SF in the Classroom

Tagged: Theme

In September 1953 Sam Moskowitz began to teach what was almost certainly the first sf course in the USA to be given through a college. The course was on Science Fiction Writing, was delivered on a non-credit basis through the City College of New York, and was presented with the collaboration of a popular-science writer, Robert Frazier (not to be confused with the sf poet Robert Frazier). For the Autumn 1953 sessions, Moskowitz arranged for several sf writers – including Isaac Asimov, Lester del Rey, Murray Leinster, Robert Sheckley and Theodore Sturgeon – to give talks; later sessions included talks by Robert A Heinlein and others. Moskowitz left the course after 1955, and it probably ceased in 1957.

Further sf courses were slow to be established. Guest lectures were occasionally given, including two by Moskowitz, the first in December 1950 at New York University, the second in December 1953 at Columbia University. Those given by Heinlein, C M Kornbluth, Robert Bloch and Alfred Bester at the University of Chicago in 1957 were collected as The Science Fiction Novel (anth 1959) with an introduction by Basil Davenport; those by Kingsley Amis at Princeton in 1959 were published as New Maps of Hell (1960). A key year was 1961, when courses were set up by Mark R Hillegas at Colgate and H Bruce Franklin at Stanford. Ten years later Jack Williamson's pamphlet Science Fiction Comes to College (1971 chap) listed 61 universities offering such courses, and he judged that to be a mere sampling; by the time of his later pamphlet, Teaching SF (1975 chap), that estimate had considerably increased, and it seems likely that today there are at least 250 such courses in the USA. A Research Guide to Science Fiction Studies (1977), compiled by Marshall B Tymn, Roger C Schlobin and L W Currey, lists 412 doctoral dissertations on sf subjects, the great majority having been submitted in the USA. Sf scholars have their own association, the Science Fiction Research Association, whose membership in the early 1990s hovered just above 300, perhaps two-thirds being US-based teachers of sf. It is clear that there has also been a greatly increased use of sf material at high-school level, sf being studied not only in its own right but because it helps to dramatize issues of Ecology, Futures Studies, Overpopulation, Sociology, Technology, etc. Also, as one of the most interesting and rapidly evolving forms of popular culture, sf is an important register of social history, reflecting shifts in the prejudices and expectations of society at large.

The story is very different outside the USA. A scattering of universities in Canada, Europe and Australia have sf courses. The first sf course in the UK was a non-credit course begun by Philip Strick in 1969 at the City Literary Institute, London; it had various leaders (including the editors of this encyclopedia: John Clute, Peter Nicholls and Brian M Stableford) before its demise in 1992. Brief academic sf courses were taught by Nicholls and Ian Watson in the 1970s, and occasional sf texts still find their way on to more conventional courses in English, politics, etc., but sf courses at university level remain a rarity in the UK.

Fears have been expressed that the academic study of sf will domesticate it. (A common catchphrase among sf fans was "Kick sf out of the classroom and back to the gutter where it belongs".) They are not groundless. Anecdotal evidence suggests that too often the sf course is regarded as a "soft option", and, although the number of distinguished scholars and teachers of sf, especially in the USA, has certainly increased through the 1970s and 1980s, the overall standard of academic sf criticism is not notably high. Also, the academic acceptance of sf may have suffered a setback through the popular perception, in the post-Star Wars era, that sf books are largely juvenilia – a perception partly justified in a period when sf Publishing, chiefly in the USA, appeared to have become cynically focused on a routine, mass-market product to the detriment of "mid-list" writers whose work was more serious, more carefully written and, it could be argued, more entertaining. Nonetheless, the number of Critical and Historical Works About SF increased very dramatically during this period: during 1991 SFRA Newsletter reviewed about 15 books a month on sf/fantasy. Also, many more academic essays on sf are being published; they are now likely to turn up in all sorts of non-specialist literary and critical journals, not just the specialist journals, whose "Big Three" remain Science Fiction Studies and Extrapolation in the USA, and Foundation: The Review of Science Fiction in the UK; it is too soon to say with what success Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts (founded 1988) will join this group. These journals regularly publish a proportion of unexciting and mediocre work, as they always did, but there is currently a strong sense that more good and lively sf criticism and scholarship are abroad in the land now than when the first edition of this encyclopedia was prepared.

