changing literary reputation of H. G. Wells. I was able, I thought, and
more than willing to teach science fiction at Wooster—and what an honor to
fill in for Tom Clareson, founder of Extrapolation and one of the seminal
figures in the academic study of science fiction!
The next day, Friday, I drove from Kent, where I was then living, to Wooster,
interviewed for the position, and was offered the job late that afternoon.
Classes started the following Monday, when I began making the first of dozens of
hour-long one-way commutes to Wooster three times a week in the dead of winter
(despite it being the euphemistically named Spring Semester) in northeast Ohio.
Over the weekend before the first week of classes, I prepared as much as I
could in such a short period. Tom already had his reading list, of course, and
most of the books were in the bookstore; and while I had not read some of the
titles, I decided to do things the easy way and keep his list. It comprised nine
novels (see Appendix), the first of which was published in 1951. I quickly
decided to cover the novels in chronological order—one of the strategies
recommended by Dennis M. Kratz in his chapter on teaching science fiction in the
latest edition of Anatomy of Wonder (717)—and devote the first week and
a half of the semester to discussions of what science fiction is and historical
background. (I later learned that this strategy is recommended in the Teacher's
Guide to Accompany The Norton Book of Science Fiction by Brian Attebery, who
says, "Any classroom approach...will be most fruitful if it includes at
least some attention, first, to the origins of SF...." ) This would give
me time, I reasoned, to write a syllabus and get started on reading or rereading
the novels. What I didn't know off the top of my head I could draw from the
papers I had written for my independent investigations at Kent.
During the first class session I handed out index cards and asked students to
tell me a little about themselves—major, year, previous background in science
fiction—and then we brainstormed on the board about what they thought of when
they thought of science fiction. This then led to an attempt to define science
fiction that included Attebery's second recommendation, to look at science
fiction through "its relationship to the academy and the marketplace"
(2). Both exercises were instructive. First, I began to get a sense of the
diversity of my students, who ranged from sophomores to seniors, from English
majors to science majors and everything in between, and from long-time fans to
neophytes.1 As I learned more about them over the semester I also
found an interesting diversity in students' exposure to science fiction.
Attebery divides students into two camps, English majors comfortable with
"traditional" literature but for whom science fiction may be a
different world and fans who "know more about science fiction than you
do" and who have read "several hundred SF novels, subscribe to two or
three fiction magazines, and regularly attend local and national
conventions" (1). What Attebery says about English majors, from my
experience with this class, is fairly accurate. However, I experienced three
types of fans and myself constituted a fourth type. One type, consisting of only
two of three students out of thirty in my class, were as Attebery described:
avid readers as well as fans of science-fiction film and television, they were
extremely knowledgeable and had read many things I had not. Most of the students
who classified themselves as fans, though, would not fit Attebery's description
at all. While they enjoyed reading science fiction (along with fantasy fiction
and horror), they had not read as widely as the "true" fans; their
tastes were for the most part limited to extremely popular authors such as Piers
Anthony, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and Stephen King, with maybe some
Ursula K. Le Guin thrown in, in addition to some L. Ron Hubbard and Star Trek
novels; and magazine science fiction and fandom were alien worlds for them.2
A handful, the third type I recognized, were interested primarily in such
writers as William S. Burroughs, Philip K. Dick, and cyberpunk authors; one
owned a copy of Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and
Postmodern Science Fiction (1992), edited by Larry McCaffery.
Then there was me. Few of my students had read much published before the
1980s, including the die-hard fans; when I polled the class, almost no one had
read any Wells, Heinlein before Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), Alfred
Bester, Ray Bradbury, Olaf Stapledon, or anything else that I would consider
"classic" science fiction. Even the New Wave was a long time ago for
them.3 In contrast, much of my academic training in science fiction
was devoted to reading widely in its history. In that respect I suppose I am
like most people who teach science fiction, who find that a large part of our
job is to inform students that there is a vast body of work written before they
began reading science fiction. If I ever have the opportunity to teach science
fiction again I plan to bring in John Clute and Peter Nicholls's 1,370-page Encyclopedia
of Science Fiction (1993) and drop in on the desk as a physical
demonstration of the scope and volume of science fiction.
The brainstorming exercise was also helpful in getting a handle on what my
students thought about science fiction. Many thought of it in terms of media,
which of course is how most people in the Western world are acquainted with
science fiction. Class discussion was active over whether novels such as Mary
Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932),
or George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) were science fiction, with
debate focusing on whether content or context determined if a work is science
fiction. Since few students possessed much historical knowledge of the genre,
this provided only an opening exercise rather than a definition we could all be
happy with, and we continued to discuss science-fiction themes and tropes
throughout the semester.
Next, while I was preparing my syllabus and my notes on the first of the
novels outside of class, I gave my students some of this much-needed historical
background. I also placed Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction
(1986), by Brian W. Aldiss with David Wingrove, on reserve for anyone
wanting more information. For assignments, I settled upon some standard ones for
a literature course (reading quizzes, essay exams for the midterm and final,
term paper) along with others designed specifically for the course. Tom had
chosen novels for the reading list, which was fine, but a great deal of science
fiction for much of its history has been dominated by short stories, so I felt
the students should get some exposure to this side of the field. I also did not
want to neglect the importance of the media in shaping public perceptions of
science fiction. My solution was to have students write three two-to-three-page
reports on science fiction other than novels, one of which could be on science
fiction in television or the movies—an option almost everyone exercised. The
library at the College of Wooster, thanks to Tom, had a substantial collection
of science-fiction anthologies and some periodicals, both magazines and academic
journals—including a complete run, of course, of Extrapolation—as
well as a film library with a few science-fiction titles. Such reports, I found,
widened students' understanding of what was out there in the "huge and
nebulous field of science fiction," to quote from my syllabus. (I was a bad
punster then.) I also broadened this effect by having students present one of
their three reports to the class.
