Contact Information

  • My office is in the Humanities Center, HUM 154. You'll find it in the English and Humanities departmental space.

  • My e-mail: dweiss@ycp.edu

  • My office phone: 717-815-1513

  • My office hours:

    • MWF 12:00 - 1:00 PM

    • T 1:30 - 3:30 PM

    • and by appointment

HUM 300

Science Fiction

Course Description

"Through the creation of extravagantly fictitious worlds in which everyday reality becomes strange, there emerges the possibility of dreaming of (or having nightmares about) different and other futures, of writing new myths which will enable us to take a part in shaping our futures."  Hilary Rose, Love, Power and Knowledge

"Science fiction does not claim to predict what will happen ten, a hundred, or a thousand years from now; what distinguishes the genre is its linguistic and temporal orientation. Science fiction is always written in the future tense—conceptually, if not grammatically. Not only is it about what has not yet happened, but its very structure is that of the not-yet-happened. It addresses events in their potentiality, which is something vaster and more mysterious—more perturbingly other—than any actual outcome could ever be. Science fiction is about strange metamorphoses and venturesome, unpredictable results. It is a practice of continual experimentation, just as science and technology themselves are. In this way, science fiction conjures the invisible forces—technological, social, economic, affective, and political—that surround us. It makes those forces visible and palpable, and brings us face to face with them, however frightening and untoward they may be." Steven Shaviro, Connected

William James has said that philosophy is the art of imagining alternatives. In that respect, philosophy is a lot like science fiction. Both discourses invite us to imagine alternative worlds and speculate about possibilities that make the given world seem strange. One might go so far as to say that questioning the given, that which we take for granted and seldom question, is at the heart of both science fiction and philosophy. Whether we are exploring strange new worlds or the space of philosophical possibility, we are learning to see and to think differently and against the grain. The best philosophy and the best science fiction encourage a critical engagement with that which is so that we can see it or think it as that which may be otherwise.

In fact, philosophy could be viewed as the first science fiction, since philosophy was engaged in “what if…?” almost since its inception. If you’re at all familiar with Plato, you’ll recall his use of the allegory of the cave, or you might be familiar with Descartes and his account of the Evil Genius. Both of these thought experiments are thought to have heavily influenced the Wachowski’s own philosophical/sci fi vision of the future in The Matrix. So in no small way, one might say that philosophy got there first—that the roots of science fiction can in fact be traced back to the roots of philosophy. Indeed, one of the things that attracts me to science fiction is its status as a form of literary thought experiment. Like philosophy, science fiction excels in asking, “what if?” In Science Fiction and Philosophy, Susan Schneider points to this common ground between philosophy and science fiction, suggesting that the best science fiction tales are in fact long versions of philosophical thought experiments. As she writes:

 

…let us borrow from the world of science fiction thought experiments to fire the philosophical imagination. Good science fiction rarely disappoints; good philosophy more rarely still.

Thought experiments are imagination’s fancies; they are windows into the fundamental nature of things. A philosophical thought experiment is a hypothetical situation in the “laboratory of the mind” that depicts something that often exceeds the bounds of current technology or even is incompatible with the laws of nature, but that is supposed to reveal something philosophically enlightening or fundamental about the topic in question.

 

In this course, we’ll turn to science fiction as a path into some perennial philosophical problems, exploring the nature of time and time travel, freedom and the future, the nature of selves, minds and machines, and human nature. With each of these problems, we’ll read and watch science fiction and read philosophy and use both to think through some fundamental matters. I don’t presuppose any previous familiarity with literature or philosophy and while I hope the selections will be intriguing and engaging, you can expect the course to be challenging.

 

In this course, we'll explore what resources are available in both philosophy and science fiction for critically examining five dimensions of our given world:

  1. time travel and the nature of time

  2. selves, cyborgs, and personal identity

  3. robots, minds, and machines

  4. being human amidst aliens

 

Our objectives are to master some basic philosophical concepts (time, self, mind, technology) and to stretch our thinking about these core philosophical concepts via selected readings in philosophy and science fiction.

Catalog Description

This course investigates the important role science fiction plays in cultures such as ours where science and technology are such visible and dominant institutions. Books, films, and other media such as radio programs and online video games that are part of the science fiction genre ask important questions about the nature of knowledge, reality, and progress, especially as they are shaped by science and technology; the nature and identity of humankind; morality; environments here on Earth as well as beyond; and many other issues. These questions are discussed within a science fiction context in this course.

