This course will use the cultural misconceptions, oversimplifications and stereotypes prominent in science fiction on television as a springboard for discussion of basic issues in cross-cultural understanding and representation, from the point of view of a folklorist. Class time will be structured around discussion of video clips from such series as Star Trek in its various incarnations, Babylon 5, and the British Dr. Who and Red Dwarf. Basic readings on the idea of culture and the history of European contact with and study of "The Other", as well as definitional studies on such topics as ritual, social structure, and verbal art (proverb, myth, folktale), will inform discussion. An initial unit on these fundamental definitions will be checked at mid-term with an examination testing basic comprehension of terms and their use. The semester will end with presentations of 5-10-p. student papers exploring a topic appropriate to class subject matter (and approved by the instructor) derived from any TV science fiction show. Examples would be an in-depth analysis of a particular episode; a study of how a particular genre or cultural category is presented overall in a series; an "ethnographic" presentation of a specific cultural feature exhibited on a show (e.g., Ferengi Rules of Acquisition); a demonstration of parallels between representations on a show and common late-twentieth-century American (or British) cultural misconsceptions or problems. The final grade will be based equally on class participation, exam results, and the final paper/presentation.
The instructor is uniquely positioned to administer this course, being a lifelong Star Trek afficionado possessed of both a healthy critical attitude toward the show and its missteps, and a large personal library of science fiction on videotape. Friends and acquaintances can testify that I am well prepared to go on at length and in detail about the problems Star Trek and other shows have with cultural representation and folkloric concepts. The course should appeal both to fans and to those looking for new ways to poke fun at the following of TV science fiction (particularly the Star Trek phenomenon, a media-culture icon branded on the popular consciousness of the first generation effectively raised by television, whether we consider ourselves Trekkers or not). The primary goals of the course are to reveal common fallacies in cultural representation, and to broaden understanding of the richness and complexity of human differences (anthropology) and human creativity (folklore) --although perhaps in the science fiction context "human" should more properly read "sentient", so as not to discriminate against other intelligent species involved in the discussion. Secondary goals of the course include "lightening up" discussion of multiculturalism by demonstrating through discussion how entertainingly inane and patronizing a shallow or thoughtless approach to culture can be; and encouraging the application of critical thinking to media images and representations in general.
This will be a 100-level, one-credit course, meeting on Tuesday evenings from 7:00-8:30 PM (the instructor is not free before 6PM during the week).
I was delighted that they let me teach this class--and I had a ball doing it. I had special fun putting together the video clips for each class session (still have the tapes, too). The students were a very interesting and memorable mix of individuals, including one fellow who spoke some Klingon and knew martial arts. I might have made a decent professor if I could have taught Star Trek all the time. Here is the syllabus I put together:
"Office hours" by appointment
Grades will be based on:
Mid-Term Exam (100 points)
5-10-page Term Paper due last class session (100 points)
Class Participation (50 points, with points lost for hogging the floor)
--Miss more than one class and lose a half-grade for every unjustified absence--
Extra credit for two "pop" quizzes (25 points each)
Elliott Oring, ed.: Folk Groups and Folklore Genres: An Introduction
Ursula LeGuin: Always Coming Home (a fictional, future ethnography)
Class Session Topics:
I. A Place to Start from
Week 1: Introduction (1/9)
What is Culture? What is Folklore? What is wrong with evolutionary thinking: the misleading assumptions behind 19th-century ideals of Progress and Civilization that are still with us today (and very much in evidence on Star Trek) --video examples for discussion--
Week 2: Getting acquainted with Folklore and culture issues (1/16)
Readings: Oring chapters 1 & 2
Week 3: Folklore areas, folk people, and how they can be presented (1/23)
--why this is so hard to do well in 1 hour on TV--
Readings: LeGuin pp. 45-55 (The Serpentine Codex; Chart of the Nine Houses; Where It Is), 126-182 (Four Histories; Time and the City)
II. Unit I: Folklore Topics, Basic Concepts
Week 4: Verbal Art: the bias of Folklore (1/30)
proverbs, riddles; greetings, names/titles, insults; oratory/rhetoric; story, legend, myth
Readings: Oring chapters 6 & 8; LeGuin pp. 57-72 (Some Stories Told Aloud), 538-542 (Spoken and Written Literature)
Week 5: Performance: Music, Dance, Language, Costume (2/6)
(artificially separated from "verbal art" for convenience) --the most difficult thing for Star Trek et al to imagine or invent convincingly, often simply omitted--
Readings: Oring chapter 7; LeGuin pp. 215-254 (Dramatic Works)
Week 6: Beliefs, Customs, Religious Life (2/13)
"superstition", magic; taboos, restrictions; healing, medicine; ritual, ceremony, festival
Reading: Oring chapter 3; LeGuin pp. 257-267 (Dancing the Moon), 484-501 (The World Dance; The Sun Dance), 298-322 (The Life Story of Flicker)
Week 7: Material Culture (2/20)
the things we make and use: food, clothing, containers, tools, furniture, houses, masks, weapons....
