[ How might studying science fiction encourage students to examine their assumptions about race? “Monstrosity and the Majority: Defamiliarizing Race in the University Classroom” by Clayton Zuba helped Ian Taras think about that question. His review of Zuba’s essay was an assignment for Victorian Spaces, a course in the Bard MAT Program. Ian is a graduate student, preparing to teach English at the secondary level.]
While I suspect a number of the texts we read in “Victorian Spaces” could be successfully taught in a secondary education classroom, The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells stands out as the most likely to be well-received by an audience of young adult readers. Not just for its accessible language and straightforward plot, but for the intrinsically interesting topics it causes us to consider–both at their surface level (e.g., futuristic technology, alien invasions, the threat of human extinction, etc.) and for the social and philosophical questions they raise (e.g., how do we define human progress, organize socially, and justify our prejudices?). In this regard, Wells’s text is emblematic of the science fiction genre, which often couches charged political and social commentary in thrilling and outlandish subject matter. Done well, this clever recasting of our social conditions can throw fresh and startling light on issues whose apparent intractability leaves many of us complacent or defeated. Of course, not all storytelling needs Martians and ray guns to help readers gain new perspectives on the social ills to which many of us, unwittingly or not, contribute. But the heightened use of allegory that is the province of sci-fi is at a unique advantage to introduce young readers to the ways literature defamiliarizes our everyday experience—making the familiar strange and the strange familiar. In so doing, it can alert us to our blind spots and, at its best, disabuse us of our sense of powerlessness over improving the everyday experiences of all.
In his article “Monstrosity and the Majority: Defamiliarizing Race in the University Classroom,” published in Pedagogy’s April 2016 issue, Clayton Zuba, a literature professor at Arizona State University, offers an inspiring case study in how literature (and science fiction in particular) can be used in the above described manner. Zuba was especially interested in using sci-fi texts to help students interrogate issues of racism and white supremacy. With bell hooks’s pedagogical maxim that teachers motivate students “[to] learn to think critically and analytically, not just about the required books, but about the world they live in” as his lodestar, Zuba tailored a course that would guide students to approach racism from the unexpected vantages science fiction affords. He chose to begin his reading list with works of 19th century British sci-fi, given their historical coincidence with the “twin booms in Western global imperialism and scientific innovation” (359). Both events had serious and lasting influences on our thinking about race and imperial conquest, and Victorian writers were around to observe, record, and contemplate their effects as they were occurring.
In his first year composition class, “The Monstrous and the Human,” Zuba sought to make defamiliarization the central pedagogical tool. Having taught composition courses at several universities whose student ethnic populations varied considerably, he identified among middleclass white students a troubling deficit in their understanding of how destructive ideas about race remain deeply entrenched in present times. Zuba clued into this urgent need for remediation while conducting a routine visual literacy exercise during his first term at a largely white, middleclass college. He had tasked students with analyzing how the composition of images in advertisements “uses rhetoric and symbol to influence” consumer choice (357). While most students excelled at this visual analysis initially, Zuba observed that their skills fell abysmally short when faced with an image from the cover of a top tier fashion magazine featuring a famous black male basketball pro alongside a white female model. With one arm dribbling a ball and the other wound possessively around the model’s waist, the basketball player “bar[es] his teeth in an ape-like facial expression” (358). At the time of the issue’s release, the magazine disclaimed any suggestion of racial stereotypes on its cover, and, to Zuba’s disappointment and concern, this was how the majority of his nearly all white class had decided to view it. Their reaction, he notes, was in stark contrast with that of a more ethnically diverse class he taught at another university. Among a class of mostly Latinx and black students, the image’s offensiveness was instantly recognized. The white majority class, however, had proven alarmingly unreceptive to this point even when Zuba challenged them with well-reasoned arguments. This experience became the catalyst for his idea to approach issues of race indirectly, specifically through defamiliarization (358).
A vital concern when Zuba designed the course was to ensure that students would be blind to his intention of using the texts they would study to obliquely tap into ideas concerning race and imperialism. To that end, he wrote the course description free from any language that would suggest its ultimate goals. Rather, the stated aim would be to use reading and writing to respond to the following questions: “How do our stories define the monstrous and describe the human? Where do these apparently opposing categories converge or invert” (360)? By way of these prompts—broad yet undeniably relevant to “the foundations of Western racism and imperialism”—students would indirectly examine “racially constructed discourses of savagism and civilization used to justify genocide and enslavement of Native Americans and Africans in North America or orientalist discourses used to justify European global imperialisms” (361). Ideally, students would come away from the course with “insights about…the language and thinking underlying problems of race without confronting the issue of race in American society directly” (361).
