One of Ben Cole’s earliest memories is of his dad coming home late from second shift, lifting Ben out of his crib, and settling in to watch Star Trek films together. So started Cole’s lifelong love of science fiction films and literature. Cole is a lecturer in the International Affairs (IA) program who has developed a new course that explores IA theory through the lens of science fiction literature: IA 444, Science Fiction and Society.
Science Fiction and Society: What will students read?
A Handmaid’s Tale by
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Global Justice by Che Guevara
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
Starship Troopers by
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein
Dune by Frank Herbert
A Brave New World by
The Things They Carried by
1984 by George Orwell
Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut
Slaughterhouse Five by
The Shape of Things to Come by H.G. Wells
Science fiction may at first seem a strange choice for teaching international relations, but it really isn’t, according to Cole. “What I like about my favorite works of science fiction is that they are really political thrillers,” says Cole. In fact, the seed for his course was planted early in his college career. “When I started studying comparative politics and international relations,” recalls Cole, “it clicked with me that many of the ideas we were exploring in class were the very same themes that dominate much of science fiction.”
For example, a unit in his new course looks at IA theories of international conflict using, among other works, Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War and Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Both novels explore why civilizations engage in war and the costs war exacts, issues important to IA theory. But the two books come to very different conclusions: Heinlein glorifies soldiering and touts the necessity of self-interest in an international—or, in this case, interstellar—system while Haldeman looks at absurdities in war and the high price paid by soldiers. By pairing the books, Cole is creating a conversation between them and between competing IA theories.
That’s not to say that the science fiction genre has a corner on IA themes. Other genres, including non-fiction, certainly explore similar themes. Rather, says Cole, science fiction explores them in a more exciting way: “On the surface, these are highly imaginative works of escape fiction, and then when you dig down into them, you find the IA themes. It shows them to you in a different, creative way and really brings them alive.”
The course is the latest result of a fairly new collaboration between the College of Liberal Arts and the International Affairs program. Cole teaches in the IA program but is employed by the College.
“The International Affairs Program and the College of Liberal Arts enjoy a close and fruitful relationship, a longstanding one at that” explains John T. Kirkpatrick, associate dean of the College. “I should think the larger shares of participating faculty and students are from the College. Last year, the College agreed to fund a new lectureship for the IA Program in order to provide some stability to its curriculum. We were very fortunate to recruit Dr. Cole to fill the position. He is a fabulous teacher and inventive in his courses,” says Kirkpatrick.
Cole is quite pleased that “inventive” courses are supported. He hopes to test his theory that teaching IA through a humanities lens will be a more effective introduction to the study of international affairs than a traditional theory course, one that will inspire more students to move into the social science discipline once they’ve had a taste.
And he’s excited to finally have an opportunity to bring his love for science fiction and his expertise in international affairs together inside the classroom.
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