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Saturday, November 19, 2011

Science Fiction as Semi-Experimental Teaching Practice

I don't know if what I did today in my ENC 1101 class (intro to college argument) could be called properly experimental, but it was certainly science fictional.  I've been doing a lot of playing around with education as of late, in part because I find the traditional educational forms rather dull as models for teaching traditionally dull classes.  As I mentioned here, my 3254/2210 (professional communication or tech writing) class has become a test bed for an educational card game, which I am now developing into a proper educational tool for others who teach the course.  And I expect a great deal of experimentation to come in the future.

Today's post isn't about 3254, though.  It's about 1101 and what happened when I inserted a heavy dose of science fiction into an educational environment.  Here's the recap:

What my students were reading:

An essay called "Ethics for Extraterrestrials" by Joel J. Kupperman, published in American Philosophical Quarterly in 1991 (Vol. 28, No. 4).  Kupperman posits a scenario in which an alien species known as the Throgs, who are technologically (and, perhaps, intellectually) superior, have taken to flaying humans for unstated (or unclear) reasons.  What follows is a brief exploration of several moral/ethical positions, from which Kupperman tries to determine whether any human ethical models would have a reasonable chance of convincing the Throgs not to flay us.

What I did:

I created a detailed (though brief) scenario involving two imaginary species of alien who have been in conflict for hundreds of years.  The class would divide into two groups (representing each side) and debate in the form of speeches to a small number of their peers (representing the Interstellar United Nations).  The purpose of the exercise was to put the students in two unique positions, in which the moral and ethical ground from which each species could argue was by no means absolute (i.e., there was no pure right and wrong response).

What was on the agenda:
  1. A quiz on Kupperman's essay.
  2. A thought experiment in which two alien species had to present ethical arguments in favor of their particular position (group Y wants to be granted planethood in the Interstellar United Nations; group X believes allowing planethood for group Y would be a bad thing -- basically).
  3. A small group of students (and the person evaluating me during class, as happens once a year) were tasked with determining which group made the better argument.
Here are the slides:

What happened:

Both groups took the exercise relatively seriously, with some students participating more vigorously than others.  I suspect much of this has to do with the fact that free pizza was on the line (which all of them are going to get in the end anyway, because I'm like that).

Group Y (who amusingly renamed themselves after one of the judges -- the Shannonites), took to arguing why continued denial of sovereignty (my words) meant contemporary Shannonites were being punished for behaviors for which current generations were not responsible.  Revenge, therefore, was a poor excuse for denying people the right to participate in the interstellar community, particularly since contemporary Shannonites were willing to acknowledge that the war was a terrible response to the partition.  One student argued that the Shannonites were clearly interested in a peaceful transition, since they were going through the "proper channels" to achieve peace.

Group X (arguing against planethood) renamed themselves the Free Masons and made a logical argument about why the recent aggression by the Shannonites should deter any consideration of planethood.  While they acknowledged the temporal distance of the Collusis-Free Mason War, they also were quick to remind the IUN that guerrilla campaigns were still being waged by the Shannonites -- if not by government decree, then at least by personal choice.  This meant that the Free Masons were under strain to maintain order and protect citizens from attacks on territories currently owned by the Free Masons.  The argument was a solid one, since it played heavily on the ethical implications of allowing an apparently aggressive group wider access to the political community.

But where the Free Masons fell from the diplomatic tree can be summed up by a direct quote from the debate:  "We own you."  The Free Masons, in a rebuttal, argued that one of the consequences of war is the complete loss of property and planethood.  In effect, the Shannonites were no longer Shannonites, but Free Masons -- except, obviously, in spaces relegated to the Shannonites.

The Shannonites responded by pointing out that the Native Americans on Earth were treated similarly, and that such behavior doesn't make one right (an inaccurate example, for obvious reasons).  But they also reiterated why revenge (or consequences) is unfair to contemporary Shannonites, and also a poor excuse for aggression and alien rights abuses.

The result of the debate hinged on this major exchange.  The judges believed the Free Masons had made a stronger argument, except when they exposed their imperialist/colonialist/aggressor status by uttering "we own you."  Therefore, they decided the Shannonites should be granted planethood.  The Shannonites, oddly enough, actually cheered (not because they were getting pizza, but because a number of the students pretending to be Shannonites -- and those in the Free Mason camp -- started to adopt the mentality of their alien masks -- in a superficial way, certainly).

What I thought:

In the end, I was quite pleased by the experiment.  While there were certainly flaws -- many of which were exacerbated by the 50-minute time limit -- I would say that the entire thing was a success.  And the experience has led me to wonder whether it is possible to create an introductory course like 1101 within the confines of a fictional -- though allegorical -- universe.  Would such an experiment work on such a large scale?  Could it be sustained?  Would students still learn from the experience, or would the knowledge they acquire be useful only in the context of the course?  

I think students would still pick up information about argumentation and writing, but I suspect such experiments are inherently limited by the reality that my students should be engaging with topics of relevance to their current or future lives.  But I'm not altogether sure students care so much about what is going on in the world.  Some of them certainly do, but most are probably too overwhelmed by the college experience to devote enough attention to the complexities of the political field (among other subjects).  

I don't blame them.  I was an undergrad once, after all.  In any case, I hope my students came out having learned something about the experience, because I certainly did.


Has anyone else tried anything experimental in their class?  Or am I making a silly assumption that there are other teachers out there reading this blog?

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