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.

Fall 2015 Syllabus: College Writing I

Following up on yesterday’s post, I wanted to share the syllabus for the second course that I’ll be teaching this fall at UWL, ENG 110: College Writing I. As a class designed for first-year students new to the undergrad experience, I’ve tried to structure the readings and assignments so as to demystify some of the elements I’ve seen students struggle with in the past. And so long as everything goes according to plan (and you know it always does!), this means that students in my two sections should leave the course with a better understanding of at least the following:

  • Writing for various purposes, audiences, and situations
  • Knowing how & when to use evidence for supporting claims in their writing
  • Differentiating between assignment requirements and assignment suggestions
  • Providing constructive feedback to their peers (and to themselves)
  • Utilizing the resources that are available to them for help with drafting, editing, and revising

The third bullet point in that list (“Differentiating between assignment requirements and assignment suggestions“) is a personal interest of mine, as I often wonder if the reason some students struggle with the writing process is that they think they have to incorporate every scrap of guidance, advice, or support that we provide during class into a single piece of writing. Teaching writing often requires walking a fine line between being clear in your expectation for an assignment and being overly prescriptive about how students complete that assignment. In this course, I’m hoping to help my students negotiate this line for themselves so that they don’t feel crushed under the weight of too much guidance from their professors, tutors, or peers.

[Click on image to read full syllabus]

The biggest challenge with constructing this syllabus is that I simply don’t know my UWL students yet — and every student population brings a different set of interests, concerns, and “baggage” into the classroom. These aren’t TCU students, and they aren’t Oviedo High School students, either. So in re-designing some of the core assignments that I’ve used while teaching writing in the past, I’ve combined elements from both of my previous institutional contexts and hoped for the best. And even though I put a lot of time, effort, and reflection into the current syllabus, I’ll be taking notes all semester long so that I can tweak and modify (or change drastically, if necessary) the course before teaching it again in future semesters.

Reflective Teaching™: It ain’t sexy. It ain’t easy. And it sure ain’t quick. But if the syllabus-as-contract is to mean anything in our classroom — if these massive, law-giving documents that we spend weeks creating are to accurately reflect the kinds of teaching and learning we hope to foster during a 15-week course — then we have to imagine each iteration of the syllabus as a starting point, rather than an end point, in the lifespan of the courses we design for our students.

This document that I’m sharing is really just a starting point for ENG 110 at UWL. One week into the fall semester, and I’m still optimistic it’s a pretty good one.

Fall 2015 Syllabus: Adolescent Literature

Now that the first week of the fall semester is in the books, I feel like I should be able to take a deep breath [inhale . . . exhale] and reset/recharge for the weeks to come. Yet in true paranoid-teacher fashion, I woke up at 6:00 on this Saturday morning thinking about all the things I needed to get done before Monday.

(Does that feeling ever go away? This is my eleventh year in the classroom, and if anything, I’m getting even MORE paranoid about being On The Ball at all times.)

As I was working this morning, I realized that I had yet to post the syllabus for each of my UWL courses here on the website. And while I don’t think very many people noticed, I like posting syllabi here for two reasons:

  1. When I’m assigned new courses and go hunting for teaching resources, the first thing I search for is a course syllabus. That way, I can get a general feel for how others have conceptualized similar materials/texts/assignments in their teaching before starting on my own work.
  2. I think teachers throughout K-16 education need to embrace a wider culture of resource sharing so that no one has to “fight the good fight” alone. And if I don’t practice what I preach, well, that’s just not good.

ENG 341 Syllabus Fall 2015 COVERSo for starters, I’m posting my syllabus for ENG 341: Adolescent Literature. [Click on the image at right to view the full document.] As you’ll see from the overview and assignments, this course is primarily designed for English Education majors/minors — but it’s open to any student with an ENG major or minor. (My current group of 17 students has, at last count, ten English Ed students; the other students are part of the department’s Literature and/or Rhetoric and Writing emphases.) And while I originally wanted students to read a TON of books, for various reasons the final list was trimmed down to seven. I’m probably biased, but I think books we’re reading this fall represent a damn-good selection of titles.

One disclaimer that I need to make: I don’t own the rights to many of these images, and I am fully aware that I need to be better about citing my image sources in a syllabus like this one. I fight this battle constantly while making image-heavy documents, and I know that I should stop listening every time that little voice in my head says, “It’s for educational purposes only! You don’t have the time to track down, verify, and then acknowledge the original source(s) on a syllabus.” (I know that voice is wrong, but it’s also very, very loud and very, very persistent. Especially during the final week of the summer when I just want to cross FINISH SYLLABUS??? off my pre-semester checklist.) Long mea culpa short: If you see something that needs to be taken down, please contact me so that I can make the appropriate changes.

Any thoughts or feedback on the syllabus — positive, negative, noncommittal — are most welcome. And to everyone else out there teaching this fall, have a great semester!

