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A class in this popular literature form forces Mac students to grapple with the big questions.
“It was my proudest moment as a teacher when the registrar told me my course was the first one in the college to fill up,” says English professor Jim Dawes of his newest course, Science Fiction: From Matrix Baby Cannibals to Brave New Worlds.
Because of its popularity, only seniors were able to register for the Sci Fi class this spring. Throughout the term, professor and students grappled with the big questions of life as posed through science fiction literature. “It was really enlightening to get this introduction to science fiction, a genre often criticized as being not serious enough, not real literature,” says geography major Molly Sullivan ’12 (Piedmont, Calif.).
“Science fiction cares about beauty, truth, the interior drama of personality—everything that traditional literature explores,” says Dawes. “But it’s also much more explicitly philosophical. Science fiction is the literature of ideas. It directly asks questions like: What is a human being? What is a good life? Why are we alive? Are we alive? Why is there evil? How is this all going to end?”
Although an English professor, Dawes specializes in human rights, a subject he introduces students to through literature. The field of Sci Fi, however, was new to him. “This is the first time I’ve taught a class where I didn’t have all the answers,” he says.
To lead class discussions, he draws from various schools of thought —from philosophy of mind to string theory—any perspective useful for approaching the sometimes mind-bending content. It’s a new exercise for Dawes. He collaborates extensively with his students in this course. “We have a lot of control over where the class discussions go,” says English major Dylan Garity ’12 (Corvallis, Ore.). “We discover where we’re going together.”
“I’m in awe of Macalester students sometimes,” says Dawes, who values the students’ contributions and questions. “They understand that we’re co-creating the course.” Adds Sullivan, “Instead of Dawes making us engage with the text in a certain way, we worked collectively to answer the questions that struck us when reading the book. Discussions were very lively.”
Given the challenges, why was Dawes compelled to create a class in an area of literature foreign to him? “My six-year-old son asked me a question about recycling one day, and I had this epiphany. I realized I wasn’t really sure if my generation was going to be leaving anything behind for him and his kids. And I mean anything, at the level of survival needs,” says Dawes.
“Many generations have grown up knowing or fearing something bad could happen and the world as we know it could end. But this current generation is, I think, the first in history to grow up knowing that if we just keep on with business as usual, it’s going to end. It isn’t going to be a mistake or a sudden disaster. It’s going to be the natural result of what we take to be normal behavior.”
“These students look at a world where apocalyptic visions loom, and science fiction helps address that.”
“These students look at a world where apocalyptic visions loom, and science fiction helps address that,” Dawes says. Or, as Garity puts it, “The class feels worthwhile—we talk about things that really matter.”
Given the popularity of the class, Dawes plans to offer it every spring and will devise a system to save seats for underclassmen. Because the course admits only 20 students, it will continue to fill quickly. But it’s definitely worth the wait, says Sullivan. “I absolutely recommend this course. I truly loved every single book we read and think that they would not have ‘stuck’ with me as much if I weren’t reading them in an academic context.”
And the teacher is part of the magic, adds Garity. “He’s the most engaging professor I’ve ever had,” he says. “Everyone should take a class with Dawes before they graduate.”
The Sci-Fi Reading List
- Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?—Philip K. Dick
- Solaris—Stanislaw Lem
- The Parable of the Sower—Octavia Butler
- Never Let Me Go—Kazuo Ishiguro
- A Canticle for Leibowitz—Walter M. Miller
- Oryx and Crake—Margaret Atwood
- Accelerando—Charles Stross
- Embassytown—China Mieville
- The Children of Men—P.D. James
- We—Yevgeny Zamyatin
- The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch—Philip K. Dick