The class began by studying three seminal examples of early sci-fi: Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and The Island of Dr. Moreau. Students were instructed to identify and consider how these texts characterized monsters, with particular attention paid to the ways they were distinguished from humans (361). Through in-class discussion and group work, students generated lists for each novel, as well as a master list, recording common traits authors used to establish a monster/human dichotomy. Essential course questions were also addressed through written assignments, which featured prompts such as: “Some of our class discussions have questioned whether monsters have essential, static qualities that make them monsters, or if they develop into monsters. How do The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde answer this question” (362)? Zuba sees these questions as offering alternative access to “the topic of racial representation…point[ing] students toward an awareness of the problems of race that these science fiction texts sought to explore beneath their generic surfaces” (362). Through such discussions and short analytical essays, students gained a gradual awareness of how monsters were differentiated via superficial attributes and, crucially, otherwise shared many similarities with humans. Moreover, they began to understand it was often human characters in these novels who behaved most abominably. For instance, one student remarked on Dr. Moreau’s “pointlessly cruel” experiments, while another questioned whether Frankenstein’s monster would have acted so reprehensibly had his human creator, Victor, treated him humanely (362-3).
Having grasped a basic understanding of how monsters were conceived of and represented in 19th century British literature, the class moved on to more recent examples of American literature that borrowed from conventions of the Gothic and Victorian eras in their own treatment of race as a “social construction” (363). Zuba assigned Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which examines racial attitudes and mores of the rural 1930s American South, as well as Sherman Alexie’s story collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. A central topic of Alexie’s text is the internalization of attitudes about “racial authenticity” by Native Americans (364). Through frequent discussions, students drew thoughtful connections between the texts from the different units; for example, noting Lee’s inversion of the monster-like Boo Radley–viewed among the townsfolk as frighteningly “pale, reclusive, and mysterious”–into a heroic savior, and comparing the hateful behavior of the novel’s white villain, Bob Ewell, to Wells’s wicked Dr. Moreau (363). This juxtaposition of genres helped students recognize tropes, dramatically more visible in later literature, that Victorian authors had used “to repress and displace anxieties over contact with racial others” (364). Finally, Zuba had students study two contemporary examples of science fiction, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Ridley Scott’s 1982 cinematic adaptation of it, Blade Runner. Both works complicate the meaning of humanness by blurring the lines between humans and futuristic “synthetic human beings” called “replicants” (365). Tying in the visual literacy exercise that inspired the course’s creation, Zuba’s students performed close readings of scenes from film adaptations of texts they had studied, in which they identified and analyzed how filmmakers “used image and sound to portray monsters” (365).
To assess the effectiveness of his use of defamiliarization to help students better understand the role of race in society, Zuba asked the class at the end of the term to share their thoughts on possible reasons for reading the texts in the order they did. While he does not include every anonymous course evaluation in his article, he highlights some very favorable feedback. One student, for example, wrote about how it was not until her latest reading of To Kill a Mockingbird (in Zuba’s course) that she grasped Lee’s use of monster motifs to illustrate racial categorization or the prominence of “issues of racial purity in establishing white family lineages” in the novel (366). Another student compared the plight of the replicants in Blade Runner to the dehumanizing treatment of African slaves in the antebellum American South. Still others, while not drawing such salient connections, expressed that they felt their critical thinking skills honed and their interest in literature measurably increased.
Defamiliarization has been a critical tool in our own close readings of the texts we covered this term. We have used a familiar geographical or domestic setting as a novel point of entry to investigate the prevailing anxieties and obsessions of Victorian culture. And while we have also tackled issues of race, alienation, and othering head-on, we have noted how authors themselves have employed defamiliarizing tactics to puzzle over their own ideological questions and concerns. The War of the Worlds is the most obvious instance of such, in which Wells confronts readers with a vision of imperial rule from the perspective of the colonized. He repeatedly draws comparisons among humans, animals, and other life forms, illuminating the surprisingly porous boundaries between these categories, much like authors did in the texts of Zuba’s “The Monstrous and the Human.” At first, I was skeptical of the defamiliarizing technique. It struck me that most college and even high school students would be sensitive to the roles race and imperialism–topics so intimately entwined one cannot fairly address one without other–hold in contemporary society and receptive to a forthright conversation about them. But Zuba’s presentation of the evidence has convinced me that a more innovative method is warranted and chastened me to reassess the value of a purely didactic approach—especially when interacting with learners from an ethnic and socioeconomic background similar to my own. Perhaps this is what I respect and admire most about Zuba’s effort. He observed a troubling event in his own classroom and sought to create, through reading and writing, a socially responsible way to rectify it. In short, he’s offered those of us seeking to become professional teachers something to emulate and aspire to.