Explorations: Where No Writing Has Gone Before

Explorations TextsI have elsewhere written about the experience of designing new academic modules (‘Teaching Irish Literature in a Time of Brexit’, Irish Times), but I think it is equally important to reflect on how academic modules evolve once they have come into contact with students. ‘Explorations: Where No Writing Has Gone Before’ is a second-year module that I developed over the past year and taught for the first time this semester. It offers students the opportunity to critically and creatively engage with a range of fictional and non-fictional material which takes as its subject the work of observing, interpreting, and articulating the exploration of the far reaches of this world and beyond. ‘Explorations’ originates in my interest in teaching about books by Apollo astronauts (a curious mixture of dry techne, memoir, travelogues, idiosyncratic treatises, and personal self-reflection, often co-written with Earthbound authors), but, while I may still do something with those texts in the future, they would, inappropriately for a university module in 2019, create an all-male reading list. So instead I took the idea at the heart of space exploration – voyages of discovery – and traced it backwards to the start of the modern scientific age, combined it with fictional representations of the same, and constructed a module around the idea of exploration in its positive and negative connotations.

Lectures and discussions were arranged in pairs of geographically themed two-week units, in each case looking at points of contact between one factual and one fictional text. In the course of the semester we examined writing about the South American Southern Cone and the Galápagos Islands (Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle and Patrick O’Brien’s The Far Side of the World, with an eye towards how indigenous peoples are presented in both the writing of the time and in historical fiction set during a similar period); Antarctica (contrasting the perspective of the all-male expedition recounted by Apsley Cherry-Garrard in The Worst Journey in the World with the all-female one imagined in Ursula Le Guin’s story ‘Sur’); the Himalayas (Jon Krakauer’s journalistic Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster and Michelle Paver’s ghost narrative Thin Air); as well as work about Earth’s Moon (comparing Jules Verne’s prescient fictional depictions of lunar exploration with the most extreme form of travel writing that there is: the aforementioned books written by Apollo astronauts, here specifically Eugene Cernan’s The Last Man on the Moon).

Framing all this was an introductory session foregrounding the problematic colonial elements of many explorations texts as I though it important for students to keep in mind from the outset how exploration, imperialism, military adventurism, and privilege so often go hand in hand. Indeed, we really got to wrestle with these questions of race, gender, and exoticisation in the weekly seminars which accompanied the lectures. For example, one class focused on how the Beagle’s Captain FitzRoy abducted native inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego, and the ways in which that experience harmed and traumatised the individuals in question. Another explored the history of the Sherpa people of Nepal, examining interviews and texts where they could tell their own story. Along the way we conducted exercises asking students to rewrite exploration narratives from the perspectives of the people being “explored” by the West and to (re)imagine what contemporary trips to the module’s selected locations would be like.

Luckily I had some wonderful students who rose to the challenge on all occasions. It was a joy to deliver the module, from week one’s hilarious quest to locate the obscure lecture hall (“Who would have thought that your first exploration would be finding the room?!”) to the final week’s freewheeling discussion of unmade journeys and unexplored places (“Mars next!”; “Europa’s oceans!”; “The Sun!” “France!” “Wait… France?!”). Several of the students also developed/workshopped characters and ideas that they intend to utilise on the final year Writing Projects (the creative practice equivalent of a dissertation) which is very gratifying to hear. In terms of the texts we studied, they seemed to enjoy Le Guin the most (unsurprising as A.) it’s a phenomenal story by an amazing writer; and B.) it was the shortest piece we looked at!). Maybe they weren’t quite as enthusiastic about Patrick O’Brien as I was but, on a pedagogic level, the comparison between The Far Side of the World and Darwin’s journals was fruitful and illustrative.

The module will be taking a hiatus in academic year 2019/20 as I will be on research leave next semester (which has knock-on effects for my teaching load), but when it returns for academic year 2020/21 I am planning the following changes based on this year’s experiences: swapping out Jules Verne from the Moon unit and replacing him with Mary Robinette Kowal’s alternate history of the space race in The Calculating Stars (newly crowned Best Novel 2019 at the Nebula Awards), a contrast to the real life account given by Cernan and a narrative that ought also offer students an interesting dialogue with Le Guin’s ‘Sur’. I will then eliminate the Himalayas unit entirely (participants found its snow and ice not distinctive enough from the Antarctic explorations covered) and will replace it with an investigation of writing about the deep oceans. Verne will move to this oceans unit with Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and I will partner that with Hali Felt’s biography of mapmaker Marie Tharp, Soundings: The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Mapped the Ocean Floor. I will also slightly rewrite some of my Darwin material as I lately had the chance to meet some Galápagos tortoises up close and personal courtesy of London Zoo’s ‘Zookeeper for a Day’ experience (which is, for the record, tremendous!). There I was (obviously under supervision!) allowed enter their enclosure and interact with them (so inquisitive! So mobile!) and I look forward to relating that experience to the next cohort of ‘Explorations’ students.

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