Reading: Oring chapter 9; LeGuin pp. 462-483 (What They Wore in the Valley; What They Ate; Musical Instruments; Maps)
Week 8: Mid-Term Exam, February 27 (Are you with me?)
Week 9: Paper proposals due.
Discuss Exam; discuss paper topics.
--Spring Break (March 12)--
Over Break, please read Stone Telling's story, which is broken up in different sections of LeGuin (marked in Contents: pp.7-44, 183-214, 361-411). This story will provide us with a background for the "Big Subjects" of Unit II.
III. Unit II: Big Subjects
Week 10: Life Stages, with an eye to ritual (3/19)
birth, childhood, education; adulthood, work, sex, marriage, child-raising; age, death
Reading: LeGuin pp. 524-529 (Living on the Coast, Energy, and Dancing; Love), 87-98 (How to Die in the Valley)
Week 11: Social Organization (3/26)
family; community; authority, hierarchy; social class or castes
Reading: LeGuin pp. 451-461 (Kinfolk; Lodges, Societies, Arts)
Week 12: Gender Roles, Gender Relations--not just women: we're all in this together (4/2)
boy oh boy, do we have Star Trek material for this week!
Reading: LeGuin (Stone Telling)
Week 13: Rules/Standards of Behavior (4/9)
politeness, etiquette; what is "normal" for different kinds of people in different situations
Reading: LeGuin (Stone Telling)
Week 14: Review (4/16)
Discuss and evaluate topics presented; discuss papers, share projects informally
Week 15: Papers Due, April 23 (final class session)
End-of-year Folklore/Science Fiction festival
Here is a snotty little Star Trek guide I put together, after discovering that many of these poor, ignorant, uneducated undergraduates actually hadn't watched Star Trek much and weren't familiar with its universe.
Star Trek was created in the early-mid 1960's by Gene Roddenberry, a former fighter pilot in Korea turned L.A. cop turned TV-writer. While Roddenberry held certain progressive ideals concerning the brotherhood of man, the importance of peace and equality of the sexes, his more fundamentally chauvinisitic, pro-military attitudes keep coming out from under the liberal rhetoric. Given his background in Korea it is not perhaps surprising that his villains tend to have a distinctly Asian feel to them, from the vicious Mongol Klingons of the original series (before they became wrinkle-heads in the movies) to the craven Japanese businessmen of the Ferengi on Next Generation (who have more recently become Jewish). Roddenberry had a starry-eyed faith in Science, Progress, and Evolution, an anti-religious attitude which our society inherited from the enthusiasms of the imperialist nineteenth century. This attitude not only assumes that Science and Technology will solve all our problems and redeem us from our destructive tendencies, but also assumes that religion is an appalling evolutionary throwback and intellectual handicap that all right-thinking people outgrow as a child outgrows a belief in the Tooth Fairy. This disrespect for spiritual belief and religious faith leads to some rather interesting plot lines; at least four episodes of Star Trek Classic are devoted to the idea that a people's god or religious/social structure is really an old computer left behind by their ancestors to take care of them, which has kept them in unenlightened, unevolved stagnation and tyranny--which, of course, the liberty-loving Enterprise crew is obligated to destroy, despite the Federation's "Prime Directive" not to meddle in the affairs or developments of other worlds. This Prime Directive, supposedly the most sacred to Starfleet after obedience and duty, is conveniently set aside by both Kirk and Cpt. Picard of Next Generation whenever possible, although Picard does more hand-wringing over it than Kirk.
Despite the fact that Earth is supposed to have a global government and to have defeated all such evils as racism or ethnocentrism, Roddenberry's Federation (and particularly Starfleet) acts and sounds astonishingly American in its attitudes, values and assumptions. One can get even more specific: the Federation is Eisenhower's can-do America of the 1950's, a strong, vigorous (read: masculine), confident America that everybody should want to be just like (by force, if necessary). The optimism which shaped Roddenberry's vision of the future, and the assumption of righteousness and fundamental "decency" on the part of military and government types, can seem rather foreign to those of us raised post-Vietnam, post-Watergate. One of Roddenberry's most fundamental rules for the writers of Next Generation was the upright nature of the Federation and Starfleet, who could not be seen to do wrong--down to Roddenberry's insistence that everybody on the Enterprise had to like each other and never have conflicts, because they were Starfleet people who were too good and enlightened to have arguments.
