Friday, May 3, 2013

Exploring the Human Mind in a Modern Way: Eric Rabkin's Online Science Fiction and Fantasy Course

I’ve just had my fist experience in a MOOC (Massive Online Open Course): Professor Eric Rabkin’s "Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World," which took 11 weeks from February to April. It gave me a lot of useful information, but most of all it made me a better reader.

It was the second time this course was offered (and if anyone feels interested after reading this, there will be a third one starting on June 3rd – it’s free, just go here). For those unfamiliar with the work of Rabkin, he’s a professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan and author of such books as The Fantastic in Literature (1976), Fantastic Worlds: Myths, Tales, and Stories (1979), and The Rise and Fall of Twentieth Century Formula Fiction (2001). More importantly, he’s a skillful and entertaining educator, the kind that makes you wish all your teachers were like that.

The course itself had a very simple structure. Each unit was centered on a book or two, beginning from Brothers Grimm’s Children’s and Household Tales and following a timeline that led to Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother. For each unit there was a brief (around three minutes long) introduction video, released on Thursdays. Students were supposed to read the assigned book, then post a 270-320 word essay by Tuesday. Just after that deadline, Coursera would release the other video lessons for that unit (usually some 10 clips, most of them around 12 minutes long). At the same time, every student would receive five essays from anonymous colleagues for grading. On Thursday, grades and peer reviews were sent and another unit began.

For most students, the videos were the highlight. If the syllabus was limited (and it had to be, in a 11-week course), during the lessons Rabkin could not only explore many subjects from the books, but make each unit a quite comprehensive study on different periods, themes, and theories on fantasy and science fiction. Additionally, he took different views, showing how the same story had different layers of meaning, depending on what you considered most important to focus your attention upon: language, sex, politics, gender, race, family, or religion.

Also, Rabkin used the videos to present his own thoughts on fantasy and science fiction,  some of them challenging the usual understanding of these terms. First of all, his concept of the fantastic is not a genre per se, but as one end of what he called “the fantastic continuum” in fiction.

Every story, according to Rabkin, is located somewhere in a spectrum that goes from the extremely realistic to the extremely fantastic. Even a realist story has to be different from actual reality. It has to call the reader’s attention on certain characters, pretending that everything about them (or everything that we see) is relevant. This is not how reality works. This is fantasy, though a small dash of it.

But you can’t go all the way to the other side, either: a purely fantastic story would be impossible to read. In a fairytale, you can accept that animals talk. You can accept that witches perform magic tricks. But all of that must happen in a world that is otherwise “normal,” relatable. At some point there must be at least the rules for that universe, so that a reader can understand what’s going on.

So, everything is – at some level – fantastic. And on the more fantastic side of this continuum we will find many subgenres: fairytale, horror, science fiction. And even detective stories, which rely on the (very unrealistic) premise that, no matter how complicated a crime is, there will always be a clever investigator who has just the specific kind of knowledge and skill to solve it. Sherlock Holmes, then, is not much different from a fairy grandmother or a superhero.

Rabkin shows a similar approach to defining science fiction. It can be understood, once again, not as a genre but as part of a continuum. The difference between Dracula and Frankenstein is not the fact that the vampire is a mystical creature whose power comes from hell, while the creature was built by human hands in a laboratory. What really changes from Bram Stoker to Mary Shelley is how they address knowledge.

In that sense, both Abraham van Helsing and Victor Frankenstein are scientists. But Helsing’s vast knowledge on vampires (be it scientific or religious) is merely instrumental to the adventure. On the other hand, Frankenstein’s pursue of the secret of life, and what he does with such knowledge, is the core of his story. So, science fiction is that side of the fantasy spectrum in which the search and sharing of knowledge becomes central.

That’s why SF most often presents the elements of what Rabkin calls, in another clever and bold hypothesis, the Eden Complex. As he defines it, the Eden Complex is the continuous retelling, by science fiction authors, of the old myth of the Fall of Man, the story of how eating the fruit of knowledge made Adam and Eve be expelled from Paradise. This is represented by one or more of these features:
  1. Imagery of the Garden: light, vegetation, protection
  2. Fairytale roots: the fulfillment of infantile fantasies, basic desires, timelessness
  3. The imposition of limits for people: some things are not meant to be known
  4. A person, usually a scientist, that is (or tries to be) godlike
  5. Oedipal dramatic structure, creating a conflict of power between generations
  6. Simple dichotomies: nature vs science, spirit vs machine, mind vs body.
These elements were discussed around the middle of the course, when the units started getting more focused on science fiction. Since then, recognizing them in the books became easy, even playful. 

But the videos were only half of the experience. It was a MOOC, meaning there were thousands of people from all over the world, with different backgrounds, and they made the course forum a living community. There was a constant exchange of impressions of the books being read and the videos, bringing together very different points of view. Additional information on the unit themes – ranging from a discussion of Edgar Allan Poe’s marriage to his young cousin, passing by a discussion on prejudice propelled by a blind student’s reaction to H.G. Well’s The Country of the Blind, and reaching an explanation of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Taoist beliefs and their impact on her novels – helped not only to understand and analyze the books, but to open everyone’s minds.

This was particularly true for the threads in which people would post their essays and ask for community feedback, in the end of each unit. The peer grading system was flawed: many reviewers were lazy, saying little more than “good work” or “I didn’t like it.” So, many people felt the need to use the forum to get a little more (and better) feedback. The result was a panel that expanded even further the variety of viewpoints found in the video lessons.

Parallel discussions offered insights on various themes linked to fantasy and science fiction, along with suggestions for further reading. Since the syllabus was fully dedicated to British and American authors (except for Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm), people were always ready to introduce something different for anyone who wanted a broader horizon – I’ve left with a bunch of titles piled upon my to-read list, starting with Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić’s Croatian Tales of Long Ago.

There were a few problems, of course. Some of them have already been mentioned: the unsatisfactory peer-grading system, the limited syllabus. What most people in the forum seemed to resent more, though, was the absence of Professor Rabkin. During the whole course, there was no input from him except for the videos that were the same from the previous edition. Furthermore, there was no teaching assistant that would help people, or even a forum moderator. It was, as someone described, a course run on auto pilot mode.

Although all of this was true, the course was what one looks for in a good book: it enriched me, it made me grow, and more than anything it was really pleasant. As another colleague observed, we were a network of people, unknown to each other, united by a learning experience, collectively gathering clues that could open our path to discovery – isn’t that a science fiction plot in itself?

By Marcos Faria