Tag: teaching

Austin Bat Cave’s Science Fiction Writing Camp


imageAustin Bat Cave is a nonprofit organization that creates free writing programs for Austin-area kids. During the academic year they work inside schools, and put on a series of writing camps during the summer. A few months ago the program director, Ali Haider, approached me about the latter. He wanted to do a summer camp for 9- to 11-year-olds on writing science fiction, and wanted me to design and teach it. The curriculum development seemed like a fun challenge, and I thought I might enjoy the novelty of teaching a much younger age group than when I was at Iowa (fun largely because I didn’t have to do it alone; three volunteers were signed up to help run the class.) So I said yes, and this summer spent a week with twelve mostly eager young writers.

It was a Monday through Friday camp in the conference room of a branch library, three hours a session, with a public reading of student work at the end. The goal of the camp was for students to produce, workshop, and revise a complete science fiction short story of ~1000 words. Day 1 was all about getting the kids used to the camp and each other, discussing what a science fiction story is, and having them choose the settings they’d be working with the rest of the week. We talked about all the different kinds of places science fiction stories could take place, watched Powers of Ten, and read Ken Liu’s “Celestial Bodies.”

Day 2 was about character and characterization, with a guest speaker from a local tech design firm to talk to the kids about the interface between life and technology. We read “Project Daffodil” by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley and discussed unreliable narrators, then developed characters as a class and discussed how their natures and histories suggested possible plots.

Day 3 was full of exercises on plot and detail language. We discussed the chains of causality that link one event in a story to another, and read Beth Cato’s “Post-Apocalyptic Conversations with a Sidewalk.” Then we did an exercise recommended by Kendra Fortmeyer, in which the class collaboratively wrote a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure story in Twine, splitting as the branches diverged, until every student wrote their own ending.

Days 4 and 5 were all about finishing and revising the stories the students were writing, doing peer workshops in pairs one day and then rewriting on the basis of that feedback the next. They also read “Misprint” by Vonda McIntyre and had another guest speaker, Martina Belozerco, who discussed medicine and its role in people’s lives. Thursday evening was a reading for parents and guest, some of the students’ first time reciting their own work into a microphone. And of course, when everything was finished, we had a party. The kids seemed to enjoy themselves, the parents were pleased, and I got to scratch the teaching itch that’d been growing since I moved to Texas. So thanks to Austin Bat Cave for the opportunity. If you live here and have school-aged children, you should look into their programs.


Map of the Rhetorical Relationships Between Genres

The first day’s discussion in my Writing and Reading Science Fiction course always began with the question, “What is science fiction?” I would solicit ideas from the class and write them on the board. The suggestions from the students would always break down into two broad categories: bottom-up, trope-based definitions, and top-down, descriptive definitions. We would talk about the implicit differences between those two approaches, then I would share and discuss historical definitions of science fiction from Damon Knight, Robert Heinlein, Darko Suvin, Ted Chiang, Ursula Le Guin, and Samuel Delany. These I would intentionally order to build towards Delany’s detailed breakdown of science fiction as a rhetorical mode. Finally, I would show the students this:


(click to enlarge)

This is based on a model initially proposed by Farah Mendlesohn in her book Rhetorics of Fantasy. The idea to order the genres as a cycle rather than linearly comes from Michael Swanwick. The inclusion of historical fiction and trope-based subgenres are my own contribution.

After drawing this diagram on the board I would explain that, as a writer, it is most useful to think of genres as different rhetorical modes, which is a different way of using the word than that employed by publishers or bookstores. Indeed, when you think of genre as being a rhetorical mode, many of the things that a publisher calls “genres” are actually subgenres, that is, trope-based definitions like many of those written on the board at the start of the conversation. For example, the YA “genre” often has its own section in a bookstore, but in fact the only distinguishing characteristic of YA fiction is the age of the protagonist. Any of these rhetorical modes can exhibit the trope of having a young protagonist, and so “young adult” appears on the diagram as a subgenre within every genre.

I also explained to the class that the boundaries between the genres aren’t firm. I would describe the variables of expectation  and explicability as like two knobs, with “real” at one end of their range and “unreal” at the other. Starting with mimetic fiction, both knobs are turned all the way to “real.” As you move around the diagram you are turning both knobs, until they are both pointing all the way to “unreal” at immersive fantasy. Then, in the step from immersive fantasy to science fiction, you turn the explicability knob back to “real.” (As Mendlesohn puts it, “The more immersive the fantasy, the closer to being science fiction.”) Finally, you start turning the expectation knob back towards “real” and move through historical fiction back to mimetic fiction.

