Literature – Dune Scholar

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Category: Literature (page 1 of 2)

Flatland: The Movie in Science Fiction Class

The 2007 animated short film Flatland: The Movie featuring the voices of Martin Sheen and Kristen Bell appears to be a popular teaching tool in math classes because it includes angles and other math concepts, but I have found it also works well in science fiction classes [see film website for more information]. Its short running time (around 30 minutes) allows it to fit into a normal class session with plenty of time for questions and discussion. It is based on  Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884) by Edwin A. Abbott and set in a society known as Flatland, a two-dimensional world. The graphics and pace are good, the themes are still relevant today, and there is a delightful irony in one of the characters who brings wisdom to others yet still cannot break free from his own limited worldview. It offers a nice break from the norm toward the end of the semester while still being a science fiction film that allows students to compare their world to the one in the film.Flatland movie poster

Activity for Flatland: The Movie (2007) featuring Martin Sheen and Kristen Bell

Based on Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884) by Edwin A. Abbott

Questions:*

Which character did you identify the most with?

What are the rules of Flatland society? How does your shape affect your status?

Who makes the rules in this society?

What does heresy mean? What kinds of things are considered heresy in your society?

Why can’t the King of Lineland see the square? Why does Spherius resist the idea of a 4th dimension?

Compare our society to Flatland’s society. What are the similarities and differences? Which would you prefer to live in?

Do you think science fiction as a genre helps people understand their world better than more “realistic” fiction? Why do you think science fiction movies have become so popular?

 

*Some questions are from a math teacher’s wiki; others are my own. The possibilities for more science fiction questions are many!

Shakespeare through Digital Humanities Textual Analysis

I wanted to briefly introduce students to Digital Humanities in an introductory-level Shakespeare course I was helping teach, partly because they might not hear about it otherwise and partly because I really enjoy DH. Textual analysis seemed like the quickest and simplest method to choose, and Voyant Tools is a free and easy program (CC BY 4.0 Voyant Tools by Stéfan Sinclair & Geoffrey Rockwell) available with just a browser and internet connection. I also showed them some searches of the plays using regular expressions. The following images are taken from my slides.

Analyzing Shakespearean Plays in Voyant Tools

Hoping to demonstrate just a few of the possibilities of Digital Humanities methods applied to literature, I put the online versions of the four plays we had studied throughout the semester into Voyant to see if there were any interesting insights that stood out which I could then discuss. I first showed the current play we were studying (The Winter’s Tale), then ‘zoomed out’ even farther to show all four plays (The Winter’s Tale, Richard III, As You Like It, and King Lear).

The Word Clouds (Figures 1 and 2) were unsurprising and most students have already seen these on the web.

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Figure 1: Word Cloud of Shakespeare Play

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Figure 2: Word Clouds of Shakespeare Plays

But the Trends charts (Figures 3 and 4) allowed me to point out how we can see the appearance and disappearance (or rise and fall) of certain characters in a visual way.

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Figure 3: Trends Chart of Shakespeare Play

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Figure 4: Trends Charts of Shakespeare Plays

And looking at the word ‘like’ in the Contexts chart (Figure 5), I showed them how this chart can help us see (in one place) and compare what kinds of similes Shakespeare used, for example. My favorite was ‘like the basilisk’ because that creature features prominently in one of the Harry Potter books.

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Figure 5: Contexts Chart of Shakespeare Play

I also checked out the Microsearch chart (Figure 6), which I believe is similar to one I saw demonstrated at a conference. I’d like to look more into what can be done with these kinds of visual displays.

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Figure 6: Microsearch Charts of Shakespeare Plays

Searching Shakespearean Plays in RegExr

For regular expressions, I borrowed a practice activity that was part of a DH workshop at the aforementioned conference. They used the RegExr sandbox website to have everyone look up all of the questions in the play Othello. Since in the class we had already examined a passage in The Winter’s Tale where King Leontes’ paranoia manifests itself through a series of questions he asks himself, I hoped the students could see the potential value in isolating questions to see what they might reveal about a play. I also showed them how to look up certain words along with surrounding words to see the context, such as all of the words ‘son’ and ‘daughter’ in a play about family.

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Figure 7: Regular Expressions Exercise 1 in Shakespeare Play

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Figure 8: Regular Expressions Exercise 2 in Shakespeare Play

This brief introduction gave them a glimpse at what one can do with a text once digitized, as Shakespeare’s are. It was enjoyable tinkering with the different tools in Voyant and seeing what connections and insights they revealed about the plays. It does seem to be a good first step into textual analysis.

