Monday, September 10, 2012

Worldbuilding

I haven't blogged much since the baby was born. Turns out that three kids under 7 years of age and a full-time job are hard work. (Gee, who would've thought it?) 

But, classes have started, and I wanted to share some of what is happening in my new class, where I'm teaching anthropology through science fiction and fantasy

I really want students to grapple with big anthropological questions, to think about patterns in human societies around the world and why they exist. In addition to reading anthropological texts and speculative fiction, they're working in groups to create fictional human societies. These worldbuilding exercises build on each other through the course of the semester, and they are the main graded component of the class.

The first worldbuilding exercise was due last week. Students were asked to create a fictional environment and discuss subsistence in their society. The mantra for these exercises is "be inspired -  but not limited - by reality". In other words, I want students to be aware of what we know about human societies, but to play with known patterns and limitations by thinking about the implications of radically different environments, technology, etc. In other words, these fictional worlds should not have vast empires based on hunting and gathering, unless they can create a reasonable explanation for why such a pattern should exist (perhaps a bountiful, high-density, and reliable source of extraterrestrial food that doesn't require cultivation.)

Yes, I realize by starting the class with environment and subsistence, I'm suggesting that human/environmental interactions are primary determinants of cultural patterns. A) I'm an environmental anthropologist, what do you expect?; and B) I have to start somewhere, and, as I discussed with my students, my personal theoretical biases led me to start with subsistence, and then move on to gender, social organization, ethnicity, and religion. I did tell my students that this was not the only way to structure the class, and I am certainly open to alternatives. In practice, the students are already including a great deal of social organization, gender, religion, and ethnicity into their worldbuilding, as it is impossible to discuss these topics in isolation.

I was truly impressed by the effort many of my students put into their assignments. I asked for at least two pages, double-spaced, and some of the papers I received were four pages, single-spaced. I hope the students are having half as much fun as I am with this class!

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