Monday, September 22, 2014

Plight of the Other Syllabus

The syllabus for an independent study on the role of genre fiction as an agent of cultural awareness and enlightenment.

This semester presented me with a couple of challenges, some of which turned out to be opportunities. For example, having two of my classes inexplicably cancelled just days before the the semester began prompted me to design an independent study which has since been approved. 

So, now, I get to do this: 

S. Liam Meilleur
Independent Study Proposal

Plight of the Other:
An analysis of race, gender, and class as depicted in contemporary speculative fiction

Rationale and Purpose:
Speculative fiction contributes to social awareness through the license that it gives both writers and readers to explore contentious social issues. From Hermione Granger’s outrage over the mistreatment of house elves to the misogynist theocracy of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, speculative fiction provides society with the means to discuss contentious topics by framing them in new ways. The purpose of this study is to explore contemporary speculative fiction publications in search of identifiable patterns and trends that demonstrate or refute the genre’s role as an agent of critical thought and social awareness.

Upon completion of the study, the following questions will be answerable:
  1. Are current speculative fiction publications addressing contemporary issues of race, gender, and class? If so, are they doing so in a critical and constructive fashion?
  2. Which side do their narratives take? Which voices are privileged and which are othered? 
  3. What are the race, gender, and class of the protagonists and antagonists? Are the conflicts centered on overcoming the self, the system, or a specific obstacle (such as a villain or natural disaster)?
  4. Are subaltern characters present in these narratives, and if so, what roles do they play?

To answer the above questions, a significant volume of speculative short fiction will be read and analyzed, with individual works and the characters within them being categorized based on race, gender, and class components. Based on this collected data, patterns or the absence thereof will be identified, and the implications will be explored through a mixture of academic and creative writing.

Required Readings:
Clarkesworld Magazine, 4 months of short fiction (12+ stories)
Asimov’s Magazine, 4 months of short fiction (30+ stories)
Analog Magazine, 4 months of short fiction (30+ stories)

Beginning with the September 2014 issues, each magazine will be incorporated into the study as new issues are released.

Participation and Progress (10%): Each week, a reading list will be submitted to the advisor consisting of the works read during that period along with a 1-2 paragraph report on general findings, expectations, and interpretations.  In addition, these weekly reports should address the topic of possible field exam questions that could evolve from this study.

Midterm (30%): A 7-10 page report discussing the findings to date. The focus will be on identifying patterns, interpreting them, and exploring the implications. This may take the form on an annotated bibliography in which each work is addressed.

Final (60%): A 10-20 page work of creative fiction that incorporates the trends and craft elements employed in the readings. This work may, instead, speak as an indictment thereof (pending the findings). Alternatively, a research paper of the same length may be substituted for the creative work. In addition, a brief (1-2 page) paper detailing possible field exam questions related to this study is also required.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Teaching YA in College: The Assigned Readings

The view from the back of my classroom.
On teaching YA in college and death by slush pile.

It's been a busy summer, and the Fall is shaping up to be blur of reading, storytelling, and caffeine. This semester, I'm co-teaching an undergraduate course on contemporary adolescent literature at Binghamton University. With just shy of 100 students, it's easily the largest class I've ever taught. Here's the reading list: 

J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

John Knowles, A Separate Peace
Daniel Woodrell, Winter’s Bone
Sonya Hartnett, Surrender
Markus Zusak, The Book Thief
Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Susanne Collins, The Hunger Games Trilogy
Veronica Roth, Divergent
and Kaja Silverman, The Subject of Semiotics

What books would you assign? Which of the above would you replace?

Leave a comment & let me know. 

The idea is to discuss common themes and craft elements in these works, explore what defines adolescent literature, and talk a bit about symbolism in the context of theory. In earlier years, I'd just be a teaching assistant for this one, but Binghamton is experimenting with a new assistantship model that places a significant amount of the actual instructional burden on the TA (hence, "co-teaching"). I've had the good fortune to be paired with Elizabeth Signorotti, a delightful, enthusiastic, and genre-loving lecturer in BU's English department. 

And the parents?
There are no parents.
Who needs parents
when you've got
Turkish Delight?

Of course, teaching with Elizabeth means I also get to learn from her. During the second class, Elizabeth pointed out a typical difference between children's and adolescent literature, one that I hadn't consciously recognized before. In children's literature, the parents are removed. Peter Pan sweeps the Darlings away from their sleeping parents. The heroes of Narnia evacuated London, leaving their parents behind well before the wardrobe sent them to a magical realm. In these stories, the children discover their own agency, and this requires that Mom and Dad be somewhere else and thus unable to solve the protagonist's problems. 

Things tend to be a bit different in adolescent literature. There, parents often play a pivotal role--and they're usually part of the problem the protagonist has to contend with. Katniss has a crazy mom and no father. Holden Caulfield's distracted parents are a constant source of pressure and impending doom. Even Bella Swan has to contend with her irresponsible mother and overwhelmed father. Unlike in children's literature, adolescent literature features characters who have agency. They just aren't sure what to do with it yet. 

And yes, there are a host of works in children's and adolescent literature that deviate from the archetype I've just described, but it helps to illustrate and identify the underlying themes (discovering agency Vs. deciding what to do with it) that allow us to draw a something like a border (even if it is a blurry, dotted line) between these literary genres.

I'm also taking a writing workshop with Alexi Zentner this semester. He's not a huge fan of genre in his workshops, and our first class included a few rounds of the old "genre writers make money and literary writers make art" discussion. Having said that, Alexi doesn't ban genre in his workshop, he cited John Scalzi, and he's open to conflicting opinions. 

Make good choices?

I'm looking forward to a good semester. 

That is, if I survive my other life choices...

Every time a slush reader
clicks the reject button...
As of early September, I've signed on with Urban Fantasy Magazine and Uncanny Magazine as a submissions editor, which is a fancy way of saying "slush reader." At the same time, as part of my PhD program, I'm doing similar duties for the Harpur Palate literary journal. Basically, this means I'll be reading a lot of manuscripts every week and helping to decide which ones will make it through that gauntlet to arrive safely on the publishing editor's desk. Kind of puts "make good choices" in a new light. More on that adventure to follow.