Politics in Worlds that Never Were, Part 1

This semester, I’m teaching a literature course with a mouthful name: Thinking for a Thriving Planet – Environmental Politics in Worlds that Never Were. It’s part of a Department of English Teagle Grant in which ten faculty from different liberal arts departments teach fiction/non-fiction literature courses grounded in their respective disciplines. It was a tremendously fun and insightful course, and I’d been chomping at the bit to teach it again.

I taught a variant of this course at the US Air Force Academy in 2018. In that version, cadets analyzed science fiction and fantasy literature using international relations theory (I also included a block on board games and roleplaying games). For their midterm, the cadets had an open book/open note short essay exam analyzing an excerpt from the Dungeons & Dragons Forgotten Realms campaign setting, which questions such as, how would realism interpret a 20th-level character freely adventuring across sovereign boundaries? And, how does magic in this setting influence the balance of power in this setting? The course culminated in a world analysis paper, requiring students to analyze at least three books in a series. I was also able to get post-Herbert Dune author Kevin J. Anderson and roleplaying game designer Sean Patrick Fannon as guest speakers, and authors Jeanne DuPrau (The Book of Ember) and John Scalzi (Old Man’s War) to comment on cadet papers written on their respective books.

Image by 8385 from Pixabay

For my current class, I was required to focus on environmental politics per the Teagle Grant. One minor problem: I don’t specifically study environmental politics. Too easy–I’ll learn alongside my students! Soliciting the help of my department’s environmental politics scholars–shout out to Bob Duffy, Ryan Scott, Dimitris Stevis, and Marcela Velasco–I assembled a collection of seminal environmental politics paired with six speculative fiction books, plus a book chapter appetizer. Listed below in order of course appearance:

I’d already settled on Bacigalupi, DuPrau, Herbert, Miller, but folks on the Political Scientists Facebook page suggested Stewart and Valenti (and UNLV’s Chris Jensen suggested opening with the Tolkien chapter to ease students into analysis). They also have a similar midterm, analyzing an excerpt from the roleplaying game Shadowrun, and a world analysis paper grounded (pun unintended) in environmental politics. I’m also including a games lesson and two lessons on films.

Another challenge is that, unlike my 400-level USAFA course, this version is 100-level. Whereas my USAFA students already had introductory major’s courses under their belts, my current students were hit with a firehose right out of high school (hence, why Chris Jensen’s Tolkien chapter suggestion was a great idea). I’ve mitigated that by reminding my students that this is a discussion-based course with no right or wrong answers, just poorly organized ones. I also taught them strategies for approaching the material using Adler and Van Doren’s How to Read a Book as a foundation. I think they understand that the thinking is high, but the risks are low now, as they exploded out of their shells yesterday to discuss Dune–I barely had to say or do anything beyond selecting raised hands!

So far, so good, but the midterm will be their next big challenge.