A couple of caveats: though Mendlesohn begins with a linear relationship between the genres of fantasy in her book, she later abandons it for a model in which liminal fantasy is the origin point for all the other modes of fantasy. In that model, liminal fantasy is a central node from which the other fantasy genres branch out. So while I found value in the cyclic model as a pedagogical tool for convincing students to think about genres as rhetorical stances, it doesn’t represent the endpoint of Mendlesohn’s scholarship. Also, the diagram’s treatment of liminal fantasy, a category which Mendlesohn first defined, is rather brutally over-simplified. As I was usually teaching classes on writing science fiction, I allowed myself to hand-wave that aspect of the chart so as not to let an unfamiliar genre distract from my main point. But the one semester when I taught a class on fantasy writing I thought it appropriate to go into the concept of liminal fantasy in much greater detail.

I’m releasing this image under a creative commons license, so anyone who wishes can use it in their classroom.

Creative Commons License
Rhetorical Map of Genres by Eugene Fischer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://www.eugenefischer.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/MapOfGenresSmall.png.

More on Warnings in the College Classroom

Some followup from my earlier discussion of this topic. My friend Keffy Kehrli, on twitter and in private conversation, emphasized the difference he sees between trigger warnings and content warnings. It’s a distinction I hadn’t thought about, but I think it’s a valuable one. A trigger warning implies an assumption of responsibility on the part of the teacher for particular traumas the students might have, and also reinforces the false idea that triggering is a predictable phenomenon. A content warning, on the other hand, is a way of being sensitive to the potential for troubled responses to difficult material, but still leaves the responsibility for self care with the student. Now that this distinction has been pointed out to me, I agree with Keffy that content warnings seem more appropriate than trigger warnings, and all of my thoughts in support of trigger warnings apply as well or better to content warnings.

Brittney Cooper published an essay in Salon titled, “No Trigger Warnings in My Class: why you won’t find them on my syllabi.” Cooper worries that trigger warnings will stifle education. She writes, “this call from students to censor their own education before they even receive it is designed to keep them from being challenged,” and makes several meaningful points about the importance of a classroom being a place where preconceived notions are questioned. I have two responses to Cooper’s article. First, that I also don’t think trigger or content warnings belong on a syllabus, for the same reasons she mentions. I think they should be part of classroom discussion. Second, a warning isn’t an invitation for students to excuse themselves from crucial material. In the anecdote I shared before, the triggering concepts were entirely unrelated to those that were pedagogically relevant to my class. If I, like Ms. Cooper, were a professor of gender studies classes, then content warnings for things like rape or racism wouldn’t be offered so students could ask for alternate assignments, but so students could determine if the class itself was right for them. Those who took the class would still be required to engage on difficult issues. And I’m personally not comfortable asserting that those who chose not to would be “censoring their own education before they receive it” as opposed to engaging in reasonable self-protective measures. Young though they may be, college students are adults, and deserve the benefit of the doubt that they are competent to design their plans of study.

Thoughts on Trigger Warnings in the College Classroom

The Associated Student Senate of UCSB passed a proposal to require professors to issue trigger warnings on classroom materials. Today, twitter has been fairly active with discussion both for and against such a practice. I’d like to share an anecdote that informs my feelings on the subject.

In 2013 I taught a course for the University of Iowa on writing fantasy short stories. One of the stories I assigned was Karen Joy Fowler’s award-winning  story “The Pelican Bar,” which is about a teenage girl forcibly sent to an abusive boarding school in the Caribbean. I assigned the story to spark discussion of the boundaries of the fantasy genre, as the story is structured like a portal fantasy, but contains no definitively speculative element. It’s a fascinating story that reads differently depending on the reader’s own familiarity with fantasy fiction. But, as it happens, boarding schools like the one in the story actually exist. I knew that when I assigned it, but as that wasn’t relevant to my pedagogical purpose it never occurred to me to mention that information to my class. So I was shocked when I received an email from a student which read, “I am incapable of writing any sort of response, or participating in any discussion, concerning Fowler’s ‘The Pelican Bar.’ May I please have a replacement assignment?”

When I read the email I felt sick to my stomach with guilt. I immediately gave the student an alternate assignment, permission to leave the room during discussion, and offered to meet if desired. In our discussion the student let me know that that their past experiences were too close to those depicted in the story to be able to engage with it critically. The student didn’t use the words “trigger” or “PTSD,” but described feelings of panic while reading, the sensation of a “mind racing,” having a “hyper-emotional, fight or flight” response. It was obvious to me that triggering was exactly what had occurred.

I stand by “The Pelican Bar” as an excellent story, and the pedagogical purpose to which I put it as a justifiable one. But if I were to teach it again, I would absolutely offer a trigger warning first. The purpose of my classes isn’t to shock my students or force them to confront/get over their own pasts, it’s to create an environment where the students can engage with the ideas I believe are necessary to learn the subject. If my curriculum has built-in barriers to such engagement, then I’m not doing my job.