Generation Next

Satisfies Constellations - Satisfies Science & Technology and Media and Popular Culture for “Generation Next”

Constellations are groupings of courses around broad themes that can be addressed using multi- and interdisciplinary perspectives. Constellations build upon the skills acquired in the Foundations courses and the base of knowledge and methodologies acquired in the Disciplinary Perspectives courses.  Constellations will allow students to apply higher-level thinking and communication skills while increasing the breadth and depth of their education.  The Constellations will be structured to help students integrate ideas from different disciplines, as well as the co-curricular, in an intentional way.  They will allow students see the connections between what they have learned in different general education courses, as well as help them make connections between the general education curriculum and their major. Students will take courses in a Constellation from minimum of three disciplines.

The student learning outcomes for Constellations include:

  1. Evaluate alternate, divergent, or contradictory perspectives or ideas.

  2. Engage in inquiry that provides new insight or insight that crosses disciplinary boundaries.

  3. Apply knowledge and methods from two or more disciplines to a single issue or problem.

  4. Make connections or create a synthesis that links two or more seemingly dissimilar contexts.

  5. Engage in critical reflection on their work and the process of its creation.

  6. Demonstrate appropriate collaborative work skills, and the ability to work responsibly alone or in the context of a group as required.

  7. Present themselves and their work professionally.

Required Texts

  • There are three required texts for this course:

  1. Dawn, Octavia Butler

  2. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Philip K Dick

  3. Semiosis, Sue Burke​

  • I will also be posting documents to Moodle and the Course Assignments page. You should download these documents to your hard drive and be able to access them in class without use of YCP wifi. Please Note: I may require that you bring hardcopies of texts to class, rather than accessing them electronically.

  • My expectation is that you will have read assigned texts prior to coming to class and that you will be able to access them while in class, either as a hard printed copy or as an electronic document.

  • I will occasionally ask you to watch movies or television episodes and you may incur a fee for doing so. While you probably already subscribe to some streaming services, I try to keep course expenses to a minimum but recognize that these are part of the typical expenses incurred in a course such as this.

  • If you choose to access course documents electronically, you should do so on a device other than a smart phone (a pad or laptop). You should also know that, "In a review of educational research published by SAGE Journals in July, Singer and University of Maryland professor Patricia Alexander discovered that readers may not comprehend complex or lengthy material as well when they view it digitally as when they read it on paper." READ THE ARTICLE HERE

  • Philosophical writing is usually complex and lengthy, so whether you are accessing our course documents in print or electronic form, you should acquire good practices of annotation. Work on learning how to annotate, both in print and digital forms. There are many good pdf annotators available (I use and like PDF Expert) and you should avail yourself of one.

  • As readers in this course, we want to become more careful and critical readers. Harvard University has a good website I highly recommend you review: Interrogating Texts

I grade using a point system. Throughout the semester, I will ask you to complete many informal and some formal assignments, each of which will be worth a set number of points. At the end of the semester, I will simply add up the points you have earned and award you the appropriate grade.

Daily Micro Essays

You should immediately purchase a small package of 4x6 index cards (no smaller). With each new reading assignment, prior to that reading being discussed in class, I will ask you to write a brief, "micro" essay, usually analyzing some aspect of that day's reading assignment. Sometimes I will simply ask you to record your philosophical reactions to the reading. These micro essays serve a number of purposes: they motivate you to complete the reading and come to class, help to focus your reading, provide a study guide for your midterm and final, and stimulate class discussion. You should be prepared to share your micro essays with other members of the class during our class discussions. Your essays should be approximately150 words in length. Each day I will collect your card, review your essay to determine that you have adequately completed the assignment, record your having completed it, and return them to you the following class day. At the end of the semester I will award up to 100 points for these micro essays, deducting five points for each one you failed to turn in. 

What if I miss class? You can miss up to three micro essays with no penalty. You should count on saving these "misses" for days that you are sick or otherwise not able to make it to class. If you are sick or have to miss class for some other reason, you don't need to provide me with an excuse. You'll simply receive no credit for that day's micro essay. 

  • Micro essays must be completed before coming to class. 

  • No micro essays completed at the start of class or during class will be accepted. 

  • Essays can only be turned in on those days that you attend class. 

  • You cannot have other students turn your essays in for you. 