In addition, I made arrangements to meet with Tom at his home in Wooster.
Despite being connected to an oxygen tank and experiencing shortness of breath
periodically, he was just as he was when I'd first met him at the 1989 Science
Fiction Research Association conference in Oxford, Ohio: personable and eager to
talk about science fiction. We discussed books and authors, teaching and
scholarship, in the two times we met during the semester. His death a few months
after the end of the quarter was a great loss.
Most of the course was occupied by class discussion of the nine novels Tom
had ordered and the students had purchased, and which I scrambled to read or
reread while spending six to seven hours a week on the road depending on weather
conditions, teaching two different classes at Kent State, and conducting a job
search for a full-time position. In retrospect, though all the books except S.
M. Stirling's disturbing Marching through Georgia (1988) were popular
with most of the students most of the time, I would have taught only the first
books on the given reading list and ordered books I had read recently, because
trying to stay on top of the reading under these circumstances was a battle I
began to lose toward the end of the semester, and I feel I cheated my students.
The historical and literary background at the beginning of the term and in
between novels, I hope, was helpful, but I could have been better prepared for
discussions of the later novels themselves. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the class
immensely. Being able to teach science fiction, and so early in my career, was a
dream come true. The students were bright and interesting, and it was not
difficult to foster class discussion about the material.
I was also excited about another aspect of the situation: the fact that Tom,
even before his illness, was planning to retire at the end of the semester. I
hoped that the College of Wooster would want another science-fiction scholar to
fill his place, if not the daunting task of filling his shoes, and I hoped I was
in the right place at the right time. For whatever reasons, however, the college
decided not to or was unable to fill the vacancy, in science fiction or in any
other area. By necessity, I kept a close eye on position listings after that,
and to the best of my knowledge the College of Wooster has yet to hire anyone to
teach science fiction; and since they hired me because no one else there felt
able to step in for Tom, it's unlikely that someone already there is teaching
the subject. This would be a shame, considering the solid foundation Tom built
Few colleges and universities, in fact, have advertised for people able to
teach science fiction, even in conjunction with other subjects, since I began
scanning The Chronicle of Higher Education and the MLA Job Information
List in 1991. Kratz convincingly makes a case for the teaching of science
fiction in Anatomy of Wonder, but he also correctly points out that
science fiction "remains undeniably a minor and marginal part of the school
and university curriculum. Many academics still regard SF as a lesser, even
subliterary form of genre fiction. One troubling development in particular
illustrates this marginal existence: the shrinking budgets of the past decade
have led to a decline in the number of science fiction courses being offered in
both secondary and higher education" (715–16). After I left Wooster and
Kent, I worked for two years as a reference-book editor, teaching composition
part- time for one year. I would have been happy to teach anything, but
especially science fiction, but the jobs were and still are few.
Still, I don't regret my experience of stepping in for Tom at the last minute
and making up the course as I went along. I learned a great deal about teaching,
about science fiction, and about teaching science fiction in the process, both
from my classroom experiences and from the Master. I hope I have more
opportunities to teach science fiction, which seems increasingly promising in an
academic environment returning, after an intense interest in literary theory and
in literatures of marginalized groups, to popular culture as an area of study
and instruction. As Jean-Luc Picard would say, "Make it so."
1. As for other types of diversity: out of thirty students,
only five were women, unusual for a literature class but reflective of male
predominance in science fiction. The class included one African-American
student, one Asian-American student, one Indian-American student, and one
student from England; the rest were white Americans. None were non-traditional
2. In his "President's Message" in the
November/December 1995 SFRA Review, Joe Sanders comments upon the aging
of the science-fiction audience and the need for "entry-level" science
fiction for readers for whom not even Piers Anthony is a familiar name (5).
3. In an interview in the November 1995 Locus, Samuel
R. Delany notes that his science-fiction students are typically more
enthusiastic about contemporary works than about older works (82). This may be
because such students find contemporary works more relevant to their experience,
since Delany also notes that "most of the students are what I think most of
us would call culturally deprived" (5)—giving him blank looks, for
instance, when he would mention artists such as Paul Cézanne and Henri Matisse.
Attebery, Brian. Teacher's Guide to Accompany The Norton
Book of Science Fiction. New York: Norton, 1993.
Kratz, Dennis M. "Teaching Science Fiction." Anatomy
of Wonder: A Critical Guide to Science Fiction. 4th ed. Ed. Neil Barron. New
Providence, NJ: Bowker, 1995. 715–37.
"Samuel R. Delany: Teaching and Writing." Locus 418:
4–5, 82, 84, November 1995.
Sanders, Joe. "President's Message." SFRA Review 220:
5–6, November/December 1995.
APPENDIX: COURSE DESCRIPTION
English 240. Science Fiction. This
course is an introduction to the huge and nebulous field of science fiction.
Through the reading of selected texts and class discussion, we shall explore
what science fiction is, the literary and cultural contexts in which it has
appeared, and how it is similar to and different from other types of writing. TEXTS:
Simak, City; Heinlein, The Star Beast; Dick, Do Androids Dream
of Electric Sheep?; Pohl, Gateway; Brin, The Postman; Bujold, Falling
Free; Stirling, Marching through Georgia.