Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Designing My Own Literature Survey Course (ENGL 211 at NMSU in this case, but it fits anywhere)

When I was an undergraduate student at New Mexico State University, one of my core classes was called English 211, and it was a writing in the humanities and social sciences course that had a subtitle. What this meant was that it was up to that particular instructor to decide the focus of the literature that we read. I happened to choose my course based on a convenient time and not a convenient subtitle. I ended up taking a course that was subtitled women in science fiction. It was an interesting class filled with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and other books that I honestly don't remember, I just didn't pick a subtitle that involved my own interests when I was 19 (football and video games anybody?).

Well, I was thinking, what if I was called upon to teach this class (and I probably wouldn't, because I'm not even in the English department), what would I do, and what books would I use? Well, here's what it would be, here's my outline idea for an ENGL 211 course:

ENGL 211: Writing in the Humanities and Social Sciences
SUBTITLE: The Future Gone Wrong: Dystopic Futures & Post-Apocalyptic Novels

In this course I would explore the nature and perspective of various novels classified as dystopia (the opposite of utopia) and/or post-apocalyptic. There could be a movie spin off class involving such films as War of the Worlds, Waterworld, The Postman, Pleasantville, and Mad Max, among MANY others.

My book choices for this course would include 8 books classified along this sub-genre, and I would do them in the following order:

1. 1984, by George Orwell: Any course on dystopia, where the future has gone wrong, must start with the absolute standard for the genre. I would use this book as a starting point from which all other works would be compared. We could possibly watch the movie, and do a compare/contrast thing on it, that would be nice.

2. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley: This is the other standard for this genre. It lies in contrast to 1984 in many respects, and is a good second read. The rest of the course would lie in comparison to these two books.

3. Anthem, by Ayn Rand: I chose this book for a few reasons. First of all, Ayn Rand had and still has a huge following through her brilliant, bible sized books like The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Anthem gives the dystopic experience without taking four months to read. It's short, poetic, and to the point, it's like annotated Ayn Rand.

4. The Giver, by Lois Lowry: You know what they say (or what they will say once they start reading me), that once an elementary school teacher, always an elementary school teacher. This book could have major implications in a class like this. Its story allows for comparisons to Rand, Huxley, and Orwell, but it stands alone in terms of its actual content and meaning.

5. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury: Of course this book is in. Some might even say IT is the other standard, and not (take your pick, 1984 or Brave New World). What a great story about future society in which censorship and self-imposed ignorance are celebrated.

6. Life As We Knew It, by Susan Beth Pfeffer: This is another teen read, which doesn't make it inappropriate for college undergrads. It would be the first post-apocalyptic novel (the previous 5 all being dystopias), and focuses on the diary of a girl after the moon was knocked out of orbit with the earth, causing catastrophic results. It's an easy read, and a good jumping off point.

7. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy: Hopefully no one tries to off them self after reading this one. What an amazing story, it's beautiful in its simplicity, but shows behind the curtain of post-apocalypse. Heck, it doesn't even mention the apocalypse. It's a direct contrast to everything else here in the course.

8. World War Z, by Max Brooks: Leave it up to me to sneak some zombie literature into the course. I mean, it is post-apocalyptic, and it's an amazing book, I think the class would enjoy it.

We would spend the end of the course summing it all up, drawing all the comparisons, talking about implications on today's society, etc. etc. I could even see some sub-genre courses on Zombie Literature (a few exist at NMSU now), the Post-Apocalyptic Novel, or Dystopia by itself jumping out. I think this course would be fun, and should be looked at. So if you are reading this and would like to have a skilled educator teach it for you, I'm your man! Wow, that read like a resume.

Anyways, if you could teach such a course, what would you do and why?


Ardsgaine said...

When my wife was in a gifted class in high school, they spent one of their semesters reading and discussing dystopic literature. Because of her experience, I've actually considered this question before. The thing I would do differently from you is cover the subject by looking at both dystopias and utopias. After all, Orwell was simply projecting how a utopian ideal would play out in reality, as were Rand and Huxley. I would, therefore, start with the original utopian manifesto: Plato's Republic. I would also cover Machiavelli's The Prince, Moore's Utopia, and Marx's Communist Manifesto. Only after getting that background would we go on to read Orwell, Huxley, Rand and Bradbury. Then again, that sounds more like a year long class, rather than a semester. :)

The Giver looks intersting. I'll have to look for it the next time I'm at the library.

The Buss said...


Your approach to the course would be interesting also in that it would offer more of the utopia/dystopia contrast than mine would. I agree that the definition of a dystopia, especially in the eyes of Rand, Orwell, Huxley, and Bradbury, is what happens in a utopia in reality. I didn't really consider putting utopia literature in front of the dystopia mainly because I wanted to focus on the genre itself, and get into some other "futures gone wrong," dystopia or post-apocalyptic stuff like the zombie literature and things like that at the end of my list. That would actually be a good title, "Futures Gone Wrong According to Popular Literature," or something like that.

I like your ideas too, I would definitely sign up for that one, with one suggestion, Plato's Republic, while important, always put me to sleep for some reason. But I do understand why you put it on your list, it's kind of the "textbook" for a utopian society.

Jen Robinson said...

What I would like would be to take a course like this. You have some great great book selections.