Fiction, Genre, & Language

A fun episode of On Point with Tom Ashbrook recently featured some writers of fantasy-style fiction novels that have received great acclaim from reviewers. As a not-so-secret science fiction geek, I was stirred a bit by the shock of Tom Ashbrook as he navigated the waters of fantasy creatures in literary fiction, proclaiming that the likes of John Updike would never stoop to such levels before being reminded by his guest of The Witches of Eastwick. Underlying my not-so-secret SF love is my fantasy geekiness, my readings of all of Ann Rice’s novels as a teenager, to say nothing of The Lord of the Rings, anything by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, and a series of role player fiction novels from England as a child.

Given this context, it is gratifying to hear the subject of genre being discussed in the mainstream media and the blurred margins between genres, or subgenres, like literary fiction and fantasy fiction. I have been particularly interested in the mutable nature of prose since the A Million Little Pieces debacle and subsequent meltdown by Oprah – why did she care so much about the classification of a text she found moving, a text now described by Wikipedia as a “semi-fictional memoir?” While Oprah was clearly run over by this semi, betrayed and hurt, I see opportunity for telling the story-truth explored by writers like Tim O’Brien for decades. While it may have been more honest for James Frey to portray his life story as a fiction piece, I don’t think it matters much if the audience walks away with the message in the end. Additionally, I see all fiction as life experiences twisted and woven into something more true and distilled than the original, broken chain of events. So, if Glen Duncan explores the human landscape through the prism of  werewolf character in The Last Werewolf, that’s literature. Nonfiction is also literature. Literary giants like Kurt Vonnegut, Updike, Shakespeare, Toni Morrison, and Philip Roth all explored science fiction and fantasy elements as ways of uncovering truth about the human experience. As we explore what genre is and isn’t, fuzzy boundaries allow more individual freedom to choose what we love to read and write while still stretching our philosophical conceptions of humanity’s struggles, mundane and timeless.

Independance Day Musings: Democracy & Education

A large number of human relationships in any social group are still upon the machine-like plane. Individuals use one another so as to get desired results, without reference to the emotional and intellectual disposition and consent of those used. Such uses express physical superiority, or superiority of position, skill, technical ability, and command of tools, mechanical or fiscal. So far as the relations of parent and child, teacher and pupil, employer and employee, governor and governed, remain upon this level, they form no true social group, no matter how closely their respective activities touch one another. Giving and taking of orders modifies action and results, but does not of itself effect a sharing of purposes, a communication of interests.

Dewey, John (2009). Democracy and Education: an introduction to the philosophy of education (Kindle Locations 157-161). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

On a beautiful day in Switzerland, July 4, 2011, I am reminded of the power of true, open democracy to shape people into a society. I am also reminded of something a consultant said to me once. She was from a private company in Florida hired to fix my school on the Navajo Nation which had been placed in the NCLB solitary confinement cell called “Restructuring.” We were learning structures for getting feedback from students and using this feedback not to influence instruction so much, but more to get kids to buy into certain structures being laid down from this corporate consultant. When someone asked what to do if the feedback didn’t support the prescribed structures, the consultant said: “Well, you can do a degree of facilimanipulation.” Facilitate to manipulate. Nifty.

This is the Fox News discussion model. Students in this chronically disfunctional school wouldn’t be given a voice democratically. Instead, I would stand before them, the Anglo Sage, and manipulate them with a guise of cheer and helpfulness to swallow whatever I was handing down from on high (which had been handed down to me from on higher). Beyond the historically appalling subtext, the text itself is terrible: facilimanipulate. This Frankenword has become an ironic joke between my wife and I, but I can understand it’s lazy appeal – trick the kids into thinking they count. Yikes. See quote above – no shared purposes or communicated interests in this essentially authoritarian model.

So, I consider today ways to continue making students real partners in the classroom, with agency in their learning process and experiences. I’m planning action research in a new course (for me) entitled “Digital Journalism.” Together, students and I will explore how best to learn through experience about doing journalism and publishing work in an online student newspaper. It’s very easy to give up the reigns in this course because I’m clearly not an expert journalist, so our shared purpose together will be learning the subject through actually doing it. I’m really excited because students shaping this course is meta-agency – students will help design the course in order to publish their work. Hard work, but good work, ahead. Maybe we’ll even form a mutually beneficial social group!

John Dewey had some great ideas 90 years ago and you can read them for free today! Happy Independence Day!