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

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 focuses include American literature written by and about women, and representations of bodies, specifically representations of gender and disability.  This is the first half of the Q&A.  Next month, we’ll conclude the conversation with Dr. Starnaman with questions about her research as it relates to SF, how the classes have evolved, and a few recommended readings.

rwx: Your class changes every semester. Why new texts and themes every semester?

Dr. Starnaman: That’s a actually a really good question. The courses I teach—they’re literature of science fiction and literature of fantasy—are courses the students can take more than one time. They can take them twice, as long as the topics are different. I like to have at least a couple of versions of each course in rotation so that students can take it more than one time.

That’s good for me in a couple of ways. One, it’s great because having repeat students means that they already have some of the critical and theoretical materials mastered. Also, it means that they have a background in texts. So for example this semester, this past week, we read N.K. Jemison’s The Fifth Season, her book that came out in August 2015. And Jemison states that her two main influences were Ursula K. LeGuin and Octavia Butler. Because my students take my class more than once, I have a whole bunch of students in class who took my Octavia Butler and Ursula LeGuin course last semester. In a sense it is self-servingI get the pleasure of teaching students that have already read books I think are important.

And then the last reason is because I am hopelessly curious and therefore I am always interested in designing something new and something that piques my interest and satisfies my own curiosity.

rwx: How do you go about selecting texts for the class? Do you have students read theory as well as short stories and novels?

Dr. Starnaman: Many of my classes are thematic. For instance, I’m getting ready to teach a Science Fiction course about Robots and Cyborgs in the fall. I am actually not terribly interested in robots or cyborgs; however, I am interested in the questions that robots and cyborgs raise. For instance, what makes us human? How do we evolve as a people in changing culture? I look for texts that allow us to engage with those questions. I also look for texts that will allow me to scaffold the discussion, starting at a basic level.

To begin, the students read a rather direct story and we discuss the issues it raises. And then we can work toward more sophisticated and demanding stories, and more sophisticated and demanding questions. For example, in the Robots and Cyborgs class, I start with “A Wife Manufactured to Order,” which was written in the late 19th century and isn’t particularly well known. It’s a story about a man whose girlfriend is a suffragette, and he is annoyed with the demands that his girlfriend’s political involvement place on him. He commissions a animatronic wife made out of wax and she ends up not being everything he hoped that she would be. It’s a fembot story, our first fembot story in a series of fembot stories. We read Helen O’Loy, by Lester del Rey which is a canonical fembot story; then we watch The Stepford Wives. In this way we move through a series of fembot stories and they allow us to talk about gender, women’s roles, and how women’s bodies are portrayed in texts. And then we move on to another set of stories about robots as laborers, so we have a series of books in which we discuss a scaffolding set of questions about labor and power.

Usually the last story I teach in that class, Pat Cadigan’s “The Girl Thing Who Went Out for Sushi,” is also a labor story, but it also can be a book about choosing to change our bodies completely. “Girl Thing” is a story about people working in outer space. The workers change their human bodies into entities that are like underwater sea creatures because that works the best for weightless environment. The story focuses on one young woman who goes through this transformation. By the time we get to the end of the semester, the students will say things like “this is a story about being transgender,” and they will be able to take a lot of the ideas we’ve been working on all semester and apply them to this story in a more sophisticated way.Ss-mad-max-fury-road-103k

In terms of reading theory at the undergraduate level, sometimes we read snippets and excerpts of critical theory. My students are more often than not non-literature majors. So we often have to start with questions like how do you bring questions of labor justice to a book? How do you bring questions about gender normativity to a book? The students are introduced to theory through short lectures or short passages, like a passage about Freud’s uncanny, and we’ll read that in class and discuss it. At the graduate level, we most assuredly read critical theory.

I’m teaching a new class right now called “The Hero’s Journey”—and we start with Joseph Campbell, though we do some Ring Theory and other theoretical understandings about how heroic fantasy stories are structured. But I started my class—my class is also two-thirds men—with classic hero tales with male characters. We started with Star Wars and then we went to Gilgamesh and then we did Howard’s Conan and Moorcock’s Elric stories. And then I introduced C.L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry, who is a female character written at the same time as Conan.

Two weeks ago where we were going to discuss two stories about sword wielding heroines and Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road—a gun-wielding heroine. I was prepared to talk about female heroes who don’t behave in a gender normative manner, but the students had so little problem with that aspect of the stories that we ended up talking about how Ring Composition is evident in Fury Road. At the end of class a young woman came up and asked me “Can you tell me what you had intended today’s class to be about?” She had figured it out on her own that there was a point to the stories and movie, that we hadn’t discussed. I was so impressed that she had figured that out, and I said “Well, today was supposed to be the day when everybody got comfortable with the idea that there are female heroines who carry swords and use guns and are tough in a very physical way but are also still women. But no one seems to be having a problem with it.” My plan had been to tackle the tough issue that not all heroes are straight men–we had reached that point in the semester where from here on out many of our characters are queer, and women and trans*–but they just didn’t seem to need any introduction to that issue.

And then for this week, we read a story with a queer relationship in it and a trans* character in it, and they didn’t even mention it. It wasn’t as if they didn’t mention it because they didn’t notice it. I think they didn’t mention it because it didn’t strike them as unusual. And so I’m not sure if I’m simply attracting different students now, if I have simply had so many students in my classes that my student body is coming already educated, or if the students themselves have simply evolved to be far more savvy about issues of gender, race, class, sexuality, that sort of thing.

A student announced in class that the trans* character in Jemison’s book was the first trans* character he’d ever encountered in a book for school. This experience, he told the class, made him very happy.

rwx: This is a literature class, but so much of speculative fiction falls outside the traditional words-on-a-page text. Do you incorporate other media in your classes?

indexDr. Starnaman: Absolutely. This semester we watched Star Wars, and in fact, we started with Joseph Campbell and then Star Wars as a baby step into the larger question of the narrative structure of the Hero’s Journey. Part of the reason I did that was because almost all the students had seen Star Wars before. Therefore, it was pretty easy for the students to apply Campbell’s monomyth structure to a text they found familiar.

But then we took the Ring Cycle, which was novel to my students—it’s not necessarily in terms of the study of literature, but for my students, the Ring Cycle was novel—and used it to do an analysis of Mad Max: Fury Road.

In my Robots and Cyborgs class, I definitely will bring in some episodes of Black Mirror, which is a BBC Channel 4 production. It is an incredibly smart television show that looks critically at living in a digital age.

Because so many of my students are avid gamers and are studying game design at UTD, I’ve had learn a bit about video games. Sometimes we discuss the relationship between game narrative and fiction. Recently, I asked my students to think about how a text could be adapted for the video game medium. We’d just read N.K. Jemison’s The Fifth Season, and the structure of the point of view characters is very complex. I asked the students to think about how you would make the book into a game and maintain the complex narrative structure–to meet the narrative goal of the book. The discussion was incredibly interesting. We had a vibrant discussion about how Jemison constructed the book to elicit a particular experience for the reader, and then how one might construct a digital interface that would engage the reader/player in a similar process.

Not only do we use other media we also talk about the relationship between different narrative modes and science fiction canon. For instance, anyone who wants to work on robots in fiction, gaming, or film should know Isaac Asimov’s Robot stories. They are the foundation of the robot genre in America.