UWB BIS 384A, Autumn 2007
Literary and Popular Genres: The Social Functions of Science Fiction


Course Description
T/Th 5:45-7:50pm, Room UW1-020
Course website
http://faculty.washington.edu/jwoiak/bis384.html Discussion board https://catalysttools.washington.edu/gopost/board/jwoiak/2293
Instructor: Joanne Woiak, jwoiak@u.washington.edu
Office hours: T/Th 4-5pm and by appointment, UW2-335, 425-352-3493

Science fiction (SF) is often thought of as mere popular entertainment that tends toward the weird and trashy. In this course, we will take SF seriously as a genre that utilizes unreal settings to address contemporary ideas and concerns. SF differs from genres such as biography or crime fiction in that it cannot easily be defined in terms of subject matter or narrative structure. So rather than focusing on the question What is SF?, we will ask How does SF work? How do generic conventions shape the composition and interpretation of literature and films? In particular, we will investigate the social and political purposes of SF texts dating from the late 19th century to the current day. The stories selected (novels, plays, short fiction, films, and graphic novels) contribute to public discourse on modern techno-scientific developments, vital social issues, and philosophical problems. We will trace how and why SF has changed over time, learn its reading protocols, and study critical perspectives on its functions. Science fiction is omnipresent and dynamic; its key themes and approaches are tied to the hopes and anxieties of a scientific age.

  • Participation in class and GoPost discussions 25%
  • Tues Oct 16, ARGUMENTATIVE ESSAY, 3 pages 20%
  • Tues Nov 6, ARGUMENTATIVE ESSAY, 3 pages 20%
  • Thurs Dec 6, FINAL PROJECT 35%
    (5-6 pages of "SF genre creative writing." Proposal due Nov 13)


  • 6 books, available at the bookstore and library.
  • Short stories and scholarly articles, found on the COURSE WEBSITE as pdf files, accessible with your UW ID.
  • During class we will view several films which also count as course texts.
You are expected to do all the assigned reading by the start of the class period and be prepared to participate. Online postings will be a very important part of the class conversation about the texts, so you must post to the discussion board regularly. Consult the course website in order to locate the readings and get updates to the course content. The website will also have links to SF resources and supplementary readings on subjects covered in class, which might be useful for preparing your responses or essays.

Learning objectives
  • Explore the history of SF literature, films, and culture since the end of the 19th century; the major stylistic and thematic shifts; and the social contexts and audiences that shape the production and meaning of texts.
  • Identify and analyze the conventions of SF, especially the rhetorical and visual strategies for building plausible imaginary worlds.
  • Interpret and debate the themes that SF conveys about science, society, and humanity.
  • Engage with ideas about how “genre” guides reader expectations and interpretations; and how SF functions generically to produce effects such as “cognitive estrangement,” sense of wonder, or alternatives to the status quo.
  • Practice critical reading and writing skills; and collaborative learning in the form of in-class and online conversations.
  • Enjoy these stories!

Communication: All requirements and policies of this course are outlined in this syllabus. Any changes to the schedule and readings, as well as any handouts and announcements, will be posted on the course website. It is your responsibility to get updated information from the website. The best way to get hold of the instructor is by email, and you are always welcome to come to office hours. Essays will be returned as promptly as possible with detailed comments.

Disabilities: The instructor can work in conjunction with Disability Support Services to provide accommodations of any sort due to disability, or we can work it out between us if you prefer. Please feel free to talk with me about any aspect of accommodation.

Course requirements

         Participation (25% of grade). This is principally a discussion course, and the direction will be determined by students’ interests, insights, and questions.  Bring to class all reading materials and analytical notes you have made. Take especially careful notes during the viewing of films, writing down such elements as clues about the setting, key scenes, bits of dialogue, and your interpretive ideas. The in-class participation component of your grade will be based on evidence of preparedness and the quality and consistency of your contributions. Participation includes expressing your own reasoned thoughts about the texts and constructively responding to classmates.  Missing class will prevent your involvement and affect your grade adversely. You may also be required to complete small-group work and impromptu writing.

           A component of your participation grade will depend upon your contributions to the online discussion board.  Because a large amount of class time will be spent viewing films (about one per week), we need to conduct part of our discussions outside of the classroom. The board for this course is at the Catalyst GoPost site, and the instructions for posting should be clear (https://catalysttools.washington.edu/gopost/board/jwoiak/2293/). Each student is required to contribute a minimum of 2 substantial posts each week (specific topics, instructions, and deadlines will be provided). You are encouraged to participate in the online discussion on an ongoing basis. Additional substantial postings will add to your participation grade. Keep in mind though that your work will be judged according to quality, not just quantity. Your first posting each week should answer the instructor’s reading questions, and then subsequent comments should develop your interpretations further and exchange ideas about the material with other students. The postings should be carefully thought out and composed; each comment you make must deal with the course text(s) in depth and refer to specific pages/passages. I will let you know if a comment is not substantial enough to count towards your grade. As in the classroom, please be respectful of other participants and their opinions.

           Written work: 2 short argumentative essays and a final “creative” project of your design. Detailed instructions for essays #1 and #2 will be distributed as soon as possible. You will be asked to interpret specific course texts using the analytical approaches and contextual material you are learning. No additional research is required, but you are always encouraged to utilize and cite additional sources to support your ideas. The final paper is the “SF genre creative project,” to be undertaken individually but in consultation with the instructor. The outcome should not be a traditional essay, but rather some form of creative writing such as a short story, play, or comic book (I am also open to proposals for other types of written or visual texts). The goal is to encourage you to be inventive and produce a work that in some fashion utilizes the genre conventions of science fiction. Your project must also incorporate significant analysis of some of the SF texts we have studied in the course. I will provide one concrete story format you might follow, but I hope that you’ll try to come up with your own idea of how both to present your interpretations of the fiction works and demonstrate your understanding of SF genre in a creative writing format. More information will be provided via handouts, class discussion, and the website.

          Submitting work: All written assignments will be collected at the start of the class period. Work will not be accepted via email. Late essays will receive a grade penalty of 5% per day. Extensions will be considered in cases of emergency or if requested well before the due date. Keep copies of all submitted work for your protection. No extra credit or paper re-writes will be permitted.

          Documentation of sources and academic integrity: When writing an essay, all direct quotations, paraphrases, information, interpretations, and opinions taken from another person’s work must be identified. Every essay submitted for this course must have a bibliography listing all sources consulted and copious citations (either footnotes or in-text) to indicate where facts or ideas have been borrowed. All work submitted for evaluation and course credit must be an original effort. Plagiarism means presenting the words or ideas of another person as if they were your own, for example by turning in someone else’s work or failing to document material you have quoted or borrowed. It is a serious offence and punishable under the provisions of the University’s Student Conduct Code. If you are unsure about your use of sources or are having other difficulties with your writing, please come to my office hours or make an appointment with the UWB Writing Center (425-352-5253, UW2-124). Any evidence of plagiarism, whether intentional or accidental, will result in a grade of zero for that assignment. Additional sanctions may also be imposed by the University administration. You are responsible for understanding all aspects of University regulations regarding academic integrity.

Incompletes: In accordance with University policy, I can give an incomplete only if the student has been attending class and doing all the major assignments until within two weeks of the end of the quarter, and if proof has been provided that the work cannot be completed because of circumstances beyond the student’s control.

Send mail to: jwoiak at u.washington.edu
Last modified: 9/30/2007 1:16 PM