M A I N * N E W S * L I N K S * R E S E R V E S

Using the Science Fiction Studies List: Reflective Essays, Spring 2005

If you've been to the course listserv page, you know what a listserv is, how to join your section's listserv, why we have class listservs, and what to do if you run into problems using the listserv. This page takes on three important questions about the reflective essays you are required to post to your section's listserv: what, what for, and how to. I've included "do"s and "don't"s to help you understand my expectations for your reflective essays. My goal is to make this page as useful to you as possible, so let me know if it can be improved. If anything is badly worded, unclear, or missing, please contact me with constructive criticisms. Thanks.


A reflective essay is an email you send to the course listserv that comprises a brief, thoughtful (2-3 page) response to group teaching project and to the two novels the team doing the teaching had you compare and contrast. These must be posted to the list no later than 8 pm the Monday following the teaching project's completion. Only one reflective essay per week will receive full credit, although you are free to write more for extra credit.

Your grade for this segment of the course will be determined by the number of on-time, passing reflective essays you post to the course listserv: 6 or more reflective essays=A; 5=B+; 4=B; 3=C+; 2=C, 1=D; 0=E. The quality of your reflective essays will be factored into your preparation/participation grade (see the main page, Section VI, for more on that component of your final grade).

What For

At the most fundamental level, I prefer having you write roughly biweekly reflective essays to giving you reading quizzes or having a final exam. I can tell a lot about how carefully you've engaged the course material in a given week through the ways you "think through" the material in a reflective essay--and I'd rather watch how the kinds of topics and issues you focus on change over time than use the one-time, timed, high-pressure assessment measure of a final exam. Rather than the teacher always pulling the course material together and relating different readings to each other, having you do this work of analysis, synthesis, and reflection on your own can enable you all to engage the material in a more active, critical manner and even influence or help set the agenda for future class discussions. Rather than taking up valuable class time with pop quizzes or making you think this is the kind of course where it's ok not to do any work except for cramming for the exams, I want the reflective essays to help you get in the habit of being a critical reader. Even the activity of reading and thinking about others' posts in itself is valuable--you can get a clear sense of what others are interested in, you can see the range of different kinds of issues and ways of addressing them that people find useful, and it's very likely that others' reflections will help you see the course material in a new light. In fact, your getting in the habit of looking back each week on what was most significant in the materials we read and discussed is one of the key intellectual foundations of the course--and it's developed and improved by consistent, steady practice. The issues you and others ask consider not only form the basis of future class discussions, but they can spark ideas for the essays and projects in the course, as well. Class time gives you practice in generating and discussing possible answers to important questions, the group teaching project exposes everyone to multiple ways of relating older and newer science fiction novels, and reflective essays give you practice in considering challenging questions and relations between texts in a way your audience will find interesting and persuasive. The better your reflective essays are, the more chance there is they will be useful in the group research project, as well..

Two more pragmatic reasons it's worth your while to put a significant amount of time and thought into these reflective essays: avoiding boredom and getting better grades. If you choose to reflect on comparisons that you're genuinely interested in and that you want others to be interested in, as well, you're deepening your own and your peers' engagement with the course materials and increasing the chances that we'll have better and more vigorous class discussions in the future. And when I calculate your final grade, I will be sure to raise the base grade of those who have made extraordinary contributions to class discussion and to the listserv.

How To

Noticing, Analyzing, Synthesizing, Reflecting

So how to practice noticing things about the course materials, making comparisons, connections, and contrasts between pairs of novels, and analyzing, synthesizing, and reflecting on key concepts, issues, and problems for six out of the eight weeks during which you'll have an opportunity to write a reflective essay? What should you be looking for when you read the texts for this class? How should you use your observations while reading and participating in class discussions to help prepare you for writing your reflective essays?

Well, you first have to give each novel you read your full and undivided attention. And you have to give yourself time to process what you've read. So make sure you've given yourself sufficient time to read and think about the assigned chapters for each class. Make sure that you're alert and focused when you read, and that you have something to write with and on, so as to record your first impressions that don't fit in the margins of the book. Manage your time efficiently. Without giving yourself enough time with the text and away from it, you make it very difficult to notice anything at all.