Language, Limits, and Gertrude Stein

This post is taken from a two-page response essay I wrote on Stein’s Tender Buttons in 2011. Nearly four years later, I disagree pretty strongly with myself about the ultimate “failure” of Stein’s project — which only adds to the fun of looking back on the first year of my PhD program!


“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” —Ludwig Wittgenstein

Gertrude Stein’s desire to “work in the excitedness of pure being…To get back that intensity into the language” (qtd. in Rothenberg 89) was not, in and of itself, unique for her time. What sets Stein apart from other modern poets—Pound, Eliot, Williams, Cummings—after the same ends, however, is the degree to which she was willing to follow “pure being” into the linguistic abyss, the degree to which she was willing to sacrifice meaning in order to “express what something was” (91). Reactions to her work differ wildly from one reader to the next, but invariably these assessments return to the central question of modern and postmodern poetics: Should we consider works like “Before the Flowers of Friendship Faded Friendship Faded” and Tender Buttons “art” or “nonsense”?

Though it might appear a clever evasion to some, I would argue that Stein’s poetry confronts this false dichotomy of “art” versus “nonsense” head-on and, in the process, creates a third way: a “post-sensical poetics” that regards meaning solely as the unfortunate precipitate of ordinary language practices—one that the modern artist must dispense with in order to approach essential, transcendental truths about reality. Surely the following lines from section XXIII of “Before the Flowers of Friendship Faded Friendship Faded” cannot be discussed or evaluated according to any common conception of “sense” or “meaning”:

Every one which is why they will they will be will he will he be for her for her to come with him with when he went he went and came and any little name is shame as such tattoo. (101)

But this does not entail that the words (and the poem from which they are taken) should then be discarded as pure nonsense. As Marjorie Perloff makes clear in her essay, “Gertrude Stein’s Differential Syntax,” Stein brings words together in a particular grammatical structure that can then be invested with meaning by careful and conscientious readers; the words may not mean, but they can lead us toward meaning. This is why we can speak of her poetry as “post-sensical”: in these works, meaning becomes a secondary or even a tertiary concern of language, a concern to be dealt with not by the poet or the poem, but by the reader—and only if the reader chooses to do so. As such, these poems leave meaning and sense behind, opting instead to approach the truths that ordinary language so often obscures by dislocating words from their traditional moorings and engaging in wildly idiosyncratic uses of language.

Unfortunately, such an approach brings Stein right up against the very limits of language, the boundary beyond which spoken and/or written communication simply cannot go. The closer she comes to those bounds, the more they resist her advances, turning her language back upon itself in self-defeating layers of complexity. In the process, her poetry frustrates and, at times, alienates potential audiences, severely mitigating the power of her message. In attempting to “expose the mysterious uses of language and hence the difficulties in communication” (Perloff 71), Stein employs language in such difficult, mysterious ways that her poetic communication fails to achieve true communion with her readers.


Cover image via biography.com

Teaching the Texts of the 2010s: ALA Conference Presentation (May 2014)

This past Memorial Day weekend, I had the pleasure of participating in the Society for Contemporary Literature Teaching Roundtable at the American Literature Association conference in Washington, D.C. The presentations given by my four co-panelists were simply fantastic, and we were lucky enough to be joined by a room full of people who offered up some great questions and conversation. (I’d guess there were at least 30 people in the room, which meant that some folks were standing in the back because there simply weren’t enough seats.) I’ve already received a few e-mails asking for digital copies of my handout, so I wanted to go ahead and post some documents on the site here for anyone else interested.

Here’s a .PDF version of the PPT presentation I used on Friday:

SCL Pres May 2014 CoverAnd here’s a .PDF version of my handout: SCL Presentation Handout & Booklist

Finally, I’m including my full course syllabus and three assignment sheets (.PDF) that might be of interest to anyone thinking about teaching a similar course in the future:

After seeing the positive response to this weekend’s roundtable, I’m excited about the potential for expanded offerings of contemporary literature courses at institutions across the country. And as always, I’m happy to answer questions about my own experiences working with texts published in the 2010s. Just let me know.

Friday Reading: George C. Wolfe and Kenneth Burke

This past Tuesday (April 22), I had the good fortune to receive “The Australia Tarver Award for Critical Essay on Race, Post-Colonialism, or Multi-Ethnic Studies” at the TCU English Department’s Creative Writing Awards. The following essay took me outside my comfort zone as a writer quite a bit — I rarely write about drama, and as the second section of the essay discusses, I’m leery of any project that purports to make sweeping statements about personal identity — but it also provided me an invaluable opportunity to explore Wolfe’s controversial play from a rhetorical perspective. Two years after I completed the first draft of this piece, I think it still holds up pretty well — and, luckily for me, the award’s judge(s) agreed.