Ethnography Activity for The Left Hand of Darkness

One of the main issues in Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) is ethnography and its limitations. The main character Genly Ai is an ambassador for the Ekumen confederation who is conducting a mission on the planet Gethen and making reports about its population, cultures, customs, etc. He especially has trouble understanding the androgynous nature of the people. To try to start students thinking about the practice of ethnography and the potential drawbacks before we began our discussion of themes in the novel, I created a short list of generic questions they were to ask a classmate. They then shared their findings with the class, and we all learned how different people’s everyday lives were, even in the same city attending the same university. One student decided to alter their fellow student’s responses because they seemed too boring; although it was obvious they were making up information by the tone of their voice, it provided a good opportunity to discuss how accurate these kinds of records are and what motives the interviewer might have for changing information. A lot depends on what questions are being asked or what is being studied — someone might not know to even ask about a custom that their own culture lacks, for example.

Ethnography Activity for The Left Hand of Darkness

Ethnography is the study and systematic recording of human cultures (Merriam-Webster).

Take turns being the ethnographer and the person being interviewed.
You may wish to take notes so you can present a summary of your findings to the class.

Questions:

Could you describe a typical day for you in your home city?

Could you give an example of a typical meal (breakfast/lunch/dinner/snack) in your city/country? How is it prepared and who prepares it?

Could you describe an important holiday or festival?

When you meet someone for the first time, how do you greet them? Is there a difference in how you interact with women and men?

Shakespeare in a Mug Teaching Activity

For my first time helping to teach an introductory-level Shakespeare course, I found a good icebreaker activity from Stefanie Jochman on the Teaching Shakespeare Folger Education blog. It’s called Shakespeare in a Mug, which is her modification of Shakespeare in a Can from other teachers. The activity is fairly simple but really fun. You have students pick lines of a play or plays from mugs and then a location from another mug, and then have them improvise a scene after a brief preparation time.

Shakespeare mug

I modified hers a bit because I wanted students to be able to work in small groups rather than in pairs, since I thought that would be less intimidating. I also added a bit of participation for the audience by writing the possible locations on the whiteboard and having them guess the location after each group finished its scene. Since I wanted to use lines from the first play we were studying, Richard III, I went through the online version and picked out lines that I thought would be easier to mix and match for an improv scene and that didn’t have too much difficult language. I know the added pressure of reading out loud when it’s unfamiliar or hard to pronounce.

So here’s my version:

Shakespeare in a Mug
  1. Make sheets with lines from a play or plays and locations and cut them into individual strips (or modify my sheet of Richard III lines and modern-day locations).
  2. Put the lines in one, two, or more mugs (depending on class size) and the locations in a separate mug.
  3. Assign or have the students get themselves into small groups and choose one or two lines per person, then one location for the whole group.
  4. Give them time to prepare a scene set in their location using at least some of the lines. (I told them they could add non-Shakespearean lines if they needed to — some groups did and others didn’t.)
  5. Write up all of the potential locations on the boards if you want them to guess.
  6. Let them improvise their scene in front of the class and have the audience guess which location they are at.

Despite some eye-rolling and hesitance at the beginning, most of them seemed to get into the spirit as they started talking with their groups and having to negotiate how they were going to put together a scene. I was quite impressed with what they managed to come up with on such short notice, and we laughed a lot which was a pleasant experience for the first, sometimes awkward session where few people know each other and they aren’t sure what to expect. It also allowed me the chance to let them know that Shakespeare really has to be heard and performed for full impact, and that we would be doing more speaking of lines throughout the term.

One of the most memorable lines was an added one said in a ‘Shakespearean’ way. The group was pretending to be at a shoe store, and one person came up to the salesperson with a shoe in hand and asked, ‘Dost thou have these in a size 9?’ The class couldn’t help cracking up! I would definitely recommend this activity as a good ice-breaker or something to enliven a class or tutorial session.

Epic World-Building in Dune Article Published!

I am very excited to announce that my article on Frank Herbert’s Dune entitled “Epic World-Building: Names and Cultures in Dune has been published in Names: A Journal of Onomastics!

The above link shows you two options for accessing the article (yes, you can download the pre-print PDF version for free!).

The article looks at how names can evoke particular settings and cultures, how they helped Frank Herbert create his epic world of Dune on a scale similar to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth in The Lord of the Rings, and how they also serve to juxtapose West and East. Examples include Bene Gesserit (Jesuit), Atreides (Atreus, father of Agamemnon and Menelaus), Leto (mother of Artemis and Apollo), Sayyadina (female religious leader), and Shai-Hulud (immortal thing).

It is part of a special issue on names in science fiction, fantasy,  horror, and mystery, so you might be interested in other articles as well (one of my favorites, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, is represented, for example). I know that I pay more attention now to authors’ choice of names in their science fiction stories, and I hope you will too!

I’m looking forward to discussing altmetrics in a future post, so please share the official journal link with Frank Herbert Dune fans around the world and we can see where it travels.

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