format + mechanics

I’m currently teaching Language & Linguistics in Sci-Fi every spring as a 1-credit Linguistics elective. It’s a Directed Reading, which means (among other things) that I teach it on top of my regular courses. The enrollment cap is 12. Students need to have taken one linguistics class or get my permission to enroll.

Here’s a sample syllabus. We meet once a week for 75 minutes. Each week we discuss an assigned short story or novella. Students take turn leading the discussions, which tend to follow a similar format:

  • We start off talking informally about our affective responses: did we enjoy the story; how hard was it to read; did we find the characters likeable or relatable; what other stories or real-world events did this story remind us of? 
  • We make sure everyone shares a basic understanding of the story. Some stories start in medias res and then have a point where the narration pauses and there’s some background explanation. We re-read that passage together, as well as other passages that provide clues, to make sure everyone has the key information. Other stories leave large aspects of the plot and setting ambiguous (e.g. ‘The Third Tower’). We discuss our shared confusion, re-read passages that offer hints, and compare our interpretations.  
  • By themselves, students usually come around to the question ‘Why did Dr. Pak have us read this story? What does it have to do with language and linguistics?’ If all goes well, we linger here for a while and work to appreciate how the story makes us see language differently.

For the end of the semester, each student independently reads a sci-fi novel from this list (they can borrow the books from me or our library):

  • Mind of My Mind by Octavia Butler
  • The Girl with All the Gifts by Mike Carey
  • Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
  • The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Embassytown (in its entirety) by China Miéville
  • The Color of Distance by Amy Thomson
  • Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux
  • Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Students can read a different novel if they want, as long as I approve it ahead of time.

During the final exam period, each student schedules a time to have an informal interview/conversation with me about their selected book. I record each conversation and share it with the student as a memento. If a student strongly prefers to write an essay rather than having an interview, I allow them to, but I’ve found the interviews to be more enjoyable and more suitable for this kind of class: the student and I can give each other immediate feedback, ask for clarification, reread passages together, and chat informally about tangents, with less pressure to impress or evaluate.

Alternative formats

Scaled-back. If you’d like to teach some of these stories but can’t commit to a weekly class, here are some other ideas I’ve tried:

  • Incorporate one or two sci-fi readings into a regular linguistics class. I’ve included ‘The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling’ in a formal semantics class, as a way to get students thinking more deeply about what truth is. I also once spent the last day of my Foundations of Linguistics class on a discussion of ‘Story of Your Life.’
  • Host a stand-alone reading discussion as an extra-credit event. I did this once with ‘Story of Your Life’: I made the reading available to my two classes (Languages of the World and Morphology & Syntax) and invited students to an evening discussion. They got a point of extra credit if they participated in the discussion and submitted a short write-up.
  • Or you can try a non-credit book-club format. Put out an interest email, decide on a regular time and place, and decide on each reading at the end of the previous discussion. This is how I first taught my course, and I think it worked because it was the summer of 2020, when people had lots of extra time and were desperate for connection. I’m afraid my students have now reverted to their pre-pandemic levels of busyness, so as much as they might like to, they probably wouldn’t attend a noncredit book club regularly.

Scaled-up. In Spring 2021 I scaled taught Language & Linguistics in Sci-Fi as a full 3-credit class. It was a first-year seminar, which at Emory is a context where instructors often experiment with more eclectic content. Here’s the syllabus. You’ll see that I scaled up the class by doing a few different things:

  • I added three novels to the core required readings: Mind of My Mind by Octavia Butler, Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux and Embassytown by China Miéville.
  • I added some traditional intro-linguistics content. We talked about the linguistic science behind the stories, e.g. aphasia in ‘Speech Sounds,’ speech acts in ‘The Easthound,’ literacy and writing systems in ‘The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling.’ We also spent a couple days on modalities and formal features of various sci-fi languages. (See other approaches for more info on this.)
  • Students did more extensive end-of-semester final projects and longer in-class presentations.

One thing I’d do differently if I taught it again: simplify the Evidence Exercises and Reflections (syllabus p. 3). We were advised that semester to offer lots of low-stakes assignments, but I had too many of these, and they ended up being burdensome for both the students and me.