“My Colored Contradictions”: George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum as Rhetorical Performance

THE NOTION of the contradiction has played a large role in defining playwright George C. Wolfe’s relationship with his audiences. In a 1998 interview with David Savran, Wolfe describes his use of contradiction in The Colored Museum as a process of “searching for [one’s] own complexity,” of “try[ing] as a human being not to choose this quality over that quality, but to try to embrace all of them” (Savran 347). The mélange of exhibits in Museum results in a varied tapestry of black experiences and stereotypes that suggests multiplicity is the only way to discover unity—or, as the character Topsy declares in the final scene of the play, “I’m not what I was ten years ago or ten minutes ago. I’m all of that and then some. . . . My power is in my [madness] and my colored contradictions” (Wolfe 52-53). Yet—and this strikes at the root of Wolfe’s contradictions—the same “tapestry of black experiences and stereotypes” that affords The Colored Museum its power as critical commentary also places it squarely in the crosshairs of those who would reject the play as inherently racist, misogynist, or insensitive to the history of blacks in America. As Wolfe declares to Savran, “And I got trashed for [The Colored Museum]! I got trashed by a lot of black people for it because they didn’t see the flip side, they only saw the side that nobody’s supposed to talk about” (Savran 348). In attempting to explore multiple, conflicting facets of African American culture in a single performance, Wolfe’s “colored contradictions” alienated many audience members and relegated his art to the periphery of the national conversation about race relations in the mid-1980s.

The Colored Museum

The cover to the 1988 Grove Press edition of THE COLORED MUSEUM (Image via goodreads.com)

The purpose of this essay, then, is to begin the process of reclaiming The Colored Museum by exploring how and why this play has elicited such divided responses from audiences over the last thirty years. Critical analyses of the play are virtually nonexistent; with the exception of a few scattered reviews, little has been written about Wolfe’s first play, in part because so much attention has been paid his later (and more commercially successful) works like Spunk (1990), Jelly’s Last Jam (1992), and Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk (1996).[1] I want to propose, however, that box office receipts only tell part of the story. In order to understand how a play that accepts so many divergent perspectives can be rejected by individuals whose interests it seems to have in mind, I want to use rhetorical theorist Kenneth Burke’s conception of identification as a heuristic for exploring the imbricated discursive formations represented by Wolfe’s satiric Museum. The choice of Burke may seem odd to those unfamiliar with his hybridized approach to the relationship between literature and rhetoric, but his career-spanning interest in theatrical metaphors and “dramatistic” approach to analyzing symbolic actions suggest a fecund theoretical fit with the world of drama, and his long correspondence with Ralph Ellison has already been the subject of multiple critical works on Burke’s implications for race studies.[2] In aligning Burke with Wolfe, I want to demonstrate how the performative aspects of black identity that constitute so many of The Colored Museum’s infamous “contradictions” engage in a dialectical negotiation between alienation and identification which holds, as its ultimate goal, the transcendence of these two states in order to fully embrace the historical, cultural, and political complexity exhibited in Wolfe’s play. If The Colored Museum is meant to be viewed as an argument about the state of American black culture in the 1980s—and I believe that it is—then the pairing of Wolfe and Burke enables us to explore the play’s symbolic resources in such a way as to make this argument clear while, at the same time, exposing points of contention that have served to undermine Wolfe’s communication with audiences.

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CFP: Reassessing Language Poetry: Thirty Years After The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book

PAMLA 2014 Conference //  Riverside, CA // Oct. 31-Nov.2


First published in February of 1984, The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book collected essays, excerpts, and experiments from the first three years (1978-81) of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E literary magazine. At the time, the book represented a manifesto of sorts for Language poetry; as editors Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein explained, the collection was in large part animated by “our sense that the project of poetry does not involve turning language into a commodity for consumption; instead, it involves repossessing the sign through close attention to, and active participation in, its production.” Thirty years later, Language poetry has become one of (if not the) dominant influences on vanguard poetics in America, and The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book has itself become a kind of “alpha point” for studies of poets ranging from Lyn Hejinian and Steve McCaffrey to Ron Silliman and Rae Armantrout.

LANGUAGE Book Cover

This panel seeks papers that (re)consider the evolution of Language poetry in the thirty years since The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book was initially published. We welcome proposals that address any aspect of this evolution, including:

  • Specific Language poets or texts
  • Relationships between various poets and/or texts
  • General themes and motifs in Language poetry
  • Issues related to Language poetics
  • The political/social dimension of Language writing

This list is by no means exhaustive. Language poetry has had a wide influence on contemporary poetics over the past three decades, and this session seeks to honor that influence by bringing together a host of approaches to this diverse body of writing. Proposals on any topics related to Language poetry and poetics are equally welcome.

Submission Deadline: May 15

Please submit your proposal via the PAMLA website: http://www.pamla.org/2014

If you have any questions about this session, please contact Tom Jesse at t.jesse@tcu.edu

A .PDF version of this CFP is available here.

[Image via Amazon.com]