I think it’s already pretty clear I’m a big huge nerdy dork of a geek, so it’s probably not a surprise that I enjoy science fiction — and I think that my favorite kind of fiction and my academic interests are fairly closely related.
Science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction all imagine social worlds slightly (or enormously) different than our own, while in sociology we spend a great deal of time examining how the world is and what made it this way. Much of that examination can be incredibly disheartening — the world is not perfect, and while different theoretical schools attribute those flaws to a variety of causes, few of them offer clear paths to solving social problems. CW Mills sociological imagination allows us to think beyond our own lives to connect our problems to social issues, but as an educator I humbly offer that Mill’s imagination could benefit from some spaceships and lasers.
I jest, but here’s my point: It’s not enough to see the world as it is — all the great theorists tried to squint into the future, but just because none of their predictions came true doesn’t mean we have to discourage our students from doing the same. The point is that they used the information they gathered to explain how the world was working when they were in it and then tried to give voice to the future, and that’s a powerful tool we frequently fail to give our students.
It’s a crazy idea and maybe it wouldn’t work, but I have this vision of taking a class of sociology students and working with them throughout a semester to imagine and build an ideal society: would there be privately owned businesses? A government? Poverty? Education? Pollution? How would people speak to one another? How would they eat? Would they be religious?
There would be disagreements, obviously, but what lessons could a class learn about negotiation in a community and how that relates to society? Would the strongest voices in the room win, or would the quietest have equal opportunity, if different avenues, to contribute? Could this world-building actually teach sociological concepts while engaging, inspiring and empowering students?
I have to be earnest and admit this is not wholly my original idea. I’m very much inspired by Paul Theobald’s book Teaching the Commons, though his vision is one in which students actively analyze and attempt to solve the problems of their communities while still learning all the stipulated curricula of public education. He argues that the act of truly becoming a citizen requires this sort of mental, critical work. Wendell Berry’s fiction surrounding Port William is another form of imagining an ideal community and the social forces which influence that community.
There would be assigned reading, of course, which would tie into the class, a good mix of sociology and fiction. Ursula K. LeGuin, Paolo Bacigalupi, an Olivia Butler story or two. A good zombie story to illustrate the total break down of society.
I can dream, anyway!