Learning from Dystopia

You probably know the books. Or maybe the movies.

The Hunger Games. Divergent. The Handmaid’s Tale.

Each of the stories are set in a dystopian world where some aspect of society falls apart. In one, teenage tributes are sent to fight to their death in a televised arena. In another, factions of the population are divided by their abilities. In the last, women become properties of the state and are forced into sexual servitude. While the books (movies?) are all entertaining in their own ways, they also present a troubling glimpse of what society could be.

But they also present a troubling glimpse of what society is. At least that was the conversation I shared with a couple of colleagues in a mini-book group we’ve organized to read The Manifesto of Teaching Online together. One of my colleagues teaches a dystopian literature course on campus and offered a unique perspective of what we can learn from reading these novels. Rather than just providing scary stories of some twisted possible world, she explained, the stories offer a lens to view the world we live in currently. When it’s done well, dystopian literature reveals the ills of society by distorting them and reflecting them back to the reader. But the distortions and reflections aren’t offered just for entertainment value alone. Instead, they’re offered as an educational tool. We can learn from dystopian fiction, or we can be doomed to experience it firsthand.

Clearly, I’m not an expert of dystopian literature. And that’s probably a huge oversimplification of our book group conversation. If you’re wondering how we got to books about dystopian worlds when we’ve gathered to discuss a book about online teaching, it actually wasn’t that much of a leap. Our discussion about online teaching led to a conversation about the global pandemic which eventually led to dystopian literature. See. It doesn’t seem THAT far-fetched. And like most of these conversations I have with my wicked-smart colleagues, this topic has bounced around in my head for the last week or so. Not that we’re living a dystopian world. Not really. There are no tributes fighting to their death on television. There are no groups of women walking around in red dresses and white hats. There are no zombies.

But it’s hard to argue that our current educational world isn’t kind of dystopian-like. Face-to-face classes have been largely canceled at most educational institutions. Few of us have stepped foot on our campuses in months. Most of our interactions with students and colleagues are mediated via a synchronous tool that a large segment of the population didn’t know existed twelve months ago.

Our students are struggling. Our colleagues are anxious. We all feel isolated.

So, what can we learn from this? Think about it. Eventually, we’re going to go back to some more normal version of things. Are we just going to hit the reset button to March 2020 and go back to teaching and learning exactly the way we’ve always had? Or are we going to see the distorted world that is being reflected back to us and learn from it?

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