James Hollar, Assistant Professor of Educational Foundations and Curriculum at Central Washington University, proposes a means of using science fiction to investigate race in the high school language arts class.
Science fiction as a genre is nothing if not a place to imagine our future. However, the science fiction literature used in many schools remains locked in the past. When envisioned in this kind of curriculum, the future is often a place of deepening class stratification, destructive technology, dwindling natural resources, and despotic governments. These are of course important concerns. However, when discussing the future within schools, we must include both explicit and implicit examinations of race and racism. Moreover, a majority of this discussion should originate from the narratives of people of color. What follows then is an enthusiastic effort to offer teachers a way to include not only more multicultural texts, but also more discussions of race and racism as we move toward an ever-diversifying future. If we believe that one of the functions of school is to prepare students for the future, then science fiction literature can take on considerable importance as perhaps the only instance when the future is explicitly discussed.
Thus, I recount here a voyage into the strange world of the American high school, specifically into the Science Fiction elective classroom. During the spring semester of 2012 I had the opportunity to act as a guest teacher in two sections of such a class at a large high school in Wisconsin. More specifically, here I offer teachers a lesson plan for using both the film Blade Runner and Larissa Lai’s short story “Rachel” to investigate race and racism in the English/Language Arts classroom.
Blade Runner & Larissa Lai’s “Rachel”
In the days leading to the end of the quarter, the students watched the film Blade Runner as a part of their preparation for an exam. To build off of this viewing,I began this next unit by returning to the issues raised in the film (and on a portion of their exam). The class and I discussed the film’s visual elements in terms of how this particular future was imagined and the themes that could be said to follow such a rendering. I also asked them to consider what they didn’t see in the film and what that might mean as a way to reinforce an understanding of both inclusion and exclusion.
Then, we read and discussed Asian-Canadian writer Larissa Lai’s short story “Rachel,” a reimagining of the character Rachael from the Blade Runner film. In the film Rachael is the latest in android technology; (spoiler alert!) in fact, she does not even know she is one. And of course, she is white. What Lai does, in addition to changing the character’s name to Rachel, is to give her a Chinese heritage and thus racializes this depiction of the integration of humanity and technology. We considered this story (and thus the film) through a multicultural lens by focusing on what Lai is saying through the changes she made to the original character. And so with Lai’s help, of course, we were able to hack issues of race and racism into this discussion. Going beyond simple additive content integration here, these discussions shifted the perspective from the white characters in the film to include not only an author of color, but also one writing about the construction of both identity and difference that we too often ignore in the classroom.
Although much more could be said about Lai’s intentions with this complex piece of fan fiction, I would like to move to how I used the story to encourage discussions around race and racism in the classroom.
Day 1 (After reviewing the “Rachael” character in the Blade Runner film)
Prompt #1: A Drug to Reduce Racism “Researchers found that people who took propranolol scored significantly lower on a standard test used to detect subconscious racial attitudes than those who took a placebo.” What’s your reaction to the study? Is it a good thing? If not, what does it mean?
1. Read Larissa Lai’s “Rachel”
2. Answer Questions in Small Groups
a. Why do you think Lai felt the “Rachael” character had something left to say?
b. What is this something do you think? Why her and not another character?
c. What is her purpose behind offering this counter-narrative? In preparing to answer these questions, we first did a close re-reading of Lai’s texts (she actually wrote a poem entitled “Rachel” as well). Here is a portion of what we had on the chalkboard afterwards:
“Blade” too much?
Why is she Chinese?
Memories as “vivid,” “selective”
Not valuing “creativity and imagination”
Plot & Dialogue from BR: What’s different, new? Why? Purpose? Mother died. Significance? Piano, Picture of Mom Mother in catalogue, “seen” by Father, arranged marriage Sepia photographs. Significance?
Brother died at same time as Mother. Significance?
More pictures, family photos, “certain memories”
I then assigned the students this writing task: Defend or Refute the Following Assertion (Four Sentences w/ Evidence): “In “Rachel,” author Larissa Lai seeks to diversify that neutral but somehow always white construction, the android. Lai gives the replicant Rachel not only a race, but also racialized memories that offers a counter-narrative to the film’s depiction of the future.”