These qualities of Roddenberry's touch are strongly felt in the early stages of Next Generation, although it was allowed to mature somewhat over its seven-year run. Roddenberry died while Deep Space Nine was being planned, and it is interesting to note that it is on this series that the female central characters are allowed to be strong and active (not just the nurturing mother-figures of Dr. Crusher and empathic Counselor Troi on Next Gen; they could never keep any strong female characters for long, since the actresses always bailed for lack of good writing!), and that religion for the first time is granted a legitimate place in the Star Trek world. Deep Space Nine has also been criticized by some testosterone-poisoned fans for being too cerebral--i.e., not enough "action" (read: big explosions and killing people in big battles); they have tried to jazz it up by adding a high-tech battleship to the station, adding Worf of Next Generation to the cast, and giving Cpt. Sisko a goofy pirate-beard. You can tell where my sympathies lie; personally, I think DSN is the best, most consistent, and most mature of the four, with a terrific mix of characters. It has also been since Roddenberry's death that the writers for Star Trek have developed plot lines involving corruption and treason within Starfleet, usually involving conflict between democratically elected leaders and the military people who find that democracy too soft and vulnerable.
Having said all these critical things about Roddenberry it is important to also point out that he was a sensitive and thoughtful writer (at least as far as his male characters were concerned). Some of the episodes he wrote for the original Star Trek are the most well-wrought and philosophically effective that the franchise ever produced. It was the generosity of his imagination which made Star Trek possible, no matter how we feel about some of his attitudes.
Star Trek Classic is set in the 23rd century. Poverty, hunger and war have been eliminated on Earth, which is now a prominent member of the United Federation of Planets (a.k.a. The Federation). The Federation Council and its President reside in Paris; Starfleet has its headquarters in San Francisco, along with Starfleet Academy, a kind of galactic West Point. Starfleet is the military/scientific/exploratory arm of the Federation. Roddenberry always swore that his Federation was absolutely not a military government, but due to the nature of the shows' settings (on Federation starships and a space station) the military environment is basically all we see of Roddenberry's future perfect world. The Enterprise is Starfleet's flagship, on a mission "to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go...."
Races other than humans: Vulcans, a pointy-eared, green-blooded bunch who millenia ago adopted a philosophy that rejects emotion in favor of pure intellect and an absolute adherence to logic and logical behavior. Their emotionlessness is not genetic but is rather a chosen discipline and supreme cultural value. They cannot entirely suppress their "primitive passions", however, which overtake them once every seven years when they must take a mate (oh boy). Their disciplines have also led to the development of telepathy, particularly in the "mind-meld" where one person jabs his fingers into the other's cheekbones and says, "My mind to your mind...." Romulans, distantly related to Vulcans, split from their logical cousins before the adoption of anti-emotionalism. Aggressive and powerful, with a society rigidly structured by duty and obedience, the Romulans are a formidable and mysterious enemy. Klingons, a warlike race, are better known to the Federation than the Romulans. For a Klingon the highest value is Honor--personal honor, family honor, the honor of the Klingon Empire. Directly opposed to the Federation and in competition for resources and for territory, the Klingons are basically stand-ins for our Communist adversaries in the Cold War. Occasionally seen are the pig-nosed Tellurians, white-antennaed and blue-skinned Andorians, and the pleasure-loving Argelians.
In Next Generation, the Federation and the Klingon Empire have made a somewhat
uncomfortable peace, one which is currently being challenged on Deep Space Nine. Lt. Worf
(now Lt.-Commander) is the only Klingon in Starfleet. The Klingons are fiercely proud of their
art forms, particularly literature and opera (yes, opera).
...and here is an Extra Credit Assignment I gave them:
Your mission: to catch somebody (possibly yourself, or even somebody on TV) in the act of doing folklore. This has to be something you yourself observe or do, not something you make up in the abstract.
Next week submit to me a 1-2-page description of a bit of verbal art, performance, customary or religious folklore, or material culture. This could be anything from, "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," to the national anthem before a football game, to knocking on wood, or saying "God bless you" when somebody sneezes, to the cartoons posted in somebody's lab. Be sure to describe the context as well as the "text" of the folklore itself. Who was doing this folklore with or to or for whom, where, and why? Did this context affect how the folklore was received or to be interpreted?
The following questions are meant as guidelines, and do not have to be answered specifically. What idea was gotten across with this folklore tidbit (say, the idea of good health for a sneezer, or the performance of good manners)? What was the doer of the folklore trying to accomplish or communicate with it, and how was it received (i.e., what response did the folklore get)? What does this tidbit reveal about the cultural values that generated it? For example, in the case of the sneeze formula: the value of politeness, to acknowledge when somebody sneezes (based on older beliefs that the soul can be lost through a sneeze). Or, more elaborately: The national anthem can be said to set the tone for the ritualized warfare of the athletic contest it precedes, evoking feelings of pride, sacrifice for the sake of the group or team, and honor in violent conflict; it also makes the starting of the event official and in a sense sanctifies it, setting the game apart as special, significant, even on one level holy. (This is how I got to be a Grad student: I actually think like this. Scary, I know.)
