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It’s a week since the SFF Masterclass, and I’m still trying to work out how to write about it. It was one of the most intense and exhilarating experiences I can remember, and I was only one of the tutors. I’ve never taught before, but when you have a bunch of people as engaged and enthusiastic as I met last week I can understand how teaching can become addictive. Certainly, I would now love to teach again.

Since I haven’t taught before, I decided to attend the sessions led by my fellow tutors, Adam Roberts and Joan Gordon. And I reckon I came out of the week having learned more than I taught.

The first day turned out to be fairly intensely theoretical. (I should point out that as tutors, Joan, Adam and I had not colluded on what we would teach, though there turned out to be quite a lot of synergy between our sessions.) On the Wednesday morning, Joan took us through texts by Spivak and by Derrida, then led us to explore how these ideas might be applied to science fiction. It may sound facetious, but perhaps the most important thing I learned was that it’s okay to say that Spivak’s ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ is practically unreadable. Though working together as a class we worked out ideas about why it is structured the way it is that were themselves very revealing.

In the afternoon Adam led us into a discussion of Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy. Knowing that he had given Farah’s book something of a critical mauling (just as he had done mine) I was nervous of this session. But in fact Adam was, in private, generous about both my book and Farah’s. He used Rhetorics as the basis for a discussion about the differences between a structural and a post-structural approach to criticism that was absolutely fascinating. At the end of it I am still not convinced of his post-structuralist position, but I understand his approach to criticism a lot more than I did (and suspect that our respective positions are not quite as far apart as I had previously imagined). This session was notable for a long and lively exchange between Adam and Sandor (one of the students who was more firmly structuralist in his position) that was wonderfully illuminating about both sides of the argument; and also for Adam’s impassioned defence of Dune and Lord of the Rings for their purely imaginative, metaphorical content that was quite (and almost literally) marvellous.

After that brilliant first day, I was very nervous about my own first session on Thursday morning. (In purely academic terms, I was the least qualified person in the room.) In the event, I think it went well enough, particularly after the tea break when I relaxed a bit more and let the students do more of the talking. I had asked them to read two novels, The Translator by John Crowley and Light by M. John Harrison, and two short fictions, ‘Magic for Beginners’ by Kelly Link and ‘The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman’ by Stephen Millhouser. I had chosen them because they are problematic texts that are open to multiple readings, and what I wanted to discuss the way we affect our perceptions of a book. I wasn’t honestly sure how it would pan out, but it worked perfectly. Doug, for instance, the only American on the course and someone quite well informed about contemporary American history, had read The Translator as a straight historical novel and hadn’t recognised any fantastic elements, while others simply assumed it was fantasy from the very start. Similarly with Light, there were those on the class who were disappointed with the book as straight science fiction, but found they appreciated the novel much more when a psychological reading was pointed out to them. But the most fruitful part of the session was when we discussed ‘Magic for Beginners’, because everyone, me included, admitted we had difficulties interpreting the text. But putting our heads together and looking at things like Link’s use of framing narratives and who was the ‘I’ voice, and particularly by asking why it ends at the point it does, we came up with, I think, a very convincing reading of the story. A straw poll at the end of the session suggested that practically everyone had changed their mind about at least one of the works we examined, and generally liked them better as a result, which was very satisfying.

Coincidentally, all three tutors had decided to structure their two sessions the same way, starting with ideas in the first session and then putting them into practice in the second. So when Joan came back for her second session on Thursday afternoon, we went over a paper she had delivered at a conference, and examined how it might be turned into an article for an academic journal. During the course of this I realised there is a difference between the essay and the article, and that my inclination is towards the essay. Then on Friday morning Adam got us to take what we had learned in his first session and use it to compose an introduction to an authorised edition of certain works. There was a very interesting discussion of 2001, a Space Odyssey, but the most interesting part was when we got on to The Hobbit, with Adam turning our musings into this piece at The Valve. And then, in the last session of the week, I set up a question and answer session on problems with reviewing. It turned out that practically all the students had done or were interested in doing reviews, so this turned into a very lively session. And Joan came and sat in on part of it, which added another dimension.

I think we were all reluctant to bring the Masterclass to an end, and more than one of the students said they felt a new enthusiasm for reading and writing. An enthusiasm I share, though I have to say that I’ve noticed my reading speed has slowed down immensely since the Masterclass, because I’m spending much more time thinking about what I’m reading.

And even that skimpy survey of the Masterclass misses out so much, like the spirit that we all felt, the cohesion of the group, the way we all took our lunches together, the way we all headed off to the Philharmonic for a drink or two after the last session, then the group meals at restaurants recommended by AP that were invariably superb. I am now seriously thinking of going back as a student next time.

So very many thanks for such a stimulating experience to Andy Sawyer and the Foundation, to my fellow tutors Joan Gordon and Adam Roberts, and most of all to the students, Stefan Ekman, Joerg Hartmann, Agnieszka Jedrzejczyk-Drenda, Maureen Kincaid Speller, Sandor Klapcsik, Tuomas Kuusiniemi, Chris Pak and Douglas Texter.

First published at LiveJournal, 19 June 2009.

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