So let's say you've taken care of this timing issue. What next? My advice is to start off by considering your gut reactions to each novel--what jumped out at you, bothered you, confused you, made you think? What did you like and dislike about each? If you found one difficult to understand, precisely what features made it difficult? What would you need to know to make better sense of it? Thinking carefully about these kinds of first impressions can help provide the raw material for a reflective essay, particularly if you strive to be as specific and detailed as possible in your answers to these questions. But a reflective essay shouldn't be only a record of your first impressions and how they were similar and different for each novel. It should consist of your reflections on the relations between what you read, their meaning, and their significance. Nor should it only be a response to ideas from the group teaching project alone. Making an observation that a relation between two novels exists, or starting from a relation the group teaching project reveals to you, is only the starting point. You need to consider the implications of that relation, what follows from it, what it reveals, what hypotheses of conclusions can be drawn from it.

As you're thinking about doing this and what to focus on in your reflective essay, you should move from thinking through your initial reactions to the novels and to the group teaching project's take on the relations between them to analyzing them and considering issues they both raise:

Focusing on these aspects of a single novel can help you move from figuring out what happens to whom and why in a literary text (issues of plot and character) to considering how the story or poem is told, by whom, and to what end (issues of form, structure, address, and narrative strategy). Both kinds of issues are important, but the latter tend to be valued more highly in literary and interdisciplinary studies. Doing the same for the other novel can help you find some interesting formal or structural relations between the two novels.

So far, I've suggested strategies for close reading--what some have called a "formalist" approach because of its emphasis on the "form" of the text, its concern with how a text means or how a writer structures an argument--and for using close reading to generate comparisons between texts. As you can see, it's closely related to a similar reading strategy I encourage you to explore, which has been called "intertextual" because of its emphasis on the relations between literary texts (or between literary texts and other kinds of texts). Any time you compare or contrast two texts, you're engaging in an intertextual approach to literature and culture.

The traditional version of intertextual criticism focuses more on generic conventions and evolutions, the way literary traditions emerge and change. It focuses on the relations between two texts primarily to discern significance changes in a genre, or ways in which writers relate themselves to literary traditions. It asks, what can we figure out about science fiction about war in general from comparing and contrasting two particular science fiction novels that deal with war? But there are other ways of doing intertextual criticism relate to other approaches. Consider the following kinds of questions:

As you can see, some versions of intertextual criticism are not that different than what has been called a "contextual" approach to literature because of its attempt to read a text in historical "context," its concern with how political or social issues of a specific time or place are represented, registered, or responded to in literature and culture. This approach can be difficult to do well if one's knowledge of context is limited, but we can certainly try to make inferences about the relation between text and context based on what we have read. This is a valid and potentially fruitful way to generate observations about a given text, comparisons between different texts, and reflections on the meaning and significance on those observations and comparisons, so I encourage you to experiment with it in your reading responses. Both literary and historical critics in the group research project can use this kind of contextual approach, although in its purest form it does involves doing outside research.

Those who want to experiment with doing cultural or interdisciplinary comparisons in their reading responses will probably find themselves starting from either a formalist, intertextual, or contextual mode of making comparisons between novels and drawing conclusions from them. Of course, cultural critics' great concern in this course is how to use the novels' relation to gain a new perspective on a contemporary issue, problem, or debate, while interdisciplinary critics will be most interested in how the comparison between the two novels invites supplementing literary analysis with methodologies and knowledges from other disciplines. But I would emphasize that people who want to practice either approach may find it easier to do after having tried the prior approaches.

If you've asked yourself some of these questions and considered some of these issues while reading or rereading the assigned texts, if you've paid attention during class discussions and the group teaching project, and if you've thought about the relation between what we read and what we did that week, then you're ready to begin composing a reflective essay. Your task is to cull or distill from all the possible observations you've made on your own while reading and thinking about the relations between the two novels in question--as well as all the possible focuses from the group teaching project--the one or two that will best help you get a handle on the unit as a whole. That is, to choose a comparison to reflect on that will help you both focus in on the comparisons and relations that interested you the most and to gain a holistic understanding of patterns and relations across the unit.

Remember that informal as reflective essays are, you're still writing to a "public"--to your classmates, in this case. Take pride in what you do, and be aware of your audience as you write. Try to interest them in your point of view, make them see the relations you've focused on from your perspective. Try to convey why you find the comparisons you're posting important or interesting. And try to treat each reflective essay as part of a continuing dialogue that goes on out of class; feel free to respond to other people's questions and comparisons in their reflections, to note patterns in what people have been talking about in class or writing on the listserv, or otherwise show that you're thinking about the issues other people have been raising during that week.



M A I N * N E W S * L I N K S * R E S E R V E S

ENGL 216: Science Fiction, Spring 2005
Created: 2/6/05 7:22 pm
Last modified: 2/6/05 7:22 pm