  • You can miss three micro essays without penalty.

  • If you miss no micro essays during the semester, I will award you 10 points for your good performance.

Short Essays

Over the course of the semester, I will ask you to write three short essays of approximately 750 - 1000 words on topics we are discussing in class. You must complete the first assigned short essay but then can select two from among the remaining four that you are interested in writing.

  • Short Essay One: Time and Time Travel (approximate due date: Feb 7)

  • Short Essay Two: The Future and Freedom (approximate due date: Feb 28)

  • Short Essay Three: Self, Identity, and Black Mirror (approximate due date: March 23)

  • Short Essay Four: Selves and Cyborgs (approximate due date: April 1)

  • Short Essay Five: Minds and Machines (approximate due date: May 1)

These are approximate topics and due dates. More information and specific writing prompts will be provided via Moodle. Late essays will be accepted up to one week past the due date but will be penalized 5 points for each day late. 

Long Essay

Over the course of the semester, we will be thinking about how science fiction and philosophy provide insight into the human condition, especially via first contact stories, novels, and movies. What happens when human beings first contact alien life forms? How is our understanding of the human condition impacted by our comparing the human condition to the alien condition? How does alien contact help us understand what it means to be human? This is a theme that is explored in the three novels we will be reading as well as several short stories and movies. At the end of the semester, I'll ask you to write a longer essay exploring these first contact narratives and the human condition. This longer essay will be due at the end of the semester, either during or shortly before your regularly scheduled final period. The essay should be approximately 2000 - 2500 words. More information on this longer essay will be provided.

Grading Rubric for Philosophy Essays
Course Engagement

In her article "Feminist Epistemology" Naomi Scheman argues that it is misleading to think of epistemic agency as ideally exercised in solitude. Knowing and coming to know, Scheman contends, are social and interactive. "They are things we do, and things we are appropriately held responsible for doing, in social and cultural settings that variously help and hinder our doing them well." I wholeheartedly agree with Scheman that knowing is a practice that ideally occurs in a social setting. Each of us is responsible for participating in a variety of communities of knowers and it is a responsibility we ought to take seriously. Our class is one such community, a community in which we must actively participate in the social practice of knowing. To encourage your participation in this community of learners and to encourage you to come to class prepared to discuss that day’s issues, at the end of the semester, you will receive a grade based on your class participation throughout the semester. The grade you receive will be based on, among other things, your regular attendance, your improvement over the course of the semester, and, to the greatest extent, your willingness to contribute in a meaningful way to the daily class discussion. Other indices of an engaged student include:

  • Your willingness to engage the texts and issues associated with the course in the spirit of learning more about yourself and the world you live in.

  • Your ability to respect a diversity of opinion as demonstrated by conducting yourself in a civil manner and by refraining from interruptions and ridicule of others.

  • Your ability to listen and participate during class.

  • Your ability to offer relevant, on-topic commentary.

  • Your ability to arrive at class on time and prepared.

  • Your ability to focus on class during class time. Habitual entrances and exits during class sessions will result in a grade penalty, as will holding private discussions during class and disruptions arising from cell phones, watches, pagers, and the like.

  • Your ability to avoid complaining and asking questions whose answers have already been provided (e.g., “Can I make up the quiz?” and “What is the response for next time?”).

  • Your ability to let me know ahead of time if you have to miss an appointment or conference.

 

Course Engagement Rubric: This engagement rubric details how you can assess your preparation and participation in the course and how I will award you points at the end of the semester.

A Note on Moodle and Grades

Most of our course documents and course information is available through this webpage and an additional webpage (linked at the top of this page) that has our daily assignments on them. I will occasionally use Moodle but don't use it daily. I especially won't be uploading grades to Moodle. I believe that as adult critical thinkers, you should be able to track and monitor your progress in this course, and that includes keeping track of your performance and your grades. And therefore I won't post grades to Moodle.

E-Mail Addresses

You are expected to have an active York College e-mail address and to check it regularly during the semester. I will send e-mail only to your ycp.edu address. If you wish to use other addresses, such as private internet service provided addresses, you should set up your YCP address so that it automatically forwards your mail to that address.

Attendance

Attending class is a key factor in college success. Not only does regular attendance help you succeed, it also helps the class work well and succeed. As my course engagement guidelines make clear, a classroom is a community of learners in which we are all engaged in mastering material. It's far easier to do that when everyone attends regularly. When you fail to attend class, you lose points for your missed homework, your course engagement grade suffers, and your classmates lose out on the opportunity to collaborate with you on the day's coursework.