I asked the students to select another character from Blade Runner to reimagine in the way Lai did in her short story. Here are a few of my instructions:
1. Pick a Character (Pris, Zhora, Leon, Gaff, Chew, JF / Just Not Roy or Deckard)
2. Try to Mimic Lai’s Method in Story:
a. Steal Plot & Dialogue, but Add Some New Element to Characterization
b. Start at a Point in the Actual Film, or Before/After
3. Time to Share Ideas or to Start Writing During Class
After they had a day to brainstorm and start writing their own versions, I asked them to consider the following questions in small groups:
1. Why do you think your character had something left to say?
2. What is this something do you think?
3. What is your purpose behind offering this counter-narrative?
In adding Lai’s story to the course content, I accomplished my first goal of adding more diversity to the curriculum. I did so perhaps safely by tying this additive content to the material already in place. However, in moving from the simple discussion of a story to asking students to either defend or refute the thesis statement above, I moved into more direct dialogue with how the students “saw” race as existing not only in “Rachel” but also in Science Fiction in general. Moreover, by assigning the students’ their own counternarrative project, in effect, telling them to “talk back” against the film’s narrative, I (hopefully) reinforced the idea that when we imagine the future it’s perhaps most interesting to consider what and who we leave out and why.
Since so much of science fiction ignores explicit discussions of race, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some students balk at including race as an essential theme. The effect here then is that even though Blade Runner includes implicit racial themes, students had a difficult time interpreting the film through the lens of race. For example, many students struggled with “seeing” Larissa Lai’s point in changing Rachel from Blade Runner to an Asian character in her short story. Later in the semester, when they were given the chance to choose “race” as a subject of inquiry for the final exam on The Matrix, almost no one did. However, it’s important to note some positive comments made by students in order to emphasize that there is a way for students to learn from one another, not just the teacher:
“Future’s global, ppl.”
“Having varying different points of view allows for new ideas to come to light.”
“We need the input of everyone to help with the future.”
“Diversity is essential to bringing perspective to every discussion.”
“The most productive are when discussions are from a variety of backgrounds.”
To move forward with this kind of work,I must make such student voices louder within the classroom space to intervene from yet another angle. This conversation, then, is something for the students to have among themselves. To do this, we need to increase the racial and gender diversity in these classrooms as well. This presence or the invisibility that exists in many of these classrooms could be harder to ignore than what is included or excluded from the science fiction literature we use.
The Multicultural Science Fiction Elective
Simply put, we must do a better job of integrating not only authors of color, but also themes of race and racism into the science fiction literature we use in the classroom. To refuse to do so continues an exclusion of students of color. Whether it is the science fiction material in the regular English classroom or the elective as a whole, we accept this exclusion of content and student. We need to see the notion that students of color aren’t interested in this material for what it is: a self-serving (and perhaps self-fulfilling) excuse for allowing yet another place within our schools to be racially segregated. The difference this effort can have is continuing to push against the inequities within our schools. Although not as common as Calculus or AP Literature classes, the segregation we see in the Science Fiction elective must not be allowed to continue.
In my research, I have witnessed an acceptance by white students, students of color, teachers and administrators that racial exclusion in the Science Fiction classroom is to be expected and accepted since the content is in a sense itself exclusionary: science fiction is a white guy thing. This should sound familiar to us; it may even smack of that dreaded common sense. But we have (I hope) come a long way is dismissing the idea that math and science courses were white male domains. We have come to understand that teaching history or English from a strictly Westernized paradigm is harmful to both white students and students of color. But why have we stopped here? Why has this progress away from the acceptance of both monocultural content and attendance lists been locked out of the Science Fiction classroom?
Thus, to be of any use, this work must continue to strive towards a multicultural inclusiveness. More than simply additive, such inclusion transforms the curriculum to encompass the world students are always encouraged to perceive.
The African American author Samuel R. Delany said, “We need images of tomorrow, and our people need them more than most.” Reflecting on such truth, it is my contention that all students, particularly students of color, benefit from a curriculum and pedagogy evoking their “visions of the future.” Such work can help students of color push back against a future presented to them in many ways as limited. A curricular shift towards a language of possibility counters the metanarrative of American exceptionalism often at the symbolic center of most literature students read in school. These students can construct the future as well as themselves. All we can do is help. We can start by not fearing them, especially adolescents of color who feel that fear in so many ways.
Lai, L. (2004). Rachel. In U. Mehan & N. Hopkinson (Eds.), So long been dreaming: Postcolonial science fiction & fantasy (pp. 53-61). Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press.