Also describe how the tidbit displays the three primary dynamics of folklore: variation (how the specific example differs from a general model for what the thing is), tradition (how the example is derived from a commonly-held store of similar stuff that is felt to have been around a while), and creativity (how the individual doer of the folklore put his or her own spin on the tidbit). For some examples one or more of these dynamics may seem to be pretty minimally present (e.g., "variation" for the automatic response of "Gesundheit" or "God bless you" to a sneeze); if this is the case for your example, simply say so and explain why. In the case of the sneeze response, you might want to pay attention to how it was said; or you might want to use for your tidbit someone's deliberately humorous violation of the tradition through the verbal art improvisation of something like, "My God, did you blow your brains out?!"
Again, this only needs to be a few paragraphs long: I'm not looking for in-depth studies here, just simple descriptions that demonstrate for my benefit your comprehension of the issues that have been presented in class.
In case you didn't notice, this assignment summarizes some important concepts for our Mid-Term Exam coming up: categories of folklore; text and context; and variation, tradition, and creativity.
Fear not: I won't make you read their Mid-Term Exam. I wish I could show you a few of their term papers (some of which were quite well-written and/or creative), but of course I have no right to post anyone else's work. My favorite topics were the analysis of gender roles in The Muppet Show's "Pigs in Space" sketches; and a very colorful study of costuming and identity on The X-Men. The best papers overall were probably a sensitive study of religion on The X-Files via the episode "Revelations", which featured stigmata; and an insightful examination of the depiction of military Marines culture on the defunct "Space: Above and Beyond" (the author had a brother who joined the Marines and became rather a different person).
I received some very nice feedback from a faculty member who performed the required monitoring of my class (she happened to come during gender week--whee!), and encouraged me to apply to teach the class again on a more advanced level. I eagerly did so (including a proposal for another class I wanted to teach, in case a repeat performance wasn't allowed). In the Fall when I met with my advisor I asked about the proposal, since I hadn't heard anything; she said she thought they had indeed approved it and sent it on to the College of Arts and Sciences for the final say. I then talked to the department secretary, and if I understood her correctly she said that the paperwork had been shuffled and my proposal was never actually forwarded to the College for approval (I didn't press the point). Heavy sigh. Here is the proposal I submitted:
If it is permitted to repeat an X-course offering, I would like to teach again the Folklore and TV Science Fiction course which I am currently completing. Next year, however, I would like to offer the course for two credits rather than one, in order to assign somewhat heavier readings. Please see the revised syllabus, enclosed.
This year I had a final enrollment of 17 (18 at the mid-term) despite a lack of promotion on my part during Registration last Fall due to ill health. I have greatly enjoyed performing the course this semester and see ways to sharpen its focus. I am very pleased that one of my students has chosen to become a Folklore major over the course of this semester (not only from my influence, of course). After observing a class session recently, Dr. Dolby of the Folklore Institute suggested that I teach it again, and thus comes this proposal.
If repeating a course is not allowed under COAS provisions for the X classes, I propose the following as an alternative:
This course will serve both as an introduction to Folklore, and as an exploration of the power folkloric genres, themes and processes have had in our imaginations via fantasy literature. A four-week introductory unit on Folklore will be followed by individual studies of the texts for the class (two class sessions per book). A mid-term exam before Spring Break will assess the students' grasp of the basic Folklore issues presented, and a 10-15 page term paper analyzing folklore in fantasy literature (either through a single work, or studying a particular folklore feature in several works) will conclude the course. Two take-home assignments will encourage students to observe folkloric behavior in their immediate world, and to explore the folklore dynamics at work in a scene of the student's choice from one of the assigned texts.
Richard Dorson's Folklore and Folklife will be the student's guide to the elements of European folklore and folkways that have formed the basis for so much of fantasy literature, providing a more "global" perspective on the human doing of folklore than the more up-to-date but American-oriented texts by Oring, Toelken, and Brunvand. The literary texts for the course will be J.R.R. Tolkien's The Two Towers (from his Lord of the Rings trilogy), with its emphasis on epic poetry and narrative; Richard Adams' Watership Down, with its strong background of an imagined rabbit mythology and folklore; Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn, which occasionally pokes fun at folklorists and folktale traditions while poetically re-demonstrating the enduring potency of storytelling motifs (the necessary behavior of a prince; the prices of love); Barry Hughart's Bridge of Birds, with its folklore-oriented fantasy set in medieval China; and Charles R. Saunders' Africa-based stories featuring the heroine Dossouye, in Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword and Sorceress collections, volumes I-III.
This course should appeal both to students with a taste for imaginative literature, and to those who would welcome folkloric enlightenment through a series of excellent tales. I am as eager to share the joys of these books as I am the joys of Folkore.
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