Science Fiction Studies

#70 = Volume 23, Part 3 = November 1996

Jack Williamson

On Science Fiction in College

The serious academic study of science fiction dates from about 1960, though Damon Knight had published perceptive and influential criticism a dozen years earlier. The foremost pioneer was Thomas Clareson. An able literary scholar devoted to sf, he traced its origins from the main currents of American literature. He was the founder (in 1959) of Extrapolation, the first of the academic journals devoted to sf. Its editor until 1990, he was also the founding father and first president of the Science Fiction Research Association, serving 1970-1976.

The first regular college course in sf that I know about was taught at Colgate by Mark Hillegas in 1962, though non-credit seminars had been taught earlier by Sam Moskowitz and others. I saw a column about it in the old National Observer and used a clipping to get a course of my own into the catalog here at Eastern New Mexico University. I taught it from 1964 until I retired from the regular faculty in 1977—and, with Dr. Patrice Caldwell, I still teach it every other spring.

Interest was spreading by 1970, with at least a score of courses taught. At one of the first meetings of the SFRA, I handed out a questionnaire about courses at the college level. Responses came in rapidly. I edited them into a summary report on sf in the classroom that ran through several revisions from 1971 to 1974, finally listing some 500 college-level courses in the United States and Canada.

The report drew a good deal of attention to sf as a new direction in the schoolroom. I had calls from Time, The Wall Street Journal, and Publisher's Weekly and a couple of the sf magazines carried articles. I spoke to teachers when I could. Some 1750 copies of the report were distributed, mostly to sf teachers, though Ace Books bought a hundred copies for their sales staff.

Early on, we were driven by a kind of missionary zeal. Scoffing conservatives lent a spice of drama to the effort. In spite of pollution and the Bomb, we still cherished rosy visions of possible utopian technological futures. We assumed that many young people were or would become eager readers of sf, and that this interest might lead them into nearly anything. A spate of anthologies appeared, ranging most of the way from anthropology through science fiction to zoology through science fiction.

I enjoyed my own course (taught at the junior level). Many students did; enrollments were good. Science fiction today has reached most of the goals that looked impossible back when I was existing on a cent a word from sales to the pulps. A good many sf books, if none of my own, reach the best seller lists. Even my own have been translated into a dozen other languages. Sf films set attendance records. Yet it has never changed the world or even found unanimous support in academe.

I look back on the 1970s as a golden age of sf in the classroom. In 1980 I edited Teaching Science Fiction: Education for Tomorrow. An anthology intended as a handbook for teachers new to the subject, it has an introduction by Carl Sagan and articles by Isaac Asimov, Ursula Le Guin, Kate Wilhelm, James Gunn, Mark Hillegas, and Robin Wilson (the founder of Clarion), among others. There are sample syllabi, a historical and critical bibliography of twentieth-century sf by the Panshins, and a survey of library and reference resources by Neil Barron.

Though sf teachers were never a large audience, the first printing sold out. It was reprinted, and I think is still available from Owlswick Press (Box 8243, Philadelphia, PA 19101). A good deal of the book still seems relevant, even after fifteen years, and I don't think it has been replaced.

When I discovered science fiction back in the 1920s, we were just beginning our transition to a technological society from an industrial era. The "sense of wonder" came from our excitement and delight with the scientific discoveries and new technologies that seemed to promise better and wider worlds to come. Now, as that age of wonder gives way to the "information age," the transition is more or less complete. More engineers than ever are impacting our lives with more advanced technologies than we ever dreamed about, but we react to them more often with boredom or terror than with hope.

I'm afraid we've lost that first exciting sense that we were pioneering a way of learning. Science fiction may have foreshadowed McLuhan's global village, but I don't think we foresaw that so many watchers of TV would never learn to read or think. As education faltered, science kept marching on beyond easy understanding. Quarks and quantum science are harder to grasp than Newton's laws. Science becomes magic. "Sci-fi" merges into fantasy. As the visual media thrive, book dealers are getting hard to find at sf conventions.

Yet hard sf is still written and read. SFRA is still very much alive. I still enjoy teaching sf, and students still seem to find it worth their time. Readership is international, at least in areas of technological development. I recently had an inquiry from Yuri Minronets, who is teaching sf in Vladivostok. Wondering about the current state of the art, I have always hoped that somebody would undertake a fresh survey of sf in academe. That hasn't happened. Now perhaps it will.

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