The characters of the course syllabus, and the characters of planet Earth, routinely do noble, altruistic things like study infectious diseases in order to prevent future pandemics, speak truth to power, and rally around the vulnerable. Unfortunately, they also do terrible things like threaten to incite nuclear war or destroy the planet’s non-renewable resources. Throughout the course Makman and Miller engage with students in a long conversation about the wicked human problems imagined in the space of science fiction: fascism, eugenics, the atom bomb, climate collapse, as well as bold resistance, solutions, and even glimmers of hope in the face of these pernicious problems.
While reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for example, students were asked to write about scientific practices and scientific ethics in relation to social institutions (such as the family, the legal system, and others), gender ideology, imperialism, as well as reigning models of human development and education. Following the narrative of Frankenstein, students investigated the dangers of innovation without an ethic of care and responsibility, tracing it through later narratives about “created” sentient beings (robots and clones) in both the “created beings” of our reality and of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Larissa Lai’s “Rachel.”
The class even had a visit from Dr. Todd Hollon, who runs the Machine Learning in Neurosurgery Laboratory at U-M, extending the conversation to the cutting edge of artificial intelligence and machine learning used to identify and treat neurological diseases.
Makman and Miller challenge students to question the plausibility of threats and solutions from the perspective of science, as well as through a humanities lens.
Using both equations and written text, students calculate the speed at which electrical signals move through the human body, determine the half-lives of radioactive materials, school Elon Musk on why he will never launch one of his cars into space faster than the speed of light, and track their energy consumption relative to the rest of the world.
While reading W.E.B. DuBois’s story “The Comet,” in which the title object passes over Manhattan, and leaves a Black man and a white woman who believe they are the only human survivors, Miller teaches students about Kepler’s Third Law, a theorem that explains how planets orbit the Sun. Students learn how to calculate and compare the orbital period and radius orbit of planets.
After learning how to calculate the average distance of Halley’s Comet from the Sun, the class considers the points of closest and farthest approach from the Sun and how the distance compares to Earth’s orbit. While the Earth’s orbit would likely transform into a white dwarf (a star that has exhausted all of its nuclear fuel) instead of a black hole, as in DuBois’s story, students explore the tension between “The Comet” and what might really happen, in order to apply Kepler’s Third Law.
Beyond the exploration of stars and black holes, DuBois’s 1920 social critique also introduces the class to the cosmic wonder of Afrofuturism, a cultural aesthetic that exceeds the bounds of science fiction literature and encompasses film, music, visual art, and theory, seeking to unite the Black diaspora through reclamation and liberation. Think: The Black Panther films, the music of Sun Ra, the visual art of Ellen Gallagher, the fiction of Octavia Butler.
“The first few days of class I felt like I wasn’t thinking hard enough, mostly because I interpreted exactly what was written,” says McKenzie Hilscher, a junior in the class who is majoring in sociology, law, justice, and social change. But Hilscher’s nervousness about the complexity of the material soon shifted into playful curiosity. “Lisa and Jon created an environment where it was safe to talk about ‘out-of-the-box’ ideas,” Hilscher says.
Miller credits the students for the class’s success. “The class would not work without a lot of buy-in from the students,” he says. “On a broad array of issues, they have to drop their guard and confront what they think about sensitive issues, and why, and then also consider very different viewpoints. It also works because every academic year a huge array of majors are present—and contributing—in the classroom; it may be the only time that many students get that experience.”