 

While I won't be taking roll in class each day, your homework will provide me with a record of your attendance. Attending class is a key factor in college success. Not only does regular attendance help you succeed, it also helps the class work well and succeed. As my class participation guidelines make clear, a classroom is a community of learners in which we are all engaged in mastering material. It's far easier to do that when everyone attends regularly. When you fail to attend class, you lose points for your missed homework and your class participation grade suffers. Additionally, if you miss the equivalent of one's week's classes, your final grade may be lowered by one-half grade (.5). If you miss the equivalent of two weeks of classes, your final grade may be lowered by one full grade.

I do not distinguish between excused and unexcused absences. A missed class meeting is a missed class meeting. There is no need to provide an explanation as to why you were absent, since I do not excuse absences. I recommend that you do not miss class for trivial reasons.

If you miss any class, please be responsible for getting class notes, assignments, etc. from another student in class. It may help to have available telephone numbers or e-mail addresses of one or two classmates.

 

Activities outside of regular class hours

As part of the regular course requirements, you will be expected to occasionally participate in events outside of the regular class hours. You may be asked to watch videos on your own time and attend evening events. Additionally, as part of the English and Humanities Department's efforts to encourage student participation in college cultural activities, I will ask that you attend two cultural events during the semester. These cultural events can include lecture and film series, theatrical or music events, galley exhibitions, disciplinary lectures or events. You can find information on the College's cultural events on my.ycp, on the College's website, and through other information access points. Following your attendance, you should write a brief 250 word reflective analysis of the event you attended describing what event you attended and your reflective thoughts about it. This should ideally be turned in within one week of the date of the event, so that you don't forget the details. You will receive 10 points for each of the two events you attend and write-up.

Electronic Submissions

Please note that I do not accept electronic submissions of assigned work unless otherwise detailed in specific course assignment instructions. You are responsible for insuring that I receive a hardcopy of your work by the assigned deadline.

Late Submission of Course Materials

All my courses require extensive reading, writing, and speaking, with overlapping assignments; please keep tabs on the syllabus so that there are no surprises. I do not accept late work, unless you and I have already made arrangements.  If you will be absent, you must make arrangements with me to submit any assignments before class begins.

Laptops in the Classroom

Your use of a laptop in class is a privilege and not a right. You are required to bring your readings to class and some of these readings are available electronically. I have no objection to your bringing your laptop to class in order to access the readings electronically or take notes during class (thereby cutting down on printing costs). You should know, however, that a number of studies have indicated that students who use laptops in class often perform poorly in comparison with students who do not. Laptops also are a source of constant distraction which take away your focus from the class and diminish your engagement with the course. For this reason, if I feel that your laptop use is undermining your engagement in the course or if I discover that you are using your laptop for other than class purposes, your laptop privileges will be immediately and permanently revoked for the rest of the semester.

Your Responsibilities

Please review YCP Academic Policies so that you better understand the standards that we will adhere to in this course.

It is your responsibility to remain apprised of all assignments and any changes in the syllabus or grading policies. I reserve the right to make changes to class policies and the syllabus as I deem necessary. I expect that you will be in class daily, having prepared your work and ready to discuss the material. 

You should obtain the names and contact information from several of your fellow classmates so that you have someone to contact if you must miss class. You should not depend on either e-mailing or phoning me to learn what you missed in class or find out your assignment for the following class.

I do not post grades to Moodle. It is your responsibility to track your performance in this course. Keep track of your graded assignments and track your performance in completing homework assignments.

You should strictly observe the following policies:

  • Attendance is not optional but strictly required.

  • Class begins promptly at the appointed time. Don’t be late.

  • Students should come to class prepared, having read and completed the day’s assignment, ready to discuss it.

  • You should bring the day's readings with you to class each day.

  • There is to be no sleeping in class. Stay awake and alert.

  • Do not leave the room during the class period without prior permission.

  •  Do not carry on private conservations while class is in progress.

  • Treat all class members with respect and civility.

  • Make sure that all cell phones and other electronic equipment is turned off.

If you are interested in studying Philosophy at York College, please check out the brochure I have prepared:

Studying Philosophy at York College

Office Hours:

MWF 12:00 - 1:00, T 1:30 - 3:30, and by appointment