Dr. Sabrina Starnaman Q&A: Creating and Teaching SF as Literature Classes, Part 2

Recently, I interviewed Dr. Sabrina Starnaman, Clinical Assistant Professor of Literary Studies at The University of Texas at Dallas, who teaches science fiction and fantasy as literature courses.  Some of the classes she has taught include “The Hero’s Journey,” “LeGuin and Butler,” and “Cyborgs and Robots.”  Her research foci include American literature written by and about women, and representations of bodies, specifically representations of gender and disability.  This is the second half of the Q&A; the first half can be found in my April 2016 post here.

rwx: What role does your own research play in the content of the class?

Dr. Starnaman: It’s really interesting because I did not start out as a science fiction and fantasy reader. My interest and my research is originally in late nineteenth century American women’s fiction, particularly women who moved to the city or women in cities. My research is interested in questions of gender, class, race, labor, sexuality, ethnicity, immigration, and those sorts of things. Those are central themes in the stories I work on; they’re central themes in the research questions that I engage. And so when I was initially asked to teach science fiction and fantasy lit—being asked to teach classes outside your area of research is a common thing in education—I immediately had to start reading. But I thought long and hard about how would I teach this class because it was not my primary research area. So what I decided was that race, gender, sexuality—all these things—would actually be the foundation of the class, and it’s just the texts that changed. That’s something I bring into it.

And then of course wherever possible I try to bring in books from the late nineteenth century because I think it’s very easy for us to believe—or at least it’s easy for a lot of students now—they’re inundated with YA fantasy and science fiction books. They’re inundated with these blockbuster movies. And I think it’s important for them to see that this has a long history. And the fact that I also believe that science fiction is a genre of social protest. So to bring in a story from the 1880s about women’s suffrage and women’s rights is to show them that science fiction has always been a genre of social protest. And so that’s assuredly one way that my research runs through the class.

Another way is that because I work on a lot of nineteenth century women writers, I’m very invested in the recovery of women writers and seeing books get back into publication that weren’t in publication. I really believe that the act of requiring books for class is an act of social justice. Who you put on your syllabus and who the students have to buy sends a larger message to publishers. I work very hard to make sure that my students are buying books by women and books by people of color. For this semester, I have my courses subtitled “The Hero’s Journey,” and they have an anthology—a really well edited anthology by David Hartwell called Sword and Sorceryand then they had to buy Epic of Gilgamesh, and every other book they are buying are either by women or people of color. I think that’s really important, and in fact, one of the books that we are reading for the semester is essentially out of print. We bought every single copy there was in the American book market for the book. My hope is that it sends a message to the publisher that this book is worth going back into print. So that’s another way in which the commitments of my personal research get written into a syllabus and written into the books that we buy and that we discuss.

But like I said, I don’t know that the students actually find it remotely radical anymore. They just think it makes sense that they’re reading all these books that have diversity in them.

rwx: So, progress?

Dr. Starnaman: Yes. One hopes.

rwx: What has surprised you most about the way the class has evolved?

Dr. Starnaman: That’s a really great question. It’s funny because I took over this class from a male science fiction author and editor, and he had a huge following. He had an enormous knowledge of the history of science fiction and fantasy as a publishing field and as a literary genre. He did a lot of lecturing—he taught most of his class through lecture. And so when I took over the class, there were a lot of surprised, perhaps even disappointed, students because they weren’t going to get what they had expected. Many of them had already taken his class before, and they were looking forward to taking it again. And so in the beginning I think that there was a little bit more resistance.

One of the things that I’ve seen is that more students in my class are out as gay, more students in class are trans*. I had believed that maybe the number of women in my class had changed over the semesters. In fact every other year I teach a class where all we do is read Ursula LeGuin and Octavia Butler. And I thought that would probably skew the course toward more women. This past year just out of curiosity I went back, and I looked at all of my classes from the last years. I counted how many men and how many women were in class, and it hasn’t changed at all. So I still have two-thirds men and one-third women, and that surprised me. Maybe I’m becoming more aware of trans* students in my class or maybe my class is clearly a safe space that students who are gay [or transgender] can talk about their own experience. [I hear students] say, “this moment in this book really speaks volumes to the experience of coming out to your parents.”  So maybe that has been something that has evolved, and students know that it’s a safe space, and so this becomes something that’s expected in my classes. But just the breakdown of men and women, just sheer numbers has not changed, and that has really surprised me.

