NCTE 2016: Teaching Speculative Fiction

Part One: Imagining New Worlds


When teaching speculative fiction in the high school or undergrad classroom, it can be difficult to get students to “transfer” the experiences of fictional characters off the page and into the real-world contexts of their own lived experiences—especially with a novel as complex as China Mieville’s The City & The City. Despite the fact that there are far more similarities than differences between the cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma and real-life cities throughout Europe and America, students are likely to miss these similarities when the absurdities of “seeing” and “unseeing” become core elements of Mieville’s hardboiled detective narrative about a third of the way through the novel.

What, then, is a teacher to do? Given the important parallels that we want—that we need—students to recognize between the absurdity of life in The City & The City and the absurdity of life in our everyday world, how do we equip them to not only take note of these similarities, but also to combat the marginalizing ideologies made possible by “seeing” and “unseeing” others in world around us?

As part of an excellent panel (“Voices of Advocacy in Imaginary Worlds: Teaching Speculative Fiction with Critical Literacy and Feminist and Queer Theory Perspectives”) at the 2016 NCTE Conference in Atlanta, I shared a few initial thoughts on this dilemma in the hopes of starting a broader conversation about the role of “imaginary worlds” in today’s ELA classrooms. My contribution focused specifically on Mieville’s novel, but two key points are (I hope) equally applicable to any work of speculative fiction:

  1. Speculative fiction allows teachers and students a unique opportunity to explore visibility and invisibility (“seeing” and “unseeing”) in the ELA classroom because these narratives are just different enough from “real life” that our traditional assumptions about identity are not automatically valid in the fictional realm.
  2. A work like The City & The City removes the “pressure” of reality from the classroom—thus making it possible to more fully explore how and why we “unsee” each other on a daily basis.

(And just to be clear, it’s not that I think speculative fiction is the ONLY genre that can perform this kind of ideology critique. Certainly there are compelling arguments for the work that many other genres can perform in service of an anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic pedagogy.)

In the full presentation, I link the role of invisibility in Mieville to forms of racial invisibility in the poems of Claudia Rankine, the scholarly work of Michelle Alexander, and (of course) the fiction of Ralph Ellison. In this blog post, however, I want to share a teaching idea/strategy that I haven’t used with students just yet—but that I am dying to bring into my classroom the next time I teach The City & The City.

Part Two: Imagining New Activities


When I first started thinking about a new project idea for teaching this novel, I immediately imagined an activity that would work best with the kinds of students I’ve spent most of my career teaching: advanced high school English students (grades 11-12) or lower-division undergraduate literature students. So rather than plan a specific lesson, I thought of ways to bring the ideas  of “seeing” and “unseeing” into the context of students’ daily lives in a highly personal manner.

And while the end result of these imaginings isn’t 100% complete just yet, I wanted to share an ethnographic research project idea that I’m currently working on in case other teachers out there have ideas, suggestions, or questions that can push this assignment — which I’m calling the “Seeing the Unseen” project for now — to its full potential.

[CLICK HERE FOR PDF OF ASSIGNMENT SHEET]

The main idea behind this project is that, much like the citizens of Beszel and Ul Qoma, students only value what they can see, what they can recognize — the rest merely fades into the background as a kind of less-important “noise.” By asking them to engage in an ethically responsible ethnographic project that attempts to make “invisible” places around campus more “visible,” I want them to recognize the limitations of their own experience of high school/college and to begin the work of moving beyond those limitations.

As I mention in my NCTE talk, there are obvious dangers in sending groups of students around campus to investigate and document “unseen” places — not the least of which is that these places often remain invisible because they serve the needs of our most invisible students (i.e., the ones trying to escape peer pressure, bullying, or adult oversight). So extensive groundwork would need to be laid before starting a project like this to ensure that students are respecting their peers’ needs for safety/anonymity while completing their research. But by combining observations, interviews, photography, and video, the project asks students to “see” these invisible spaces in multiple dimensions at once — which (ideally) should lead to greater awareness of the purposes and the populations that these spaces serve.

And in the end, this is what novels like The City & The City prompt us to ask ourselves: Why do we “unsee” each other so frequently, so automatically? And how do we force ourselves to “see” one another more fully and completely on a more regular basis? The project I’m proposing may not answer these big questions in any definitive fashion, but I hope that it offers teachers and students a way to bring speculative fiction out of the realm of “make-believe” and into the world that we inhabit with those we see — and those we don’t see — on a daily basis.

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