Friday, February 24, 2006

Not so long ago, the prospect of Fairmont State's Department of Language & Literature offering an English course covering the science fiction and fantasy genre sounded perhaps as plausible as some of the fiction included on the course reading list.

The course, which is being taught this semester for the first time at Fairmont State, is filled to capacity and has a waiting list of interested students. The demand came as a surprise to some, but not to English professor Dr. James Matthews, the course instructor.

Matthews, whose specialization is 18th and 19th century British literature, has a penchant for the genre. His doctoral dissertation was "Between Two Worlds; Ghosts and Apparitions in British Fiction, 1835-1885." Matthews, who also teaches children's and young adult literature, knew he was not alone in his appreciation of science fiction and fantasy. He also knew that children and young adults are reading much of what is being presented to them only because the reading is required. Science fiction and fantasy reflect what students want to read.

"There are a vast number -- a lot of young people -- who read enormous amounts of this stuff and this is generally all they read," Matthews said. "Fantasy and science fiction gets a 'bad rap' from almost everyone who is not interested in it because it is seen as less valuable than other writing. The truth is that a lot of it is really well done. This course gives students a chance to read some of the best written works in the field."

Science fiction/fantasy typically undergoes a renaissance every 30 or 40 years, Matthews said. The "Harry Potter" books and films spawned the most recent one, and before that it was the "Lord of the Rings" series. The impact that science fiction/fantasy have on the film industry is discussed some in Matthews' class, along with what is being published and what is being read.

Matthews said anyone teaching literature on any level should at least be aware of the genre. For future teachers, engaging with the literature on the college level will give them the knowledge they need to steer students toward the best of what science fiction and fantasy have to offer young readers.

Matthews estimates that more than half of the students in his class are not English majors, and that at least one major from each of Fairmont State's schools and colleges are represented in the course, which meets on Wednesday nights. The course is an elective for English majors and counts toward filling the liberal studies requirement for non-English majors.

For his part, Matthews does a lot of scholarship in the field, delivering conference papers and working on articles. Last fall, his public presentation on campus, "The Life and Art of Dr. Seuss," drew a larger than average audience for a Wednesday afternoon. He has also delivered papers covering topics such as "Community and Individualism in Ursula Le Guin's Dialog with the Romantic Poets in 'Earthsea' and J.K. Rowling's 'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone' and "Language, Power and the Undead: Bram Stoker's 'Dracula' and 'Bram Stoker's Dracula.'"

Students taking the science fiction and fantasy course find out quickly that the discussion is going to navigate well beyond mere fan talk.

"This material will support more complex conversations than that," Matthews said.

Sometimes that means discussions about the influences of writers outside the genre. For example, in writing, "Something Wicked This Way Comes," Ray Bradbury was influenced by Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Blake and Sherwood Anderson.

"The thing that makes this stuff worth reading is that fantasy really liberates you from a lot of preconceptions about the world. You can abandon those preconceptions and that enables the writer to make more complex comments about the world we live in," Matthews said.