The only concern I might have with a proposal like the one at UCSB is the possibility for abuse by the students. But it seems to me that this would be easily preventable. If I, as a professor, offer trigger information, it is then the students’ responsibility to communicate with me in a timely fashion about about their mental health needs so we can work together to accommodate them while still pursuing the goals of the course. Professors already do this in universities all over the country for things like giving extra time on exams to students with ADD diagnoses, or making participation accommodations for students with social anxiety disorders. Sometimes it’s just between the professor and the student, and sometimes it’s in conjunction with the university counseling office. But in either case, this is already part of the professor’s job description. I don’t see why trigger warnings are any different. It’s just an expansion of the number of mental health considerations we’re accommodating. That’s a good thing.

EDIT: Further discussion of this issue here.

My Last Class as a Professor of Science Fiction

So it came to pass that my time as a professor of science fiction writing for the University of Iowa ended. Today my students had their final workshop of the semester. And, as I’ve done three times before, I sent them into the future with a companion. Here is my last class, robots at the ready.

Writing and Reading Science Fiction, University of Iowa, Spring 2014

Writing and Reading Science Fiction, University of Iowa, Spring 2014

When I arrived at Iowa for graduate school it was with an appointment in the Rhetoric department. At the time it was unclear if I was ever going to get to teach fiction, let alone genre fiction, which had never been a dedicated course here before. But I was fortunate enough my second year to get a fellowship that came with two semesters of Fiction Writing. I did one as a science fiction course and one as a fantasy course, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. So much so that the University accepted my proposal for a science fiction writing class based on the curriculum I’d designed, and the Writers’ Workshop hired me to teach it. It’s been a wonderful, rewarding two years of sharing my passions with engaged and eager students. Even at my lowest during these years I always enjoyed going to teach my classes. I’m ready to move on, but I’m really going to miss doing this.

Fortunately for the students of the University of Iowa, the class isn’t going away. It has been so successful that the Writers’ Workshop is keeping it around for next year. It will be taught by Van Choojitarom, a brilliant science fiction writer and friend, who would have been my own choice to take over for me if I’d had a say. I’ve shared all my materials with him, and know that he’ll bring the same enthusiasm to the course that I did. I also know that he’ll find ways to make it inimitably his own, and that the students will be better off for it.  While many of the specialty writing courses in the catalogue are just jobs for their instructors,  Writing and Reading Science Fiction, for another year at least, will continue to be a labor of love.

It’s a point of great pride that I’ve been able to create something here that will last after I’m gone. I’m very grateful to the Writers’ Workshop and the University of Iowa for believing in me enough to give me the chance to try.

The Few, The Proud

Eagle-eyed Kevin Brockmeier alerted me that my name was printed in the Daily Iowan, as part of the list of the class of 2014’s favorite professors. As you can see, we’re an exclusive group.


The Traditional Ceremony of Robots

Another semester done, another class of fearless Science Fictionauts heading out into the future with their robot companions.


Writing and Reading Science Fiction, University of Iowa, Fall 2013

New Tradition

To the best of my knowledge there had never been a class specifically on fantasy at Iowa before, and robots didn’t seem thematically appropriate anyway, so for my Fantasy Fiction Writing class I gave my students tiny Cthulhus to end the term. Here they are, course complete, conquered gods in hand.

(Fantasy) Fiction Writing, University of Iowa, Spring 2013.

(Fantasy) Fiction Writing, University of Iowa, Spring 2013.


“It is traditional,” Kevin Brockmeier said, “to end every science fiction workshop at Iowa with gifts of robots.” It was the end of Spring semester 2012, and he had just finished teaching the first such graduate workshop that Iowa had ever offered. He passed a box of wind-up robots around the class. Mine was Bender from Futurama, holding a beer can and a magic wand, wearing a blond wig and a tutu printed with the words, “Gender Bender.”

It’s now the end of the Fall semester of 2012, and I just finished teaching the first Fiction Writing class for undergraduates devoted specifically to science fiction. Seventeen students read and wrote about genre classics, wrote stories of their own, and workshopped the fiction of their peers. At the end, in accordance with tradition, I got them some robots. Here are the intrepid Science Fictionauts of the University of Iowa, with their steadfast automata companions.

(Science) Fiction Writing, University of Iowa, Fall 2012


Understanding Plagiarism

Here’s something that I’ve meant to post for a while. When I first came to Iowa I knew that I would be teaching for the Rhetoric department, and was worried (rightfully, it turned out) that my students might have escaped high school with a weak grasp of what constitutes plagiarism. I wanted to make a simple guide I could give as a handout, and teamed up with my cartoonist/game designer friend Fred Wood to make this.

(Click to enlarge.)

The image is sized to fit on an 8.5×11″ piece of paper, and is offered as a creative commons resource.

Creative Commons License
Understanding Plagiarism by Eugene Fischer and Fred Wood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at https://www.eugenefischer.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/UnderstandingPlagiarism.jpg.