26 August 2016

Teaching Notes: The Apocalypse and After

This summer, after years of trying, I landed myself a literature course: "Popular Literature." This course title is as broad as all get out, and I struggled for a bit to narrow it down. I wanted to do science fiction, of course, but another instructor was doing science fiction that summer (under a different course number), and his course was on-line, and I was worried that no one would take my in-person sci-fi course if they could just take an on-line one. I think I was listening to a Survivors audio drama around the time the course description was due, so I quickly whipped up a course description called "Apocalyptic Literature and Cultural Transformation."

The only winning move is not to play.

When push came to shove and I had to place my book order (my course now titled "The Apocalypse and After"), I ended up assigning the following six books, plus two short stories and one excerpt in order to put a little more meat on the weeks were we did comic books:
  • Mary Shelley, excerpts from The Last Man (1826)
  • H. G. Wells, The Time Machine (1895)
  • Nevil Shute, On the Beach (1957)
  • Manjula Padmanabhan, "Sharing Air" (1980s) and "2099" (1999)
  • Octavia Butler, Xenogenesis: Dawn (1987)
  • Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra, et al., Y: The Last Man: One Small Step (2002-03)
  • Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games (2008)
  • Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard, The Walking Dead: Too Far Gone (2010)
Now, six books and three shorts is way less reading than I would usually assign in a course (when I taught The Modern Novel, for example, I did nine novels), but the pace of a summer course is such that it seemed impossible to squeeze more reading in than that. They were already doing a novel a week! So I supplemented by also requiring them to watch a film or an episode of a television show each week for homework:
  • When Worlds Collide (1951)
  • The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959)
  • The Twilight Zone: "The Old Man in the Cave" (1963)
  • Survivors: "Law and Order" (1975)
  • Survivors reboot: Series 2, Episode 3 (2010)
  • True Detective: "The Long Bright Dark" (2014)
It made for an interesting assortment. They are a diverse set of apocalyptic and postapocalyptic narratives: you have ones that focus on the actual event, like When Worlds Collide, and ones for whom the actual event is in the long distant past, like Hunger Games. You have ones about rebuilding, like Survivors and Dawn, and ones about humanity sort of sputtering to the end, like On the Beach and "The Old Man."

In the Dust of This Art Print

I'm sure I could write you a whole essay about while I picked each particular text, but I'll just highlight my approach to the course as a whole, which was to frame at as an investigation into genre: What does this genre do? What's its appeal? Both historically (it's been going in a recognizable form since the early 1800s) and contemporarily (obviously the apocalypse is super-popular right now). I kicked the whole thing off by playing my students a pair of segments from the 13 Mar. 2015 episode of On the Media, "In the Dust of This Planet" and "Staring into the Abyss," where Jad Abumbrad and Brooke Gladstone explore the contemporary and historical appeal of nihilism by tracing a book by philosophy professor Eugene Thacker about the "horror of philosophy" that suddenly became a fashion statement and inspired True Detective. We then kept coming back to that idea of nihlism throughout the course, discussing the ways in which the texts we were looking at were or were not nihilistic. Each week I would lecture on one "theory of apocalyptic literature" to my class, and I tied it all together by doing Thacker on the last week, tying him into Hunger Games and True Detective.

In the Dust of This Fashion Shoot

(True Detective I forced my students to make an argument about how it could be considered apocalyptic. I was inspired to teach it in this context by its appearance on On the Media and by this really interesting article on it from The Atlantic, which one of my friends shared on facebook. I think it's valuable to look at fringe cases when discussing genre: though True Detective isn't conventionally an apocalyptic text, it has some of the same interests: what happens at those moments where human understanding of the world ceases?*)

In the Dust of This Jay-Z Video

I was a bit worried going into the class because I only had eleven students and it met for three hours and fifteen minutes at a time. That is a long time if you have reticent or uninterested students! Thankfully, none of my students could be described as such. I only had three English majors, but hey were all interested and invested, and if they weren't doing the reading, they were doing it well enough to fool me. I think it's always a sign of a good course when my class plans became four bullet points long because I can trust the students to go somewhere interesting, and that happened here pretty quickly. They responded both to me and to each other (I make them take turn posing discussion questions) very well, and I think it ended up one of the best courses I've ever taught. Hopefully they agree when I gain access to their evals!

Actually, it turned out I liked Woody Harrelson's character best, mostly for the way he cussed Matthew McConaughey out whenever he got too philosophical. I should finish the show.
* I almost always end up assigning something in a lit course I haven't actually read before assigning it. This semester it was True Detective, The Twilight Zone, and When Worlds Collide. It's a bit of a risky gamble, though it hasn't actually gone against me yet. Thankfully I was able to make something interesting of all three texts, though I wouldn't teach When Worlds Collide again-- I'd probably sub in Planet of the Apes (1968), which I think is a lot more interesting, but didn't occur to me when I first planned out the course.

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