Teaching Japanese SF, part 1

Holy datajack, it’s been a while!  Very sorry for the radio silence, there, but I was teaching my first solo course!  It was really exciting, slightly terrifying, and I learned a lot from doing it, so I thought I’d try to transmute my experiences into words (the demon alchemy of my craft) and share some stuff here.  We’re even inaugurating a new category tag for it!

I think this will probably be a two-part post.  In this first, I’ll share my syllabus and the thinking behind its design.  In the second part, I’ll lay out some of the class’s successes and failures and try to think through what I can do differently next time.  Onward!  To the stars!

First, let’s try attaching the syllabus as a PDF.  It should be available here: Future Fantasies syllabus

As you’ll see, the class was titled “Future Fantasies: Science Fiction and Media History in Japan”.  Maybe that’s too long a title, but oh well.  The class was conceived as a “dry run” of my dissertation, in essence.  I’m trying to take a historical view of sci-fi as a means of accessing evolving attitudes toward technology and embodied subjectivity in Japan (kind of similar to the approach Jeffrey Sconce takes in Haunted Media – more on that in an upcoming post).  A lot of histories of SF in Japan start in the Meiji period with translations of Jules Verne, E.A. Poe, et al, but (A) I don’t have as much of that on-hand to assign (B) it’s mostly in Japanese, anyway, and (C) I find it less interesting, and I DEFINITELY don’t know as much about it as I do the Taisho period.  So I started in the Taisho period.

The arc of the course is split up into three units, each centered on a particular media-historical moment in Japan.  First (as mentioned) was the Taisho period and discourses of cinema, the uncanny, and modernist conceptualizations of subjectivity.  I paired this with horror and detective fiction in order to try to get at the basis of the genealogy people always draw between those genres and SF.  We spent a lot of time asking, “Is this SF?” which was also a way to get them to think about why it would be important to ask that kind of question in the first place.

Next, we skipped up to the 1960s and early 1970s, and this is where I think things really started to click into place.  We got into emerging discourses of cybernetics and the information society.  I set that up opposite hard SF like Komatsu Sakyo and also counter-culture stuff like Abe Kobo to look at the way SF – in both its “genre” and “high art” forms – was working through the Cold War landscape and imagining the human individual differently.  This is also when “SF” starts emerging as a recognizable genre (or at least a self-conscious one), so I added in some theorizations of SF and also genre theory like Alastair Fowler to draw more focused attention to the “what is SF and why does it matter for us to talk about it?” question.

Finally came the unit I know they all were waiting for: the 1990s and 2000s, where we talked about anime and manga in the context of Cool Japan and also in relation to TV and internet culture.  Admittedly, this was the unit that I felt least good about (more on that in part 2), and it’s also the unit that changed the most between the syllabus as it was written at the start of the quarter and now, but I think in a class full of otaku, having anime on the syllabus lets you get away with shuffling things around a lot.

I had a screening each week, both because I think it’s important for a “media studies” class to have more than one medium on its syllabus, and because I wanted to think a bit about what I see as a heavily visual slant on SF in Japan.  I tried to get a bunch of stuff on there that I thought people wouldn’t have seen (and that I wouldn’t have seen, since half the point of teaching a class is to learn new things), though I actually ended up being surprised at how many people hadn’t seen films I figured were the dead horses of this field.  (Like seriously, less than half of them had seen Ghost in the Shell.  Do you need any more proof than that that our country’s public schools are failing our children?)  So in the end, the variety mostly ended up being for my own sake.  I really wanted to have Komatsu’s Japan Sinks – preferably both the book and the film – in the second unit, but I found out the only English-language version of the book is heavily abridged (I also hadn’t remembered that it was such a mammoth work), and the film is damn near impossible to come by.  Luckily, a film studies friend saved my bacon by telling me about the Criterion box set of Shochiku sci-fi horror films from the late 60s that had just come out, and even more luckily, our film library had it.  Whew!

Assignment-wise, I really wanted to try to emphasize communication of complex ideas in multiple idioms (i.e. not just formal academic language), so I tried to get a little creative.  The first was an associative paper assignment that I basically lifted straight from a course I’d taken with my adviser.  I told them to basically write a thinkpiece – in the vein of the one we read the first week – that takes a text we’ve used in the first unit and reads it in relation to something outside the course.  This was also my way of forcing them to take the concepts we covered in class and think about how they might apply to their lives outside the walls of our seminar room.  The informal tone ended up being the hardest part of that – again, more in part 2 – but I was generally happy.  For the second assignment, I wanted to focus on argumentative communication, having watched the complete lack of communication that dominated the presidential debates a few months before.  The main point here was empathy, so I had them team-roleplay one of four authors we’d read through Unit 2, and explicitly stated that they would be graded based on their ability to convincingly phrase their arguments in terms that they felt would be both in-character for their own author and also to which their interlocutor would be receptive.  It is my hope this helps them have more productive Facebook debates.  This was probably the most fun assignment, and I was really impressed with them!  Finally, we moved to the formal register, but even within this, I wanted to give them options with the understanding that formal rigor can take multiple shapes.  Also with the recognition that there would be a fair number of film majors in the class, I gave them the open-ended option of a creative project of their choosing, or a research paper for those that felt that would be more useful.  In the case of the artistic project, I knew I would need something that put their thinking in explicit terms that would let me see how they were relating the project to course themes, so I required a 2-page “artist’s statement” so that I would have something to grade more objectively.  Again, I was really impressed with the results.

That’s about all for the syllabus design portion of this post.  Look forward to Part 2 probably coming out next week, once I’ve seen the student evaluations and had time to digest those and reflect more on my own perceptions of the course’s success versus theirs.  Until then, I’ll try to get another book review post up this weekend.  Feel free to leave comments with any questions or feedback on the syllabus!


2 thoughts on “Teaching Japanese SF, part 1

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