Instructors’ Teaching Experience

The Left Hand of Darkness was a smashing success. Although the students will have some difficulty, especially in the beginning, making sense of the planet Gethen and its ambisexual inhabitants, most of the students find the story enthralling and are excited to talk about Genly’s observations about Gethenian culture and his growing affective bond with Estraven. Many of my students insisted that they don’t like reading science fiction, but have later suggested that it’s there favorite reading of the semester. Le Guin’s novel lends itself to an array of discussions, including the questions of gender roles, the power and influence of gendered language (i.e. using “he” and “she”), queer sexuality, monstrosity, patriotism, geographic space and imagined borders, colonialism, religion, and technology. I taught this novel alongside Frankenstein and Othello in a class designed around the them of “outsiders.” LHOD sat in the middle, and I found that I was not only able to draw on many of the discussions we had with Shelley’s novel, but I was also able to carry many of the ideas forward into our critiques of Shakespeare. [Travis Johnson,]

Classroom Strategies

Alien Field Notes

Many of the chapters in The Left Hand of Darkness are short pieces in the form of folk tales, religious myths, or anthropological/sociological field notes that provide us with glimpses of the nuances of Gethenian culture. Chapter 7 “The Question of Sex” is perhaps the most provocative for the students as it features the fields notes of Ong Tot Oppong, one of the first visitors to the planet Gethen. In the fields notes, she details the intricacies of Gethenian sexual practices, speculates about the “value” of their ambisexuality, and argues for the use of the pronoun “he” in describing Gethenians. The students were so interested in this particular section that we spent an entire 75-minute class discussing it. In conjunction with this reading, I encouraged the students in a short writing assignment to try thinking about their own planet and culture as an alien visitor might and consider their own peculiarities. Their writings lead to a good discussion the next day. The assignment follows:

Imagine that you’re an alien investigator, perhaps a Gethenian androgyne (if that helps), that lands his/her/its ship at the center of the UI campus. Your task is to take field notes (much like Ong Tot Oppong in Chapter 7) on some of the cultural norms of the people who populate the UI community. Because you’re an off-worlder, much of the customs and rituals of UI will likely strike you as peculiar, and so your job is to analyze these peculiarities and try to speculate about why these values, customs, and rituals exist. You can focus on any element of UI culture you wish, but you’ll likely want to limit your report to only a few (or less) elements. Your field notes should amount to roughly two pages or so. For this reading response I expect you to take a more creative and less formal approach to your writing. In other words, there are no format restrictions. On Tuesday we will discuss our field notes as a class. [Travis Johnson,]