Especially since the early 1970s, many books – far too many to be listed here – have been published for use by teachers of sf at high-school level. Some have unfortunately tended towards the patronizing and simplistic, or to the formulaic, as in too many (but not all) of the readers' guides to individual authors published by companies like Borgo Press, Cliffs Notes, Greenwood Press, Starmont House, Twayne and Ungar. Among the useful classroom guides are: Science Fiction: An Introduction (1973; rev vt Science Fiction Reader's Guide 1974) by L David Allen; Grokking the Future: Science Fiction in the Classroom (1973) by Bernard C Hollister and Deane C Thompson; Science Fiction: Its Criticism and Teaching (1980) by Patrick Parrinder; Critical Encounters: Writers and Themes in Science Fiction (anth 1978) edited by Dick Riley; Science Fiction: A Teacher's Guide and Resource Book (1988) by Marshall B Tymn; and Teaching Science Fiction: Education for Tomorrow (anth 1980) edited by Jack Williamson.

The standard of books aimed at university-level readers and graduates ranges bafflingly from the opaque and semiliterate to the stimulating and rigorous, and their sheer volume – as suggested under Critical and Historical Works About SF – is now dizzying. Among the more important (English-language) academic authors to have written books in this field are Paul K Alkon, Thomas D Clareson, I F Clarke, Samuel R Delany (a part-time academic), H Bruce Franklin, James E Gunn, Hal W Hall, Mark R Hillegas, David Ketterer, C N Manlove, Walter E Meyers, Patrick Parrinder, Robert M Philmus, Eric S Rabkin, Mark Rose, Joanna Russ, David N Samuelson, Lyman Tower Sargent, Roger C Schlobin, Robert Scholes, George Edgar Slusser, Brian M Stableford, Darko Suvin, W Warren Wagar, Patricia S Warrick and Gary K Wolfe. Critical anthologies and journals contain – amid the dross – the work of other interesting sf academics who have yet to publish books. An early set of essays about the academic interest in sf is Science Fiction: The Academic Awakening (anth 1974) edited by Willis E McNelly.

Sf Bibliographies have become a marketable commodity only because of the academic interest in sf. The 1980s saw the publication of many more of them than ever before. Somewhere between bibliography, history and critical reference work is one of the outstanding reference works in the field, a book whose most recent incarnation is Anatomy of Wonder: A Critical Guide to Science Fiction: Third Edition (1987) edited by Neil Barron, aimed in the first instance at librarians but useful for all sf academics; it contains a chapter on the teaching of sf, with suggested texts.

This interest has brought about the publication of many sf Anthologies that are obviously designed for the classroom, the stories they contain being complemented by introductions or some kind of critical apparatus. Some notably thoughtful compilations are The Mirror of Infinity: A Critic's Anthology of Science Fiction (anth 1970) edited by Robert Silverberg, Those who Can (anth 1973) edited by Robin Scott Wilson, Modern Science Fiction (anth 1974) edited by Norman Spinrad, Future Perfect: American Science Fiction of the Nineteenth Century (anth 1966; rev 1968; rev 1978) edited by H Bruce Franklin, and The Road to Science Fiction (anth in 4 vols 1977-1982) edited by James E Gunn. There are also, of course, a great many theme anthologies collecting sf stories about everything from Anthropology to Religion. One of the most active theme anthologists for the academic market has been Martin Harry Greenberg, along with several colleagues with whom he often works.

Beyond all these direct responses to the academic stimulus is the now very general interest in sf to be found in the intellectual world generally: even newspapers and magazines are less dismissive or ignorant about sf than was the case in, say, the 1960s. Much of the material now published about sf – notably in the 1980s and 1990s in newspaper articles about Cyberpunk – has been hacked out by trend-spotters and journalists cashing in on a good thing, but this is inevitable. Sceptics see the breaking down of the walls of sf's ghetto – a process hastened by sf's partial academic acceptance – as leading to such a general diffusion of sf ideas into the community at large as to leave sf itself less identifiable as a genre, perhaps less relevant, and even, according to the pessimists, moribund. If so, we have the paradox of a genre so disreputable in life that decent persons turned aside from it in disgust, only for its corpse to be praised for its beauty and vigour. [PN]

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