Teaching a science fiction and fantasy course is not like teaching any other course. This is something that surprised me, as I have learned more about what it means to teach science fiction and fantasy. If you’re teaching American Realism and Naturalism, the students come to the class, and they might know a little bit about what they remember from high school, but by and large, you’re introducing them to something they don’t know and whatever they do know, you’re teaching them as the course evolves. In a literature of science fiction or literature of fantasy class, often sixty of my eighty to ninety students are people who love science fiction love fantasy, and have read enormous amount, have played thousands of hours of video games in the genre, have watched hundreds of films or televisions shows in the genre. Something I was totally unprepared for in the beginning was the encyclopedic knowledge some students have. I imagine if you teach paleontology, it’s the same way, you have these kids who’ve been studying dinosaurs since they were little. But I’ve had to change the way I teach in some ways because I have to honor the fact that many of the students in class have this incredible knowledge.

Another issue is that a lot of the literature students in my class don’t have any background in science fiction and fantasy, and so they walk into this class expecting it to be like every other lit class they’ve been in, which is that people are pretty much on the same footing in terms of their literary knowledge with the exception of one or two outliers. But then they walk into a room and there’s sixty people who are using references and know things and can reference details about the author and other books they’ve written. I’ve learned right from the beginning to address this because it scares the lit students. They think “what am I getting myself into? I didn’t know I had to have all this pre-knowledge for this class.” And so I work hard to say, “a lot of the people who have knowledge about the genre don’t have a lot of skills about talking about it critically and all you advanced lit students have a lot of skills for talking about it critically. Its’ okay, lit people, don’t be worried. In a few weeks you’ll have some texts under your belt, and you’ll be able to participate from your strengths and the things you’ve learned.”

Teaching science fiction and fantasy lit classes, especially at a place like UT Dallas which has this huge Arts and Technology program dedicated to gaming and sound design which is often related to gaming, is I think a different experience than if I was teaching it at a small liberal arts college where my students would be literature or history majors. That’s another way in which I’ve evolved to understand the class, and it’s a way in which I evolved to teach the class to reassure everybody that’s it’s going to be okay, that we’re all going to get through this, and that I evolved the course so that some students can learn the skills they don’t have and some students can learn the genre that they don’t know. By a third of the way through the class we’re all together in our movement toward our final sophisticated discussions and final projects or final analytical papers.

rwx: If you could recommend to the blog readers one novel or anthology that you’ve taught, what would you suggest?

Dr. Starnaman: Oh, that’s the hardest question. I have become a total fan of the work of China Miéville in the course of teaching this class. Every book he writes while they are all speculative fiction, they are always in a different genre, so one is steampunk—his Bas Lag series, the first one Perdido Street Station is a steampunk novel. The next book in the series, The Scar, is a high-seas adventure but also in the same world. And the third in the series, Iron Council, is a western, even though it’s still in the same world. I recommend anything by him. I also often teach his book Kraken, which is about a squid cult and different god cults in London in the end of days. There are a number of reasons why I think his books are worth reading. One is that they’re so rich with allusions to other literature and other media, for instance, as he was raised playing Dungeons and Dragons and watching Star Trek, so that can also been seen though these books. He’s also is a readers’ writer–he has read so much and that is evident in his work. I think it’s great for students to see the purpose of learning literature is to participate in the conversation. His books are a conversation across time and across different forms of media. If you don’t know the allusions, that’s fine, they’re interesting books nevertheless, but I think they’re a great read and they’re a great teach in that sense.

Also his books do something that I enjoy seeing in books and I enjoy teaching in class. You don’t just read the book from the beginning to the end because the way the story builds, as you move forward through the book you’re also reinterpreting what you’ve already read. That is a process that those of us who love literature know about, reading in both directions at the same time and then the joy of rereading his books when you teach them.

 I’m currently in love with the book that we just read this week which is N.K. Jemison’s The Fifth Season. I also recommend that—it’s a book that can be read in both directions at the same time. And so in class when I explained this to the students and we did a close reading of the first page, I had students put their heads in their hands and say this page is so much more devastating now that I’ve read the entire book. This experience of rereading the first page for them in class was perhaps for some of them their first experience of coming to a rereading or re-understating of a book after you’ve finished it. And seeing it as an organic, evolving experience. I recommend China Miéville for all those reasons. I have to say that I was very impressed with N.K. Jemison’s novel that we just read.

I think that the question of one is really hard thing for me to answer. I would also like to say that I think that Theodore Sturgeon is the best writer that most people haven’t read. He’s long gone now, but he was a writer’s writer, and he was an influence on so many other writers. And every time I teach either one of his stories, like “Thunder and Roses” or I teach his novel More Than Human, it is a transformative experience for students. If I could bring back an author into the public consciousness, and of course there would be thousands of people who would say “What? No! Theodore Sturgeon is amazing! Of course he doesn’t need to be brought back.” But in terms of an author that a lot of everyday readers don’t know, he’s one that I wish that more literary scholars knew about, I wish that more readers had an opportunity to read. But that’s my job to bring him to everybody.