Subverting the Steampunk Paradigm

Project Reflection and Explanation:

For my final project in The Rhetorics of Activism, Propaganda and Disinformation for the Summer 2020 semester, I chose to expand on my syllabus project and create a full 15 week course on “subversive” steampunk literature. I did this because I felt that the syllabus project, while well-done, was too broad to truly zero in on what I was attempting to say about the different kinds of steampunk literature that are available. I decided that it would be best to create a tighter reading list with targeted supplemental material that we could discuss in an open setting. The assignments that were created to accompany the readings were all geared to complement the readings and to gauge the students’ understanding of the material over the course of the semester. 

The structure of the syllabus for this course was inspired by the syllabus from Dr. Gretchen Busl’s Topics in World Lit class, which I took in Spring of 2016. It was this class that inspired me to write the steampunk paper that I took all the way to a conference in England so I felt that it would be an excellent model for my own class idea. The breakdown of assignments is well spaced and the planning for one novel every two weeks is well-thought out and keeps from overloading the students. I also chose to use this as a model because, on the whole, class planning is not something that I have much cause to do. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to create something off-the-cuff that was feasible, given my limited experience with undergraduate literature courses.

One assignment that I did add, for the final week of class, was actually inspired by my final exam for Dr. Fehler’s rhetorical analysis class, from Summer 2020. We were tasked with finding an artifact that we could present to a class and discuss it with them in a rhetorical criticism format. I chose to use Dr. Jaymee Goh’s article “Variations on a Name: The –punks of Our Times”, which was published in Strange Horizons magazine in April 2019. This article was published in response to the idea that steampunk was now dead, largely due to the fact that many white, male steampunkers were unhappy with the push for more diversity in steampunk. I was intending to use this article as a supplemental reading anyway but the assignment I created is intended to take place on the last day and to have students write out, in class, the four elements of each story, and break down why these elements are so important in this kind of work. I feel that this last assignment will help to drive home the ideas that were discussed in class and the reason that these books and perspectives are so important.

I chose to post the syllabus and course materials as a WordPress blog because I’ve come to have a great respect for the engaging and interactive nature that this kind of multi-modal teaching can have. Students may be less likely to keep track of a paper syllabus but having their entire course documented on an easy-to-access website gives them more freedom and also can help to eliminate questions about assignments and course information. Were I to actually teach this course I would also have created a shared Google Drive and possibly looked into something like weekly informal blog posts as a way for students to document their own path through this subject. 

One huge lesson that I have learned from doing this is to never ever underestimate the work that goes into finding supplemental readings for a class. That was actually the hardest part of doing this, and the one that took the longest. I wanted to find a good spread of articles, both academic as well as popular that would help advance understanding of the subject. I also decided to include popular reviews of the first few books in order to give the students a good base for doing their own book review assignments.  I’m sorry to say that I ended up finding quite a bit of material that would have worked well on my syllabus project but it was too late to make additions. 

Overall I feel that the work I did on this project, and in the course overall, has given me a much greater appreciation for the work that I am trying to do within the steampunk subculture. Initially I did not see that this project, and the syllabus project, might count as activism but the more I’ve worked on this and considered the subject within the nature of the readings, the more I’ve come to realize that activism doesn’t have to be large gestures. Something as small as countering propaganda within a subculture can have bigger implications in the rest of the world. 

Despite how long it took me, and the struggle I had to make it all fit together, I am extremely proud of this project. I can’t say that I will ever be able to implement this class in any meaningful way but I believe that I did solid work that will have an impact on my future coursework and dissertation.

Welcome to ENG 3XXX.XX!

Course Links:

Course Description:
This course will focus on the science-fiction sub-genre known as steampunk. In particular we will study the ways in which steampunk can be used to explore important and ever-present conversations about imperialism, colonialism, racism, and LGBTQ+ issues. The standard trope of steampunk literature is the white, male, Victorian explorer. These novels often ignore the critical social and cultural discourse of the time period, much to the detriment of their readers. To that end, this class will focus on steampunk (and steampunk-adjacent) novels that feature landscapes outside of the norm and examine how they adapt, remodel, or reject notions of traditional steampunk. We will also examine how they deal (or don’t) with the pertinent issues that exist within steampunk and science-fiction. The questions you will be expected to answer by the end of the semester are: what is steampunk and how can we break it?

Required Texts:

  • Dread Nation, Justina Ireland
  • Boneshaker, Cherie Priest
  • The Gaslight Dogs, Karin Lowachee
  • The Book of Esther, Emily Barton
  • Gunpowder Alchemy, Jeannie Lin
  • Everfair, Nisi Shawl

Each week there will be supplementary articles in addition to that week’s novel. You will be expected to read and notate these articles just as you would the novel selections. These readings can be found at in the Additional Readings section.

You will also be expected to select one novel from the following list for which you will create a project that will include a presentation and research paper. Alternative texts may be used with prior approval.

Upright Women Wanted, Sarah Gailey
The Clockwork Dynasty, Daniel H. Wilson
The Alchemy of Stone, Ekaterina Sedia
The Black God’s Drums, P. Djèlí Clark
A Dead Djinn in Cairo,
P. Djèlí Clark
The Haunting of Tram Car 015,
P. Djèlí Clark
The Glass Sentence
, S.E. Grove
Steeplejack
, A.J. Hartley
The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu
The Mechanical
, Ian Tregillis
Perdido Street Station
, China Miéville
The Scar
, China Miéville
Iron Council
, China Miéville
The Warlord of the Air,
Michael Moorcock
The Guns Above,
Robyn Bennis
Timekeeper, Tara Sim
Ink & Bone, Rachel Caine
The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter, Rod Duncan
The Invisible Library, Genevieve Cogman
The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Seth Dickinson
Amberlough, Lara Elena Donnelly

**Be aware that some of the readings do contain mature themes as well as some violent content that may be objectionable for some students. If you feel that this might be a problem for you please schedule a time to speak with me so that we can discuss your options.